France is going to the polls no fewer than four times in 2022, first for the French presidential election (the first round held on 10 April and the second on 24 April) and two months later for the parliamentary election (again split into two rounds on 12 and 19 June).
In 2017 Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist Party minister, built his own centrist movement and won the first round before going on to beat far-right Marine Le Penn to become president. Then two months later, his party won a majority of seats in the French parliament.
It’s been a turbulent five years in French politics – not to mention politics across the rest of Europe – but Macron is likely to make it into the final round in 2022. Whether Macron secures a second term likely depends on who he his up against although it’s looking more and more likely that 2022 will be q repeat of 2017. Here’s how French presidential elections work.
France’s two-round presidential system
As already said, the French presidential election is split into two rounds. In the first round the French public vote for their preferred candidate. In the extremely unlikely event that any candidate recieves over 50% of the vote then they become president without the need for a second round. If no candidate recieves this then all but the top two candidates are eliminated and two weeks later they go head to head. In 2017, Macron secured 24% of the vote, just ahead of Le Pen’s 21.3%.
The system is designed to ensure broader mandates for presidents than under a simple First Past the Post system. Ultimately, in 2017 Macron won 66.1% of the vote ahead of Le Pen’s 33.9%, handing him the presidency.
While this is fairer than First Past the Post, the two-round system is not without its flaws.
Tactical voting is still present as there is an incentive for voters to support candidates likely to make it into the second round. Furthermore, while mandates are broader than under FPTP, many voters will have held their nose to vote for Macron to keep Le Pen out.
There is also the risk that two popular extremists can get into the final round if mainstream parties are split. Say if four very similar candidates each get 15% of the vote, two very very different candidates could get 20% each and get into the final round. The optimum preference of all voters could be somewhere in the centre but voters of the middle four would have no one to back in the final round.
Again, this system is better than FPTP (for single member positions) but there remain significant flaws.
So what’s the best model for single-member positions?
There is a simple answer to this and that is the Alternative Vote, or ranked choice voting (instant run-off) where voters get one ballot and rank candidates in order of preference. This gets rid of the need for two rounds, largely eliminates wasted votes and ensures that the most popular candidate overall takes the position available.
This is used to elect the non-executive president in Ireland and could be used in France to elect its executive president.
Mayors and presidents – what can the UK and Scotland take from this?
Unfortunately the UK Government are taking away the closest thing we have to the two-round system and AV by legislating to impose First Past the Post for mayoral and PPC elections in its Elections Bill. This a terrible move for UK democracy.
Instead of introducing this regressive reform, the UK should look at France and learn from Ireland for electing single-member positions. If we are to have elected positions such as mayors and PPCs, or even one day a non-executive president like in Ireland, then we should use the Alternative Vote. The same goes if Scotland ever introduced elected mayors or other single-member elected positions.
UK democracy is broken. We must learn from around the world to address our democratic deficit. France shows just one better, but imperfect, alternative.
The citizens of Malta voted for a new House of Representatives on 26 March 2022. Unlike elections to the UK’s House of Commons, how Maltese vote is actually reflected in parliament due to the country’s system of Proportional Representation (specifically, the Single Transferable Vote).
Scottish and UK politics have much to learn from Malta.
In 2017, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party won 37 seats (on 55% of the vote) ahead of the National Force’s 30 (on 43.7% of the vote). Unusually for a country using Proportional Representation, Malta has a fairly consistent two-party system.
The country changed prime minister’s in 2020 and at the recent 2022 election, Labour held on to power by winning one more seat than it achieved at the last election. Here’s what happened in 2022 and how Maltese elections work.
Malta uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect its representatives. The country is split into 13 constituencies, each with five members, and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. This leads to largely proportional outcomes and a significant degree of voter empowerment.
Unlike in other countries using STV, a two-party system has dominated Malta for decades, with only a handful of third parties gaining representation despite the relatively low barriers of entry to the House of Representatives compared to the challenges they face in countries using majoritarian and pluralitarian systems such as First Past the Post.
Malta’s STV also has a final twist that doesn’t exist in places such as Scotland, Ireland and Australia’s Senate. Under standard STV it is still possible for the party with the most first preference votes to win fewer seats than an opposition party. The Maltese system addresses this by giving additional seats to the party with the most first preference votes across the whole of Malta. This is a sensible solution to addressing one of the flaws of an otherwise representing and empowering electoral system, one which could even be built upon for STV elections in Scotland and the UK.
