William Bain puts the case for Westminster electoral reform from Scotland
Since the tectonic plates of Scottish politics were upended by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Labour has seen its number of Scottish MPs reduced to one, back to seven and then down to one again. The centrality of the Indyref question meant increased turnout in the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections, to stop or ensure the SNP gained an overall majority as in 2011. This is the clear division, with the pro-UK parties winning a narrow majority of the constituency votes cast, while the pro-independence parties won a majority of the list votes cast.
Scottish Labour’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, was widely seen to have won the campaign around economic and NHS recovery from the pandemic; but the votes were cast and tactical voting choices made on the constitutional questions of independence and devolution, with only 5% of votes moving from the pro-independence camp to the pro-UK camp during the campaign. The results marked a bottoming out of Scottish Labour’s decline. More than ever, the Party’s representation depended largely upon its showing in the list ballots with 20 of our 22 seats coming from the regional lists. The proportionate voting system made the difference between Scottish Labour looking at a pathway to recovery under Anas Sarwar’s leadership, or being reduced to two constituency MSPs only and the political wilderness.
What does this mean for the debate on electoral reform for Westminster? Scottish Labour could at the next UK General Election poll a higher vote share in Scotland than in 2019, but so too could the SNP. The prospects for Scottish Labour seat gains under first-past-the-post remain slim. Scottish Labour could poll around a fifth of the Scottish votes, yet only win 1.7% of the available seats in Scotland. Scottish Labour candidates could pile up hundreds of thousands of votes while returning only one MP. Labour has to perform even more strongly in England and Wales to win power at the next General Election in the absence of more Scottish Labour MPs.
PR would give Scottish Labour more voices at Westminster. Even in 2015, we would have returned 14 Scottish Labour MPs. Voting reform would be good for the Union, better for the wider Labour movement, and put the UK Labour Party less at risk of having to fend off Tory accusations of arrangements with the SNP to get a future Labour government’s business through the Commons. Showing that political change is possible at Westminster with fewer Tory governments likely in the future may bolster the case for Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. Fairer votes can turbo charge the Scottish Labour recovery. That is a prize for us all to strive for.