Elected mayors in Scotland: is now the time for Aberdeen’s Andy Burnham?

The elections of May 2021 were dubbed as “super Thursday” due to the sheer number of votes that took place across the UK. In addition to the 129 MSPs elected in Scotland, Wales voted for a new Welsh parliament, London got a new assembly and thousands of local councillors were elected right across England. Voters in England also voted for new Police and Crime Commissioners as well as directly elected executive mayors.

Compared to the messy English system of local government (with mayors, unitary authorities, parish councils and mord), Scotland’s local government is slick and easy to understand. Next year Scottish voters will be going to the polls to vote for councillors in 32 local authorities using the Single Transferable Vote. There’s a lot wrong with Scottish local governance but complexity isn’t it.

Upgrade Holyrood supports more powers for local authorities and has welcomed proposals to improve the system. Ballot Box Scotland’s blueprint is a fascinating and coherent suggestion to revitalise local democracy and empower communities in all corners of Scotland. But what about the possibility of introducing directly elected executive mayors (DEEMs) like in the England? Could the introduction of mayors invigorate Scottish local government?

It’s an intriguing prospect. Andy Burnham, a possible future Labour leader, has filled his boots as Mayor of Greater Manchester and has become a clear, local champion for the area. A directly elected mayor in Aberdeen or Dundee could play a similar role, pulling the political gravity away from the dominant central belt. The ability to give a face to a local political force, as well as the creation of one clear accountable individual for local issues, would be the main advantage of any reform.

But a directly elected executive mayor would fundamentally alter the nature of local democracy in Scotland.

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports better representative democracy hence the support of Proportional Representation for Westminster elections, as well as better PR for Holyrood elections.

READ MORE: 12 Reasons to support Proportional Representation

Directly elected executive mayors would somewhat clash with these principles. Current council executives are derived from agreements made by parties who together make up a majority of seats. The executive is usually multi-party thanks to the Single Transferable Vote.

Directly elected executive mayors would put an incredible amount of power in the hands of one person (and party). Such mayors are very much in the tradition of majoritarian democracy which limits their ability to fairly represent all in government. Diversity of opinion is important and while an elected mayor could listen to other parties their input would be limited.

These are largely the same arguments against a directly elected executive president. Such roles are ultimately one-seat constituencies that consolidate power in far too concentrated a place.

That said, while there are significant risks with introducing such mayors, they could still be an effective democratic tool in Scottish local government.

Crucially, if such proposals were to be seriously considered by any future Scottish government, there are three principles that they should adhere to in order to retain good representative democracy and weaken risks associated with majoritarian structures of government.

The first is the principle of consent. Any proposals for directly elected executive mayors in say Edinburgh or Glasgow should be ratified by the people that the decision would affect. In practical terms this would amount to local referenda. As an aside there would be an intriguing dynamic if say Edinburgh voted for a directly executive elected mayor while Glasgow rejected such a proposal.

The second is the principle of ensuring widespread support for any successful mayor. In order to be as representative as possible, the most effective way to elect a single-member seat for a single-member institution (such as a local mayor or national president) is one that ensures the winner has majority support. While this does not ensure that every voice is represented in the executive role (which can only be done in multi-member positions), it does maximise representation and strengthens the legitimacy of any elected mayor.

What this means is that the voting system used to elect directly elected mayors should not be First Past the Post. The Home Secretary’s proposals to replace the Supplementary Vote with FPTP for mayoral elections is an absolute travesty that should be fiercely opposed. Elected mayors should have broad support – First Past the Post very clearly does not provide this. However, the Supplementary Vote is not much better. It ensures broader support than FPTP but tactical voting and speculation are embedded into it.

Any elections for DEEMs in Scotland should use a better system. One option would be a two-round system. Voters back their favourite candidate with an ‘X’ and if no candidate wins 50%+1 of the vote then all but the top two candidates advance to a second round. Voters then return to the polls at a second date to select their mayor. This system is used for French presidential elections, as well as for non-executive presidential elections around Europe. It ensures broad support, however, it has numerous problems. The first is that it’s time consuming and turnout can vary in different rounds – local government turnout is so low any way, this is probably not the best approach. The second fault of this system is that when multiple candidates do well enough in the first round, say 8 candidates each get around 10% of the vote. The top two could be ideologically very similar and both advance to the next round. This is a problem if the other six candidates have completely different views.

The best approach to electing any directly executive mayors is therefore an instant run-off system, which would be the Alternative Vote or STV with a district magnitude of one. Under this system, mayors will achieve broad support as voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The third principle is that local councils should not end up as glorified, sentient rubber stamps. That is to say that while DEEMs would render local councils solely legislative bodies, separating the executive from the legislature, they should be able to actively input into the mayor’s agenda and provide high levels of scrutiny. How this would work in practice is not my area of expertise but there are lessons to be learnt from countries around the world where executives are separately elected from the legislature.

Introducing directly elected executive mayors into Scottish democracy would drastically alter the nature of representative democracy in Scotland, which has trended away from majoritarianism. The broadly proportional Scottish Parliament and the 2007 switch to STV for local councils demonstrates this. That said, the suggestion is an intriguing one and could potentially enhance Scottish local democracy – but only with strict controls to ensure representative democracy and multiparty input.

