Gaming the (Proportional Representation) System is an Exercise in Futility

Max the Yes, Get Indy Done, Give Us Your List Vote… all the snappy slogans in the world don’t touch the heart of the matter:  how to achieve our shared goal of living in a free, fair, and independent Scotland.

Although imperfect, the additional member system (AMS) we use to elect our representatives to the Scottish parliament is a type of proportional representation. The non-stop criticisms of AMS can make it difficult to remember that proportional representation is considered the gold standard of electoral arrangements.

Now, I have my own critiques of the system, and that’s as it should be. If I’ve ever seen a democratic arrangement aligned with my own personal views, it is almost always left on the cutting room floor. Compromise is necessary for a healthy democracy to function. That means that there will always be areas in our politics where we disagree. It is the freedom to disagree that makes democracy so powerful a system.

With this in mind, let me share a few uncomfortable truths that supermajority campaigners will not tell you:

  • There are too many unknown variables in this election to take the various How To Do Tactical Voting and D’hont for Dummies tutorials to heart. This is especially true when considering how many people are voting for the first time in the May elections. Anyone who tells you they know exactly how you should vote based on your area makes too many assumptions to be accurate.
  • Unionists deserve representation, too. Although it pains me to admit it, fair is fair. I have two kids: the most reasonable snack portions always come about when I have one child cut the pieces, and the other gets to choose.
  • Quality over quantity – not all independence supporting MSPs are created equal. Why do you think there isn’t much pushback or uproar to the new list parties? Surely the British press would be all over this, right? Not if diluting the indy representation with ineffectual MSPs helps them campaign for the union.

I don’t want a pro-independence supermajority if 15% is composed of the absurdly and unapologetically incompetent. It will not help forward the case for independence. Obviously, we all have to start our learning process somewhere, but look at how Trump turned out in the US. He, too, arrived on the scene campaigning on seductive promises, bold statements, and absolutely no plan. Look at what happened when a minority of the American electorate bought into his impossible promises.

While I am an SNP member who advocates for Both Votes SNP, it is worth noting that the Scottish Greens are also an established party supporting independence. If your values align more closely with the top Green candidate in your region, you won’t hear me tell you that it’s wrong to vote for them. These new pop-up list-only parties, however? They promise nothing but ‘delivering independence’. How will they deliver on this promise, you might ask? “Don’t worry about it!” they say with a wink and a nod.

The truth is, minority governments are often better for democracy when they work effectively. Like in the sports world, lead players can only operate at their peak when playing well-matched opponents. So much of the frustration and anger are direct products of the SNP’s status as the ‘apex predator’ with little to no competition in the field. Never forget – we are choosing who sits in our parliament for the next five years – not just a line item action plan demanding an indyref. We need to ensure that the next Scottish Government has a robust manifesto responsible for fairly governing every person in this country through our recovery from a global pandemic.

The independence movement in Scotland needs so badly to work on its team-building. Listening to the grassroots? I think that we are very well heard – it is the expectation of immediate action that isn’t in the realm of reality. A functional democracy requires trust from the people it governs: trust in the institution of voting, in the legitimacy of the parliament, and in the legitimacy of future independence referendums.

I know this is not what anyone wants to hear, but whoever said life was fair? These short cuts simply will not work. To be blunt: the only wasted vote is an uncast vote; the size of a majority matters; the will of the people matters. You are shaping the future – no matter how gradually – with every vote you cast. And gradual change is often the most lasting.