Thursday, March 2, 2017

For an example of why pro-independence voters should use their lower preferences in the local council elections, look to Northern Ireland

You may not have noticed it at all, or only be very dimly aware of it, but today is the day of the Northern Ireland Assembly election.  It's taking place in weird circumstances, because it's perfectly possible that no government will be formed as a result of it - the province could well be hurtling towards a prolonged period of direct Tory rule from London.  However, I would still advise anyone with some spare time tomorrow to take a peek at the results programme on BBC Northern Ireland, because it'll provide a timely insight into how the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system works.  That's the same voting system we'll be using for the Scottish local elections in May, but is radically different from the Additional Member System (AMS) used for the Scottish Parliament election last year.  From a voter's point of view, the most important difference is that STV is a preferential voting system, meaning that any lower preferences you give to parties other than your first choice cannot possibly harm your first choice party in any way.  By contrast, although each voter has two votes in the Scottish Parliament system, if you cast either of those votes for a party other than your first choice, you are directly voting against your first-choice party - a point that is vividly illustrated in yesterday's report by John Curtice, which concludes that attempts at "tactical" vote-splitting by SNP supporters may have backfired and cost Nicola Sturgeon her overall majority.

Polls suggest that, as the Northern Ireland results come in tomorrow, it's possible (not likely, but possible) that Sinn Féin will finish slightly ahead of the DUP on first preference votes, which would probably also mean being ahead in terms of seats in the early stages.  If that happens, watch out for how STV then weaves its magic (or 'dis-magic') as lower preference votes start to be taken into account for the allocation of later seats, and the DUP almost inevitably overtakes Sinn Féin in the final seat tally.  The reason a DUP victory is so likely is simply that the unionist population is bigger than the nationalist population, and there is a bigger pool of lower preference votes out there for the DUP to pick up.

But suppose Northern Ireland hadn't been using the STV system for decades, and the unionist population didn't understand the vital importance of using lower preferences for other unionist parties.  Suppose the vast majority of unionists just voted for their first-choice party, while a large proportion of nationalist voters made sure they used their lower preference votes for their second-choice nationalist party.  In those circumstances, the unionist population would be putting itself at a massive disadvantage, and there would be every chance of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest single party, with the automatic right to the office of First Minister.  Indeed, there would be a decent chance of that happening even if Sinn Féin hadn't won the popular vote on first preferences.

Hopefully this demonstrates the importance of SNP supporters in Scotland using their lower preferences for other pro-independence parties when we vote under the same STV system for the local elections in May.  Admittedly, the risks of not doing so may not be quite so high as in Northern Ireland, because in many wards the SNP will probably be the only pro-independence party standing, and in other wards the likes of the Greens may have no realistic chance of taking a seat.  But if you look through the 2012 results, you'll find a decent smattering of wards where the Greens either took a seat, or were in serious contention.  In that sort of ward, SNP supporters refusing to give lower preferences to other parties may literally end up handing a seat to Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems - and that'll happen completely pointlessly, because there is literally no risk to using lower preference votes.  It cannot possibly harm your first-choice party in any way.  It's completely different from vote-splitting under the Scottish Parliament system.

I agree with those who say that it's infuriating that we currently have four different voting systems in Scotland, and that voters cannot be expected to easily grasp that the 'tactical' options available (and the risks attached to them) are so radically different in each case.   But all we can do is educate ourselves and others as much as possible.  Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide...

"Tactical" vote-splitting under the Scottish Parliament voting system : Highly risky, may well backfire.

Using lower preferences for other parties under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good.  You're only taking a risk if you DON'T do it.

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  1. I agree with everything you say James. If the Greens stand a candidate here, I'll give them my second preference after the SNP.