Directly elected executive mayors are not actively supported by Ugrade Holyrood but the prospect is one to examine further.

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has voiced his support for electoral reform of the Scottish Parliament in an article for the Scotsman (published 2 June 2021).

Conservative support for a switch from First Past the Post to PR at Westminster is generally limited – as is Conservative support for a more proportional system at Holyrood. Murdo Fraser’s support for change is welcome although it is worth noting he has not clarified if he supports PR at Westminster. But based on his opposition to distorted electoral outcomes, he should really be consistent in his thinking and support PR at all levels.

Fraser’s arguments for reform are Holyrood are broadly in-keeping with the arguments for reform made by Upgrade Holyrood – albeit in much more party politically-charged language (not to mention the constitutional question).

That said, this is a welcome move from Fraser who is only in his position thanks to the proportional element of Scotland’s voting system.

The Additional Member System used for Holyrood elections is far more representative than FPTP used at Westminster. Under AMS, seats broadly reflect votes but it isn’t perfect.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

AMS has a number of flaws, many of which Murdo Fraser rightly highlights. These include the opportunity for parties to “game the list” (ultimately distorting overall representation), the ratio between constituency MSPs and regional MSPs, two classes of MSPs, limited voter choice and the lack of national proportionality.

There is an opportunity to build a coalition for change at Holyrood. But the question is what system would be best?

One alternative would be a moderate change: making AMS more closely resemble the system used in Germany by having levelling seats so that overall seats reflect regional vote shares. This could also incorporate an open-list element like in Bavaria.

Murdo Fraser posits this option:

“The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.”

Murdo Fraser MSP (2021)

However, this would merely be a sticking-plaster approach. Adopting the Single Transferable Vote or a full PR system (with multiple constituencies, levelling seats and open lists) would be better alternatives. Murdo Fraser even goes as far as saying there should be a fundamental review of the current arrangement, clearly highlighting the Single Transferable Vote as an alternative to AMS.

An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.

This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.

Murdo Fraser (2021)

Murdo Fraser’s intervention shows that there is an opportunity to upgrade the electoral system at Holyrood. Only the Scottish Lib Dems supported electoral reform (STV) in their 2021 manifesto although the SNP and the Greens do favour the system in general. There would be a major political challenge for the Scottish Conservatives if they backed STV at Holyrood (if they continue to defend FPTP at Westminster) but the movement for reform at Holyrood is growing.

Murdo Fraser will in time have to respond on his views about Westminster if he continues to push the line for change at Holyrood. If he comes out in favour of PR that’s great news for campaigners and if he doesn’t then it exposes a major hypocrisy that can be easily challenged.

Upgrading Scotland’s electoral system ahead of the 2026 election is a strong possibility. But the campaign for reform must begin now.

You can read more about the flaws of AMS and the alternatives here.

How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

The final Scottish Parliament results came in on Saturday night after a roller-coaster two-day count (please let’s never have that again!). The Scottish Parliament was created with a broadly proportional voting system to ensure that seats match votes but how proportional was the election?

The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures that the link between seats and votes is far more representative than Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP).

A good voting system should have a strong link between votes and seats. That a party can win a majority on 43% of the vote (2019) – let alone 35% of the vote (2005) – is a clear sign that First Past the Post fails to facilitate proper representative democracy. There are a number of ways to measure how representative an electoral system is but the most widely-known method is the Gallagher Index. There is no need to go in the maths behind it here but a low Gallagher Index score shows good proportionality while a higher one indicates bad proportionality.

The Gallagher Index scores for the previous Scottish elections, according to Electoral Reform Society calculations, are shown below.

1999: 8.5, 2003: 8.2, 2007: 9.1, 2011: 8.6, 2016: 6.2

On their own the Gallagher index scores do not how much but compared to UK election scores we can see that the Scottish Parliament is far fairer than First Past the Post used at Westminster. Take the 2015 election for example, which had the Conservatives win a majority on 37% of the vote and UKIP winning 13% of the vote but only one seat. The Gallagher score on that occasion was 15, with all other elections since 1974 having Gallagher indices with double digits.

The 2016 election was therefore the most proportional since the advent of devolution in 1999 but what about the most recent 2021 election? Upgrade Holyrood’s own 2021 Gallagher index calculations gets a figure of 7.8, making the 2021 election the second most proportional election since 1999. (Update: Ballot Box Scotland has a figure of 7.3 so I will need to revisit my calculations but either way we’re in the same rough area).

This can be seen from the performances of each party: SNP (regional vote share 40.3%, seat share 49.6%), Scottish Conservatives (23.5%, 24%), Scottish Labour (18%, 17.1%), Scottish Greens (8.1%, 6.2%) and the Scottish Lib Dems (5.1%, 3.1%). Overall, this is broadly proportional although the SNP outperform due to their constituency dominance.