Due to STV and the Maltese twist on it, elections in Malta are highly proportional.
At the 2022 election, the Labour Party won 38 (56.72%) seats on 55.11% of first preference votes. The Nationalist Party secured 29 (43.28%) seats on 42.74% of the vote. There was clearly a strong link between seats and votes.
But looking at the overall figures only offers one level of analysis.
One tried and tested way to measure proportionality, and crucially compare proportionality of different systems, is to calculate the Gallagher index for an elections. More on the mathematics behind the indices can be read here, but the closer to zero the index is, the more proportional it is.
In Malta’s case, elections are highly proportional with indices consistently around the 1 mark for elections in the 21st century. The election result in 2017 was similar to 2022 (Labour won 37 seats on 55.04% of first preference votes while the National Party won 28 seats on 42.12% of the vote). The Gallagher Index for that election vote was 1.01. In fact every Maltese election since 1987 has had a Gallagher index less than 2, showing just how proportional Malta’s electoral system is.
In comparison, Scottish Parliament elections are largely proportional – the Gallagher index for 2016 was 5.6 while the index for 2021 was 7.03. However, UK elections are highly unrepresentative thanks to First Past the Post, for example, the Gallagher Index for the 2019 elections was 11.80.
Elections in Malta are highly proportional while and empower voters to a high degree. The Single Transferable Vote is far superior to First Past the Post, used to elect MPs in the UK, and more representative, and empowering, than the Additional Member System used at Holyrood. What’s more a version of the “Maltese twist” on the traditional STV is one worth considering when it comes to UK elections.
At the last UK election, the Conservatives won a majority on 43% of the vote while parties such as the Greens and Lib Dems were significantly unrepresented. Had the UK been using STV, the election outcome would have been much more representative than under First Past the Post. Furthermore, the UK could build on the Maltese version of STV by implementing its own levelling twist. Say under STV one party won more seats than another but fewer first preference votes, a number of levelling seat could be added to ensure a fairer outcome and tackle questions of illegitimacy.
STV Proportional Representation is clearly fairer than First Past the Post, as shown by the Maltese election. However, STV is already used for Scottish local elections, as well as Northern Ireland’s Stormont and local elections. Westminster has much to learn from Malta but also from elections for devolved administrations.
The UK House of Commons has voted against an amendment that would have improved the government’s ill-thought out Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.
The Bill was legislated for to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which ended the right of the prime minister to unilaterally call elections by fixing election dates and giving parliament the power to call elections if an early election is desired.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will see a return to unchecked executive power, with the prime minister able to call an election at a time of their choosing.
On Monday 14 March 2022, parliament had an opportunity to accept an amendment from the House of Lords that would have given parliament the power to decide when an election takes place, rather the prime minister. But unfortunately the House of Commons voted against the amendment.
Analysis – a strengthened executive at the expense of the legislature
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an imperfect piece of legislation but it levelled the playing field by making the UK’s electoral processes significantly fairer.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will weaken UK democracy if passed in full. While not as damaging as the regressive Elections Bill, repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act removes the level playing field and gives electoral advantage to the governing party.
Having fixed election dates ensures that all political parties know when elections are due to take place. And giving parliament having the final say on when elections take place in unusual circumstances, ensures that the executive don’t have an unfair advantage.
This is already the case in Scotland at Holyrood. Westminster must learn from the Scottish Parliament to improve and protect our democracy.
In 2017, the SNP won 19 seats to become the largest party for the first time. In the aftermath of the election, they formed a an adminisatration with Labour who won 12 seats.
The Conservatives won 18 seats (with the highest number of first preference votes) while the Greens secured 8 and the Lib Dems won 6.
The composition of the council has change somewhat since then due to some councils leaving their party groups.
If the SNP remain the largest party after May, which looks likely, they will be the first party in Edinburgh during the STV era to win the most seats two elections in a row. The party will be hoping to keep the seats they have or possibly even make gains while the Conservatives will want to hold onto the seats they have. Labour will be hoping for a comeback after a disastrous few elections while the Greens and Lib dems will be hoping to build on their gains in 2017.
Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday 5 May to elect a new assembly. The election is going ahead as scheduled but follows the recent collapse of the executive as a result of First Minister Paul Givan’s resignation. The election could make history, with Sinn Fein looking likely to emerge as the largest party after years of unionist dominance.
