By Richard Wood
The Scottish Parliament’s democratic set-up is much more representative than Westminster’s own arrangement. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish local authorities use broadly proportionality systems to elect representatives, the First Minister is directly elected by MSPs and votes at Holyrood are cast with the push of a button, anchoring the institution in the 21st century.
Contrasted with Westminster, with its First Past the Post voting system and unelected House of Lords, Holyrood has many more democratic features than the UK Parliament. However, just because Scotland’s democratic framework is fairly good for democracy doesn’t mean we should ignore its faults and not champion improvements.
This is Upgrade Holyrood’s mission: to argue for improvements to Scottish democracy.
Here are five reforms to improve politics in Scotland.
1. Better Proportional Representation
When it comes to voting systems, there is no question that Holyrood’s Additional Member System is more representative than Westminster’s archaic First Past the Post arrangement.
AMS is broadly proportional and is designed to be so, unlike FPTP which distorts the link between seats and votes.
That all said, AMS has some significant faults and is far from perfect.
One of the main flaws of AMS is that voter choice is limited. On the constituency ballot, voters can only choose one candidate (and from one party), and on the list ballot, voters have no influence over the ordering of candidates on the party list they select. This ultimately limits voter choice.
In addition, these two types of MSPs create a default two-class system of MSPs. In a country so used to single-member representatives, this still unfortunately creates the perception that one’s FPTP MSP is one’s main MSP.
Furthermore, the system is only broadly proportional as AMS’ proportionality mechanisms only ensure regional proportionality not national proportionality. This is also exacerbated by the fact that there is no direct mechanism ensuring that overall seats match regional list votes (which is the proportional element of the system). The dominance of constituency seats further skews this relationship and even allows the possibility for a party to win a majority on constituency seats alone – even if they don’t win a majority of votes.
Lastly, there is the possibility for parties to game the system by exploiting when one party dominates constituency seats and making a direct pitch for their votes on the regional ballot. This was attempted by the Alba Party in the 2021 election although the attempt ultimately failed.
So what’s the solution?
There a number of options to reform the system. A sticking-plaster approach would be to add levelling seats so that the overall proportional of regional votes cast matches the total of overall seats done. This would improve proportionality and is the approach taken in German. Furthermore, the closed party list could be opened up to improve voter choice (as seen in Bavaria).
Alternatively, Holyrood could adopt the Single Transferable Vote, which would improve voter power, ensure proportionality and end the two types of MSPs. The Scottish Lib Dems supported this in the 2021 election and the SNP and Scottish Greens have been recent supporters of this approach.
Lastly, Holyrood could instead replace AMS with an Open List PR system with levelling seats like in Denmark or Iceland. This would improve proportionality and voter choice and would be a fairer alternative to the status-quo. This alternative is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland.
2. Banning dual mandates
An elected representative holds a dual mandate when they are elected to two different legislatures. This means that MSPs who are also MPs, MSPs who are also councillors and MSPs who are also Lords (who are unelected but still count) hold dual mandates.
Dual mandates are ultimately unfair on constituents who deserve full-time representatives as being an MSP is a full-time time job, as is being an MP.
Holding a dual mandate is also impractical, especially when considering travel between parliaments and constituencies. On top of that, academic evidence suggests that dual mandate holders are less productive than single mandate holders, further highlighting the unfairness on constituents.
Scotland should follow the lead of Wales, Northern Ireland, the EU and Canada and ban dual mandates to improve Scottish democracy.
Related to this, another improvement would be to impose restrictions on MSPs from working additional jobs outside parliament.
READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates
3. A recall rule for MSPs
One aspect of representative democracy which Westminster has right and Holyrood has wrong is the process for recalling members who bring the parliament into disrepute. The Westminster set-up for this isn’t perfect and certainly needs fine-tuning, but the House of Commons’ procedures for removing law-breaking MPs is reasonably robust.
The Recall of MPs Act (2015) provides three circumstances where a recall petition can come into force. If any MP recieves a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted for providing false or misleading expenses claims, then a recall petition is triggered.
If this happens to an MP, their constituents will be able to sign a petition and if 10% of constituents sign in the set time period, then a by-election will be triggered. This provides a clear route for removing MSPs when necessary.
The Scottish Parliament should learn from Westminster and introduce a clear recall framework.
4. A permanent hybrid parliament
The pandemic has changed how democracy is done in Scotland. Westminster may have reverted to in-person voting and speaking in the chamber, but Scotland retains an element of physical-virtual hybrid parliamentary process.
This should be reviewed and retained in some form as a permanent feature. MSPs are often travelling for work and regularly have commitments in the constituency away from Edinburgh.
Allowing the continuation of an adapted hybrid parliament, with appropriate checks and balances, would make better use of MSPs’ time and turn Holyrood into a more inclusive environment.
A recent report from the Centenary Action Group has called for this at Westminster to ensure a more inclusive, compassionate parliament. Holyrood should take this into consideration when examining how it should work after the Covid-19 pandemic.
5. A return to four-year parliamentary terms
Fixed-term parliaments ensure a level playing field as all parties know when the next election is and can plan accordingly. That the UK Government plans on repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a democratic outrage.
The Scottish Parliament was set-up with four-year fixed parliamentary terms, however, the Scottish Government changed this to every five year to avoid clashes with UK Parliament elections.
While there was logic in that decision, extending the length of parliamentary terms ultimately weakens the accountability of MSPs and the Scottish Government.
There is no right answer for how far apart elections should be but twice a decade does not seem frequent enough.
Four-year terms would strike a sensible balance between infrequent elections (five-year terms) and constant campaigning (as seen in the USA with two-year terms).
The Scottish Parliament should recognise this revert to four-year fixed terms.