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Fluctuating Fortunes, but a Permanent Presence? Small Parties in Scotland

Published: 16 September 2020

Alistair Clark, Newcastle University, discusses small parties in Scotland since devolution for his chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics arguing that smaller parties will be a permanent presence in Scottish politics even if their fortunes vary. 

Scottish political history has seen a number of small organisations. Some of these are launched amid fanfare, such as the Highlands and Islands Alliance in 1999 or RISE in 2016, but fail to meet (normally unrealistic) expectations. Others such as the Scottish Greens prove more robust and long-lived, going on to have electoral, parliamentary and public policy impacts, and, in Robin Harper MSP, electing the first ever Green representative to any institution in the UK.

Small parties have had well-known figures as figureheads. Tommy Sheridan may have been eventually discredited for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), but he got considerable attention. But who remembers which footballing giant was associated with the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party (SSCUP)? None other than Caesar himself, Lisbon Lion Billy McNeill, Celtic great and, at one point during the 1980s, Aberdeen manager.

The chapter asks who these smaller parties are, what challenges they pose for party and electoral scholars, before considering their broader effects. The first part of the chapter begins with theoretical issues, asking how these parties can be classified and identified. It discusses different types of small parties, and asks if size is their defining characteristic, whether this means they are unlikely to have much influence.

The second part focuses on specific smaller parties that have had some success. These include the Greens, the SSP, SSCUP and, more recently, UKIP. This section also covers the Scottish Liberal Democrats. While the Liberal Democrats had considerable influence in the first two Scottish parliament terms, the party would nevertheless be classified as a small party by virtually all the measures used in comparative politics.

There is also brief discussion of the Scottish tradition of independent politics in local government, and the independents that have been elected to Holyrood – Dennis Canavan, Margo MacDonald, and Dr. Jean Turner.

The final part of the chapter discusses the place of smaller parties in the Scottish party system.

Explaining Success  

Why has Scotland been fertile ground since devolution for small parties? One answer is in the additional member electoral system (AMS) used for Scottish parliament elections. Small parties are unlikely to have constituency candidates elected. They primarily focus on the proportional regional lists and can be elected to represent that region with around 6-7% of the vote.

A further contributory factor is that traditional party loyalties have weakened considerably. This means that the two-tier AMS gives voters the opportunity to split their tickets – voting for one party in the constituency, another in the regional list. The 2011 Scottish election study estimated around 16.7% of respondents cast a vote for small parties, 7% explaining this as a tactical vote and 5% as being a second preference. The electoral system has changed the electoral opportunity structure and less loyal and ticket-splitting voters taking advantage of those opportunities are a key element in explaining small party success.

Small parties often push at the boundaries of political debate, bringing to the fore issues which are not represented by larger parties. Research suggests that parties drawing on a specific political tradition are more likely to have a lengthy lifespan than those which result from splits in other organisations or which do not draw on such embedded traditions. Thus, the Greens’ appeal based on the established environmental cleavage, coupled with left-wing social justice and pro-independence views has given them a degree of sustainability over the longer term. Similarly, and although much diminished since 2011, the Liberal Democrats continue to draw on the long tradition of Liberalism in parts of Scotland. By contrast, SSCUP had potential to appeal to an ageing electorate, but had an unclear profile that could not draw on such an historic political tradition, while the space for a party such as UKIP to develop in Scotland, where the political debate was very different to that of its heartlands in parts of England, was extremely limited.

Strategies and Prospects

In addition to raising new issues for debate and standing for election, there are three main strategies small parties can adopt to ensure some degree of influence if elected. They can form a coalition with a larger partner. They can offer support on an issue-by-issue basis, particularly on critical votes. Or they can seek to influence debate and legislation more generally. All of these have been evident in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats’ two coalitions with Labour between 1999-2007 saw the Liberal Democrats do well out of their participation in government, and, interestingly, provide contrary evidence to the idea that smaller coalition partners suffer politically and electorally from their coalition experience. The Greens have provided support for minority SNP administrations on numerous occasions, receiving concessions that have enabled budgets to be passed and voting for the investiture of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister in 2016. They have also voted with the SNP on issues around independence and section 30 orders.

From the very earliest days of the parliament, Robin Harper was able to raise the profile for environmental issues for the Greens thereby forcing other parties to also consider them, and Tommy Sheridan’s 2001 private members bill on warrant sales was a piece of significant legislation on debt collection in Scotland.          

What are the prospects for small parties in 2021? The Liberal Democrats and Greens will continue to draw on their established political traditions, and with geographically-rooted support, will continue to win seats. Most expectations have been around the potential for a new pro-independence organisation to put pressure on the SNP and, supposedly, maximise the pro-independence vote. Such a party would also be competing against the Greens who are also pro-independence. Strategically, some may see opportunities in the electoral system. But even mainstream parties with more experience of targeting fail to maximise their vote where it matters. With limited organisation and targeting experience, such a new party would almost inevitably fail to do so. It would be unlikely to reach the 6-7% threshold in regional lists, and is more likely to take votes from the SNP and Greens, potentially limiting their prospects in places.     

Small parties are important actors in Scottish politics. They had maximum visibility in the ‘rainbow parliament’ between 2003-2007, with 6 SSP and 7 Green MSPs. However, Holyrood has had small party, and independent, representation throughout its history. Circumstances in each election will vary. Consequently, small parties are likely to have fluctuating fortunes but continue to be a permanent presence in Scottish politics even post-2021.           
 

Dr. Alistair Clark is Reader in Politics at Newcastle University. His research has focused on small parties, party systems and party organisation in Scotland and elsewhere. He has written widely about electoral reform in Scottish local government, and is currently researching aspects of electoral integrity and conduct. He tweets at @ClarkAlistairJ     

'Smaller Parties' Was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press.

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Fluctuating Fortunes, but a Permanent Presence? Small Parties in Scotland