As mentioned, the Additional Member System, despite being far more representative in terms of proportionality than First Past the Post, has its flaws. Alba’s plan to game the system, by explicitly calling on voters to vote SNP in constituencies and Alba on the list, shows one clear fault: the risk of so-called satellite parties standing in the regions with an explicit intention of artificially exaggerating the support of one party. Had a supermajority materialised, the Gallagher index would likely have rivalled UK election scores. The same goes with All for Unity which had a similar strategy for unionist voters.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws

The system may not have been successfully gamed by Alba on this occasion but the party has certainly exposed a key flaw of the system, highlighting the need for reform.

This is compounded by the fact that AMS is far from perfect in other aspects. The ratio of constituency to regional seats creates a constituency bias – a party could win a majority on constituency seats alone on less than half the vote (the SNP were three away from doing so in 2021). The version of AMS in Wales is even worse in this respect with 40 constituency seats and 20 regional ones. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour won 30 seats but on less than 40% of the vote.

Furthermore, there is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality. Measures to ensure regional proportionality accumulate to deliver broadly nationally proportional results, however, they stop short of explicitly doing so.

In addition to that, another problem of AMS is the continued existence of FPTP seats which encourages tactical voting. Tactical voting will always happen in any system to some degree, but as many people as possible should be able to vote for their first choice, not their least favourite option.

Lastly, voters have limited choice over candidates within different parties – the list component of AMS ensures better overall representation but the fact that it is closed means that voters get what parties present. There are other flaws too which can be read about here.

It cannot be said enough that AMS is an improvement on FPTP. The UK needs proroportional representation. AMS results are broadly proportional and constituents are represented by a diverse range of parties but that doesn’t mean there are not better alternatives.

A sticking plaster approach to improving on AMS would be to retain the current system and add levelling seats like in Germany to ensure that seats overall match the regional vote. This would improve proportionality but voters are unlikely to support more politicians. An open-list element could be added to the regional list which would ensure voter choice like on Bavaria. In theory this would be an excellent improvement but adding a potential third ballot risks complicating things.

A better alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which would involve multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates by order of preference. STV would deliver proportional outcomes while give voters a significant amount of power over candidates and parties. It is currently supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, as well as leading reform groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.

There is also the less talked about system of open-list PR with levelling seats, which is used in the likes of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, and is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland (who has been an invaluable resource during the 2021 election it must be said!). Under such a system there would be multi-member systems where voters choose one party but get to vote for candidates within that party. Once seats are distributed there would then be a mechanism to allocate additional seats to ensure proportional outcomes overall.

Overall, the 2021 Scottish election delivered a broadly proportional outcome, which should be commended. the fact that Westminster still uses First Past the Post is a travesty, putting us at odds with most democracies. That said we should learn still from the flaws exposed from the likes of Alba and All for Unity and reform Scotland’s voting system for the better.

‘Ending dual mandates’ paper released

Upgrade Holyrood’s paper on ending dual mandates in Scotland was published on 30 April 2021. The full report can be downloaded below.

The term “dual mandates” refers to the situation where one individual simultaneously holds two (usually elected) political roles. Since the advent of devolution in 1999 (and before that with local authority representatives), dual mandates have been a consequence of Scotland’s multi-layered government. A dual mandate holder in Scotland is anyone who simultaneously holds mandates for the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons, the House of Lords or local councils.

While the number of dual mandate holders has been limited since the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the commitment by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to hold a dual MSP-MP mandate if elected at the 2021 election puts the issue into the spotlight. Similarly, the intentions of Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to do the same have further brought the issue into mainstream political discourse. Many countries and pan-national organisations around the world have in recent years have addressed dual mandates with restrictions in various reforms.

Restrictions in Wales and Northern Ireland make Scotland the only devolved nation where MPs can also hold a second mandate in a devolved administration. The European Parliament banned dual mandates in 2002 and even France, which has a widespread culture of dual mandates, has introduced recent restrictions to address the issue.

The central problem with dual mandates is one of two connected parts. Firstly, an individual elected in one role to one legislative body with a specific set of responsibilities should give all their time and energy to that position. To do otherwise is unfair on constituents and may create conflicts of interest, and even opportunities for corruption.

Secondly, there are related practical considerations. In the case of MSPs, MPs and often Lords, these are full-time (not to mention well-paid) positions. Constituents deserve full-time representatives. It is impossible to expect an MSP-MP to commit the same amount of time and energy to each role that they would do for just one of the positions. Not to mention the challenges of being in Holyrood, Westminster, and one’s constituency. Dual mandates present an insurmountable logistical challenge.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

To ensure fair and efficient representation, dual mandates should be restricted in Scotland. Scotland could follow Wales and Northern Ireland (by banning dual mandates with some practical exceptions) or else introduce a ban on candidacy for existing representatives (like in Canada).

A simple ban on representatives taking their seats in a different legislative body while holding another mandate (like in the European Parliament) offers another approach. A model based on the approach taken in Northern Ireland would likely be the best approach for Scotland, but the decision will ultimately be up to legislators after hearing from stakeholders at all levels of governance in Scotland as well as empirical evidence and analyses from experts.

