Scott Macnab: How did SNP lose majority despite vote share rise?

Nicola Sturgeon's hopes of gaining a second majority for the SNP at Holyrood were effectively scuppered by the Scottish Parliament's complex electoral system.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: John Devlin

The SNP vote did actually go up in the first-past-the-post Westminster-style constituency part, where the Nationalists became the only party to top the one million votes mark since the onset of devolution in 1999. The SNP share of the vote in this part was up 1.1 per cent to 46.5 per cent from five years ago. But having won 59 of the 73 constituencies, the SNP only picked up 4 of the 56 regional seats.

They didn’t quite make the gains they needed to offset the in-built “correction” process in the D’Hondt system which is aimed at precluding any party from gaining a majority.

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This system sees the votes in the country’s eight regions for each party divided by the number of first-past-the-post seats it has won in that region plus one. The party emerging with the highest figure is then allocated the first additional seat. The exercise is repeated, with figures for each party being divided by the number of their directly elected seats plus the number of those already allocated under topping-up plus one.

The SNP did pick up seats from Labour across west and central Scotland in places like Glasgow Provan, Inverclyde, Coatbridge and Chryston, but this was offset by surprise losses elsewhere. Losses to the Liberal Democrats in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western were a blow, as were defeats to the Conservatives in Edinburgh Central and Aberdeenshire West.

It meant the SNP suffered in the top-up regional list where their support was down by 2.3 per cent from five years ago with 953,587 (41.7 per cent) votes for Ms Sturgeon’s party.

The D’Hondt system is aimed at ensuring the regional list MSPs are allocated to individual parties in a way that means they are proportionate to the share of votes secured.

In 2011, the system worked to the SNP’s advantage as the Nationalists won a more even spread of constituency seats across Scotland, with many by narrow margins. It meant the party still enjoyed a generous share of regional list MSPs and resulted in Alex Salmond claiming a majority of seats – even though his party did not gain a majority of the popular vote. It is now becoming clear this was a quirk in the system.

Five years on, the SNP’s vote has largely held up across Scotland, but the D’Hondt system worked more as intended by ensuring the regional MSPs were allocated in a way that better reflected the popular vote. It still means that the SNP came out better than they would have done under a straight proportional representation system, just not as well as they did in 2011.