Scottish socialists' election advance

Analysis of the SSP's 2003 Election Results

By Allan Green

Allan Green is a member of the National Executive of the Scottish Socialist Party and a member of the Editorial Board of Links.


What happened with the second vote

SSP achieved a relatively stable, committed vote

Different layers support SSP and Greens

Conclusions on the second vote

Left election results in England and Wales

The role of the party in this success

The entire Scottish Socialist Party can be justifiably proud of our performance in the Holyrood elections on May 1. The vision, principles, courage and commitment of the party over four years have produced an election outcome that will permanently change the face of Scottish politics.

The SSP contested seventy of seventy-three constituencies, making a political choice not to contest the other three seats. We had a full slate in all eight regional lists. [The voting system combined a vote for single-member electorates and a proportional election for regional lists.] For the fourth time in as many years, every person in the country was given the opportunity of voting for a party that stands for the socialist transformation of society. The scale of our challenge for a new small party, in itself, is a tremendous achievement.

Both Labour and the SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party] lost significantly. Labour's share of the second vote fell over four points to a historic low of 29.3 per cent. The SNP's second vote fell by 6.6 per cent to 20.9 per cent.

This paper does not detail all the individual constituency and list results because they have been published in the press and on the BBC web site. Nor does it examine local and regional votes in detail—this would be better done at the regional and local level.

Our results were spectacular. Our national vote in the constituencies was 117,709 (6.2 per cent) and in the regional list votes higher still—128,026 (6.8 per cent). The BBC reported 7.8 per cent, but their calculations were wrong.

We more than tripled our share of the national vote since the 1999 Scottish
election. Since the Westminster election in 2001 our share of the vote has more than doubled.

Nationally, the SSP made the biggest gains in share of the vote compared to all other parties in fifty-two out of seventy-three constituencies, including seats in all eight regions. We made the highest gains in half of the eight regions—Central, Glasgow, South and West. The Greens made the biggest gain in the Highlands and Islands and independents/others in the other three regions.

The 1999 breakthrough of getting Tommy Sheridan elected on the Glasgow list was vital, but this time around the election has firmly established the party as a truly national party.

Crucially, there is now a team of six talented and experienced socialists who will not only shake the establishment in parliament but will be tremendous campaigners for socialism in the communities the length and breadth of Scotland. The SSP has elected representatives in five Scottish Regions—Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothians, South Scotland and West Scotland.

In the three regions where we just failed to get an MSP elected, we have also made huge steps forward in terms of popular support.

In Mid-Scotland and Fife an additional 126 votes would have elected an SSP MSP. That is just a dozen or so extra votes in each constituency. In the Highlands and Islands, we were just over 800 votes away from a breakthrough. Again, at a regional level, this is a tiny proportion—less than half of one per cent. And in North-East Scotland we were just over 2000 votes short.

In all three of these areas, even without an elected representative, we now have a tremendous base of support on which to build and advance in the immediate period ahead. We can have confidence that, next time around, SSP MSPs will be elected in every part of the country.

In passing, it is worth noting that in at least two of the regions where the SSP just missed out, the intervention of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party was perhaps enough to stop a socialist being elected. The SLP may have received less than one per cent of the vote in the Highlands and Islands and in Mid-Scotland and Fife. But even these small votes could have been decisive. It is not unreasonable to assume that if the SLP did not stand, at least some of their vote would go to the SSP.

In any event, even if one in twenty of the SLP votes in Mid-Scotland and Fife went instead to the SSP, then Linda Graham would be in Holyrood as a socialist MSP. There would have been a similar outcome in the Highlands and Islands if half of the SLP vote were transferred to the SSP. In the North-East the SSP and SLP vote combined would have left the SSP just a handful of votes short.

The SLP has no serious base in Scotland and very few members; they even had to bus candidates up from England to stand in the Scottish elections. The SLP should now take an honest look at itself in Scotland and adopt a responsible attitude in the interests of working-class unity and socialism.

What happened with the second vote

There is clearly still a serious problem around the general level of understanding on the use and significance of the second vote. We should call on the Electoral Commission to mount a higher profile educational campaign prior to the next Scottish elections.