Whatever form they take, restrictions on dual mandates are necessary to build a fairer, efficient, and ultimately more representative Scottish democracy.

READ MORE: Patterns of dual mandates in Scotland since 1999

Polling suggests most Scots oppose dual mandates and second jobs for politicians

A new Panelbase poll suggests that most Scots oppose dual mandates, the practice where politicians hold more than one elected position.

Dual mandate holders have been minimal in recent years but Douglas Ross’ intention to remain an MP if he becomes an MSP in May has put the issue into the spotlight.

The findings come from a Panelbase poll commissioned by Scot Goes Pop conducted between 21 and 26 April.

The poll asked voters for their views on Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross’ intentions if he wins a seat at Holyrood. It found that 67% of Scots think the MP for Moray should give up at least one of his numerous positions if elected to the Scottish Parliament on 6 May.

Ross has explicitly committeed to holding a dual mandate as have former SNP now Alba MPs Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill who are standing for seats in Holyrood.

The Panelbase poll specifically asked about Ross but the findings therefore indicate that most Scots would favour banning the practice of dual mandates as well as restrictions on jobs in addition to being employed as an MP or MSP.

READ MORE: Patterns of dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament since 1999

Dual mandates were banned for Wales and Northern Ireland in 2014.

The practice is also banned in the European Parliament and other countries such as Canada. Even France, which has had a strong culture of dual mandates, has restricted the practice in recent years.

The case against dual mandates is strong as they are ultimately unfair on constituents who deserve full-time representatives. This is backed up by academic evidence which suggests that dual mandate holders are less productive than full-time committed representatives. Considering that MPs work more than a standard working week, this should not come as a surprise.

Dual mandates should be banned in the name of fair and efficient representation.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates for MSPs and MPs

8 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges to improve Scottish democracy

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April with a key campaign pledge of putting the recovery first.

The party served in coalition government with Scottish Labour after the first two Holyrood elections. Their second stint in coalition led to local government reform in the shape of the Single Transferable Vote replacing First Past the Post voting system for council elections. This was a big win for democracy campaigners that would not have been possible without the party.

In 2007 the Lib Dems stayed out of government as the SNP took charge and in 2011 they dropped to just five MSPs due to backlash against the Westminster coalition. Five years later, the party kept steady with five MSPs and are going into the election with the hope of building on that total.

Manifesto pledges

The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:

  • Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
  • Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
  • Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
  • Return to four-year parliamentary terms
  • Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and family friendly
  • Introduce a recall system for MSPs
  • Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
  • Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies

Analysis

The party’s manifesto commits to a number of pledges that chime with the main focuses of Upgrade Holyrood.

Replacing the Additional Member System with a fairer alternative is a welcome pledge as is a return to four-year parliamentary terms. The Scottish Lib Dems are the only main party with these pledges but the SNP and the Greens support STV in principle so electoral reform in that shape could be on the table. Although it is worth noting that such a change would require a two-thirds majority.

Using lessons learnt from the pandemic to make Holyrood more flexible is also welcome as it hints at the continuance of a hybrid parliament even when we return for normality. The Scottish Conservatives have also hinted at this in their manifesto. Such a change would be beneficial for constituents as well as the MSPs representing them.

Further citizens’ asemblies and a recall rule for MSPs are also welcome as they would empower citizens and improve accountability of the legislature.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat 2021 election manifesto can be viewed here.

6 Scottish Labour manifesto pledges on improving democracy

Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto.

Party overview

Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives on 6 May.

The party has lost seats at every single Scottish election since 1999 so reversing this trend would be a positive step for the party, which went from being Scotland’s dominant party in the 2007 Scottish General Election (and 2010 UK election) to battling it out with the Conservatives for second place in 2016 and 2021.

The party is now on its tenth permanent leader since devolution but polls suggest Anas Sarwar is cutting through. A win for Scottish Labour would be to take second place from Douglas Ross’ Scottish Conservatives.

Manifesto pledges on Scottish democracy

The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy in 2021 are to:

  • Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
  • Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
  • Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
  • Give Holyrood committees more powers
  • Further devolve powers to local government
  • Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens

Manifesto

The full Scottish Labour manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election can be accessed here.

SEE MORE: A comparison of the five main parties’ 2021 manifestos

Scottish Labour and electoral reform manifesto commitments in 2016

Scottish election manifestos: democratic reform pledges compared

Scotland’s five main political parties have unveiled their manifestos for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving Scottish representative democracy but what have each of the main political parties pledged to do on this issue?