Assembly members are elected via the Single Transferable Vote, a form of Proportional Representation with multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates in order of preference.
Voters in Scotland also go to the polls on 5 May – this time to elect councillors across all 32 local authorities. Like the election in Northern Ireland, Scottish councillors are elected via STV. However, the Northern Irish system has lessons for Scotland’s democracy – both at the local level and at Holyrood.
Northern Ireland Assembly election
For Northern Ireland elections, the province is split into 18 constituencies. Each constituency has five members, meaning a total of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly.
By allowing voters to rank candidates, voters have a significant degree of control over who is elected, rather than just which party. This is an important element of representative democracy, which is lacking at elections to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.
Elections are also extremely proportional. In 2017, the DUP won 28.1% of first-preference votes and ended up with 31.1% of seats. Sinn Fein won 27.9% of the first preference votes and 30% of all seats while the UUP won 12.9% of first preference votes and 13.3% of all seats.
The Gallagher index, used to measure proportionality and compare across systems, for the last election was 3.34. The closer to one an election is, the more proportional it is. Compare this to the UK’s last election, which had a Gallagher index of 11.80.
In short, Northern Ireland elections are extremely proportional.
Scotland is split into 32 council areas, each electing a different number of councillors. The vast majority of these are elected in three or four member wards via STV. Like in Northern Ireland, council results are largely proportional and voters have more power than parties.
However, the fact that councillors are only elected in three or four member wards, as opposed to five member wards in Northern Ireland, decreases proportionality. Of course, the more local councillors are, the better – as they deal with local issues – but it is worth considering that wards with higher district magnitude lead to more representative results. If there is ever an opportunity to increase the number of councillors in Scotland, then increasing the number of representatives in each ward is worth considering.
Northern Ireland shows that a more representative parliament is possible. UK elections are incredibly unrepresentative. STV would be a far more representative system than First Past the Post. When the UK does eventually adopt Proportional Representation, there are positive lessons from Northern Ireland’s use of STV.
Furthermore, there are lessons for Holyrood. The Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System is broadly proportional but has a number of problems, such as the lack of voter empowerment, opportunities for exploitation and no mechanism to ensure national proportionality.
The Scottish Parliament needs a fairer voting system. STV is tried and tested in Scotland and has been successful in Northern Ireland. After 23 years of devolution, it’s time for Scotland to take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book and adopt a fairer system, such as STV.
Two out of four of London’s Conservative list Assembly Members support replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation.
Emma Best AM declared her support for PR at Westminster in an article for 1828 in November 2021 while Andrew Boff AM has been a long-standing advocate of electoral reform and has now joined Make Votes Matter’s PR Alliance (February 2022). The timing is particularly significant due to the government’s regressive Elections Bill returning to the House of Lords that same week.
The other two (Susan Hall AM and Shaun Bailley AM) have yet to declare a position from what I can tell.
Analysis – a broad coalition for reform
The route to achieving Proportional Representation at Westminster is almost certainly through Labour. The idea that the Conservative Party leadership would support PR, led alone implement it, is beyond unlikely, whereas Labour could well support reform ahead of the next general election.
That all said, it is absolutely vital that the movement for PR includes a broad range of supporters including Conservatives. The UK’s journey to adopting Proportional Representation needs to involve all political parties. The fact that two of the four Conservative list London AMs support PR is not insignificant.
In Scotland, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, declared his support for a fairer electoral system at Holyrood last year, implicitly implying his support for reform at Westminster although that is not confirmed.
Like Fraser, London’s Emma Best and Andrew Boff recognise that without PR, they wouldn’t have their positions, meaning that without PR countless conservatives would be unrepresented in the London Assembly (and at Holyrood).
Furthermore, the support of Best and Boff is striking in the context of the government’s regressive Elections Bill which seeks to expand First Past the Post in England and Wales, crucially by replacing the Supplementary Vote for London mayoral elections.
The bulk of the efforts to achieve electoral reform should be on pushing Labour in the right direction and strengthening links with existing allies, as well as making the issue understood better by the wider public, but Conservative support is important too. When the day of change eventually comes, we should do our best to make sure as many people as possible are on board.