    But it goes further than that. First, SNP supporters must make sure that if there is more than one SNP candidate, they vote for BOTH OF THEM (or all three if there are three) before selecting any lower preferences. In addition, they need to listen to what local activists are saying about the order in which to place these votes. It took me a while to get my head round it (our branch covers two wards and the other one has two candidates so we got a presentation on it). Basically there is a risk if every SNP voter puts their preferences in the same order that the lower-ranked one will be eliminated due to lack of first preferences before the higher-ranked candidate's surplus is distributed. To address this there has to be a fairly sophisticated campaign decision as regards advising voters which way round to place their votes. The advice will vary in different parts of the ward and the objective will be to get the second (or even third) string candidate enough first preferences to keep them in the running to benefit from later transfers from the successful SNP candidate(s).

    In our neighbouring ward we have a sitting councillor whose surname begins with B, and who is well-known and well respected. We also have a second candidate, an unknown, with an initial well down the alphabet. We're going to have to work quite hard to get people to place the unknown ABOVE the sitting councillor to avoid being dropped off in the early rounds.

    (Did I mention I hated STV? This is one of the reasons. It's simple for the actual voters but tactically it's hell on wheels for the campaigners.)

    So, you rank all the SNP candidates in the order your local campaigners ask you to place them, even if it means putting an unknown above a sitting councillor. Then you can rank a Green if there's one there. Why not, no harm in it.

    But then, what about the unionist candidates? You may still have the opportunity to influence the election at that level even after you've done all you can for the pro-independence candidates. Some people will say, "oh I'd never vote for a unionist candidate!" Well, serve you right if the last seat goes to a Tory when you could have given the LibDem a boost.

    This is exactly how it might be in my ward. The third of the three seats is going to be a battle between the LibDem and the second-string Tory. Not that I'm a fan of the LibDems, but I know very well that the SNP councillors would far prefer more LibDems to more Tories on the council, so I have every intention of giving the LibDem a ranking to help achieve that if I can.

    Of course this doesn't account for independents, and there voters are simply going to have to weigh up each candidate - and their realistic chances - on their merits.

    But there's a great deal to be said for using all your preferences until there comes a point where you really don't care which one gets the last seat. And faced with the possibility of a Tory or a non-Tory, do you REALLY not care?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, absolutely, I should have made clear that there'll be more than one SNP candidate in most wards. I'll be ranking the unionist candidates with my lowest preferences, but I'm still a little bit unsure about exactly how I'll do that. My previous thought was that because Labour are the SNP's main competitors in North Lanarkshire, it would make sense to rank all other parties ahead of Labour. But now that Theresa May is framing the local elections as a kind of 'referendum on a referendum', with the Tories posing as the unionist ultras, there may be some logic in ranking Labour ahead of the Tories, even in deepest darkest Lanarkshire (as someone I once knew called it). I'll have to think about it some more.

    3. As you say, it takes quite a bit of thought. The main issue I think is which two candidates are likely to be competing for the last seat to be allocated and which of these would you prefer. The trick is to be sure to put the one of these you'd rather have higher than the one you REALLY don't want, irrespective of where you place the no-hopers around them.

      I hear a lot of people saying "I could never vote for a Tory" and I know exactly where they're coming from. If May is going to make the council elections about independence then that goes double. However, even there, I intend to rank the second-string Tory in our ward (and not rank the first) just to mess with their heads and because I know that the second-string guy is actually an independent using the Tories to get a toe-hold in local politics.

    4. "In our neighbouring ward we have a sitting councillor whose surname begins with B, and who is well-known and well respected. We also have a second candidate, an unknown, with an initial well down the alphabet. We're going to have to work quite hard to get people to place the unknown ABOVE the sitting councillor to avoid being dropped off in the early rounds."

      This is really important; in my council (though not my ward) last time, the SNP hoped to get an additional councillor and stood two candidates, the incumbent and someone whose surname started with the same three letters, but was placed above on the paper by virtue of the fourth letter.

      No advice was given about which to put first, voters tended to vote in alphabetical order, they didn't get enough votes for the two, so the incumbent missed out.

  2. I'm voting 1) Greens 2) SNP here in Edinburgh, I'm not sure if there will be any other pro-independence parties standing

    1. Makes sense. If there's a chance of getting the Green candidate elected you (as a Green) want to maximise that, but if not then your vote will go to your second-preference candidate.