Scottish Greens

The Greens were the first of the five main parties to release their manifesto, launching their plan for Scotland on Wednesday 14 April. The manifesto focuses on green issues, restructuring the economy and Scottish independence. It also has a section on “Local democracy and communities” with the party pledging to:

  • Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils (more powers and an overall restructuring)
  • Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions
  • Promote more diverse local representation
  • More local, democratic ownership
  • Additional participatory democracy with citizens assembly to be formalised at both local and national levels

The Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP are expected to remain the largest party at Holyrood and were second to launch their manifesto (Thursday 15 April 2021). The party is pledging to:

  • Create a Citizens’ Assembly for under 16s
  • Extend the entitlement to stand for election to all those entitled to vote
  • Introduce a Local Democracy Bill to further empower local communities and to ensure that decisions are most closest to those who they will impact the most

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April, hoping to build on the five MSPs they won in 2016. The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:

  • Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
  • Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
  • Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
  • Return to four-year parliamentary terms
  • Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and Family friendly
  • Introduce a recall system for MSPs
  • Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
  • Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies

Scottish Conservatives and Unionists

Scottish Conservatives’ launched their own manifesto on Monday 19 April. The proposal to introduce a recall rule is the most eye-catching of all. The party proposes to:

  • Introduce a recall rule for MSPs (Mackay’s law) – this would allow the public to re MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to parliament for over six months
  • Retain votes at 16 for all Scottish elections
  • Implement a cross-party commission on improving how the Scottish Parliament operates and to improve Scottish Government scrutiny
  • Explore how to modernise the working practices of the Scottish Parliament to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families
  • Cut the cabinet from 12 to six members and freeze MSP and ministerial pay across the next parliament
Douglas Ross MP (by David Woolfall • CC BY 3.0)

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto. Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives. The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy are to:

  • Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
  • Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
  • Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
  • Give Holyrood committees more powers
  • Further devolve powers to local government
  • Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens

Analysis

Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving representative democracy in Scotland. This blog supports a better voting system for the Scottish Parliament, an end to dual mandates and restrictions on second jobs for MSPs, a return to four-year parliamentary terms, more local democracy and a permanent hybrid parliament even after the pandemic ends, as well as more deliberative democracy where appropriate.

Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats commit to upgrading Scotland’s Additional Member System by replacing it with the Single Transferable Vote. However, it is worth noting that the Greens and the SNP do favour STV as a fairer alternative to AMS.

The Scottish Lib Dems are also the only party committing to a return to four-year parliamentary terms in order to improve frequent democratic accountability.

No parties have pledged to abolish dual mandates although as shown by dual mandate restrictions for Wales and Northern Ireland, this was done by the House of Commons highlighting that this would be a responsibility of Westminster. Therefore such a pledge would likely be out of the scope for manifestos for the Scottish Parliament. That said, the Scottish Lib Dems oppose dual mandates and the SNP’s Alyn Smith MP has proposed a bill on banning dual mandates from Westminster.

The parties all generally pledge to give more powers to local government or reform the way local government operates, which is most welcome, however, this varies from party to party.

Other welcome commitments include recall rules for MSPs in extreme cases (as proposed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), as well as more deliberative democracy in the form of citizens assemblies (the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP).

Overall, there are a range of welcome policy proposals from across the parties but whether they will be delivered remains to be seen.

12 reasons why the UK needs Proportional Representation now

First Past the Post flies in the face representative democracy. Westminster’s voting system needs an upgrade.

1. Better Representation overall

First Past the Post (FPTP) means that voters are not fairly represented in the British House of Commons. Under FPTP the share of seats won by a party does not accurately reflect the share of votes won. Proportional Representation would fix this problem by ensuring that seats match votes.

In 2019, the Conservatives won 44% of the vote but won 50% of the seats in the House of Commons. Compare this with the Liberal Democrats who won 7.4% of the vote resulting in just 3.9% of the seats, not to mention the Greens who won just one seat with 2.7% of the vote.

If these distortions don’t convince you that something is very wrong with FPTP, just look at Labour in 2005 who won a majority of seats with just 35% of the vote. The Conservatives did the same in 2015 with just 37% of the vote. And at that same election, UKIP won one MP with 12.6% of the vote while the Greens managed the same on 3.8%.

Proportional Representation is the name for a group of voting systems where the share of votes won by a party is fairly translated into the share of seats they get in parliament. If a form of PR had been used in 2019, the Conservatives, who won 44% of the vote, would have won around 44% of seats available.

All in all, PR is much fairer than FPTP, and adopting a PR system would correct the current skewed relationship between seats and votes.

2. A stronger constituency link

The main advantage of First Past the Post is supposedly the “constituency link” of one MP per seat as that allegedly improves the link between local issues and national government. However, under FPTP an MP only wins their seat by winning more votes than the next places candidate. By having just one representative from one party, voters can feel unrepresented in their constituency weakening the link between them and their MP.

Under any form of PR where constituents match local, “natural” boundaries, constituents would have multiple representatives, giving them more choice of who to go to with issues to represent them in parliament. With one MP per seat under FPTP, fewer constituents have a direct connection with their MP whereas a proportional system gives voters more choice of representatives to go to with issues between elections. If constituency boundaries take into account local geography, which is common in most democracies with PR, then having multiple representatives per seat will strengthen the coveted constituency link.

3. Less tactical voting

FPTP often forces voters to vote tactically. How often have you heard “X can’t beat Y here, vote for Z”? The current set-up promotes local two-horse races, giving people less of an incentive to vote for their most preferred party. Evidence from BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society suggests that around 3 in ten people planned on voting tactically in the 2019 General Elections.

