When covering elections and politics, it’s basically impossible to avoid using quite a lot of jargon that not everyone is necessarily familiar with. This page contains an explanation of some of the terms you’re most likely to encounter here on Ballot box Scotland.
Additional Member System - AMS
The Additional Member System, regularly abbreviated to AMS, is the system used for elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is a form of “mixed” electoral system which combines traditional single member First Past the Post constituencies with Regions elected by proportional list via the D’Hondt formula. This system is also used in Wales, and similar systems are used in New Zealand and Germany. A full explanation of how it works can be found on this dedicated page. It is intended to be partly proportional whilst still preserving the familiar aspects and local link of First Past the Post.
Alternative Vote - AV
The Alternative Vote, regularly abbreviated to AV, is an electoral system where a single member is elected through a transferable vote. Voters rank candidates in order of preference 1, 2, 3 etc, and candidates have to achieve 50% of the vote either on first preferences or transfers to win the seat. As it is a single member form of election, AV is not a proportional form of election. The UK held a referendum on adopting AV for UK Parliament elections in 2011, which resulted in a No vote. Australia remains the only country anywhere that regularly uses AV, in most of its lower houses.
Contrasted with a general election, a By-Election is an election to any representative body held for only part of its membership. For the UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament Constituencies, only one member will be elected in each by-election, though it is legally possible to hold multiple different by-elections on the same day. For Scottish Councils, multiple members can be elected in a single by-election if there are multiple vacancies, but this is rare. By-elections are not held for either Scottish Parliament Regions, as vacancies in list systems are filled by the next candidate on the list, or left vacant if there is no other candidate.
Centre or centrist describes a political position along the traditional left-right spectrum, in between either of those ends. At its simplest, parties which are described as being in the centre generally favour levels of government spending on/ownership of public services that lie in between their competitors on the left and right, and may seek a balance between workers rights and business regulation. Historically, the main expression of centrist politics has been Liberalism.
A Coalition is a government consisting of more than one party with cabinet level representation. Coalitions are more common under proportional systems, as in the Scottish Parliament where a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition governed from 1999-2007, and in many Scottish Councils. As the UK Parliament is elected via the non proportional FPTP system, coalitions are rare, with the only formal coalition since WWII being formed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from 2010-2015. In a coalition, all parties involved will have a share of positions in the Government, which will pursue a mix of policies from each party.
Confidence and Supply
Confidence and Supply is an agreement reached between a Government and another party, or parties, where those parties agree to vote in favour of the government remaining in office (Confidence) and for its budgets (Supply). A Government which is not able to maintain Confidence and Supply will fall. Although often seen as desirable, it is not necessary for a Minority Government to enter a formal Confidence and Supply arrangement in order to continue, so long as it can ensure support on a case-by-case basis. A recent Confidence and Supply arrangement was between the Conservatives and the DUP following the 2017 UK Election.
Cooperative Government / Cooperation Agreement
A new addition to the Scottish political lexicon, a Cooperation Agreement is a form of governing arrangement somewhere between Confidence and Supply and Coalition. Adapted from New Zealand, one of these was reached between the SNP and Greens following the 2021 election, resulting in what I have taken to referring to as the Cooperative Government. In this model, the smaller party only has “junior” Ministerial positions, rather than full Cabinet Secretary posts. It also includes areas of pre-stated disagreement, where the Government parties may vote differently.
A Constituency is a medium sized area, which elects a single person to parliament as its representative. Elections to the UK Parliament are entirely constituency based, with 59 MPs elected from constituencies in Scotland and 650 in total across the UK. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are only partly based on constituencies, with 73 MSPs elected from constituencies out of 129 in total. Scottish Parliament constituencies are further grouped into Regions. The boundaries for UK and Scottish Parliament constituencies can differ substantially.
A Council is the most local layer of government in Scotland. Councils deal with issues such as planning, licencing, waste collection, schools, social services and leisure. There are 32 councils in Scotland, ranging from Glasgow with hundreds of thousands of residents, to Orkney, with just over twenty thousand. This is a notably small number of Councils in a European context – Denmark, which has a similar population to Scotland, has the largest local councils on continent and yet it has 98.
