Chris McEleny, who has been seeking a place on the SNP's regional list for the West of Scotland, has published the questionnaire he was required to fill out when putting his name forward. It reads as follows:
"Reserved place for a BAME candidate
The National Executive Committee have decided that there will be a reserved place for a BAME candidate in your region.
BAME means Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic.
We use the term as meaning all classifications other than the 'White' classification in the census."
Compare and contrast that absolute clarity with the email that I and tens of thousands of other SNP members received when we were invited to cast our votes - "Dear James
In the autumn we asked you to help us select the SNP's constituency candidates for this year's Scottish elections.
It's now time to rank the SNP's candidates for the regional list election.
Nominees for your regional list have come forward.
It's now for you to decide the order in which you'd like to see the SNP candidates ranked on the regional list.
Your role is important. It is the regional list vote which decides the overall balance of power at Holyrood. And therefore, which party forms the Scottish Government. So, we need to maximise the SNP vote to re-elect Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister and secure a new independence referendum.
You can help ensure we select the very best team of candidates.
Please play your part. You'll find full candidate information once you have clicked on the Vote button below."
That wording is very carefully chosen to be consistent with the reserved places scheme, while giving the false impression that the selection is occurring by the normal process. Note that members merely have a "role" and are merely "playing their part" and are merely "helping" to choose the right candidates - those are the only real clues that members' votes will not actually determine who is at the top of the list, which in most cases is likely to be the only position on the list that actually matters. The members are being 'protected from the truth' - essentially treated like children. Why?
I had initially thought the reason was that the powers-that-be weren't really sure whether they would be able to press ahead with their decision to stitch up the selection (they had been given clear advice that to do so would be illegal), so they were leaving some creative ambiguity in case they ended up backing down. But judging from the questionnaire sent to prospective candidates, the decision was already set in stone from the start of the process, and yet members were deliberately kept in the dark anyway.
It's very difficult to think of many examples of an election in which the voters aren't informed of the rules until after they cast their votes. I mean, you don't ask people to vote in a general election, and then say the day afterwards "oh by the way, that was a first-past-the-post election", or "oh by the way, that was proportional representation", or "oh by the way, the election was just consultative and we'll be making the final choice for you". What it reminds me of a bit is voting in reality TV shows where the producers reserve the right to make up the rules as they go on if they don't think they're going to get the 'right' result. (For example, it would suddenly be announced after the vote is already underway that two people are going to be 'evicted' rather than the expected one.)
Does any of this matter? Most people will just vote for their favourite party on the list, regardless of the ranking of candidates or how that ranking was determined. Ironically, the people most likely to be alienated are those closest to the process, ie. SNP members themselves. That's still potentially a problem - a few hundred or even a few dozen misplaced votes could potentially make a difference in some cases. For my own part, I'm extremely relieved not to live in the Lothian region, because if, as seems entirely possible, Graham Campbell is placed at Number 1 on the Lothian list against members' wishes, I'd have found it hard for personal reasons to vote for a candidate who falsely accused me of racism a few weeks ago. (He did it "without a shred of evidence", to use the buzz phrase of the epoch.) It's a hell of a lot easier to swallow your pride in those circumstances if you know the candidate you have an issue with has been selected by a free and fair process.