Nearly one in four voters used their list ballot in support of candidates outside the four main establishment parties. This was double the proportion in the 1999 elections.

In all but one region, the SSP vote increased in the regional list vote. However, this increase averaged around 0.6 per cent. Yet opinion polls prior to the elections regularly suggested that the SSP second vote could increase by around two per cent. This obviously requires some consideration.

It is not difficult to assume that the SSP second vote in the Lothians was slightly squeezed as a result of Margo MacDonald [independent, former Scottish Nationalist Party MSP] standing and getting elected on the regional list.

It has been suggested that the SSP second vote may have suffered, in contrast to the Scottish Green Party, because we generally stood in both the constituency seats and the regional lists. This line of argument suggests that if a person is going to split their vote between the SSP and another party, then they might give the SSP their constituency vote and the other party their second vote. It is argued that the Scottish Green Party may have performed better because they focused solely on the second vote.

Pensioners lists, independents, and other fringe parties picked up nine per cent—far more votes than indicated in the opinion polls.

But the opinion polls did not reflect the voters' choice in the second vote once the final list of candidates was on offer. Across the eight regions, the "others" (not including the four establishment parties and the SSP and Greens) averaged nearly nine per cent. This, as well as potentially eating into the softer SSP second vote, also reduced the de facto threshold required to get a list MSP elected.

Even a quick look at the opinion polls and the actual 2003 results shows that the "others" did not register in the opinion polls in line with their actual support come polling day. A similar situation occurred in 1999 but on a smaller scale.

Pensioners' lists were formed just prior to the elections and stood in the regional lists. They had an MSP elected on the Central Scotland list and, outside Glasgow and the Lothians, they averaged over three per cent in the second vote.

It is highly unlikely that there was time for these pensioners' candidates to register in opinion polls prior to the elections. It is quite possible that some people who in opinion polls had indicated that they might vote SSP with their second vote subsequently instead used the pensioners' list as a protest vote.

There were also a large number of independents and other parties who may not have registered on opinion polls yet picked up second votes on polling day. Fringe parties and independents achieved nearly eleven per cent of the vote in Mid-Scotland and Fife. In the Highlands and Islands, just under six per cent voted for independents and fringe parties. In the North-East the comparable figure was nearly seven per cent. Given the localised nature of many of these candidates, it is highly unlikely that they would register in the polls.

There may have been a small section of the SSP second support in opinion polls that was relatively soft and melted away on polling day when they were given more respectable/softer options to register a protest vote.

SSP achieved a relatively stable, committed vote

There is a strong case to be made that on election day the SSP ended up with a significant core vote of just under seven per cent nationally that voted SSP twice—or three times when given the opportunity.

A detailed breakdown of local government results would require a separate paper. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the SSP vote remained relatively stable through all three votes, where we also stood in the council elections. For example in Glasgow the SSP averaged around fifteen per cent in the first, second and council votes.

It is therefore realistic to assume that the vote for the SSP was a relatively committed and conscious vote. The 6.2 per cent or 6.8 per cent votes actually achieved are maybe better compared to the opinion poll ratings immediately prior to the election of around six per cent in the first vote rather than the typical opinion poll in the weeks immediately prior to the elections of around eight to nine per cent for the second vote. Partly due to the war factor and the differing circumstances in Iraq, the opinion polls were highly volatile in the weeks before the election. Our second vote rating varied by around five percentage points.

We should also remember that over the eighteen months before the election, our average opinion poll in the second vote was around seven per cent—exactly what we did achieve. Our average in the first vote over these eighteen months was nearer four per cent—here we achieved a big advance to 6.2 per cent.

Again, this would confirm that we have tended to build a stronger core vote across both ballots. It also suggests that the election campaign on the ground and in the media played a crucial role in firming up our support.

Different layers support SSP and Greens

Since 1999 (and in fact even earlier), there has been a consistent layer of support for the Greens. There are obviously Green voters attracted by their explicit stance on environmental protection first and foremost. Others disillusioned by the establishment parties, including over the war on Iraq, may be put off by the SSP's class-struggle politics and feel more comfortable using the Greens as a protest vote.

