LE22: Party Preference Patterns

In yesterday’s piece, the first of three that will conclude Ballot Box Scotland’s coverage of May’s local elections, we took at a look at how likely voters were to use a given preference at all. Today continues the theme of preference use, but this time looking at how preferences moved between parties.

One of the key bits of data collected in my in-depth analysis of each ward (all available from links on this page, by the way) was where each party’s “second” preferences went. I’ve put “second” in inverted commas there as this discounted transfers to the same party – e.g. if someone voted Labour 1, Labour 2, Lib Dem 3, that counted as a Labour to Lib Dem second preference. That’s also why what looks like an only preference here is often a higher figure than in yesterday’s piece, as it’s actually an unused third or even fourth.

Whilst it would certainly be interesting to see how many people did a strict party line vote before moving on, in the general answer is “an overwhelming majority” and we already know that. Much more interesting then is how votes moved between parties, and we don’t get a natural sense of that from transfer rounds given votes can’t transfer to parties already elected or eliminated at later stages in the count.


Having painstakingly tallied these figures up for every ward, the obvious place then to start is the overall national figure. It’s important to bear in mind that this does not represent a “perfect” national picture, given how not every ward had the same options. It nonetheless gives a useful outline for the general patterns we can look at in more depth shortly.

Note as well that whilst this shows transfers from the main competing parties to Independents and other parties, it doesn’t show preferences from them. That’s because in cases where there were multiple such candidates, my data collation obviously treated all such candidates as completely separate. That is, after all, the point of being an Independent. However, it does mean I didn’t collate how Independents en bloc transferred to parties, and it would be very time consuming to go back and do so.

I’ll get on to some of the detail about most and least favoured transfer destinations in specific segments for each party, but from these national figures we can definitively draw a conclusion I’ve made a million times – though I may have collated their votes as such, voters themselves are not neat little numbers in spreadsheets that you can move easily between columns in ways that are predictable based on a political spectrum.

Voters are, always have been, and always will be a weird and confusing mix. Plenty of them are quite happy to move in ways that seem utterly senseless to the most Extremely Online partisans. Most notably in a Scottish context, voters have not self-sorted into constitutional blocs that they only move within rather than between. Certainly we can see that voters are generally more likely to move within their bloc, but plenty will move between blocs too.

This also has implications for other elections. The next time you see a close run First Past the Post result and are tempted to fume about “splitting the vote”, think back to this chart, and those that’ll come shortly – would enough voters actually have moved in the way you expect? If someone comes up 800 votes short and there were 1000 votes for a party you’d consider would obviously align with them, can you actually be sure the necessary 80%+ of votes would have shifted their way?

Of course, the national story is only one way of looking at this. We can tweak the data in a number of ways to try and get a better sense of things overall. All of these measures nonetheless have some degree of imperfection, as the only way to get a perfect figure would be if every ward had the same options on the ballot.

National: Same as the above chart, provided for context.

Where Competing: Preferences only where the two parties in question were directly competing. This line will not sum to 100%, given the different patterns of contesting, which is the imperfection in this measure. As it’s not comparing the same set of wards for each party, it also lacks the “Only Pref” segment.

Holyrood 5 Wards: Preferences only in the 175 wards contested by all of the Holyrood parties. The imperfection here is that city wards are over-represented as a proportion of votes here, given there’s only one ward in the four big cities that didn’t have all five parties.

Holyrood 5 + Alba Wards: Preferences only in the 72 wards contested by all of the Holyrood parties plus Alba. Again, this is imperfect, because it represents only a minority of votes cast.

I’ll also be looking at the Cross-Constitutional Balance of transfers, though this will only factor in the Holyrood 5 and Alba. Some of the very small other parties that contested the election fall clearly on one side or the other of the divide, but from a quick sweep it’s a pain to account for them, and they won’t shift figures too much!

SNP Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Green, 40.1%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Conservative, 2.5%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 43.8% G/A vs 25.3% L/C/LD (Pro-Independence 1.73 to 1)

As you’d perhaps expect given both constitutional and governing alignment, the Greens were easily the most popular next choice for SNP voters. When we get onto the Greens themselves it might look a bit lopsided, but when you account for spread of candidates and non-transfers the figures are roughly comparable. Remember, we know from yesterday’s piece that preference use drops off rapidly, and most SNP-contested wards had at least two candidates.