    2. Having said that though, once you've ranked all the pro-independence candidates, go on down the list. I know it's a bit of a thought to put any mark at all against Labour or the LibDems, but by ranking them above the Conservatives you can do your bit to minimise the number of Tory councillors. And in doing that there is NO CHANCE AT ALL that you will disadvantage any of the candidates you already ranked higher.

    3. I intend to add this to my blog post on this topic. It is a point I simply hadn't considered. I shall, of course, acknowledge that this is your perspective. If you would like to make some comment yourself, you'll find the article at

    4. Thank you Peter, I have done that. I hope I have explained on your own blog how it is that giving lower preferences to unionist party candidates cannot possibly assist May in her "stealth referendum" at all, and how it might actually assist the SNP by improving the party's chances of forming coalition administrations in certain councils.

  3. Thanks for that, James. I'll be SNP 1st and 2nd [if more than one stands] then Green. It's these so-called "independents" which get my goat. Don't trust any of them.

    1. Adding: but if putting any "independent" above a unionist helps...

    2. Depends on the individual, what their personal stance is, and whether they actually have a realistic chance of picking up a seat.

  4. The two Tory parties and the tree huggers are not an option. Vote Labour only.

  5. "Using lower preferences for other parties under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good."

    Surely that should read,

    Using lower preferences for other PRO-INDEPENDENCE parties (OPIP) under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good.

    Voting for ANY unionist party can only do harm. Especially now that Theresa May has openly declared the British establishment's intention to present the local election results as a plebiscite on whether there should be a fresh independence referendum.

    To vote for ANY unionist party or candidate - irrespective of that candidate's personal views on independence - is to support the British nationalist campaign to deny our right of self-determination. And it's not only about seats won or councils controlled. Theresa May's intention to make this a plebiscite on giving her the right to overrule our elected government and parliament means that every single vote matters, regardless of its effect on the outcome.

    It is important to stress this because there are Yes groups out there seeking to persuade people that it is OK to vote for unionist parties. It must be clearly understood that voting for unionist parties is NOT and CANNOT EVER BE compatible with the aims of the independence movement.

    I will always defer to James Kelly in matters psephological and the sometimes baffling intricacies of our proportional electoral systems. But I would suggest the following as the default voting strategy for those who wish to defend Scotland's democratic right to choose how we wish to be governed, and/or those who aspire to the restoration of Scotland's rightful constitutional status.

    (1) Highest preferences: SNP
    (2) Lower preferences: OPIPs

    1. I really thought I had explained this. So long as you put the pro-independence parties at the top of your rankings there is absolutely no possibility of harming their chances one iota by ranking others below them. None, zero, nada.

      Once you have run out of pro-independence candidates to rank, it is quite possible your vote might retain influence. Your vote may be transferred in such a way as to determine which unionist candidate gets the last available seat in your ward, at a point when all the pro-independence candidates have either been elected already or been eliminated.

      If you really, really don't care whether you have a Tory or a LibDem or a Labour councillor, if you see all three as being equal, then don't rank them, fair enough. But if you think your SNP councillors would find it easier to work with a LibDem than a Tory, then why wouldn't you rank the LibDem above the Tory?

      You're getting into dangerous dogma territory here Peter.

    2. I don't regard an open and frank discussion of voting strategies as "dangerous territory". Indeed, I find it a little disturbing that anybody should.

      You make a valid point about the ranking of unionist candidates in terms of their amenability to working with the SNP. But, in terms of MY point, which you choose to ignore, ALL unionist candidates must be regarded as identical in that a vote for them counts as a vote for the option in Theresa May's 'stealth referendum' which denies us #indyref2.

      Open your mind just a little and what you will see is that what we are talking about is no more than two slightly different perspectives on the same voting strategy.

    3. Glasgow Working Class 2March 2, 2017 at 8:40 PM

      There was a time when the Nat sis claimed you could put a monkey in the Labour Party for election and the monkey would win.
      Now the Nat si monkeys want elected.
      The local elections are about service delivery and not petty nationalism.