A Councillor is a person who has been elected to represent a ward and its residents on a local Council. Scotland elects a total of 1227 councillors to its 32 councils. In formal settings, Councillor appears before the person’s name as in “Councillor Jane McBloggs”.
D’Hondt is a formula, named for the mathematician who developed it, for proportionally electing members to a representative body. Contrary to popular usage, it is not itself an electoral system! For each round of a count, each party’s votes are divided by one more than the number of seats they have won so far. The party with the highest number of votes after that division wins a seat, which is added to their total, and a new vote value recalculated for the next round.
D’Hondt is used for both the Scottish Parliament’s Regional List component and was previously used by itself for European Elections.
Devolution is the process through which the UK Parliament and Government agreed to pass certain responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament – as well as the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament (formerly National Assembly for Wales) and Northern Irish Assembly, all of which have full law-making powers, in varying fields. It may also refer to London and City Region governance in England, but this form of Devolution does not include legislative power.
Scottish Devolution was approved by referendum in 1997, and differs from Federalism primarily in that devolved powers can be amended, replaced or revoked at any time by the body that devolved them, in this case the UK Parliament.
An Electoral System is the method which is used to elect members of a representative body such as a parliament or council. Some systems are Proportional and some are non Proportional, or Majoritarian.
In STV elections, Elimination is what happens when there are seats still to be elected but no candidate has reached quota. The candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated and their votes transferred.
Federalism is a form of governance in which governing power is shared on an equal basis between a national, or Federal, Government and regional, or State, Governments. Countries like the United States, Germany, Australia, Kenya, Russia, India and Argentina are examples of Federations. Federalism is a stated aim of the Liberal Democrats and some members of Labour.
It differs from Devolution primarily in that the powers granted to States are constitutionally protected and cannot simply be modified at the whim of the Federal Government.
First Minister - FM
The First Minister is the head of the Scottish Government, and effectively acts as the devolved counterpart to the Prime Minister. The First Minister appoints the other Ministers in the Scottish Government, and is ultimately responsible for the policies and actions of that Government.
First Past the Post - FPTP
First Past the Post, regularly abbreviated to FPTP, is an electoral system where the candidate (or candidates) with the most votes are elected, even if that is only one vote more than the runner up. FPTP is used for both elections to the UK Parliament, where every member is elected as the sole representative of a constituency, and for the Scottish Parliament’s Constituency component, where a single member is elected to one of 73 constituencies.
FPTP can be used to elect multiple members and is used in some Councils in England in that way, but in Scotland all uses of FPTP are for a single member only. However it is used, FPTP is not a proportional form of election, and is therefore democratically dubious.
In a transferable electoral system such as STV or AV, a First Preference is the candidate or party that a voter marked with their number 1. It is common to report results as a number and percentage of first preferences, though first preferences alone do not determine who is elected. It follows that a Second Preference was the candidate marked number 2, a Third Preference 3, and so on.
Contrasted with a by-election, a General Election is strictly speaking an election to any representative body where every member is elected at the same time, but in Scotland and the UK the term by itself almost exclusively refers to a UK Parliament Election.
The term Government generally refers to two interlinked things – the organisation that carries out the day-to-day running of a given area (Council, Scotland or UK), according to the powers it has, and/or the political party or parties which are in charge of that organisation. In terms of the traditional three branches of governance, the Government is what is known as the Executive Branch.
Scotland has two bodies often referred to simply as “the Government”. The Scottish Government exercises the powers devolved to Scotland, whilst the UK Government exercises the remaining reserved powers. The Government is accountable to and elected by parliament (Scottish or UK, as appropriate), and thus ultimately to the electorate.
Holyrood is a common shorthand name for the Scottish Parliament, taken from the area of Edinburgh where it is located.
Left or left-wing describes a political position along the traditional left-right spectrum. At its simplest, parties which are described as being on the left generally favour relatively higher levels of government spending on/ownership of public services and taxation, as well as strong rights for workers. Historically, the main expression of left-wing politics has been Socialism.
