We Are the 10% – Holyrood 2021 Explained, Part Three

Yesterday, we took a look at the movements of Scotland’s constitutional families and how they voted. Today, we delve deeper into voting for the smaller pro-independence parties, the Scottish Greens and Alba.

The 2021 Scottish election provided further confirmation, if any were needed, that the ruling Scottish National Party are unlikely to be dislodged from power any time soon. The party secured the votes of more than 90% of Yes supporters in the Scottish Parliament’s single-member constituencies, propelling them to a fourth consecutive term in government. They dominate a highly motivated independence movement which is largely united on the thorny issue of EU membership and are led by one of the most popular politicians in the democratic world in the form of Nicola Sturgeon. Scotland’s pro-union parties, divided on Europe and unable to surmount the SNP’s in-built electoral advantages, can only look on in envy.

However, such political dominance inevitably brings its own stresses and strains, and the SNP are no longer the only show in town on the pro-independence side. The Scottish Greens emerged as key players at Holyrood after the 2016 election, their six MSPs informally propping up the SNP government and occasionally extracting policy concessions for their trouble. The party went on to achieve its best ever result at the 2021 Holyrood election, securing 8.1% of the regional list vote for a total of eight seats (which became seven after Alison Jonstone was elected Presiding Officer). While a strange case of spoiler party ballot shenanigans likely unfairly cost the party one or two additional seats, the results confirmed beyond all doubt that they are now the country’s fourth electoral force.

And this time – their hand strengthened by an enlarged cohort of members and the practicalities of constitutional politics – the Scottish Greens are engaged in negotiations around a formal confidence and supply deal with Nicola Sturgeon’s government. Like environmental parties across Europe, the Scottish Greens are not only consolidating their electoral foothold but flexing real political muscle.

Before the 2021 election, there was also much discussion of splits in the party and the wider Yes movement over a grab-bag of issues, with Sturgeon perceived by some as too cautious on independence and too “woke” on sociocultural policy. These existing pressures combined with the unedifying Alex Salmond affair to culminate in the emergence of the Alba Party which, led by the former First Minister, stood on the regional lists with a more aggressively pro-independence platform. Notably, Alba also encouraged people to vote for the SNP in local constituencies and select them on the regional lists in a bid to game the system and produce an “Independence Supermajority”. A small number of elected SNP officials defected to the new party, giving it immediate representation at Westminster and in local authorities around Scotland.

Although Alba ended up winning just 1.7% of list votes, this number added to the Green total means nearly 10% of voters backed a non-SNP, pro-independence party on the proportional half of the ballot. While this is hardly evidence of a clamour to get rid of the nationalists, it does demonstrate that emerging strands of opinion within the Yes movement are politically consequential. What distinguishes these voters from the #BothVotesSNP mainstream? Why did Alba fail to break through in spite of significant media coverage? Do list votes for the Scottish Greens and Alba simply reflect strategic considerations or do they signal real splits among Yes supporters? And can these parties surmount perjorative characterisations that they represent the “gardening wing” and “cybernat wing” of the pro-independence movement respectively?

Before delving into analysis, we should note a couple of caveats. While the overall, population-weighted vote share totals from our sample are very close to the result for the main pro-union parties, there is a bias in our sample among independence supporters to the Scottish Greens vs. the SNP. Looking at weighted totals, Green list vote share is overstated by four percentage points (12 vs. 8 in reality), while SNP list vote share is understated by five percentage points (35 vs. 40 in reality). However, these relatively minor discrepancies shouldn’t compromise our ability to discuss overall patterns and trends – it’s just worth keeping in mind. Also, our sample only contains 55 respondents who voted Alba on the list. While that number is in almost exact proportion to their share of the actual vote, this low overall n means our sample of Alba voters itself is unlikely to be closely representative of the party’s entire electorate.

Vote Choice

The graph below shows how SNP, Scottish Green and Alba Party list voters break down by constituency ballot. Of course, unlike the other two parties, SNP voters had the option of voting for the party on both parts of the ballot in every part of Scotland. The Scottish Greens stood in some constituencies and Alba didn’t stand in any – their votes therefore had to come from other parties. More than 90% of SNP list voters also chose the party in their local constituency. Meanwhile, around three quarters of Scottish Green list votes came from SNP constituency voters, as did around four in five Alba votes.

