In 2007 the SNP came up with a clever election whistle for the Holyrood election. Rather than simply saying “Scottish National Party” on the regional ballot, voters would instead be offered “Alex Salmond as First Minister”.
This had two advantages: First, the party leader at the time was known to voters. The second reason was that beginning the party description with the letter “a” gave the SNP the prized top spot on the ballot.
They weren’t the first to try trading in a Weel-Kent frontman’s name. In 2003 the description of the SSP was “Scottish Socialist Party – Convenor Tommy Sheridan”.
While the Liberal Democrats registered the term “Sir Menzies Campbell’s Liberal Democrats” with the Electoral Commission, they never got around to using it.
As for the SNP, the tactic worked. Salmond and the SNP secured a one-seat lead over Labor and ousted Jack McConnell from Bute House.
The result came after what was probably the most chaotic election night in modern Scottish history.
This was partly because voters went to the polls on the same day for both the Scottish Parliament and all Scottish Council elections, partly because the new high-tech electronic tallying system was not working, and partly because of the new ballot paper for Parliament.
This meant 147,000 ballots were rejected because voters misunderstood them, counting had to be stopped due to technical problems and 5,000 postal ballots arrived in homes after Election Day.
A scathing report commissioned by the Electoral Commission highlighted the decision to allow parties to use non-party titles on the ballot to “sloganize” their campaigns.
At the time, it recommended changing the legislation to “minimise the possibility of confusing or misleading voters while allowing for a level playing field for all political parties”.
That didn’t happen, although there were some tweaks. From now on, party names had to appear in bold on the ballot papers for the regional elections, but descriptions/slogans were still allowed.
And in 2011, the SNP reinstated Alex Salmond as First Minister on the ballot.
This led David Cameron to compare him to a South American dictator.
“Alex Salmond is encouraging people to vote for a First Minister as if it were a presidential election. This is not a presidential system. Last time I checked it was a parliamentary system. El Presidente Salmondo needs to think again,” said the then-Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, five years later, Tory voters were urged to vote “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”.
With the general election just a year or so away (possibly just a decade or so if reports from the weekend are correct), there is renewed talk of exactly what should be on the ballot papers.
Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s political leader, has written to the party leadership and has suggested using the words “Yes to Independence” next to the party’s name.
The call comes after Humza Yousaf detailed his plans to use the next general election as a de facto referendum, with the SNP likely to win a majority of the seats, as a mandate to “seek negotiations with the UK Government on how we will bring democratic meaning to Scotland’s independence”.
“We have to send out a really strong message,” Giugliano told The Herald. “As strong a message as possible that this will be an independence election for us. It’s a choice, but independence will be the focus.”
While the Scottish general election requires the party name to appear on the ballot, the UK election can have either the party name and a description or just a description.
Giugliano’s intervention, he says, is about starting a conversation about what the party could do.
He says his proposed description would help the SNP go beyond traditional voters and supporters.
“So it’s a little bit about recognizing that if we’re going to support independence, we need to build a campaign that goes beyond the SNP.”
There are others in the independence movement who are calling for something similar. Vive Ecosse wants all pro-independence parties to use the phrase ‘Scotland should be independent’.
They say that any vote for any of these parties would be an instruction to voters to begin independence talks.
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“As the ballot clearly states, it cannot be said that voters do not know what they are voting for in an election. It bypasses the need for Westminster approval for a referendum and restores democracy to the Scottish people.”
The whole issue raises questions about the threshold for negotiations. Yousaf said he wanted to start talks after winning the majority of the seats. Can he do that if a majority of voters don’t tick the directive to say yes to independence?
Does it even matter? Will having independence literally on the ballot increase the likelihood that Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak will come to negotiations and agree to a second referendum?
The problem for pro-independence advocates is that that ballot, which asks voters to tick a “yes” or “no,” doesn’t seem any closer.
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