There will obviously still be some overlap between potential SSP and Green voters—mainly among a certain layer of young activists and in some specific localities. Here it is important that the party highlight the environmental policies in our manifesto, produce specific materials and target the appropriate audience and/or localities. Some target leaflets were effectively used in some places.

But experience suggests that, when compared to the population as a whole, the size of the group where there is a competition for votes will be small. In addition, even within this overlapping group, if a person chose to give the Greens their second vote over the SSP, this is likely to be a conscious decision. The numbers likely to change their preference simply due to the SSP not standing in the constituency seat is likely to be very low indeed.

In this election, a candidate standing under the Independent Green Voice banner in Glasgow Kelvin achieved nearly six per cent without the SSP vote being adversely affected. There have been similar experiences in other elections. For example, in 2000 there were simultaneous Westminster and Holyrood by-elections in Glasgow Anniesland. The Greens contested only one and the SSP, which contested both, had similar results.

At present, the SSP and Greens are largely attracting support from different sectors of the population. The SSP can be relaxed about the success achieved by the Scottish Green Party and can welcome their additional members in the parliament.

Conclusions on the second vote

The statistics tend to suggest that the SSP did not lose out by standing in constituency and list seats. However, even if there is a marginal loss of the SSP second vote by contesting all seats, the SSP is aiming to build a mass party that will challenge the pro-business parties everywhere. There can be little doubt that contesting all seats helps the party to develop roots in the community and build membership.

We are consciously laying the foundations for further growth—and not just in electoral terms. The Greens, in comparison, are more of an electoralist party. For a bottom-up party such as the SSP with big ambitions, we are absolutely correct to contest all seats where we can.

Left election results in England and Wales

The general positioning of mainstream political debate in Scotland has been to the left of that in England for some time, and this gap is set to grow. In addition, the national question in Scotland and the partial pr [proportional representation] system for the Holyrood elections are also significant background factors to be borne in mind. However, a useful comparison can still be made with the level of support achieved by the left in England and Wales in elections on the same day.

In England, it is very encouraging that both the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative had councillors elected in Preston and Coventry respectively. There were many other very good votes in council wards for the left that show the potential for further advance.

However, the scale of the left challenge in England is just not comparable to that of the SSP in Scotland. This year every person in Scotland for the fourth time in four years was given the opportunity to vote SSP. The Socialist Alliance in England contested 161 council seats—just over one per cent of the seats up for election—and on average achieved just under five per cent (it is worth remembering that many less favourable wards were not contested).

This differing situation can not be put down simply to the opportunities provided by the partial PR system in Scotland. For example, an identical ams system was in place in London at the 2000 Assembly elections, and this pr system will be used again next June. In London, only five per cent of the vote will ensure that someone is elected. PR will also be in place for the European elections across the UK on June 10, 2004.

In Wales, the comparison is more straightforward because the Welsh Assembly is elected using the exact same voting system as the Scottish Parliament. A quick look at the extent of the socialist challenge(s) and the results achieved shows that the left in Wales has also still some way to go.

The role of the party in this success

We have achieved our aim, stated in conference documents and elsewhere, of getting a team of socialist MSPs elected at the Holyrood election. This is another tremendous step towards the creation of a mass socialist party.

It is worthwhile to reflect briefly on how we have been able to achieve this .

New Labour has certainly left a political vacuum by ditching any pretense of politically representing the working class. The historic scale of the anti-war movement this year was also highly significant. The increase in the number of trade union struggles, especially the firefighters' dispute, has also had an effect, as has the growth in anti-capitalist forces internationally.

However, as the results in England and Wales highlight, important as these factors are, they would not in themselves guarantee the success achieved by the SSP.

The party has democratically developed appropriate strategy and tactics applicable to the situation in Scotland and successfully implemented this through a disciplined and effective organisation.

During the build-up to the election and during the election campaign itself, local, regional and national party campaigning was crucial to consolidating and building our support. Our campaign materials and methods of campaigning performed a vital role.

It has been the vision, boldness, energy and commitment of the membership of the SSP as a whole that have generated this historic advance for socialism in Scotland and internationally.