Crunching the 2016 Scottish Election

Crunching down on facts and all available numbers on the Scottish Election of 5th May 2106 shows a range of new insights into comparative performances and signals various directions of travel in each of the four main parties.

It also provides more sophisticated  points of comparison between the Liberal Democrats and the Greens who are loosely said to have overtaken them but in reality have not.

Let’s start by checking out how far SNP voters supported their party leaders’ call for ‘Both votes SNP’ – and let’s first note that in and since the first Scottish parliamentary election in 1999, the pattern has been that fewer supporters of every party in the constituency votes use their Regional List vote.

The figures suggest that this is an enduring pattern and have never indicated any substantial practice amongst voters of giving one party their constituency vote and another their Regional List vote.

This pattern has not changed – until the 2016 election, which may prove a catalyst as the Conservatives have succeeded in constructively educating the electorate on the options and protections the Regional List vote makes available.

In 2016, a smaller percentage of SNP constituency voters gave the party their Regional vote than at any time since the SNP formed their first minority administration in 2o07. In that year their Regional List vote was 95.35%  of their constituency vote. In 2011 it went up to 97% of the constituency vote – which looks like being second only to the Conservatives’ 98.59% in the first Scottish parliamentary election in 1999.

This time, in 2016, that 97% fell to 90% of the SNP’s constituency vote – still a first class show of fidelity but one that does suggest a greater percentage than usual of SNP supporters placing their regional vote elsewhere. The odds are that these gifted votes account for the swollen regional vote of 150,426 for the Greens, who attracted only 13,172 votes in the constituency section.

The Conservatives, in a Scottish parliamentary first in 2016, attracted a List vote of 104.45% of their constituency vote – a vote already itself increased on 2011 by 81.39%.

Labour saw its percentage retention of regional votes rise slightly in 2016, from 83.04% in 2011 to 84.76%, indicating no unusual desertion of its supporters to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats – and of all of the four main parties their record is of the least loyal or least electorally engaged core vote – saw a small increase in regional vote retention on its 2011 performance – from 65.6% to 66.92% in 2016.

Strategies and performance in targeted seats

The SNP took not a single seat from the Conservatives – although two were amongst its formal targets; and none from the Liberal Democrats, although they had informally targeted two – Orkney and Shetland, making determined efforts to take them and seen to be demonstrating substantial confidence in doing so.

They did, however, eviscerate Labour, targeting 11 Labour seats, seeing two of these hold on but two others succumb. Against these wins, the SNP lost five seats – knocked down twice by the Conservatives, twice by the Liberal Democrats and once by Labour.

The majority of this activity happened in what proved to be the most interesting set of regional results, in Lothian.

There the SNP took Edinburgh North and Leith from Labour, only to see Labour punch right back by taking Edinburgh South from the SNP. Then the Conservatives took the SNP out of Edinburgh Central; and the mouse roared when the Liberal Democrats took the catapult of David against Goliath and knock out the SNP in Edinburgh West.

Labour – predated by each of the other three traditionally main parties, didn’t even try to lay a glove on the Conservatives. They targeted, with blind ambition and little common sense, seventeen seats – all of them SNP.  They took one [Edinburgh South] and saw the resurgent Conservatives outplay them in taking Edinburgh Central – which was not even a Conservative target.

The Liberal Democrats targeted three SNP seats, seeing Labour beat them to the tape in taking one of them, Edinburgh South, from the SNP. However, they doubled their number of constituency MSPs by taking both of their other two SNP targets, one – NE Fife, with their engaging party leader, Willie Rennie; and the second with Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh West. This was a first class result for the party.

The Liberal Democrats may technically have been overtaken by the Greens , with six seats to the Liberal Democrats continuing five and with 1.4% more votes in the Regional List ballot – but they have not a single constituency seat and the Liberal Democrats now have four of them, with only one List seat.

The Conservatives targeted one SNP seat – Edinburgh Pentlands, to which the SNP held on; and two Labour seats, both of which they took – Eastwood and Dumfriesshsire. They then took two untargeted seats from the SNP – Edinburgh Central, with their successful party leader, the clear-minded Ruth Davidson and Aberdeenshire West with Alexander Burnett. They took votes, vote share and seats from both Labour and the SNP.

