The alliance includes all the UK’s main opposition parties, leading democracy organisations and key PR supports from right across the UK. Make Votes Matter’s goal is to replace First Past the Post with Proportional Representation for elections to the House of Commons.
Upgrade Holyrood primarily supports better democracy in Scotland – by arguing for an end to dual mandates, the introduction of a recall process for MSPs and better Proportional Representation at Holyrood. But Upgrade Holyrood also passionately supports the introduction of PR at Westminster.
“Adopting a system of Proportional Representation is the single-most important improvement we can make to democracy in the UK. We need to correct the distorted link between seats and votes so that voters are accurately represented and wasted votes are minimised.”
“The voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament has its flaws but it does deliver largely proportional results and is far more representative First Past the Post. Westminster has a lot to learn from the way Scottish Parliament elections are conducted.
“Without Proportional Representation at Holyrood, the SNP would unfairly dominate parliament due to their near monopoly of constituency seats. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives would have next to no representation, not to mention that both Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross owe their admittance to the Scottish Parliament to PR.”
“Westminster needs a major shake-up and I am proud that Upgrade Holyrood has joined the Alliance for Proportional Representation to help make that happen.”
More about Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance can be read here.
Imagine a future for Scotland’s democracy where the 99% of us who are usually locked out of political decision making are hardwired in. A future where there are multiple, local, national and international entry points for you to get involved, hear from experts, share your ideas and make change. This change isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s what’s required to meet the multiple complex and profound challenges that are facing us globally today. Challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and forced migration. For too long, democracy has been eroded by vested interests with the money to keep power in the hands of the few. That needs to change.
This is a future that Scotland has the opportunity to lead the way on, breaking new ground on how citizens are involved in decision making.
So, what does that look like?
Democratic innovations take multiple forms, from deliberative mini-publics through to participatory budgeting. In this article, we’ll be focusing on two related forms of deliberative democracy; one that you may be familiar with, citizens’ assemblies, and the second, a House of Citizen for Scotland.
First, let’s get to grips with the jargon. Deliberative democracy is where people come together to hear from multiple points of view. People are enabled to discuss issues and to find common ground to produce outcomes e.g., proposals/recommendations. There are many ways of doing deliberative democracy, and methods and tools are being developed all the time. One of the most notable examples that we have are citizens’ assemblies.
Broadly speaking, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative bunch of people, selected by lottery, to decide how we should live together. In Scotland we have had two national assemblies, the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of Scotland and the Climate Assembly. In both cases, around 100 people representing the diversity of Scotland were brought together to hear from experts, discuss amongst themselves, and draw up recommendations for the Scottish parliament. Citizens’ assemblies are powerful for many reasons, one of the most notable is their ability to reduce the powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes. This was recognised by the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland, where one of their key recommendations was to create a citizen-led second chamber in Scotland – a House of Citizens.
🤔What does a fair algorithm for selecting members of citizens' assemblies look like?
In Scotland we currently have a commitment from the SNP for an annualised citizens’ assembly, with a range of issues already identified as contenders for discussion over the coming years. This is a welcome step in the right direction, national citizens’ assemblies can break political deadlocks and allow citizens to listen to expertise and create solutions. If that’s the case you may be wondering why the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland called for a House of Citizens, and why is it of such value?
A House of Citizens
A House of Citizens would have four key characteristics:
Like a citizens’ assembly, members would represent the diversity from across Scotland. Hardwiring in the 99% of us usually locked out of political decision making
The members would serve 1-2 year terms. This prevents creating ‘just another political elite’, and reduces the influence of lobbying.
The people who understand the challenges faced by ordinary people are ordinary people. That’s why ordinary citizens as members of the House of Citizens would decide on topics for citizens’ assemblies across the country; this decentralises power and ensures local democracy is a cornerstone of the House of Citizens.
Members would select legislation to be scrutinised, so as to improve the quality of legislation that comes from Scottish parliament. Politicians can’t continue to mark their own homework, we need to improve the decisions that Scottish parliament takes that affects all of our lives.
Beyond the value already described, a House of Citizens hardwires deliberation into Scotland’s parliament and strengthens the civic muscle of Scotland. Imagine being able to go to your local pub, and be served by someone who had experience in the House of Citizens?
Of course, the House of Citizens doesn’t act in isolation – and reform of democracy needs to happen at a local, national and international level if we are to address the democratic crisis. But a House of Citizens is something that can begin to be put into action now, shaping the future of Scotland’s democracy as a global leader in citizen participation.