Labour are similarly pretty unchallenged for second most popular choice, though the figures for the first two measures are inflated by the inclusion of wards where there was no Green option available. The Lib Dems similarly tended to benefit when one or both of those two parties were absent. Although any number of transfers will shock hyper-partisans, SNP voters maintained a clear distaste for Conservatives, with very few second preferences going their way. Even the Family Party were very, very marginally more popular where they were in competition!

Returning to their side of the constitutional aisle, although SNP voters were still by far the most likely to transfer to Alba where available, that was almost five times less likely than a Green preference where both were available, and less than half as likely as a Labour preference. Even amongst the voters they were most strongly angling to pick up as primary voters, Alba couldn’t even pick up that many second preferences.

Labour Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Lib Dem, 22.6%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Alba, 2.4%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 36.5% C/LD vs 25.3% S/G/A (Pro-Union 1.31 to 1)

What defines Labour’s voters relative to everyone else how much less settled they were, with the Lib Dems emerging as the most favoured option. Although it’s roughly equivalent to the return when accounting for spread of candidates and non-transfers, it’s notable that Labour are second only to the Conservatives in their rate of non-transfers.

They are also the only one of the three major Pro-Union parties to have a Pro-Independence party as their next most popular second choice. Although not to a huge degree, the SNP were generally preferred over the Conservatives. Indeed, although the Greens were the least popular of the Holyrood 5 for Labour voters, the Conservative advantage isn’t much different to their own disadvantage to the SNP. Alba, as will be a running theme from here on out, did not generally benefit from this willingness to cross the constitutional divide.

This pattern of transfers may be reflective of the potentially sticky situation Scottish Labour find themselves in, even with a bit of a recovery in May. They have a voter base that seems less constitutionally rigid than the other parties – something that could turn to their advantage if the discourse can shift from the constitution, but remain difficult if it doesn’t. That base also therefore has the potential to have a very large and very unhappy component regardless of which way they lean – towards the SNP or Conservatives – where cross-party working is required.

Conservative Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Lib Dem, 26.6%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Alba, 1.3%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 50.4% L/LD vs 6.2% S/G/A (Pro-Union 8.11 to 1)

In an almost opposite case to Labour, Conservative voters could not be clearer on who they don’t want to transfer to, and that’s the Pro-Independence parties. It’s unlikely to be news to anyone that their supporters have by far the strongest tendency to remain within their own constitutional camp. It’s still not an absolute refusal to do so though, which again emphasises that voter behaviour is complex! Where all parties are in competition, the Greens are very marginally more popular than the SNP are with Conservative voters, whilst Alba are unsurprisingly rock bottom.

Where things are more evenly balanced is between the Lib Dems and Labour, with the former narrowly coming out ahead where competing. Basically, Conservative voters overall are pretty happy to transfer to both parties, but the balance differs substantially between areas depending on who the stronger party is locally. So the Lib Dems benefit from the fact that some of the places the Conservatives are strongest are the places they have a presence and Labour have a very minimal one, like Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and the Borders. Labour then almost equalise because whilst the Conservatives are weaker in the Central Belt and have fewer votes to transfer there are more voters there, and those voters lean to Labour.

The other notable aspect of Conservative transfer patterns is that they have the lowest proportion of second preferences in the first place. It’s not a million miles more than for Labour or even the SNP, but they are out in front on this measure. That’s been a general tendency I’ve noticed over the years, and alongside comparatively low rates of return transfers, may be reflective of the Conservative’s position as the most rightwards of the major parties. Both for their own voters and for those transferring to them, transfers could be larger ideological leaps to make.

Lib Dem Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Labour, 25.2%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Alba, 1.5%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 47.8% L/C vs 23.2% S/G/A (Pro-Union 2.06 to 1)

Lib Dem voters, in common with Conservative, show a relatively even split between the other two Pro-Union parties. And similarly again, it largely tracks to where those parties are strongest – so your average Lib Dem voter in an urban area is much more likely to transfer to Labour than the Conservatives when both are available, but the Conservatives make up the ground with leads in more rural areas.

When it comes to going cross-constitutional, the Lib Dem’s voters have staked out their usual middle ground. They are much more likely to preference a Pro-Independence party than the Conservatives’ voters are, but somewhat less than Labour’s. Compared to Labour, they are also more likely to go for the Greens than they are the SNP or Alba – indeed, after the Conservatives the Lib Dems are the next least likely to have given Salmond’s outfit a second preference.

They’re also sat in the middle in terms of non-transferrable votes. More Lib Dem voters marked at least one further party preference than SNP, Labour or Conservative voters did, but substantially fewer than the Greens. That may partly be down to the fact that the Lib Dems were a lot less likely than the larger parties to stand multiple candidates, and thus for more of their voters a second party preference was also their overall second anyway.