The party also finished the election with its vote over 8% up overall; and a repeated performance of substantial vote share gains in the majority of constituency ballots.

  • The SNP finished 6 constituency seats up, winning eleven and losing five, tallying 59 consituencies at close of play – a phenomenally dominant result.
  • The Conservatives kept their existing three constituencies with increased votes and added their four gains, finishing on seven.
  • Labour lost thirteen constituency seats and gained one, ending down twelve and with only three constituency seats, fewer than the Liberal Democrats.

It’s hard  now to believe that in 2007, the election bringing the SNP to power in their first minority administration, Labour held on to thirty seven constituencies.

This 2007 election, though, was the start of the SNP’s relentless hollowing out of the traditional powerhouse of Scottish politics, taking nine Labour seats on that occasion. This was followed by the crash and burn to the SNP torches of Labour’s 2011 election, where they were stripped of no fewer than twenty three seats by the SNP, on the way to their unprecedented and now unrepeated majority government.

The SNP demolition job just got finished in 2016; and no one knows how Labour can rebuild from its current position.

In the Regional List seats, the SNP took a total of four seats; the Conservatives twenty four; Labour twenty one; the Greens six; and the Liberal Democrats, one.

The state of the regions

The best way to see the impact of the De Hondt system of allocating regional seats in Scotland to ensure a reasonable proportionality of party representation in Holyrood is to look at the final distribution of seats in each of the eight Scottish parliamentary regions, when the List seats were added.

In Central Scotland: The SNP took all nine constituency seats. The Regional List has provided the balance of four Labour and three Conservative MSPs.

In Glasgow: The SNP again took all nine constituency seats, with the Regional List adding four Labour, two Conservative and one Green MSP, the party’s co-convener, Patrick Harvie.

In the Highlands and Islands: The SNP took six constituencies and the Liberal Democrats the other two. The Regional List brought to the table three Conservative, two Labour, one SNP and one Green MSP.

In Lothian: The SNP took six constituencies, with the Conservatives [Leader, Ruth Davidson], the Liberal Democrats and Labour taking one each – all three gains from the SNP. The Regional List threw in three Conservative, two Labour and two Green MSPs – one of which is Andy Wightman, the fervent long time land reform campaigner.

In Mid Scotland and Fife: The SNP took eight constituencies and the Liberal Democrats one – their party leader, Willie Rennie. The Regional List added to that mix four conservative, two Labour and one Green MSP.

In NE Scotland: The SNP took nine of the ten constituencies, with the Conservatives taking the tenth from them. The Regional List added four Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat MSP.

In South Scotland: The SNP and the Conservatives have four constituency seats each,with Labour holding the last one. From the Regional List now come three SNP, two Conservative and two Labour MSPs.

In West Scotland: the SNP have eight constituencies, the Conservatives and Labour [Jackie Baillie, the great survivor] one each. The Regional List adds three Labour, three Conservative and one Green MSP, the last being the young firebrand, Ross Greer, seen in a congratulatory hug with land reforming uber-activist, Andy Wightman, now as noted above, a Green Regional List MSP in Lothian.

The picture in the constituencies in the light of the greater turnout in 2016

It has been indicative of a cooling of unquestioning public ardour for the SNP that some of the party’s senior figures suffered a drop in their personal vote [John Swinney, Shona Robison, Roseanna Cunningham and Keith Brown] – and that these were more pronounced hits when the percentage increase in turnout in their constituency is taken into consideration.

Other SNP figures [like Sandra White, Fiona Hyslop and Annabelle Ewing}, who seemed to have put a modest percentage on their vote have actually taken a hit with their gains less than the rise in turnout in their constituencies.

For Argyll decided to test the appearance of the results against the fact of an increased 2016 turnout on 2011 – and immediately confronted two elections which could not be fully compared.

In 2011, there was a raft of fringe ‘parties’ and contestants – a picture not replicated in a more austere and focused 2016 election.

In 2011 the Greens stood only in the Regional List; but in 2016 they stood in some of the constituencies and in the Regional List. And UKIP stood in both some constituencies and the Regional List in 2011; but only in the Regional List this time out.