The full proposals for a Scottish House of Citizens – by the Sortition Foundation, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Common Weal and RSA – can be read here.
About the author
This is a guest post by Will Stringer, Campaign Coordinator for the Sortition Foundation, which advocates for deliberative democracy.Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Upgrade Holyrood.
Improving Scotland’s democracy is central to Upgrade Holyrood’s mission. Scotland needs better Proportional Representation, a recall rule, an end to dual mandates, and other changes that will ultimately better our country’s democratic design.
Both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Lib Dems supported a recall rule for MSPs that bring parliament into disrepute in their 2021 manifestos. The Conservatives detailed that this would include the right for constituents to recall MSPs if they stopped turning up for six months.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has since renewed his party’s plan, as reported by the BBC.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Ross said:
“The ex-SNP finance secretary, Derek Mackay, resigned in disgrace and was never seen in parliament again.
“Yet Scottish taxpayers were forced to continue to pay him £100,000.
“In no other job could someone pocket a six-figure salary while hiding at home. So why would we stand for it in the Scottish Parliament?”
The so-called Mackay’s Law is a welcome proposal and something all parties can and should get behind. That former Minister Derek Mackay was able to claim a salary and not show up for work for over a year is detrimental democratic practice. Voters should be empowered and represented, not diminished and ignored.
However, it is difficult to take the Scottish Conservative leader too seriously on this matter. There is a level of hypocrisy here as Douglas Ross is often absent from his role as an MSP. This is because he is also an MP, and therefore has to be in both Westminster and Holyrood.
He is of course not absent for six months spells, but by holding two roles he is not fully effectively representing his constituents.
Members of the Scottish Parliament are currently elected using the Additional Member System, which leads to broadly proportional results. This means that the proportion of seats won by each party roughly reflects the share of votes cast for that party.
This relationship is far superior to the distorted relationship between seats and votes in Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system.
However, AMS does has its flaws. The system is only proportional at the regional level and does not address the problems that follow when parties win more constituency seats than they should be entitled to as per the regional vote in a particular region. This skews overall proportionality. Further, party lists are closed, limiting voter choice, and there are always two types of MSP in practice – list and constituency. Lastly there are opportunities for parties to game the system such as Alba and All for Unity in 2021, which I wrote about ahead of the 2021 election for Politics.co.uk.
There are three main alternatives to AMS that would improve Scotland’s representation:
A moderated AMS where additional seats are added to address overhangs and to ensure seats match list votes overall (such as in Germany) alongside open lists (as seen in Bavaria.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.
More about these different systems can be read here.
The Liberal Democrats have long argued for Proportional Representation. The party explicitly favours the Single Transferable Voting system, which splits the country into multi-member constituencies (probably between five and seven members with some exceptions). Voters then rank candidates by order of preference. Candidates that reach the quota if first preferences are elected and surplus votes are transfered until all places are filled. This empowers voters and leads to proportional results – in can be modified like in Malta to ensure even more accurate proportionality.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long supported STV. While in government with Scottish Labour, they changed the local authority electoral system from First Past the Post. The party continues to argue for STV to replace AMS at Holyrood. The pledge was included in their 2021 manifesto – making them the only party to include a voting reform pledge in their most recent platform to the electorate.
The SNP support the general principle of Proportional Representation.
The party also tends to favour the Single Transferable Vote. They have called for a switch to STV PR in various manifestos over the years in line with this position, most recently in their 2019 General Election manifesto.
The Conservative party favours First Past the Post and is resistant to any moves away from this at the UK level. Seemingly just one Conservative MP goes against against party line by supporting PR – Derek Thomas, Member of Parliament for St. Ives.
In Scotland, the party does not have an official position on the voting system used at Holyrood although it is always worth highlighting that without it, they would have very limited representation at Holyrood without PR.
That said, there is some support for PR within Scottish Conservative ranks and even some support for reform to an even fairer system.
In June 2021, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser called for reform of Holyrood’s voting system. He has yet to address any hypocrisy if he still supports FPTP at Westminster, and while his support for reform of the Scottish Parliament is rooted in unionist/nationalist arguments, this is a positive sign.
He suggested the opening of AMS’ regional list component, like in Bavaria, but has also said that replacing the whole thing with STV would be another option.
