I was reading the Barrhead Boy blog yesterday, and just for a moment or two I thought I felt my ears burning. But then I realised that "one blogger in particular" probably referred to Peter A Bell and not myself.
"The glass half empty brigade are having the time of their lives. One blogger in particular who for years has been demanding that the SNP and Movement needs to stop playing by Westminster rules and do things differently has gone full circle. No, no, we must keep voting SNP 1 2 he cries we need to keep doing the exact same things I said for years weren’t working."
I'm not sure off the top of my head whether Mr Bell does use language like "SNP 1 & 2", but I would once again urge people on both sides of this debate to stop doing so. That would actually be in everyone's interests, because we live in a country that uses three different voting systems for different elections (until Brexit it was four), which means there's plenty of room for dangerous confusion. Voters have become familiar with using numbers to vote in STV elections for local councils, and if we say it's possible to vote "SNP 1 & 2" for Holyrood, they might just take us literally and put those numbers on the ballot paper. The last thing we need is a disproportionately high number of spoilt ballots from independence supporters.
In a way I can understand why the "game the system" lobby are willing to risk sowing that confusion, though, because "SNP 1 & 2" gives the false impression that the list vote is a sort of "second preference" vote - which they might hope will lead people to feel that the SNP are being "greedy" in "hoarding" those votes. The reality is that the Additional Member System is not a preferential system, and the expectation in all countries that use it is that the vast majority of people will vote for the same party on both ballots. The only reason for having two ballots in the first place is to give the voter some discretion to vote tactically or for a favoured individual on the constituency ballot. For example, a Green supporter in Edinburgh Central at the last election might have concluded that their party had little chance in the constituency vote, and so could have voted for the SNP to attempt to keep Ruth Davidson out, safe in the knowledge that they would still be voting Green on the really important ballot - ie. the list ballot. The composition of the whole parliament is roughly proportional to how people vote on the list ballot, not the constituency ballot - and for that reason people should always vote for their first-choice party on the list.
As an SNP slogan once put it, "with the constituency vote you're choosing an MSP, with the list vote you're choosing a government". There's more than a grain of truth in that.
I've thought once or twice recently about responding to the commentary on Barrhead Boy about the possibility of gaming the system, because to be perfectly frank it's contained half-truths, wild conspiracy theories and a skipload of wishful thinking. However, as I said yesterday, it seems to me that the belief that there's a way of "hacking" AMS is like crack cocaine for some people, and once they're addicted they effectively become immune to rational argument. One thing I do want to address, though, is the repeated claim that a "voting system that makes it virtually impossible for a single party to govern on its own" is some kind of weird aberration that could only have come about due to a conspiracy by the British state against independence. What Barrhead Boy appears to be talking about here is simply proportional representation, which is the norm across the entire continent of Europe - the UK is practically the only European country that doesn't use it for national elections. The idea that reverting to first-past-the-post would represent some kind of national liberation from London tyranny is, let's be honest, completely nuts and doesn't stand up to more than a moment's scrutiny.
I know it's part of Yes mythology that the Holyrood voting system was chosen to stitch up the SNP, but as far as I can see that belief is based on a single-word response by Jack McConnell at a press conference many years ago. Would we take McConnell's word as gospel on any other subject? It may well be that concerns over an SNP majority government made it easier for the Lib Dems to persuade Labour to accept the case for proportional representation, but the bottom line is that it's quite simply a superior system to first-past-the-post and it empowers the voter more. It actually doesn't prevent voters from choosing a single-party majority government, but it does mean that the party in question will need something close to a majority of the votes to get into that happy situation, which is exactly as it should be. You basically get whatever you vote for - there's no extra bang for your buck by voting for a smaller party, and indeed in many cases there's less bang for your buck, because if you vote for a fringe party that doesn't hit 5% or 6% of the list vote in your region, you might as well have abstained.
In truth, AMS has worked out pretty well for the independence movement - it delivered an SNP majority government in 2011 on a minority vote, and it also delivered a pro-independence majority in 2016 on a minority vote. In 2007 it gave us an SNP minority government when first-past-the-post would have given us a Labour majority government. And in 1999 and 2003 it ensured that the SNP opposition to the Labour-Lib Dem coalition was far stronger than would have been the case under first-past-the-post. In those days, the vast majority of pro-independence seats were list seats, and it was the unionists who used to complain about those MSPs being "unelected". Barrhead Boy seems to think that unionists have an in-built advantage because their vote is split between multiple parties, but the complete opposite is true - it's the SNP's dominance of the pro-indy vote that has led to the combined forces of Yes being slightly over-represented in recent years.
Barrhead Boy also uses a number of dubious examples to support his theory that it will somehow be possible for a fringe party to come out of nowhere and win loads of list seats. The dodgiest example of all is -
"Have they forgotten that the SNP went from 6 to 56 MPs in one election?"
Yup, you're away ahead of me here. That's an apples-and-oranges comparison because it happened under first-past-the-post. The 2015 surge was a remarkable phenomenon, no question, but if the election had been conducted under proportional representation, the SNP's seat numbers would only have increased from around 12 to around 30.