Labour’s Lothian Dilemma

Labour in Lothian has a “second vote” dilemma in looking ahead to the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

Back in 1999, Labour won eight of the nine constituencies in the Lothian region.  By 2003 this had reduced to six and in 2007 it was down to four.  The 2007 nadir resulted in the election of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock as a Labour regional MSP, as much to his own surprise as anyone else’s.

In 2011, every poll suggests that Labour will regain constituencies in Lothian. Edinburgh Central, with significant boundary changes, had “Lib Dem gain” written all over it until the Lib Dems, within the UK Government, agreed to be part of the most savage assault on public services that any of us can remember. Suddenly, sitting MSP, Sarah Boyack, looks more comfortable.  Similarly, Labour’s Paul Godzik must be very confident of winning highly marginal and student-laden Edinburgh Southern from Lib Dem MSP Mike Pringle.

In quieter moments Labour must also be imagining the prospect of ministerial scalps in the shape of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in Edinburgh Eastern and Angela Constance in Almond Valley, although I suspect it is a tougher fight in those two areas.

So Labour is very likely to take between five and seven constituencies in Lothian in May.  Party spokespeople will certainly be talking up its prospects of doing so.  But here’s the dilemma – will it then also be honest with voters and say that constituency gains of this scale will make it almost inconceivable that Labour can elect list MSPs? In other words, even the staunchest Labour voter, after voting for their Labour constituency candidate with his or her first vote would be well-advised to look elsewhere with the second vote.

The Scottish Parliament voting system, after all, means that the more constituency, or local MSPs a party has elected, the less chance it has of electing regional MSPs through the second vote.

The evidence is clear.  In the first two Scottish elections no Labour list MSPs were elected in Lothian.  By the time Lord Foulkes was elected – retaining his House of Lords seat meantime – 240,501 Labour second votes in Lothian had been cast to elect a single regional MSP. By contrast, since 1999 a total of 74,903 Green second votes in Lothian have resulted in four Green MSPs – Robin Harper, three times and Mark Ballard, once.  Put starkly, Green second votes are thirteen times more efficient than Labour second votes.

Of course, that is just election arithmetic and tactics.  There are also very real policy reasons for voters to be shy of putting all their ballot eggs in Labour’s basket.  It is not so long since Labour was in government, both at UK and Scottish level and embarking on foreign wars, cutting welfare benefits, bending to the roads-lobby, and presiding over an unsustainable credit boom that had to burst – and did. And many other things that are hardly the hallmark of a progressive government.

Now, I don’t expect my Labour-inclined friends to agree (at least publicly) with my criticisms of Labour’s record in office.  I’d still hazard a guess that many Labour sympathizers will find it easier to turn to Greens’ Alison Johnstone with their second vote than to SNP – with whom they are locked in combat in Holyrood – or the Lib Dems or Tories, who, together, are the coalition that Labour seeks to displace at Westminster.  That’s another issue, another blog.

But I do expect some honesty on the voting arithmetic. This is the first Scottish Parliament election where Labour has been in opposition – in Holyrood, in Westminster and even here in Edinburgh.  It says it is relishing the chance to put behind it the spin-years of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. So here’s a test of honesty for Labour – get the bookies’ odds on how many first-past-the-post seats Labour will win and brief supporters about second votes accordingly.

You don’t see many poor bookies, after all.