What we did then was to focus only on the four traditional main parties, the SNP, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, adding their total votes in the 2011 and 2016  elections – in the constituency and in the regional list ballots. Comparing the number of those total available votes in both elections creates a defensible form of ‘turnout’ and identifies changes in ‘turnout’ in 2016.

This gave us a total of available votes for these four parties of 1,957,742 in 2011 and of 2,254,460 in 2016. The change on 2011 was +296,318 – a percentage increase of 15.15% in 2016 on 2011.

Assuming that all parties perform as they did in 2011, one can expect each to have improved on their 2011 vote by the percentage of the increased ‘turnout’ in 2016 – 15.15%.

Applying this reality checker to all four main parties’ 2016 results sees only the SNP and the Conservatives outperforming the percentage rise in ‘turnout’.

The SNP, in raw numbers, took their vote share in this calculation up by +0.89 on 2011; and increased their constituency vote by +17.38% on 2011. Setting an increased ‘turnout’ uplift of 15.15% against this last figure still sees the SNP return a +2.23% improvement.

The Conservatives in this scenario increased their vote share by +8.13%; and increased their constituency vote by +81.39% on 2011. Setting the 2016 increased ‘turnout’ percentage of 15.15% against this sees the Conservatives still carry a realistic percentage increase in their 2016 constituency vote  of +66.24%.

Labour, whose 2016 constituency vote in this calculation fell by -18.43%, ought to have shown a +15.15% numerical increase in that vote, due simply to the increased ‘turnout’. Its failure to achieve parity with its 2011 performance sees this increased ‘turnout’ uplift become a negative which, added to its raw fall of -18.43%, sees it finish with a -33.58% loss in this vote.

The Liberal Democrats similarly failed to perform to the increased ‘turnout’ of 2016 – taking their constituency vote up by 13.01%, -2.14% short of the 15.15% they would have needed to hold station.

When it came to the total Regional List vote gained by the four main parties in 2011 and in 2016, the 2016 increase in this ‘turnout’ on 2011 was 2,03422 in 2016 as opposed to 1,549,409 in 2011. This increase of 484,013 sh0ws a +31.23% in the List vote in 2016.

Matching the parties’ individual performances on the List vote against this 2016 increase in ‘turnout’ sees the SNP’s raw increase of +41.03% come down to +9.8%; and the Conservatives raw increase of +113.12% come down to +81.89%.

Labour failed to match its 2011 List votes in 2016, showing a raw fall in vote of -16.73% for 2016. With its added failure to perform to the increased 2016  ‘turnout’ of +31.23% in the List vote, Labour finishes with a -47.96% fall in its 2016 List vote.

The Liberal Democrats saw a raw increase of +15.28% in their 2016 List vote, short of the 31.23% uplift in increased ‘turnout’ and finishing with an overall fall in their List vote of -15.95%.

Taking the rise in the 2016 ‘turnout’ into consideration underlines the sound and consistent performance of the SNP and the rocket fuelled Conservative gains, driven by the most politically astute campaign of the lot, pitching to a very specific and otherwise neglected audience badly in need of a champion.

It also highlights the depth of the Labour decline and points to an element of a false dawn for the Liberal Democrats.


In the major contest, the SNP may be seeing the start of the infiltration of  daylight in the miasma of public adoration and may not have got a second majority, but its 59 constituency seats are a fabulous – and terrifying – base upon which it has the means to grow its support across Scotland.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ formal status of second largest party with some giant killing gains to their credit and leading the opposition to the dominant SNP on some matters of widespread public concern – like the atrociously misguided Named Person form of state guardianship for everyone below the legal age of maturity in Scotland, puts serious fuel in their tank, where Labour is down on all fronts and with little sense of where to point if they can struggle to their feet.

The Greens appear to have overtaken the Liberal Democrats but do not have a single constituency in their six seats, where the Liberal Democrats, in addition to their one List seat, have four constituencies and this time two of them are bang in the powerhouse of the Central Belt – one in the capital city and one on the far side of the Forth estuary.

The Greens are shaping up to be the radical stunt pilots of the new Holyrood and are as likely to crash and burn as to make take off.

With a base now to start to rebuild some critical mass in their membership in Scotland’s political heartlands, if the Liberal Democrats can remember what Liberalism is actually about and resuscitate that, they should find one party Scotland increasingly receptive to that political philosophy.

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