The Great 0.6% Swindle

Budget time is always the most bruising part of the parliamentary year, as parties and their supporters compete to heap scorn on each others plans whilst getting all misty-eyed about the great future their ideas guarantee. With the Greens agreeing a budget deal, we’re naturally in the line of fire. That’s a perfectly normal and legitimate part of politics, but there’s been a sudden uptick in a particular nonsense argument this time. How dare the Greens, who by the way did you know only won 0.6% of the vote, have any say over our politics at all, it runs. These Greens nobody voted for, because remember they only got 0.6%, are propping up the vile nats, some say.

They are actually referring to the first past the post constituency vote in 2016, which was indeed 0.6% because Greens only contested 3 of 73 constituencies. However, as almost anyone could tell you, there are two votes at Holyrood. In the regional vote we won 6.6%; now that’s a 6 seat winning kind of vote share. This is all part of the usual and frustratingly widespread attempts at de-legitimising the Scottish Parliament voting system. It’s a bit odd given many of the people making this argument are also part of the hard-line “#SNPOut” brigade, who presumably would be even less happy with a 59 of 73 seats SNP majority, but that’s another issue. And even where they aren’t directly calling for AMS to be replaced by FPTP many still argue – and you can find SNP supporters saying this – that Greens are only in parliament at all because of SNP voters lending them a regional vote.

This post isn’t actually for such people because they actually know fine well they are being ridiculous and trying to convince them to be sensible is pointless. Instead it’s more for others who might see the 0.6% claim, or who are a bit (understandably) hazy about the range of different voting systems Scotland uses, and who might wonder if there’s something to it. We can have a look at a range of different elections in Scotland, all of which except Holyrood use a single vote, to get an indication of how Green support differs between FPTP and proportional systems, and between those proportional systems themselves. If the Greens were incapable of picking up votes except for the charity of the SNP, you’d expect us to win next to no votes at all other elections.

Like-for-like comparisons are complicated by the fact that, lacking the resources of the institutional parties, the Greens have comparatively low contest rates for elections. This was most notable (and frustrating for us) in last year’s snap election, but even in 2015 we only stood in about half of constituencies. Council elections are even trickier because no party contests every single ward and independents win a lot of support, so the national vote share figures aren’t “true” representations of partisan feeling. Add in the disjoint between various electoral boundaries and it’s even harder. Nonetheless, it is possible to find relatively stable boundary areas that had a consistent Green presence for the natural 2014-17 electoral cycle, i.e. excluding the snap GE. The chart below captures the votes received by the Greens in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling over the course of the 2014 European, 2015 UK, 2016 Scottish, and 2017 council elections. It also, for context, shows the % turnout at each election.

(Note: The Stirling Scottish Parliament constituency does not contain the Dunblane and Bridge of Allan area that is included in the other three elections. 2298 votes were cast for the Greens in the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane constituency. The overall result for the Stirling area in 2016 therefore probably falls between 3000-4000.)

A few things stand out from these figures. Firstly, it does look like pretty solid backing for the idea FPTP discourages people from voting Green at all. Despite the 2015 UK General Election having the highest turnout of any of these elections, it has the fewest Green votes – about half as many as the next lowest results in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and about two thirds in Stirling. Voters are well aware of the fact that the Greens aren’t (yet) in a position to win constituencies, and therefore the traditional FPTP worry about wasting your vote and letting a party you really don’t like win the seat greatly influences them. By contrast, in the three proportional(ish) elections where voters can be more sure a Green vote counts, many more vote Green, even at the lowest rates of turnout. So why would the Greens even want to stump up £35,000 to stand candidates in the other 70 Scottish Parliament constituencies when we don’t need to do so to win seats?

Secondly, the number of votes cast in the two low-turnout elections that bookend the cycle was remarkably close. Given there’s still a reasonable turnout gap between European and Council elections, this one’s harder to explain. It’s possible the very low profile and observable impact of European elections makes people even more likely to go “ah, why the hell not” and vote for a smaller party. Alternatively, the fact the independence campaign was hitting fever-pitch in 2014 and pushing Greens to the fore may have helped, compared to a much more exhausted and polarised electorate in 2017.

Finally, the Scottish Parliament shows by far the most Green votes. That does on the surface seem to suggest a number of SNP voters “lending” their list vote to the Greens. I certainly wouldn’t deny that happens, or even suggest it’s an unimportant share of the 150k votes Greens received in 2016. But the willingness of people to vote Green in the single vote PR elections does suggest there is now a base of primarily Green voters out there, and one which contributes the overwhelming majority of the Green vote even in the dual-vote Holyrood election. Too many of us can get trapped in the little political obsessive bubble, meaning (in this case) taking a few vocal tactical SNP-Green voters on social media as representative of the electorate at large. Joe Everyman and Jane Public don’t sit on Twitter or niche FB groups debating the relative merits of split-ticket voting and the optimal use of D’Hondt!

The Greens may be small, but we’re not the 0.6% party these silly folk try to claim we are. Though variable, we do have a solid base of support, and it’s that base which has done most of the work in making us a major part of Scotland’s political landscape.

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