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Scotland's leaders' debate and how proportional representation helps change politics

In a world of post-referendum and multi-party politics, leaders debates are about more than appealing to an imagined centre.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
30 March 2016
Scottish leaders_0.jpeg

The leaders after the debate: Kezia Dugdale and Patrick Harvie chat, Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson joke, Nicola Sturgeon consults her chief of staff. (Adam Ramsay, CC2.0)

They each had a different job to do.

At the Scottish election debate last night, the five party leaders* weren't fighting over swing voters in the same marginal seats. With the proportional election system, each of them had a different goal, and a different plan to deliver it. Each has a different electoral coalition to build or protect, and each faces threats – not just from the centre, but from all around.

This dynamic makes for much more interesting politics than the pre-Corbyn Westminster era, where triangulation to generally inoffensive centre ground was the tool of choice to attempt majorities in multifaceted seats. It's an effect which was perhaps most obvious when Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, was grilling Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie in the cross-examination section of the STV debate.

He asked Harvie about his past comments on the failures of bankers. Isn't he putting Scotland's banking sector at risk? Don't our poor bankers deserve a break? You wouldn't think that this is particularly populist stuff from a party keen to shake off its reputation from the coalition years as yellow Tories. So why did he choose to focus on bankers?

The clue was in the person the party had sent to represent them in the spin room: the always charming Alex Cole Hamilton, their perpetually-near-missing perma-candidate, who narrowly failed to get two different seats in the last two elections, but is still smiling. This time round, he's standing in Edinburgh West, the only constituency the party might plausibly gain in this election. And where do most of Scotland's bankers live? Edinburgh West.

We saw it in the narrow bridge Scottish Labour's newish leader Kezia Dugdale had to cross. On the one hand, she is well aware that many former Labour supporters voted ‘yes’ in the independence referendum, and are yet to forgive her party for its behaviour during the vote.

On the other hand, she is facing a serious competition for second place from Tory Ruth Davidson, who is trying to position herself as the only remaining staunch unionist, keeper of the faith and defender of the realm. Or something. Famously, Scottish Labour had come to rely to an extent on wealthy unionists, and a popular Tory leader has a real chance of winning over those votes.

This is why Kez – when asked if she would respect an SNP mandate for a second referendum if they put one in their manifesto and got a majority – said that she wouldn't, to squeals of delight from SNP supporters, and presumably the frustration of some Yes voters who might have considered returning to her party in May.

At the same time, though, Dugdale is trying to rebuild her working-class base and win left-wing yes voters from the SNP. That’s why she’s proposing to raise taxes to mitigate the cuts passed down from Westminster.

That led to the extraordinary moment last night when Nicola Sturgeon said she was being criticised by Dugdale for not taxing enough and by Davidson for taxing too much, and so was probably getting it about right. From a party that used to slam Blairite triangulation, openly pitching itself to the right of Labour on tax is a bit of a change.

Sturgeon also has quite a predicament.

You might imagine that a party leader who crushed her opponents less than a year ago, and is sitting on a poll lead of more than 30% would be using the opportunity to try out some exciting new ideas or push some radical policies and move the country forward quickly.

But her aim – and that of her party – is still to win independence.

For that she doesn't just need the usual 40% support to command a consistent secure majority in a Westminster parliament.

She is attempting to gain the support of 50% of the population, which is what the party would need to win a future ‘yes’ vote. It’s leaving her more prone to small steps and less likely to do anything which might upset the apple cart.

Which leads, finally, to the other ‘yes’ supporting party represented at the debates: the Greens.

For Harvie, the aim is different. If the party can persuade the 12% most left-wing Scots to vote Green on the proportional regional list, the the party would grow its representation from the two to around ten MSPs.

And so Harvie’s impassioned case that “wealth is made by all of us” not just the rich and that higher taxes on the rich to tackle inequality are vital isn't just a principled position. It's through drawing such clear lines between themselves (or, to declare my interest, ourselves) and the other parties that Greens could make a breakthrough.

How will this Scottish election go?

Beyond the SNP's assured victory, it's hard to tell. Dugdale may manage to bridge the gap between middle-class unionists and working class yes voters, but she seems more likely to slip into the chasm between them. Lib Dems may have a small bounce-back from their 2011 low, but seem unlikely to set the heather alight. Greens have a huge opportunity, but could still be crushed by the SNP machine.

There is certainly, though a chance of a significant realignment across the rest of the parliament, with Tories replacing Labour as the second party, and Greens replacing Lib Dems as the fourth. And for the long-term dynamics of Scottish politics, that's probably as important as the change in government in 2007.

One under-discussed element of Scotland's democratic revival over recent years is the fact that the proportional representation system allows political debate to be multi-dimensional, it allows incumbents to be challenged by insurgents. And it seems to have replaced the pendulum of Big Ben, swinging back and forth between two increasingly tired parties, with a flow into an ever-changing future. And that makes it all much more dynamic.

So, will any of these changes happen? Or will we see something else entirely? In post-referendum Scotland, there's far too much churn to make that kind of prediction.

*UKIP's man, David Coburn, wasn't invited to this one. So, instead, he held his own conversation on Periscope, to which the good people of Scotland responded with a collective prank – telling him his mic wasn't working – to much hilarity. The spirit of the referendum isn't entirely dead.

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