The Scottish Conservatives as a whole are unlikely to support reform – due to awkward questions about their lack of support for PR at Westminster – but Murdo Fraser may have some sway when it comes to bringing a handful of Conservatives on board.
Labour set up the Scottish Parliament and came to an agreement for adopting the Additional Member System with other parties and stakeholders as part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This was in the late 90s when it is worth remembering that Labour went into the general election promising a referendum on Proportional Representation (which never materialised despite the Jenkins report that followed New Labour’s ascent to power).
The party seems to have no formal position on Holyrood’s voting system, but again there is a hypocrisy if they are happy with AMS at Holyrood while favouring FPTP at Westminster. Not to mention, like with the Conservatives, if the Scottish Parliament didn’t have a form of PR they would have next to no representation.
While the party is unlikely to formally support a change in voting system, at least while UK Labour remains favourable to First Past the Post, it is worth remembering that the party did implement AMS for the Scottish Parliament (and other devolved administrations) and were willing to compromise on the issue of council elections by agreeing to implement STV as part of their coalition with the Lib Dems.
While Scottish Labour has no position, there is definitely a softness towards reform within the party.
The magic number to change the voting system at Holyrood is 86. The Scotland Act sets out that any electoral system change requires a two-thirds majority, making this more challenging than a simple majority. The case for this high threshold makes sense: to change the rules of the game, there should be a broad consensus in favour of that change rather than just a basic majority.
Looking at where current support for different systems lies, the most likely new alternative system would be STV due to SNP and Lib Dem support, as well as former Green support. That said, there may also be support for minor reforms such as opening the list element, but any changes to AMS rather than switching to STV or Open List PR would likely be a sticking-plaster, leaving many questions unanswered.
However, in the current 2016 – 2021 parliament, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens still fall short of that crucial two-thirds majority. Even with Conservative Murdo Fraser added in, the numbers don’t add up.
That said, all is not lost. If there was a real drive for reform, Scottish Labour would probably want to be part of that conversation. They pioneered the Scottish Parliament and have shown willingness to work towards fair voting such as with local authorities while in government with the Lib Dems. Scottish Labour are definitely part of the road to reform.
Overall, the issue of electoral reform at Holyrood is less vital than switching to Proportional Representation at Westminser. That members of the UK Parliament and still elected by FPTP is unacceptable. Nonetheless, after 22 years of devolution we should be reviewing how it’s worked so far and crucially assess the voting system. AMS works reasonably well but improvements still can be made. There is not an immediate burning drive to replace AMS but those conversations are necessary. Just because Holyrood delivers better representation than Westminster, doesn’t mean we should not strive for better.
There is a route to reform and that is something we must build towards, especially as Holyrood approaches its 25th birthday.
Scottish democracy can be better. Let’s seize the opportunity ahead of 2026.
Germany votes for a new Bundestag on Sunday 26 September 2021, bringing an end to the Merkel era after sixteen years. The country uses a proportional voting system (Mixed-Member Proportional) which is very similar to Scotland’s Additional Member System, however, there are some clear differences.
The German system has its flaws, like Scotland’s, but it is significantly more representative than First Past the Post used at Westminster and earlier in the week in Canada.
Here’s how the German and Scottish systems compare.
The Scottish electoral system (AMS)
The Scottish Parliament has 129 seats in total. 73 of these are single-member districts where the candidate with the most vote wins, essentially First Past the Post. The other 56 are list seats designed to reduce the inherent disproportionality of the FPTP element. Voters get two ballots – one for each of these types of seats.
Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions with each region providing seven regional list MSPs, meaning that everyone in scotland has eight representatives.
The list seats in each region are distributed once all the constituency seats in that region are counted and are calculated via the D’Hondt method. However, crucial they also take into account the number of constituency seats won by each party in that region. This ensures broadly proportional outcomes overall. This mechanism ensures that regional votes match regional seats.
In practice this means that parties overrepresented in constituency seats (as in their seat share exceeds vote share) pick up fewer regional seats. The SNP do extremely well in constituency seats but other parties get their fair share in regional seats as seen in the 2021 Scottish election where the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives won most of their seats via the regional allocations.
The broad proportionality of AMS makes the system more representative that the appalling First Past the Post system used at Westminster and in Canada on Monday.
However, AMS does have a number of faults. These include the proportionality mechanism only ensuring regional not national broad proportionality, no addressing of overhang seats and limited voter power (party lists are completely closed). Other problems include the fact that parties could “game the system” due to two-vote divergence as well as the two classes of MSP that the system produces.
