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 the 2007 and 2012 local elections the Single Transferable Vote method was used. 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 Valence voting has become more important. The electorate’s judgement on a party’s capacity for political leadership, economic performance, low crime, improved health care and the like becoming more more significant in electoral choice.
  • 4.6 The ‘Scottish’ dimension of elections in Scotland has been accentuated. Elections have become more competitive in a multi-party environment with the Scottish electorate less predictable in their electoral choice.
  • 4.7 Electioneering has become more sophisticated with parties more attuned to the needs of the media and new communication and information technologies.

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. Which factors are most significant in accounting for the way the electorate vote in Scottish parliamentary elections?
  4. Outline and assess the impact of Scotland four electoral systems for local government, Westminster, Holyrood and European elections.
  5. To what extent do you agree that cleavages such as class and religion have declined as significant factors in explaining Scottish voting behaviour?
  6. Electoral systems are rarely designed, they are born kicking and screaming into the world out of a messy, incremental compromise between contending factions battling for survival, determined by power politics’ (Norris 2009). Discuss in relation to at least TWO of Scotland ’s electoral systems.
  7. ‘Key valence variables - performance evaluations, economic competence and party image - have strong and significant effects (on party choice), unlike hitherto prominent factors like religion, class and national identity’ (Johns et al 2009). Discuss.

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 introductions to electoral systems see Lundberg (2007), Gallagher and Mitchell (2008) and Farrell (2011). For research on STV and local elections see Bennie and Clark (2008), Clark (2012a; 2012b) and Curtice (2008). Scottish electoral behavior is the most researched area of Scottish politics. For pre-devolution see Budge and Urwin (1966); Brand et al. (1983); Bennie et al. (1997), Brown et al. (1999) and Denver et al. (2000). For post-devolution studies see Curtice et al. (2009; 2011) and Curtice and Steven (2011). The 2007 and 2011 Scottish election study data and analysis can be found in Johns et al. (2009; 2010; 2011a, 2011b) and Mitchell et al. (2011a; 2011b). Clarke et al. (2009) is the latest in a series of British election studies and worth reading for a wider UK context.

Online Sources

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