List - Open or Closed
Lists are a proportional form of electoral system, used for the Scottish Parliament’s Regional component and formerly for European Parliament elections. Although common across Europe, in Scotland this system is exclusively encountered in a Closed List form. In Closed Lists, candidates are ranked in order by their party, and elected in that order. If a party wins three seats, the first three candidates on its list will be elected. Open Lists, which are common in other European countries, allow voters to specifically choose between candidates on the list.
Local Authority is an alternative legal term for Council.
The term Majority can be used in two ways. The first is to refer to a type of government where a single party has more seats than all the other parties combined – thus a Majority Government. Majority Governments are the norm for the UK, although there was a Coalition from 2010-2015 and a Minority since from 2017-2019, as non proportional systems like FPTP tend to produce majorities. PR more rarely results in a single party majority, though the Scottish Government was an SNP majority from 2011-2016.
The second is to describe a winning margin in FPTP elections – for example, if the winner has 35% of the vote and the runner up 31%, the winner will be described as having a 4% majority.
Member of the European Parliament - MEP
A Member of the European Parliament, regularly abbreviated to MEP, is a person who has been elected to represent their region or country in the European Parliament. Before Brexit, Scotland elected 6 MEPs. In formal settings, MEP appears after the person’s name as in “Ross Randomson MEP”.
Member of Parliament - MP
A Member of Parliament, regularly abbreviated to MP, is a person who has been elected to represent their constituency in the UK Parliament. Scotland elects 59 MPs. In formal settings, MP appears after the person’s name as in “Sunita Kaur MP”.
Member of the Scottish Parliament - MSP
A Member of the Scottish Parliament, regularly abbreviated to MSP, is a person who has been elected to represent either their constituency or region in the Scottish Parliament. Scotland elects 129 MSPs. In formal settings, MSP appears after the person’s name as in “Alex Doe MSP”.
A Minority Government is one where the party, or parties, forming the government have less seats than all the other parties combined. It therefore has to seek active support from opposition parties for everything it wants to pass in Parliament. Minority governments are typically considered in the UK to be unstable, and they will often seek Confidence and Supply arrangements with another party. The UK Government from 2017-2019 was a Conservative Minority with a Confidence and Supply arrangement with the DUP, whilst the Scottish Government has been an SNP minority since 2016, and before that between 2007-2011.
A Minority Government is one where the party, or parties, forming the government have less seats than all the other parties combined. A minority government therefore has to seek active support from opposition parties for everything it wants to pass in Parliament. Minority governments are typically considered in the UK to be unstable, and they will often seek Confidence and Supply arrangements with another party. The UK Government from 2017-2019 was a Conservative Minority with a Confidence and Supply arrangement with the DUP, whilst the Scottish Government has been an SNP minority since 2016, and before that between 2007-2011.
A party is said to be in Opposition if it doesn’t form part of the government. Despite the terminology, it isn’t necessarily the case that opposition parties oppose everything the government does. The degree and strength of opposition will depend on the issue and parties involved.
A political spectrum is a theoretical way of relating the political positions of different parties to one another. The most well-known political spectrum is the left-right spectrum, which has come to be based primarily on economic policies. Social policies, for example around feminism and LGBT rights, are often described in left-right terms as well, but it’s increasingly common to find right-wing individuals and parties who approach social issues in a way that might historically have been taken as left-wing, and vice versa. A given party’s position on a political spectrum is highly subjective, and policies which may be considered centrist in one location may be viewed as being radically left or right in another.
A President is, in its most literal meaning, someone who presides over something. In a UK context, people are most familiar with this as the title for the combined head of government and state of the United States. It’s also the most common name (or English translation) for a person in that role in countries using a Presidential system of governance. However, it can also be used solely for a head of state in a country that uses a parliamentary system but which does not have a monarchy.
In addition, President in its literal sense is widely used across Europe. For people in the UK most familiar with the term as used in the US, this notably caused much confusion (and mockery) here that the EU appeared to have three Presidents – of the Commission, Council, and Parliament. However, this merely signified the role these people play in presiding over their respective bodies.
The Presiding Officer is the MSP who is chosen by the Scottish Parliament to manage the day-to-day running of the Parliament, including enforcing the rules of parliament and acting as an impartial chair. In this role, they give up their party affiliation, and will not normally vote. They are assisted by two Deputy Presiding Officers, who do not have to give up their affiliation and otherwise act as ordinary MSPs when not chairing a meeting.
