Where have all the small parties gone?

In previous Scottish Parliament elections, voters have been presented with rather lengthy regional ballots, full of independent and minor party candidacies. Although only a few of these have ever managed to win any seats, the very fact they stood at all will have subtly altered the results for other parties. The calculations for allocating regional list seats are susceptible to even small variances in vote shares, meaning it’s likely that – for example – a preponderance of right-wing minor parties may, in the past, have denied the Tories a seat or two, whilst a divided left will have seen Greens and the SSP go without.

For whatever reason, this year features the smallest number of such candidacies in the history of the parliament, as shown in the following table. For ease, I’m counting each list in each region as an individual candidacy – so, a party standing in all eight regions will be counted as eight candidacies. And for the purposes of this post, I’m taking “minor” parties to be any that aren’t being regularly picked up in polling. Obviously, the SNP, Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens feature in polling. So to do UKIP and RISE/SSP.

Minor Parties
(The colours are maybe distracting, but the plain white version made me sad.)

(Central’s large share in 1999 was down to Dennis Canavan, who stood on the list as well as – successfully – a constituency.)

Summed up across all eight regions, there are only 27 minor candidacies. That’s only just over half the previous low, which was 49 for the very first election in 1999. Solidarity accounts for eight of these, being the only party outside of the headliners to stand in every region. Another regular making a return to a ballot paper near you, with five regional slates, is the Scottish Christian Party.

Most notable by their absence we have the Socialist Labour Party, who have contested every Scottish Parliament election up until this point. They have in the past done reasonably well – winning 2.4% of the vote in 1999, including a remarkable 4.4% in the South of Scotland which put them within touching distance of a seat. Their website suggests an attempt to raise deposits, which evidently fell flat.

Another major absence is any form of Pensioner’s Party. Wikipedia listings are slightly confusing in this regard, as there seem to be approximately a million different formulations for the name of such parties, but the Scottish Senior Citizen’s Unity Party was the main one, winning a Central Scotland seat in the 2003-07 “Rainbow Parliament”.

There are also very few independents standing this time around. This is most obvious in Lothian, sadly, where the late Margo MacDonald was returned in three successive elections, having cultivated a strong personal vote. That makes Lothian one of the more unpredictable regions, as the 6.7% she achieved last time will go in all sorts of directions this time around – former Margo voters could make or break hopes for a Lib Dem return to the region, or the Greens clinching a second MSP.

Where on earth have they all gone? Is the post-referendum political environment in Scotland proving altogether too serious for people to feel they can waste their time and money on standing on fringe platforms? Were some of the usual suspects so galvanised by the referendum they’ve fallen in behind a big hitter? Did the Witchery Tour party just not fancy another go at getting a dandy highwayman into parliament?

What may perhaps prove most interesting about the dearth of minor candidacies is whether or not that does indeed translate appreciably into votes for major parties. Just how much of the vote for, say, the Rural Party or the Ban Bankers Bonuses Party in previous elections was a vote for those parties in and of themselves rather than from a disgruntled voter choosing to express their dissatisfaction with the major parties without actually spoiling their ballot?

Few voters may notice their absence, but with 6.4% of the national vote in 2011, that’s a fair chunk up for grabs, a chunk that could make the difference to more than a few candidates. Even by their absence, these wee parties could have a big impact.

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