Elections are an opportunity for constituents to put across their opinions and make their voice heard at the ballot box. First Past the Post distorts this process as thousands feel their only option is to vote for the candidate that will beat the party they like the least. As all votes count equally under PR, there is far less of an incentive to vote tactically and with more than one MP per constituency, voters don’t need to settle for their second, third or even fourth choice in an attempt to make their voice heard.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that no tactical voting exists under PR, especially hybrid systems like the Additional Member System in Scotland and Wales, but it certainly makes it significantly less of a factor.

4. No more electoral deserts

FPTP distorts how most people see the political landscape. Look at any electoral map of Scotland for example, and it looks like the SNP dominate every corner of the country. True, the SNP hold a significant amount of support in Scotland, but the dominance of yellow does not show the whole picture. The same goes for Labour red strongholds in the north and blue Conservative regions in the South East. The parties listed do extremely well in these areas but significant minority support does exist for other parties and single-member winner-take-all districts do not reflect this.

The 2015 UK General Election in Scotland is one of the most extreme examples of this. The SNP turned the map yellow, winning 56 of 59 (95% of) seats available, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems with one seat each. Yet the SNP only won 49.7% of the vote. This was a remarkable result but FPTP inflated the scale of their Scottish victory (and it is worth highlighting that even though FPTP helps the SNP, the party still supports PR).

Under PR, these electoral deserts would be a thing of the past. The SNP would have won around 50% of all Scottish seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have won around 24.3%, 14.9% and 7.5% of seats available respectively. Rather than the 1.7% of Scottish seats they each one.

5. An end to wrong-winner elections

Although infrequent, wrong-winner elections are a serious problem of FPTP. A wrong-winner election occurs when the party with the most votes overall doesn’t actually win the most seats. This happened in the UK in 1951 when Labour won the most votes but the Conservatives won a majority of seats. It happened again in February 1974 when the Conservatives won the most votes but were beaten on seats by Labour.

More recently, in Canada’s 2019 election Justin Trudeau’s Liberals secured the most seats but on fewer votes than the Conservatives. This ironically happened after Justin Trudeau went back on his promise to make 2015 the last Canadian election held under First Past the Post.

There is something very wrong with these outcomes. Even on its own terms, First Past the Post fails to work.

There is however a silver-lining here. Bear in mind that two wrong-winner elections in a row (1978 and 1981) brought electoral reform to the forefront of mainstream political discourse in New Zealand, paving the way for the eventual switch from FPTP to PR in 1996.

6. No more minority rule

First Past the Post means minority rule most of the time. With the exception of the coalition government of 2010 – 2015 (which had two parties), there hasn’t been a government formed with over 50% of the vote since before the Second World War. All single-party majority governments in the UK in modern times have been formed on a minority of the vote. The most recent Labour government was formed in 2005 with a majority of seats but just 35% of the vote.

Proportional Representation would mean a parliament that reflects how people vote, resulting in a coalition formed from parties that would mos likely have a combined share of the vote of over 50%. This would of course mean that parties would have to compromise but that’s just part of sensible, grown-up politics that recognises that most people don’t vote for one party. Such an outcome is far more representative than elected one-party states on minority vote shares.

SEE ALSO: 5 reasons to ban dual MSP-MP mandates

7. A more diverse parliament

Political philosophy and proposed policies come from all walks of life and a range of different parties. FPTP perpetuates the dominance of two large political parties while squeezing out smaller parties and often preventing new voices from getting a foothold in parliament. In some ways, FPTP facilitates a cartel between Labour and the Conservatives.

FPTP tends to result in two-party dominance whereas PR leads to multi-party politics. Switching to Proportional Representation would mean that all votes count, ultimately facilitating a parliament with a diverse range of parties. This is better for democracy as it ensures that all voices get a seat at the legislative table and allows for innovative, new ideas to break through into the mainstream. Put simply, PR would break up the cartel and create a parliament more diverse in terms of its political philosophy and policy propositions.

8. No more more unpredictable chaos

Under FPTP, the link between seats and votes is so skewed that an increase in X percentage points for one party will not result in the same increase in seats as an increase in X percentage points for another party. This makes FPTP a chaotic system.

Furthermore, increases in vote share can even mean a fall in the number of seats won. In 2017, the Scottish Conservatives increased their vote share by 5.5 percentage points. This translated into a loss of seats for the Conservatives and ultimately a loss of single-party majority government.

9. Far fewer wasted votes

First Past the Post has led to countless votes being wasted at the ballot box. Wasted votes are those votes that either go over and above the number required to elect MPs as well as votes that don’t elect any MPs. This hardly chimes with the values of a representative democracy and ultimately weakens the link between voters and representatives.

At the 2019 General Election, 45% were wasted by going to parties that did not win in each constituency according to Electoral Reform Society analysis, a staggering percentage that should not be ignored.

Proportional Representation would limit wastage significantly and ensure that all votes count equally.