    4. The poster above is a clueless twatMarch 2, 2017 at 9:03 PM

      You have your head stuck up Trump and the tories arse you worthless sockpuppet imbecile.

    5. Peter, I see from other posts of yours that you hadn't considered the point I'm making and that you're considering it now. Fair enough. My reference to "dangerous dogma" was to the apparent assertion that nobody should under any circumstances give a ranking to a candidate standing for a unionist party, as if that in itself was some sort of ideological impurity.

      Unionist party candidates may be equal in terms of how Theresa May wants to count up her votes, but there's no way she can possibly count your third or fourth preference as a "vote for the union". First preferences are all that will be counted when it comes to the quick-and-dirty nonsense of which side has "won" the council vote. The only other thing that will be counted is the number of councillors actually elected for each side. So if an independence supporter's third-rank vote is instrumental in getting a LibDem elected instead of a Tory it won't make the slightest difference to that.

      Where it can make a difference is in the overall composition of the council, and who the SNP councillors have to work with. A LibDem rather than a Tory might make the difference between an SNP/LibDem coalition being possible and the Tories running the council. I know which I'd prefer.

    6. All this stuff about "ideological impurity" is total pish. I was thinking solely in terms of countering the British establishment's aim of using the local elections as a way of undermining Nicola Sturgeon as she prepares to take on Theresa May over a new independence referendum. It's all about the political realities as far as I am concerned.

      I have acknowledged at least twice now that my focus on a particular aspect of this reality had blinded me to another perspective. I have thanked you for highlighting this alternative - or should we say additional/supplementary - perspective.

      You can shove that crap about "ideological impurity".

    7. Fine, I was only explaining my reaction - I thought you were arguing from a position of "no votes for unionists" because of ideological purity, but I realise now that you weren't so let's not argue about it. Stick to the practicalities because these are what matter.

      When they add up the raw votes for each "side", only first proferences will matter. If you put SNP-1, your vote will go on the indy pile irrespective of where you've put your lower preferences. There's no possible way to do it other than that, and that's how it's always been done in the past.

      When they add up the number of elected councillors for each "side", it won't make any difference whether your lower preferences got a LibDem elected rather than a Tory, so again there's no down-side.

      When they add up the number of councils controlled by the various parties, getting a LibDem in instead of a Tory could be enormously helpful. The SNP will not go into coalition with the Tories so if there are enough Tories the SNP will be in opposition. However, if there aren't enough Tories the SNP might well be able to form a coalition administration even if they don't control the council outright. SNP voters putting other unionist party candidates above the Tories could well make that happen.

    8. If you look at actual real-life worked examples of STV transfers, it's striking how many voters drop away as "no transfer" in the later stages because they only marked two or three candidates. Often these are more votes than the total which transfer to the next round! It's absolutely clear that these people, if they had expressed further preferences, could potentially have altered the destination of the last seat.

      For this reason SNP canvassers are urged to encourage voters who are committed to a different party to give the SNP candidate a lower ranking rather than no ranking at all. These 4th or 5th-choice votes might get us that last seat!

      If every independence supporter undertakes to rank absolutely everybody (including other unionist candidates) above the Tories, this will definitely result in fewer Tories getting elected to our councils. Bad for May in itself. But then it will reduce the number of councils the Tories are in line to win, and maximise the chances of the SNP being in a position to form coalition administrations. This is good for the "stealth referendum" tally, not bad, and it's also good for local services and local people.

      It's paradoxical, I know, but when you think it through there's no downside and definite potential advantages.


  6. FFS, James - get a grip. NO VOTES WHATSOEVER FOR UNIONIST PARTIES. VOTE THE SNP 1 & 2 and leave the other boxes blank if there's no Green candidate. DON'T TOUCH TORY, LABOUR, OR LIBDEM.

    1. That is entirely wrong. Think about your local councillor, and the people your SNP councillors will have to work with. Ask yourself, would my SNP councillors be just as happy with a Tory, with a strong Tory group on the council, or would it maybe be better to get a LibDem into the last seat instead? Or Labour maybe, think about your own local circumstances.