So it’s safe to say that, while alternative independence party voters might have their differences with the SNP, they’re generally not averse to keeping the party in government if there no other pro-independence options. However, most SNP list votes are “wasted” because the number of local constituencies won is taken into account when regional seats are allocated. Since the SNP sweep most single-member seats, pro-independence voters looking to maximise the movement’s representation are generally better off voting for another party on the list. To help us explore this, we asked respondents why they voted for the parties they did. We explored the open text responses to this question in a previous post. But we also gave respondents closed lists of options for each of their votes, asking them to select the option which “comes closest” to their reasoning.

These are graphed below, with three out of eight original categories – candidate-specific reasons, preferred party not standing and other – amalgamated into a single “Other” category. Two categories – tactical vote against a party and preferred party unable to win – are amalgamated into a single “Tactical” category. The “Habit” category represents those who chose “I always vote for this party” (this obviously does not apply to new parties like Alba).

When asked to choose a reason for their list vote, 62% of Scottish Green voters said that “the party has the best policies”. This was by far the highest total of any party, the total number across all respondents being 38%. And, by contrast, just 10% of these voters said the choice was primarily a tactical one. It would be fair to conclude from this that the Scottish Greens have a loyal base of supporters who vote for the party on the list because they are ideologically aligned. Scottish Green voters are mostly true believers rather than SNP partisans lending a vote for tactical reasons.

For comparison, 39% of SNP list voters selected the best policies option, while around a quarter apiece selected “I always vote this way” and “this party has the best leader”. The party were far ahead of the other four main parties in the number selecting this latter option, demonstrating the advantages conferred by Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. Meanwhile, the small number of Alba voters in the sample were roughly evenly split between four options: best policies, best leader, tactical vote and “other reasons”. This mixture suggests the party struggled to find a unique hook that would help it appeal to mainstream independence supporters. Of course, Salmond himself may have been a problem in this regard…

Leaders

The plot below shows how voters of each party rated pro-independence party leaders on average before the election. The plotted values are means on a 0-10 scale. Readers may be aware that the Scottish Greens have two co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. However, we only asked about Slater in the second wave of the survey after the election, an occasion when we didn’t ask about Salmond or Harvie, and half of those respondents didn’t have an opinion about her. As such, we only plot the three pro-indy leaders we asked about in the first wave.

Unsurprisingly, SNP list voters very strongly approve of Sturgeon. They are more lukewarm on Harvie but dislike Salmond a great deal. Following the sexual assault allegations against Salmond and his protracted political battle with Sturgeon in their aftermath, there seems to be little residual goodwill to the party’s former leader among its current voters. Scottish Green voters are also extremely negative about Salmond. It is highly likely that this distaste for the Alba leader among most pro-independence voters played a significant role in the party’s poor performance at the polls. Even Alba voters are somewhat less-favourably-disposed to Salmond than SNP and Scottish Green voters are to their own leaders. Looking at Yes supporters as a whole, Salmond receives an average score of 2, and 80% rate him beneath the scale midpoint.

Turning to other leaders, Scottish Green voters rate Sturgeon slightly higher than their own co-leader on average – though the margin is very slim, and both are well-liked. Alba voters are quite negative about Harvie and quite mixed on Sturgeon. If anything it is surprising that Alba voters are not more negative about Sturgeon – looking at their responses in more detail, around half rated her an 8, 9 or 10. It suggests that the party was, to some extent, able to reach beyond the vitriolic “cybernat” circles where she is widely disliked. However, their appeal was limited to the relatively small number of Scots who were at least able to tolerate Salmond’s involvement.

To delve deeper on the Salmond issue, we also asked half of our sample a specific question about who they thought was most to blame for “the situation” around the inquiry into the Scottish Governments handling of sexual assault complaints against the former First Minister, offering options such as the Scottish Government and the news media in addition to Salmond and Sturgeon themselves. While the small subsample of Alba voters were obviously much less likely to blame Salmond than others (2 of 31 respondents), he was blamed by 59% of both SNP and Scottish Green voters. Sturgeon was selected by fewer than 2% of either group. Indeed, the major party voters most likely to point the finger at Sturgeon were the Conservatives, with 45% blaming her most vs. 14% blaming Salmond. His unpopularity among voters of mainstream pro-independence parties is impossible to separate from the scandal and the subsequent political bunfight with Sturgeon.

So while there may be scope for an staunchly nationalist, anti-woke, pro-independence party to win seats in future, it is unlikely to be one led by Alex Salmond. On this evidence, the Alba experiment looks to have been one comeback too many for the man who delivered the Scottish Parliament’s first and only single-party majority for the SNP in 2011 and led the country into the historic 2014 referendum.