The German electoral system (MMP)
The German system is very similar but also has significant differences with Scotland’s.
Both Scottish AMS and German MMP combine FPTP with a compensatory element to ensure a level of proportionality. Although not perfect, they can be classed as forms of Proportional Representation.
But unlike Scotland, Germany does not have a fixed number of seats.
As in Scotland, German voters get two ballots, one for each element. 299 German seats are elected via FPTP (the CDU/CSU and SPD dominate these constituencies).There are also a further provisional 299 list seats but this number is usually larger.
Germans vote for their lists in each of the 16 states (like in the 8 Scottish regions). These seats are allocated accounting for constituency seats to ensure proportionality. However, the system has a further mechanism to ensure overall seats match overall votes in each state.
Parties often win more constituency seats that they are entitled to under a hypothetical distribution of list votes. Other parties are allocated additional seats to level this out and further seats are added to ensure that the party list vote matches seat distributions. This is done to ensure proportionality at both the state and national levels.
This means that the size of the Bundestag (German parliament) changes in size after each election. This has faced some criticism but it does ensure a high degree of proportionality. In contrast, Holyrood is fixed at 129 members.
There is also a 5% threshold for *most* parties to win list seats. This is not the case in Scotland but there is an unofficial threshold at around that mark due to there only being seven list seats to allocate in each region.
The main advantage Gemran MMP has over Scottish AMS is that extra commitment to proportionality. However, this has a major drawback as it can create incredibly large chambers. More politicians is not exactly popular with voters as a general rule. The outgoing Bundestag has 709 members in total (2017 to 2021).
The Bundestag also has other problems associated with AMS, notably the two types of member and closed party lists. The prospect of gaming the system is at least limited by additional seats allocated to ensure that party list votes match seats won by each party.
That all said, Germany’s commitment to proportionality is truly commendable.
Room for improvement in Scotland and Germany
Scotland’s AMS has done a reasonable job for 22 years but it definitely needs reform. Holyrood could learn from Germany and add levelling and overhang seats. This would be a significant improvement as it would improve proportionality and limit the possibility of gaming the system. We could also learn from the German state of Bavaria and introduce open lists for the regional vote component, strengthening voter power at the ballot box.
These could be positive steps forwards, however, they are arguably sticking plaster solutions.
Instead, Holyrood should learn from elsewhere and adopt a superior voting system to AMS. The Single Transferable Vote or Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats would improve representation and empower voters across the whole country.
You can sign the petition to improve Scotland’s broadly proportional but imperfect voting system here.
Scotland and Germany have similar voting systems which both ensure a strong element of proportionality. The extra commitment to proportionality in Germany is extremely commendable. Both systems have done well to improve representation but both have flaws and improvements can be made.
Sign the petition to upgrade Scotland’s voting system here.
On Monday 20 September Canadians went to the polls after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to turn his Liberal minority governement into a majority one.
The Conservatives soon took the lead in the polls but by the end of the campaign both parties were neck and neck.
In the end, Canada’s House of Commons now looks very similar to the one before it as only a handful of seats changed hands and the parties ended up roughly where they started in terms of seats and votes. The Liberals won the most seats and Justin Trudeau remains prime minister.
Despite this somewhat underwhelming result, the election serves to highlight some of the major flaws of First Past the Post.
Another wrong-winner election
In 2015, the Liberals won a majority of seats on a minority of the vote – while also getting the highest number of votes across the country (but nowhere even near the 50% mark). In 2019 they fell short of a majority of seats, won the most seats but actually secured fewer votes than the Conservatives. Two years later this has happened again.
For the second time in a row, the Conservatives have won more votes than the Liberals but ended up with fewer seats.
First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes, sometimes resulting in the party with the highest number of votes coming second overall. This is known as a wrong-winner election. Canada’s voting system has exaggerated the support of the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives and other parties, giving them an artifically leading place in the House of Commons.
Wrong-winner elections most recently happened in 1951 and February 1974 in the UK. Such elections are not representative at all but at least serve to weaken the argument that First Past the Post provides clear winners that can be easily kicked out.
The second wrong-winner election in a row is bad news for Canadian democracy.
First Past the Post consistently subsidises the two largest parties by inflating their seat share well above their vote share. The Liberals may have fallen short of a majority of seats but they won 47% of seats available (158/358) on just 32% of the vote. The Conservatives also slightly benefitted, securing 35% of seats (119) available on 34% of the vote. In the past they have benefited more by securing overall majorities on minority vote shares.