Prime Minister - PM
The Prime Minister is the head of the UK Government. The Prime Minister appoints the other Ministers in the UK Government, and is ultimately responsible for the policies and actions of that Government. More generally, Prime Minister is the most common name (or English translation) for the head of government in other countries using parliamentary systems
Proportional Representation - PR
Proportional Representation, regularly abbreviated to PR, is a broad description of a range of electoral systems which are intended to ensure that the share of seats each party wins to a representative body is roughly in line with their share of the votes. In an ideally proportional system, a party that wins 20% of the vote should win 20% of seats. PR isn’t a description of one system in particular, and encompasses both the AMS and STV systems used in Scotland, but not FPTP. It also doesn’t include AV, which means that contrary to some claims, the UK has never had a referendum on adopting a PR system.
A Provost, or in large cities Lord Provost, is the civic head of the local government. They do not run their local council but instead represent it at important civic functions, and often chair meetings of the council.
In STV elections, the Quota is the number of votes necessary to be elected.
A Region is a relatively large area, which elects multiple members to parliament as its representatives. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are partly based on regions, with 8 regions electing 56 out of the 129 seats in total. Each region consists of between 8 and 10 constituencies. Regions were also used for elections to the European Parliament, in which Scotland was a single region electing 6 seats, whilst the UK as a whole was made up of 12 regions electing 73 seats.
Right or right-wing describes a political position along the traditional left-right spectrum. At its simplest, parties which are described as being on the right generally favour relatively lower levels of government spending on/ownership of public services and taxation, as well as fewer regulations on business. Historically, the main expression of right-wing politics has been Conservatism.
The Scottish Parliament is Scotland’s devolved parliament, established in 1999 after a long process culminating in overwhelming support in a 1997 referendum. Initially responsible for issues such as education, healthcare, agriculture, the environment and policing, it has gained substantial additional powers over the years, including over taxation and some aspects of social security. The Scottish Government is drawn from the members of the Scottish Parliament.
The term Seat is a shorthand that can be used in one of two ways. The first way is to refer to people who have been elected – for example, the phrase “the Labour party won 5 seats on the council” would mean Labour had elected 5 councillors. The second is to refer to a constituency or ward – “the Glasgow North West seat” being a quicker way to say “the Glasgow North West constituency”.
Single Transferable Vote - STV
The Single Transferable Vote, regularly abbreviated to STV, is the system used for elections to Scottish Councils. Voters rank candidates in order of preference 1,2, 3 etc, and multiple candidates are elected to represent the ward. An STV count will usually go through a number of stages of transfers until enough candidates make quota. A full explanation can be found on the Councils page. STV isn’t a commonly used system, with only Ireland and Malta using it as their default system, plus (most) upper chambers in Australia. STV is a partly proportional system.
In STV elections, a Surplus is created when a candidate wins more votes than the quota necessary to be elected. Surplus votes are transferred to other candidates.
The defining feature of STV and AV elections, votes Transfer from one candidate to another when the candidate the vote is currently with is either eliminated or elected with a surplus.
The UK Parliament is the parliament of the UK as a whole, which retains ultimate responsibility for all aspects of governance across the UK. Following Devolution, a large number of the UK Parliament’s responsibilities have been passed to the Scottish Parliament. The powers which aren’t devolved are referred to as reserved, and relate to areas such as defence, foreign policy, the constitution and monetary policy. The UK Parliament consists of two Houses, the elected House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords. The UK Government draws from both houses, but most major offices including Prime Minister come from the Commons.
A Ward is a small area which elects multiple people to a local council as its representatives. Every council in Scotland consists of a number of wards, most of which elect between 3 and 4 councillors. Following changes to law, some may begin to elect as few as 1 or as many as 5 councillors.
Westminster is a common shorthand name for the UK Parliament and/or Government, taken from the area of London where they are located. The use of Westminster to refer to the UK Government as well as Parliament may be limited to a Scottish context – “Whitehall” is more likely to be encountered otherwise.