Whether Alba can improve its performance under different leadership is an open question. While Alba membership continued to grow following the election, the brand association with Salmond may prove difficult to shake even if he leaves the stage.

Attitudes

In Monday’s post, we pointed out that pro-union parties and voters are hampered by their divisions over Europe and other policy matters. While the Yes supporters are more united on non-independence issues, there has been plenty of rancour over policy disagreements within the wider movement, and we have already observed that the Scottish Greens attract support due to their policy platform. Might there be warning signs in this for the SNP? How much do alternative pro-indy voters differ from the nationalist mainstream?

Looking at where voters place themselves and the main parties on the left-right spectrum, the answer seems to be “not much”. The figure below shows mean values for how SNP, Green and Alba voters reported their own left-right position on an 11-point scale (where 0 is furthest left) and those of the main parties. We didn’t ask voters to place Alba due to space constraints.

All three groups are on average firmly to the left of centre, with Alba voters placing slightly to the left of SNP ones and Green voters unsurprisingly sitting a bit further left than that. SNP and Scottish Green voters also place themselves in close proximity to their parties, with the self- and party- averages for the Scottish Greens coming out at exactly the same value – perhaps again a reflection of how closely these voters align with the party’s policy platform. Interestingly, SNP voters on average view their own preferred party, the Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour as virtually indistinguishable on the left-right dimension, while Scottish Green voters place their own party a point or two to the left of the others. Alba voters fall between the SNP and Scottish Greens on self-placement, but place the pro-union parties slightly further to the right than these other groups.

So if pro-indy party voters are relatively close on the left-right spectrum, what really distinguishes them? The environment is an obvious dividing line for Scottish Green voters. We asked half of the sample where they would place themselves on a 0-10 scale where 0 means prioritising the environment and 10 means prioritising economic growth. Scottish Green list voters leaned substantially more toward the former than the latter compared to other voters, with a mean of 2.6 versus 4 for the SNP and 5.2 for Alba (again, with a small sub-sample of 25).

This is not the only issue which sets Scottish Green voters apart, however. We administered a time-honoured question battery in which respondents are asked to indicate agreement on a five-point scale with a five statements such as “For some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence” and “Schools should teach young children to obey authority”. Political scientists refer to these as “authoritarian” values, versus “liberal” or “libertarian” ones. We created a 20-point scale from the five questions and graph the means for parties’ list voters.

While there is a great deal of variation across the scale for supporters of all parties, Scottish Green voters are on average significantly more libertarian-leaning than voters of other parties. SNP list voters are on a par with those of Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems. Conservative voters are more authoritarian than other groups. Meanwhile, Alba voters are the second most-libertarian group, their average sitting between the supporters of the centre-left parties and the Scottish Greens.

We observe a similar pattern for other attitudes along the socio-cultural dimension. For example, when asked to indicate agreement or disagreement with the statement that “Immigration undermines Scotland’s cultural life”, 65% of SNP voters disagreed, 88% of Scottish Green voters disagreed (with 57% strongly disagreeing) and 70% of Alba voters disagreed. While again we should be careful about making strong generalisations, the foundational ideological beliefs of Alba voters do not appear to differ enormously from those of the other pro-indy parties.

Other than attitudes to Salmond, what sets Alba voters apart? The graph below shows the breakdown of how each party’s list voters responded to a question on their preferred timing for a second independence referendum. The SNP government have suggested a timeline of approximately two-and-a-half years, giving time for post-pandemic normality to resume, and a plurality of the party’s list voters are on board with that. Most of the rest either want the referendum sooner or in the second half of this parliament.

Scottish Green voters are in less of a hurry, with fewer than 10% of these respondents clamouring for an immediate vote and a higher number happy to wait until later in the term. However, the SNP timetable remains the most popular option. Alba supporters are the ones who stand out here, with a plurality in favour of a holding a referendum as quickly as possible. The party clearly found some support among more impatient independence supporters. The SNP will be relieved, however, to find out that these individuals do not represent a substantial overall share of pro-independence Scots.

Demographics and Behaviours

Finally, we turn to what might account for these differences between the pro-indy parties’ support bases. While more detailed analysis will come, we have identified three important distinguishing features: age, education and media consumption.

Shortly after the election, the New Statesman published a fascinating piece by Rory Scothorne contemplating the performance and prospects of the Scottish Greens. In it, Scothorne reported that one of the party’s MSPs, Ross Greer, “predicts that the forthcoming Scottish Election Study will show the party coming second among under-25s in a country where all over-16s can vote”.

