For someone who came of age politically in the 1980s, there’s a strong sense of déjà vu in the general election coverage in Scotland. A landslide victory is predicted for the SNP, while Labour faces wipeout.
As so often before, these are predictions based on Westminster seats, not vote share. The SNP’s achievement in doubling its support to approach (or even surpass) 50% of the vote in Scotland is remarkable, without any doubt. Labour’s slide from 42% in 2010 to perhaps just 25% or even lower would be an equally huge political shift. Let’s accept all that.
But, if a little under 50% of the vote delivers over 80% of the seats in Scotland and conversely 25% of the vote provides fewer than one in ten seats, as some have predicted: to someone of my political vintage it won’t feel like an exciting new politics so much as a severe case of ‘been here before’.
Like many others, I spent much of my teens and twenties grimly noting that fewer than half of those voting, even at the Thatcherite high point of 1983, supported the Tories: yet critical voices, not just individually but collectively, were presented as less important, even marginal. Under first past the post, the winner took all: not just votes in parliament, but also the space to fashion the dominant story of what the country “was”, playing down the stubborn plurality of perspectives which the voting system concealed.
In 1997, there was satisfaction to be had in seeing a party hit hard by the same blunt electoral sword it had wielded with such enthusiasm. But it didn’t take long for the downsides of landslides to become apparent from another perspective. The sword became double-edged, with the same majority which saw through the minimum wage and devolution being pressed into service to support the war in Iraq.
Somewhere along the way I grew up and realised that the joke in Scotland about Tory MPs and pandas should make democrats of all shades feel uncomfortable. The lack of Scottish Tories at Westminster is often casually quoted as proof of how little support they have here, when the reality is that it says more about the way we elect MPs. In 2010 the Conservatives took one Scottish seat at Westminster, when their share of all the votes in Scotland would have implied nine or ten. A certain amount of serves-you-right sentiment is only human, but something is wrong when this effect acquires a positive symbolic value.
Scotland has, of course, had its own FPTP sub-plot: for many years, two-thirds to three-quarters of its MPs have been Labour, even though the party has never achieved more than half the vote and has sometimes – in Scottish and European elections regularly – fallen below 40%. Labour has persistently had more than half as many again Westminster MPs as its vote share implied, and the SNP half their “share”, sometimes much less. That situation seems about to switch.
It would be unrealistic to expect SNP supporters not to enjoy the reversal when it comes. But here’s a small plea, to them and to the new SNP MPs, and to the media, which will always prefer grand narratives over complex reality. FPTP is a system which holds a distorting mirror to a politically complicated country, whether Scotland or the UK, where no single party has enjoyed the support of more than around half of voters, and usually clearly less, at any election in the past century (excepting the Conservatives, who made it to 55% of the UK vote in 1931). Its promotion of easy triumphalism is good for filling the airwaves and the comment threads, but bad for mutual respect and continuing democratic conversation, as we have learnt the hard way over recent decades.
FPTP’s apocalyptic, seductive but ultimately deceptive language of landslides and wipe-outs tells us much more about the voting system than the people who voted. On the morning of Friday 8 May, those who believe that Westminster needs serious reform could make a start simply by rejecting the temptation to speak that bad language…