10. Fewer safe seats

First Past the Post has resulted in Labour and the Conservatives holding seats with staggering majorities. Some seats haven’t changed hands in years, weakening voter power and resulting in limited campaigning in places where seats are unlikely to change hands. At the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Reform Society correctly predicted the outcome in 316 seats at the 2019 General Election due to them being classed as safe seats. Their analysis also found that 200 seats had not changed parties since the Second World War. This means that voters can feel powerless at the ballot box and results in parties focusing campaign resources on marginal seats rather than across the entire country.

Proportional Representation would result in multi-member constituencies (the exact nature of these would depend on the type of PR system used) meaning that safe seats would be limited and parties would need to campaign in all areas to pick up votes. This would strengthen democracy and empower voters.

Of course, some PR systems such as AMS used in Scotland, which retains a FPTP element (and a closed list system) would retain safe seats, but the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or an open list system would give voters powers over individual candidates and would significantly reduce safe seats.

11 A more consensus-based politics

Representative democracy should ultimately mean parliaments that reflect how people vote. Majority governments elected with a minority of the vote are not a realistic interpretation of the politics wanted by people. First Past the Post simply doesn’t create a climate of cooperation and consensus.

Proportional Representation is a recognition that cooperation between different political parties is a must to ensure accurate representation. It recognises the reality that no one party is unlikely ever to win a majority of votes and govern alone. Multi-party agreements are a more accurate interpretation of election results, even if a somewhat foreign concept to many in the UK used to single-party governance.

12. Proportional Representation is popular

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it should be supported. But widespread support for PR in the UK and the dominant usage of such systems abroad shows that the idea has significant merit, adding weight to the strong, principled arguments in favour of PR.

Polling consistently shows that most people in the UK support Proportional Representation over First Past the Post. This even often includes most Labour and Conservative voters, whose parties oppose any change away from FPTP. Furthermore, over 80% of OECD countries use some form of PR. Most of Europe also uses PR with only the UK and Belarus using FPTP (although it is worth noting that other countries such as France use a majoritarian system while other like Latvia used Mixed-Member Majoritarian which has only an element of PR).

The trend in recent years has been switching from majoritarian systems to PR.

Final thoughts

Switching from our outdated First Past the Post voting system to a form of Proportional Representation is the single most important democratic improvement that Westminster politics can make. PR will not solve all of society’s ills overnight but it will provide a much fairer platform from which policy decisions are ultimately made. Democracy isn’t perfect but a fair voting system strengthens the validity and accountability of democratic decisions made.

Under PR everyone will have a fair stake in the system. Make Votes Matter and other better democracy campaigners are making the case for PR in Westminster. Parliament reflecting how people vote is how representative democracy should work; let’s work together to ensure that upgrading to PR comes sooner rather than later.

SEE MORE: Upgrading UK politics

About Upgrade Holyrood: Launched in 2021, Upgrade Holyrood exists to promote discussion on improving Scotland’s representative democracy. Read more here.

Follow on Twitter @UpgradeHolyrood.

Patterns of dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament from 1999 – 2021

Ahead of the Upgrade Holyrood report on dual mandates set to be released later this month, below is an extract looking at the patterns of dual mandate holders in the Scottish Parliament.

The total number of dual mandates held by MSPs in each parliamentary session tells a story that largely reflects the changing political winds of the time. In raw numerical terms, dual mandates are not a dominating feature of Scottish politics but just because they aren’t on the political radar doesn’t mean they should not be addressed. MSPs with dual mandates have fluctuated since 1999 as illustrated in the below figures.

All data in this section is based on information compiled by the Scottish Parliament (2021) and covers MSPs with dual mandates.

Figure 1: MSP dual mandates per Scottish Parliamentary session since 1999
Source: Scottish Parliament

Session 1 (1999 – 2003)

The story of dual mandates at the parliament’s inception was determined by the significant number of MPs elected in 1997 seeking election to the Scottish Parliament at its first election in 1999. Of the 14 newly elected MSPs, most of whom were Labour or SNP, 11 fully committed to the Scottish Parliament by not standing for the UK Parliament in 2001. The other three were Labour’s Donald Dewar, Scotland’s initial first minister who died tragically in 2000, the SNP’s Alex Salmond MSP, who resigned as SNP leader and an MSP in 2001 (before rejoining the parliament in 2007), and Sam Galbraith, a Labour politician who resigned in 2001 for health reasons.

In addition to MSPs with additional House of Commons mandates, three members of the House of Lords were elected to Holyrood in 1999, one from each of the three main UK-wide parties. James Douglas-Hamilton (Conservative), David Steel (Liberal Democrats) and Mike Watson (Labour) all held both roles throughout their time in the Scottish Parliament.

Figure 2: Session One (1999 -2003) dual mandates by political party
Source: Scottish Parliament

Session 2 (2003 – 2007)

Just five MSPs held dual mandates between 2003 and 2007. The drop largely reflects the settled nature of the chamber, with a limited number of seats changing hands in 2003 meaning that new MSPs were less likely to have existing roles. Two of the MSPs in this session were members of the House of Lords (James Douglas-Hamilton and Mike Watson), who also had dual mandates in session 1.

