Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 4: Elections and Voting Behaviour


This chapter examines elections and voting behaviour in Scotland, focusing on the new electoral systems, the factors which influence voter choice in Scotland, and political campaigning in an age of multi-level elections. Drawing on public opinion poll research it explores the question of whether the Scottish electorate is more left-wing than its English counterpart, and the impact that devolution has had on these attitudes.

Key Points

4.1 In the immediate post-war period electoral behaviour and party preferences at UK and Scottish levels were of negligible difference. However, since the 1960s electoral behaviour in Scotland has been different from England.
4.2 Scotland has four distinct electoral systems - first past the post (House of Commons), Mixed Member Proportional (Scottish Parliament), Single Transferable Vote (local government) and party list (European Parliament).
4.3 In 2007 the Single Transferable Vote method was used for the first time in local elections. Under STV electors vote for individual candidates rather than party lists. Electors, instead of placing an ‘X’ against their preferred candidate, rate their preferences 1, 2, 3 and so on in multi-member constituencies.
4.4 Voting behaviour in Scottish elections has become a lot less predictable, with what were previously significant cleavages such as class, national identity and religion declining in explanatory power. A key trend in recent decades has been partisan de-alignment and a decrease in the power of socialization to account for electoral choice.
4.5 It has been suggested that valence voting has become more important. The electorate’s judgement on a party’s capacity to deliver economic growth, low crime, improved health care and the like becoming more more significant in electoral choice.
4.6 Electioneering in campaigns has undergone significant change with parties more attuned to the needs of the media and new communication and information technologies.
4.7 Scottish political attitudes are often characterized as being more left wing than those in the rest of Britain. However, most research has tended to suggest that Scots are not as left-wing as voting behaviour would suggest.

Essay Questions

  1. To what extent are Scotland’s voters and political parties rational in their approach to elections in Scotland?
  2. Critically assess the contention that the Scottish electorate have different political views than the electorate in the rest of the UK.
  3. Outline and assess the impact of Scotland four electoral systems for local government, Westminster, Holyrood and European elections.

Self-test questions

  1. Which electoral systems are used in Scotland for (a) local elections (b) Scottish Parliamentary elections (c) UK General Elections and (d) European Parliament elections?
  2. What impact has a more proportional electoral system had on Scottish politics?
  3. Outline the key historical cleavages which help explain Scottish voting behaviour?
  4. What is partisan dealignment?
  5. What are valence political issues?
  6. What does rationality mean in the context of electoral behaviour?

Further Reading

For a discussion of Electoral System Design see Shugart and Wattenberg (2000) and Diamond and Plattner (2006). There has been a lot of post-devolution work on Scottish political attitudes – see in particular Paterson et al (2001); Curtice et al (2002); Bromley et al (2003), Bromley et al (2006). The key works on Scottish elections have been Budge and Urwin (1966); Brand et al (1983); Bennie et al (1997), Brown et al (1999), Paterson et al (2001), Denver et al (2007).


  1. Scottish Election Study 2007

  2. Vote Scotland
  3. Electoral Commission
  4. Fair Vote
  5. Arbuthnott Commission
  6. You Gov Pollsters
  7. Populus Pollsters
  8. Centre for research into elections and social trends (CREST)

June 2008 Update: Proposed Electoral Law Reform

Proposals to reform electoral laws following the 2007 debacle – D. Fraser 27.5.08
The Herald ‘Election law needs to be overhauled, says adviser’

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