      Your lower preferences are an opportunity to disadvantage the Tories by pushing them below other unionist parties. Doing this cannot possibly hurt the SNP (or Green) candidates you've given your higher preferences to. You're spouting blind dogma here.

  7. Glasgow Cooncil Tax PayerMarch 2, 2017 at 8:23 PM

    Perhaps try forgetting about tactics and vote for the party that you think will deliver local services at economical costs to the recipients. Leave aside fascism and hatred of the English.

    1. The poster above is a clueless dipshitMarch 2, 2017 at 8:59 PM

      Tell us again how Loki is the same as Tommy you witless tory sockpuppet twat.


    2. Glasgow Cooncil Tax PayerMarch 2, 2017 at 9:03 PM

      I bought a clip on man bun on eBay yesterday unfortunately I'm bald where it clips on, any ideas (asking for a friend)

    3. Six inch nail should penetrate any fascist skull.

  8. James,
    Can you enlighten me. Is there any voting system which is reasonably fair to all in a country but doesn't lead to unelected placemen taking up positions in a Parliament.

    At Holyrood it seems we have a parliament which is half elected together with a half appointed system where some people can sit in well paid and pensioned jobs merely for attending and by being a member of a political party. No wonder we have the Nutty Professor in HR and another lecturer Dr Scott hoping to join the gravy train soon.

    1. Glasgow Working Class 2March 3, 2017 at 1:18 AM

      Mr Coleman this website is about Nationalism and not nepotism.

    2. James, I don't agree with you that list MSPs are "unelected" as such, but if you see it that way, you might prefer STV - it gives everyone an individual mandate, and preserves a constituency link (albeit the constituencies are larger and multi-member). Speaking personally, I've cooled on STV in recent years, because I've realised from elections in the Republic of Ireland that it sometimes produces outcomes that aren't especially proportional.

  9. James - a question on the STV system.

    If there are 3 SNP candidates standing in my ward (likely) and there are 3 people from my household voting. Is it better that each of us give each of the 3 SNP candidates different preferences?


    Me Spouse Son
    SNP1 1 2 3
    SNP2 3 1 2
    SNP3 2 3 1

    Or would it make any difference if the 3 of us gave each of the 3 SNP candidates the same preference?

    Hope you can help answer this.


    1. You're all better off numbering them in reverse order. i.e. Number 1 should go to the candidate with the surname closest to the end of the alphabet etc. The huge issue with our STV system in Scotland is that the lists are alphabeticalised and not randomised, and as we read and write from the top of a page, it's human nature to vote in that order. Doing the opposite will go some way to counteracting the problem.

  10. I think the only danger is people not filling in as many of their preferences as they can. If everyone who supported the SNP did that it wouldn't matter the order they did so. The STV system in use elects before it rejects. So even if every vote went to a single candidate from a party as soon as he's elected the excess passes to the next preferences and so on.

    The problem is if voters don't make second and subsequent choices candidates might not gain enough votes despite the level of support for their party. Other than making you feel good I'm not sure any method of filling in your preference will overcome "lazy" voting. Trying to organise a complex attempt at advising different voting patterns in different areas might work but probably won't.

    The easiest thing is advising that you can vote more than once for the same party before even voting for another and should.

    Contrary to what some advise I'd not vote for any unionist or even independent candidate as if even a fraction of your vote gets transferred it's going to be portrayed as a vote against independence. Nor is it safe to vote Labour or LibDem as part of your vote pushing them over the threshold any portion of their vote might be transferred to the Conservatives.

    1. To explain the above, suppose your bottom three ranked parties are ABC. You put A ahead of B. However what you don't know is the majority of those who voted for A had C as their next preference. Your votes are enough to get your favoured party candidates elected. Their excess is now transferred to A as expected. Because of that A is pushed over the threshold. This is where it could go wrong as A might very well now have an excess which is then passed on in proportion to C who then has more votes than B. Assuming that between them A, B and C were competing for the last two seats and votes ordered A B C before your transfer your strategy has backfired and instead of ensuring anyone but C is elected you've done the opposite.