The other three were existing councillors who either resigned at a local level following election to Holyrood in 2003 (Mike Pringle of the Liberal Democrats) or became MSPs halfway through the Holyrood term in 2005 (Labour’s Charlie Gordon and the Liberal Democrats’ Andrew Arbuckle). Both Charlie Gordon MSP and Andrew Arbuckle MSP stayed as councillors until the 2007 local elections, which were held the same day as the next Scottish General Election.

Figure 3: Session Two (2003 -2007) dual mandates by political party
Source: Scottish Parliament

Session 3 (2007 – 2011)

Five of the six MSPs who were also councillors in this session were SNP members, first elected to Holyrood at the 2007 election, as part of the party’s success at the time. Two resigned as councillors in 2009, one resigned as a councillor in August 2007 and one, Stefan Tymkewycz, stepped down as an MSP just three months into the job to concentrate on his role as an Edinburgh councillor. The other two councillors (the SNP’s Willie Coffey and the Lib Dem’s Jim Hume) held both positions throughout the session. There were also thee MSPs who were MPs, one being Alex Salmond who returned to Holyrood at the 2007 election and became first minister, and two Labour MPs (Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson) who won Westminster seats in 2010 and did not stand for re-election in 2011.

In addition, three MSPs (Labour’s George Foulkes and former First Minister Jack McConnell and the Lib Dem’s Nicol Stephen) were appointed to the House of Lords in Session 3. All three stepped down from Holyrood at the 2011 election.

Figure 4: Session Three (2007 – 2011) dual mandates by political party
Source: Scottish Parliament

Session 4 (2011 – 2016)

The high number of MSPs who were also councillors in Session 4 is largely down to the SNP’s success at the 2011 election where they secured an overall majority. All of these members either did not stand for re-election to council in 2012 or resigned before then. Three Labour councillors (Cara Hilton, Lesley Brennan and Jayne Baxter) were not initially elected in 2011 but moved up the list to replace colleagues who resigned in Session 4 and become MSPs themselves.

In addition, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives Annabel Goldie MSP was appointed to the House of Lords in Session 4 and Alex Salmond MSP became an MP once again at the 2015 election. Both held dual mandates throughout the rest of the fourth Scottish Parliamentary term.

Figure 5: Session Four (2011 – 2016) dual mandates by political party
Source: Scottish Parliament

Session 5 (2016 – 2021)

Dual mandates in session 5 were largely the result of the influx of new Conservative MSP’s when the party led by Ruth Davidson leapfrogged Labour to become the official opposition at Holyrood. This was the case for seven of the sixteen MSPs who were all councillors, all of whom stepped down from their local councils for the 2017 local elections. This also was the case for two Labour MSPs (Colin Smyth and Monica Lennon).

A further three SNP councillors were elected to Holyrood in 2016 but stood down as councillors throughout 2016. Two more, (the then Conservative’s Michelle Ballantyne and the Liberal Democrats’ Beatrice Wishart) stepped down as councillors soon after they joined Holyrood in the middle of the session via ascension on the list system and a constituency by-election respectively. In contrast, Tom Mason was a Conservative councillor throughout the session having joined the parliament in 2017 following Ross Thomson’s resignation.

Lastly, there were two MSPs who also held MP mandates. Ross Thomson and Douglas Ross were first elected to Holyrood in 2016 but were subsequently elected to Westminster in 2017 following which they quit as MSPs. Thomson’s departure led the appointment of Councillor Tom Mason as an MSP for the North East region. Mason remained MSP and Councillor despite criticism about his dual mandate role.

In July 2020, Douglas Ross declared his intention to stand for Holyrood ahead of his Scottish Conservative leadership launch with the commitment to holding a dual mandate for both parliaments. In the same week, former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was given a seat in the House of Lords, however, she said she would not take her place until the end of her mandate at Holyrood.

Figure 6: Session Five (2016 – 2021) dual mandates by political party
Source: Scottish Parliament

Summary

Overall, dual mandate patterns are largely representative of changing political winds such as the influx of Labour and SNP MSPs at the parliament’s inception, the surge in support for the SNP in 2007 and 2011 and the jump in representation of Scottish Conservatives in 2016.

Dual mandates in the 1999 – 2003 session are largely the result of Labour and SNP MPs taking up the new opportunity of the Scottish Parliament while the 2003 election says little due to limited change. However, dual mandates in subsequent sessions are largely symptomatic of the Scottish (and British) political career ladder. Local government is often viewed as a stepping-stone to Holyrood or Westminster hence the significant rise in MSP-councillors. There are also hints of a pattern of this with MPs becoming MSPs and vice versa; the career-ladder will depend on an individual’s position on the union, that is to say whether they view Holyrood or Westminster as the main point in Scottish politics.

Dual mandates are not a major issue and are often resolved within a year or two when new MSPs step down as councillors at subsequent local elections. This situation more closely resembles the German pattern of “transitory” dual mandates discussed previously rather than the French situation where the accumulation of mandates has been a widespread phenomenon (Navarro 2009).

However, despite not being a massive issue, discussed dual mandates are problematic as they divide the attention of elected representatives.

SEE ALSO: 5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

SEE ALSO: Ending dual mandates