Saturday, May 05, 2007

Welcome to Italy.

The Scottish Parliamentary Election turned out to be even more of a fiasco than I was expecting. The introduction of automated counting machines actually delayed the results by the better part of a day - which virtually guarantees that that system won't be used for the next general election.

The number of spoiled ballots was through the roof, presumably because people were confused by the multiple voting systems. Some of them are intentionally spoiled, of course. But 100,000 spoiled ballots is totally unacceptable. This is a small country. 100,000 spoiled ballots is a significant proportion of the vote. It would be bad enough at any time, but this was a particularly close election.

We also had seven counts suspended; several more delayed due to transport problems in gathering the votes; and one disrupted by a man with a golf club who smashed up a polling station and started tearing up ballots before the police arrived to subdue him. (And quite why we're using EZ-smash ballot boxes these days is an interesting question in itself. A money-saving measure, presumably.)

This is a fiasco, and a judicial investigation seems almost inevitable. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a rash of legal challenges, as well, especially from the minor parties who just missed out on getting list MSPs.

And the end result? SNP 47, Labour 46, Conservative 17, Lib Dem 16, Green 2, and Margo McDonald as an independent. Now, that means we're heading for either a minority government or a rainbow coalition, because you need 65 for a majority, and no two parties combined can achieve that. (Well, SNP/Labour could, but that's an obvious non-starter.)

The Conservatives have already said they won't enter a coalition with anyone, so the only viable option seems to be SNP/Lib Dem/Green - which makes 65, just. In practice, McDonald would probably vote with that coalition too.

But the SNP will be holding out for their beloved referendum on independence, while the Lib Dems have already said that it's a non-starter. Somebody is going to have to blink here - otherwise, it's going to be a chaotic minority government for the next few years. Realistically, the SNP should be the ones to move. Their democratic mandate for the referendum isn't spectacular. It's their core policy, but it's implacably opposed by everyone else. They're the largest individual party, sure, but not by much. And they only achieved around a third of the votes cast, on a 50% turnout. Polls have consistently shown that the SNP would lose this referendum if they actually called it, and that would put the question back on the shelf for decades to come - so politically, they're probably best to compromise and not have the vote at all.

If the SNP and the Lib Dems can't reach terms, then we have the awkward prospect of the Lib/Lab coalition (which would be the single largest block) trying to run the country as a minority government. I don't see that happening. It looks like, for the first time, we're going to have a completely different government in Scotland to the one in England, and that should really test the bounds of the devolution settlement. Up till now, the two governments have tended to co-operate. But there are provisions in the Scotland Act for them to sue one another, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that starts to happen over the next few years. Interesting times.