This exaggeration of support is seen over and over in countries that use First Past the Post. At the 2019 UK General Election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats on just 43% of the vote. In 2005, Labour won a majority on an even smaller share of the vote – just 35% of the vote.
Canada’s 2021 election is no different. First Past the Post one again perpetuates the dominance of a country’s largest parties.
Smaller parties punished by FPTP
The flipside of this is that by subsidising the representation of the larger parties in parliament, smaller parties are unfairly punished. Canada’s National Democratic Party, the NDP, secured just 7% of the seats available (25 seats) on almost 18% of the vote.
The Greens also suffered, winning only two seats but a vote share of 2%.
This underrepresentation of smaller parties is key feature of UK elections as well. In 2015, UKIP secured 13% of the vote but only won one seat. The Liberal Democrats are consistently punished by this as are the Greens. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won just 25 seats on 25% of the vote – almost displacing Labour as the country’s second largest party by vote share yet coming nowhere near in terms of seats.
First Past the Post distorts democracy by subsidising larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. Under the status-quo, votes aren’t equal. The Canadian election highlights this once again through the squeezing out of the NDP and the Greens.
The nature of First Past the Post means that countless votes are wasted in the process of electing MPs. In any Canadian riding, because there is only one member elected, votes going to other parties and votes above and beyond the amount to elect each MP are wasted.
Canada’s 2021 election is no different. The dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives at the expense of the NDP and other parties means wasted votes across the country.
As far as I can tell no one has done exact calculation, but once they’re up they will be added here – I’m sure Fair Vote Canada will be on the case!
First Past the Post exposed
Canada’s 2021 election highlights some of the major flaws of FPTP. The country has a very similar parliament to before, one that does not accurately reflect how people vote.
Like the UK, Canada needs Proportional Representation. It’s time to make votes matter and enact electoral reform.
An opportunity for Proportional Representation – a minority government, the NDP and lessons from New Zealand
The one silver lining is that the election certainly puts Canada’s unrepresentative electoral system in the spotlight. Voting reform isn’t the main concern of most ordinary voters but when two wrong-winner elections in a row take place, the issue is certainly given a second glance by ordinary voters. There is an inherent unfairness that cannot be ignored.
The Liberals went into the 2015 election supporting Proportional Representation. It is a disappointing misstep of history that Justin Trudeau did not keep his promise to abolish First Past the Post. However, change could still happen in the near future. The emboldened NDP and the ambitious Greens support electoral reform – and with the voting system in the spotlight, there is an opportunity for the pro-reform parties to take advantage of the Liberal minority and push for a democratic upgrade.
Two wrong-winner elections in a row helped pave the way for electoral reform in New Zealand. Could Canada be next? And will the UK also one day adopt Proportional Representation?
I’ve thrown my hat into the ring to join the Electoral Reform Society’s governing body. This is not the first time I’ve stood and it certainly won’t be the last.
Why? I am entering because the UK needs to radically upgrade its democracy, most importantly by prioritising Proportional Representation. And as a committed electoral reform activist, I believe I have the skills necessary for the role.
Replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation
The main reform needed at Westminster is the introduction of Proportional Representation (PR). We are almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and yet we’re stuck using a relic from the 19th century: First Past the Post.
Replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation is the single most important reform needed in British politics. Without PR our elections are semi-representative at best.
First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes. At the last election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats (and 100% of the power) on just 43% of the vote. It also leads to wasted votes in every seat across the country, leaving millions unaccounted for. And because of all that, FPTP leads to tactical voting. An estimated 1 in 4 people planned on voting tactically at the 2019 election because they thought their preferred candidate had no chance of winning in their constituency. That is a travesty.
What’s more, First Past the Post doesn’t even always work as intended. Our current system is meant to produce so-called clear majorities and strong governments. Two of the last four elections have failed to deliver majority governments. The system fails on its own standards. Not to mention the fact that the party with the most seats is sometimes the party without the highest number of votes cast. These wrong-winner elections were seen in the UK in 1951 and February 1974 – and most recently at the 2019 Canadian General Election. This year’s wrong-winner election in Canada (the second in a row) proves this further.
The Electoral Reform Society was set up to campaign against this broken system, well over 100 years ago. The organisation rightly wants to replace FPTP with Proportional Representation (STV). I am standing for election to champion this priority.