Unfortunately, due to the over-representation of Scottish Green voters in our sample, it is difficult to say exactly exactly where they place among some age groups. However, it is evident that they enjoy a great deal of support from younger voters. The graph below shows the list vote shares for five parties by broad age group. The Scottish Greens do very well among under-30s, and it is likely that even accounting for the skew in the sample they finish second among this group ahead of Labour. Their demographic profile is the reverse of the Conservatives’, who rely heavily on older voters, taking more than 60% of list votes among the over-70s. The SNP are most popular among the young and middle-aged, but their vote share does not drop so dramatically as age increases. The median age for pro-independence party list voters is 52 for the SNP, 43 for the Scottish Greens and 58 for Alba.

Education level, a key explanation for the Leave/Remain split on EU membership and indeed political polarisation all over the world, is also informative here. While the Yes/No divide largely cuts across educational attainment – polarisation in Scotland is driven more by identity than the sociodemographic factors observed in England or the United States – it distinguishes supporters of the Scottish Greens (and the Liberal Democrats) from voters of other parties. University graduates comprise more then 40% of the Scottish Green list voters, compared to just over 20% for the SNP (again, Alba’s small subsample falls between these two parties). The Scottish Greens, evidently, are emerging as the party of Scotland’s socially liberal graduates.

While there is a great deal of individual and attitudinal crossover with the SNP – most Scottish Green supporters vote for that party too and rate Nicola Sturgeon highly – the party has a very clear profile in line with that of green and socially liberal parties in other parts of the world. While most independence voters seem to stick with the SNP through thick and thin, there may come a point at which Sturgeon has to take action which divides the more socially conservative elements of the SNP base and the socially liberal Green list voters the party can currently largely take for granted at constituency level.

The final thing that distinguishes both Scottish Green and Alba voters from SNP list voters is social media use. The graph below shows the proportion of each party’s list voters who reported being active users of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Nearly half of both Scottish Green and Alba respondents reported being active users of Twitter versus just over one third of SNP voters. SNP voters also had the highest share of active Facebook users and the lowest share of active YouTube watchers.

Survey respondents were also asked what their “main news source” was, and offered a selection of different options such as television, radio, news websites, social media and so on. Amalgamating these categories we observe a similar pattern, with 47% of SNP voters relying on online soruces compared to 69% for the Greens and 61% for Alba. SNP list voters demonstrate more conventional patterns of media consumption, whereas supporters of the other pro-indy parties are somewhat more likely to participate in platforms known for political content and the engagement of politically interested individuals. Indeed, looking at political interest itself, 78% of Alba voters reported being “Very interested” in the Holyrood election versus 64% for the Scottish Greens and 59% for the SNP.

Wrapping Up

We have looked exhaustively at the voting patterns, leadership evaluations, attitudes and demographics of pro-independence party list voters and can draw a few conclusions – with the usual caveats applying to Scottish Green over-representation and Alba voter numbers.

While their underlying political views are not too different, the 10% of voters who selected alternative pro-indy parties on the regional list ballot last month are more politically interested than those who stuck with the SNP. Scottish Green voters tend to be younger and are significantly more likely to be university educated, while the relatively small number of Alba voters were slightly older and much more online. Scottish Green voters selected that party because they identify closely with its policy platform, much moreso than supporters of any other party. Alba voters meanwhile, had a mixture of motivations.

The big attitudinal dividing lines seem to be the environment and social liberalism for Scottish Green voters and support for Alex Salmond and the prioritisation of independence for Alba voters. A nontrivial number of SNP and Green supporters would like to hold another referendum before the SNP leadership’s preferred timeframe, so there is possibly scope for a party with a more assertive brand of nationalism to make headway – it just won’t be one under Salmond’s leadership. It certainly seems that the online activists who convinced themselves his Alba Party was a viable political vehicle are operating in something of a bubble. On the other hand, Alba party voters do not necessarily fit the profile of the socially conservative “alt-nat” caricature.

Meanwhile, it seems likely that, as the share of graduates in the population increases, the Scottish Greens will continue to consolidate support. The SNP have not given these voters much to complain about in policy terms – however, there is certainly a risk of that in future. This may help the Scottish Greens hold the Scottish Government’s feet to the fire on environmental and social issues. That said, the average Green list voter is substantially more left-liberal than the average Scot. While it is unlikely these issues will override constitutional polarisation, these dynamics might be something to keep an eye on in the event that Scotland actually achieves independence.

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