Green Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): SNP, 50.4%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Alba, 1.7%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 51.6% S/A vs 34.2% L/C/LD (Pro-Independence 1.51 to 1)

The most striking things for Green preferences compared to the other major parties are the size of the SNP and Only Preference bars – and this is unlikely to be a coincidence. Their transfers to the SNP make them the only party to have an absolute majority of their voters transfer to any other party where available, but they are also the most likely of any party to mark later preferences in the first place.

Some of that will come down to the Greens only ever standing single candidates, but even then their voters did make above-average use of second preferences. Accounting for that, and the mutual SNP-Green transfer rate is roughly equivalent. Similarly to the SNP’s voter base, Greens were then clearly next most likely to go for Labour, whilst the Lib Dems do relatively well too.

What then differentiates them from the SNP, and puts them in line with the Pro-Union parties, is that Green voters barely even gave Alba the time of day. Even the Conservatives were a more popular next choice, albeit still a highly disfavoured one given their position at the opposite end of the political spectrum. In those wards with the Holyrood 5 and Alba present, a whopping 35 times as many Greens plumped for the SNP than Alba. 

Alba Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): SNP, 38.2%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Lib Dem, 5.0%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 45.1% S/G vs 24.1% L/C/LD (Pro-Independence 1.87 to 1)

Turning now to the first of our smaller, unrepresented, but still reasonably widely contested parties, it’s not going to be a shock that Alba voters were most likely to transfer to the SNP. What may be more surprising is how comparatively weak that is compared to the Green to SNP flow, and how many Alba voters just didn’t mark a second preference, substantially above the national average. Even accounting for that would still leave Alba to SNP transfers about 10% adrift of the mutual Green to SNP preferencing.

That combined with Labour featuring more strongly than Greens, who are over four times less popular than the SNP, in Alba’s second preferences means that although they still have the strongest tendency to remain within their bloc of the Pro-Independence parties, it’s still only roughly on a par with the Lib Dems going the other direction. Given the (frankly very silly) fulminating from their loudest Twitter supporters about how SNP list votes last year were “wasted” and “let Unionists in”, there’s something just a touch ironic about how many of their own voters were quite happy to transfer to those parties!

In fact, one particular quirk is that Alba voters were the most likely of the Pro-Independence parties to transfer to the Conservatives. It’s still a relatively small number overall, but it is an odd jump given these are the two parties most strident about their respective constitutional positions. Given that Alba were almost everyone else’s least favoured next preference, the Lib Dems might be tickled to narrowly win the prize of being the least liked in return.

Family Party Second Preferences

  • Most Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Conservative, 24.6%
  • Least Favoured Next Preference (Where Competing): Alba, 5.9%
  • Cross-Constitutional Balance (Holyrood 5 Wards): 50.1% L/C/LD vs 22.7% S/G/A (Pro-Union 2.21 to 1)

The very last party to look at are also the only party with a substantial contest rate to be neutral on the constitution. Nonetheless, their transfers actually end up the second most constitutionally consistent, with more than twice as many going to parties on the Pro-Union than Pro-Independence side. Given the party’s extremely socially conservative positioning, their most popular next choice being the capital-C Conservatives fits expectations.

The relative strength of preferences after that isn’t particularly easy to parse, however. The one possibility that occurs to me is that you’d expect the voter base for a socially conservative party to be on the older end, and we also know older voters are more likely to support the Union. This could mean that voters are then generally moving to what would be their “usual” preference, and that’s more likely to be a Pro-Union option. 

Alongside their failure to elect anyone, the Family Party have a couple of other parallels with Alba. Firstly there’s that tendency, significantly above the national average, not to have transferred at all despite only standing lone candidates. The other is having an oddly humorous transfer oddity, which in this case is that where both were competing, a not insignificant 10% of their voters shifted to the Greens. When it comes to the social policies that define the Family Party, the Greens sit firmly and vocally at the other end of the spectrum, so that’s certainly a bold transfer.

Nearly done...

The overall conclusion to draw from this is that voters are messy. They are really, really messy. It’s true that a lot of them do move predictably, but plenty of others zip along the political spectrum in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. And although the constitution may at times seem all-consuming, Scotland isn’t yet so divided that people find it unthinkable to bridge the gap between sides when they go out to vote.

Having wrapped up preferences, we’re now very close to the end of local election coverage overall. The very last piece, due out tomorrow, will ditch the charts and percentages for a range of colourful maps. If you’ve stuck with the coverage over the past few months, don’t miss this last little bit!

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