Proportional Representation will massively improve British democracy in two major ways. Firstly, it will improve national representation by ensuring that seats match votes and wasted votes are limited. Yes, voters currently vote based on candidates but to use this as a reason against reform when national politics and political parties are impossible to separate from individual constituency elections is an insult. Voters take into account individual candidates but also national politics when at the polls. Under PR, the proportion of seats won by a party will fairly reflect the proportion of votes cast for said party. And many systems such as STV can do this while empowering voters to consider the merits of individual candidates as well. This will lead to a stronger link between people and parliament.
Secondly, PR will improve constituency Representation by strengthening the constituency link. By giving voters multiple representatives, voters not only have more choice and power at the ballot box, but in between elections, voters will have more choice about who to go to in order to represent them. The idea that an MP can accurately represent all their constituents is admirable but goes against political reality. Multi-member constituencies will strengthen that link by empowering voters at the ballot box and in between elections.
I have long campaigned for Proportional Representation and other electoral reforms. In addition to my role running Upgrade Holyrood, my experience also includes being an activist for Make Votes Matter, the campaign-group for Proportional Representation, as well as having been the former Media Director of youth-led think-tank TalkPolitics, which supported fair voting as part of a wider package of reforms to improve democracy.
I currently work in Westminster – for the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.
From all these positions, I can bring communications, governance, research and press experience to the council. I also have experience of working well with different parties/groups in the campaign for democratic change.
I also regularly contribute to Politics.co.uk, writing on electoral reform issues.
The UK needs Proportional Representation now and there is a real opportunity to achieve that at the next general election. I believe the Electoral Reform Society should prioritise Proportional Representation (STV) and play a leading role in delivering that change at the next election.
Other democratic reforms are important and I strongly support efforts to improve our politics in any way possible. Westminster needs to modernise and we need a democratic upper chamber in place of the House of Lords.
However, replacing First Past the Post with PR should be the primary focus of the Electoral Reform Society.
That is why I am standing to join the council. If you are a member, please consider giving me your first preference vote.
Let’s upgrade our democracy and make First Past the Post history.
Members will be able to vote between 22 September and 22 October either online of via a postal ballot.
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional, but flawed, Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative.
AMS results in more representative parliaments than FPTP used in Westminster but it is not fully proportional. It also results in two classes of MSPs, limits voter choice and can be exploited by decoy parties.
Alternatives such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Open List PR, would empower voters and lead to more representative parliaments.
Reasoning behind the petition
The Additional Member System has done well to ensure broadly proportional parliaments but it does have some serious flaws, the full details of which can be read below.
This petition makes the case for an alternative system to replace AMS. I recognise that different individuals and parties back different alternatives, which is why I have kept the proposed alternative open and reasonably vague to help build a broad coalition for voting reform in Scotland.
For example, the Scottish Lib Dems and SNP favour the Single Transferable Vote (used for local authority elections in Scotland, as well as national elections in Ireland and Malta) while the Scottish Greens now support an Open List PR system (like those used in Denmark and Iceland) but have supported STV in the past.
Earlier this year, Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser MSP broke party ranks and called for reform, highlighting STV as a possible alternative.
In terms of non-party support, the Electoral Reform Society has long supported the Single Transferable Vote while Ballot Box Scotland, who does an incredible job of covering and analysing Scottish electoral politics, favours and Open List PR system with levelling seats.
Changing the voting system at Holyrood requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50%+1 majority as with most votes.
The Scottish Lib Dems were the only party in the parliament to propose changing the voting system in their 2021 manifesto but with the SNP and Scottish Greens in favour of a change in principle, as well as at least one Scottish Conservative MSP behind the idea, there is a possible route to reform.
The two-thirds rule would therefore mean that 86 MSPs would be required for supporting any reform. Together, the SNP (64 seats), the Scottish Greens (7 seats) and the Scottish Lib Dems (4 seats) fall short of that number with a combined total of 75 seats. Even with Murdo Fraser there would be just 76 MSPs in favour of reform.
The Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to back any reform overall due to their long-standing opposition to reform at Westminster. Any moves to supporting reform would lead to calls of hypocrisy if they continued to favour the archaic First Past the Post voting system at Westminster.
The best hope is getting additional support from Scottish Labour who have no position on changing the voting system. That said, there is certainly a route to reform through Scottish Labour who could definitely be persuaded to back reform if the idea gained momentum.
Other hurdles include the the fact that electoral reform is not high on the political agenda and there are different schools of thought on what to replace AMS with as previously mentioned.
Nonetheless, it is important to shift the conversation on this issue, which is why I have lodged the petition.
Please consider adding your name to begin an active conversation about the flaws of AMS and a real discussion on alternatives that provide for better representation.
On Monday 13 September, Norwegians elected their new parliament (called the Storting).
The big stories of the night were the success of the left and centre parties, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitting defeat, and the fall in support of the controversial right-wing populist Progress party.
The election may not have hit the headlines across democratic world in the same way as the upcoming Canadian and German elections, but it has been a significant election for Norway – ending 8 years of right-of-centre governance.
But what voting system does Norway use? How proportional was its recent election and what lessons can we learn in the UK?
Unlike the UK, Norway uses a form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect its parliaments. This means that, unlike at Westminster, how people vote at the ballot box is accurately reflected in the parliament. Without a form of PR to elect representatives, unlike Norway’s Storting, the House of Commons is semi-representative at best.
At the last UK election, the Conservatives got 43.6% of the vote but thanks to the UK’s First Past the Post system, they won 56% of seats in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems won 11.6% of the vote but only 3% of seats available while the Green Party of England and Wales won 2.7% of the vote but only one seat.
The UK’s voting system clearly distorts the link between seats and votes, unfairly advantaging larger parties and wasting countless votes.
The vast majority of OECD countries use some form of Proportional Representation to elect their MPs and Norway is one of them.
Norway uses a form of Open List PR with a 4% threshold to elect 169 MPs across 19 constituencies. This includes levelling seats to further ensure national party proportionality. Voters also have a say over the ordering of party lists in their constituency for the party they vote for, empowering voters more than in a Closed List PR system (such as the one previously used for UK elections to the EU parliament where lists were inflexible) or First Past the Post.
More about the voting system can be read on the Electoral Reform Society’s site here.
Norway’s 2021 election results
The country’s voting system ensures that seats broadly match votes. The full results for the 2021 election are show below.
Labour: 26.4% of the vote (48 seats), 28.4% of seats)
Conservatives: 20.5% votes (36 seats), 21.3% of seats
Centre: 13.6% of the vote (28 seats), 16.6% of seats
Progress: 11.7% of the vote (21 seats), 12.4% of seats
Socialist Left: 7.5% of the vote (13 seats), 7.7% of seats
Red: 4.7% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
Liberal: 4.5% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
Green: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
Christian Democrat: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
Patient Focus: 0.2% of the vote (1 seat), 0.6% of seats
On the back of these results, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitted defeat and it now looks likely that a left of centre government will be formed – led by the Labour Party. Analysis suggests that complex coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.
Put simply, Norway’s latest election results were very proportional. The proportion of seats won by each party strongly correlates with the proportion of votes cast for each party as shown by the above results. This is in stark contrast with UK election results such as the 2005 election where Labour won a majority on just 35% of the vote or the 2015 election where UKIP won just 1 seat on 13% of the vote.
Overall, there is a strong link between seats and votes at Norwegian elections. However, it is worth caveating that seats are distributed so that rural areas have slightly more representation per person than urban counterparts, slightly skewing the link between seats and votes.
Furthermore, although thresholds are common in PR systems, the 4% threshold in Norway means that elections are not purely proportional – this may be reduced to 3% in the coming years. This is for information purposes and the merits of thresholds in such systems can be debated elsewhere as the purpose of this article is to highlight how much more representative a PR system is than FPTP. For more about the ins and outs of Norway’s election system, please read the Electoral Reform Society article on PR in Norway.
After eight years of a Conservative-led government, Norway has voted for a change. The Labour Party may have lost seats in this election but PR means that government formation is not about who is the biggest party. Instead Nowegian parliaments accurately represent how people vote with governments formed by whichever coalition of parties can command a majority in the Storting. In this case, the governing right-of-centre parties lost seats overall while the left and centre made gains. All in all, the distribution of seats fairly reflects votes cast at the ballot box.
Norwegian elections are highly proportional and have limited wasted votes. Norwegian votes matter – all thanks to Proportional Representation.
Westminster should learn from countries such as Norway and adopt Proportional Representation to upgrade UK democracy.
Upgrade Holyrood is a Scottish politics site dedicated to improving Scottish democracy while at the same time being an advocate for PR and other democratic improvements at the UK-level.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.