It is also worth highlighting that while the London Assembly delivers broadly proportional outcomes, it is not without its failings. Upgrade Holyrood supports reforming the Scottish Parliament which uses a similar system to elect MSPs. It is therefore right that while the London Assembly is fairer than Westminster’s use of First Past the Post, reform is needed ensure better representation.
Read more about the need to reform Scotland’s Additional Member System here.
The UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading (Wednesday 23 February 2022).
The Bill passed in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January (Report Stage and Third Reading) with very limited time dedicated to its debate. Unfortunately none of the amendments designed too remove its most oppressive aspects were successful due to the government having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
With the Bill now in the House of Lords, there is an opportunity for government defeats to push back against the watering down of our democratic standards.
Reasons to oppose the Elections Bill
The Bill will weaken the UK’s already shaky democratic foundations. Instead of upgrading our political system by introducing Proportional Representation and modernising parliament, the Elections Bill is a direct attack on representative democracy.
It contains provisions to expand First Past the Post through abolishing the Supplementary Vote used for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections. The current system is far from perfect but it provides a broader mandate to PCCs and mayors than the unrepresentative FPTP set-up currently used to elect Member of Parliament to the House of Commons.
The Elections Bill is also set to weaken the vital independence of the Electoral Commission. This is an affront to democracy which the Electoral Commission have firmly taken a stand against. In their letter to the government they say:
We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law.
Electoral Commission (21 February 2022)
Furthermore, the government’s bill will introduce voter identification (ID) requirements to address alleged voter fraud. Of course, electoral fraud is wrong and should be stamped out where present, however, the issue is barely a footnote on the pages of modern British politics, not to mention that trials in England have found voter ID to be highly ineffective. What’s more leading campaigns and organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and Hands off Our Vote have highlighted that voter ID is inherently exclusionary – it will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, young people, older people and other demographics. Instead of tackling fraud, voter ID will suppress voters.
The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on the Bill provides more details and further reasons to oppose the Bill here.
What can you do? Taking action to defend democracy
The House of Lords has an opportunity to defeat the government but that is not without its challenges. Here’s what you can do.
Campaign groups from across the democracy sector are coming together to put pressure on the House of Lords to do the right thing.
Unlock Democracy’s action centre is a good starting point, full of calls to actions to campaign against the bill.
Make Votes Matter, who strongly opposed the expansion of First Past the Post, also provide some key actions to take.
The Elections Bill is a regressive piece of legislation that must be stopped. The government’s unrepresentative majority in the House of Commons seems unassailable but there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the Lords.
There is no denying that the Scottish Parliament is considerably more democratic than the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It has all the hallmarks of a modern democracy with its broadly proportional voting system, no unelected upper body and a purpose built horseshoe chamber where members can vote at the push of a button.
However, that’s not to say improvements cannot be made, and that is the raison d’être of Upgrade Holyrood.
Scotland’s Additional Member System has shown that Proportional Representation works but there a number of serious flaws in its design. It is time to change the way we elect MSPs.
AMS has delivered broadly proportional outcomes
There are a number of ways to measure the effectiveness of a voting system. These all have a complicated interconnected relationship with one another and there is often a trade off between them. Designing an effective electoral system is often a balancing act between proportionality (the representative link between seats and votes), voter influence, local links and utility of votes.
The Additional Member System is a mixed voting system with 73 MSPs elected via First Past the Post and an Additional 56 MSPs elected across eight different regionals. Voters get two ballots and these regional MSPs are allocated via the regional ballots while taking into account of the number of constituency seats won by each party, a mechanism that aims to ensure a proportional link between seats and votes in each region.
There have been six Scottish Parliament elections since the advent of devolution and all of them have been broadly proportional. The Gallagher Index for each of these elections is low, indicating string levels of proportionality, in contrary to indices for elections to the House of Commons which have had high Gallagher indices.
In Scotland, the number of votes cast per party is strongly linked with the number of seats won.
AMS flaws and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election
On the face of it everything looks in order, however, there are a number of flaws with AMS.
The voting system only aims for regional proportionality. The additional list members only ensure that the total number of MSPs in won by each party in each region is roughly proportional, leading to broadly proportional results overall. There is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality – and the ratio of constituency and list candidates in favour of the former compounds this.
Another significant flaw is that voters have very little control over the individuals elected. Safe seats exist in the First Past the Post element of AMS and parties determine their party list ordering meaning that voters have no say in individual candidates – just parties.
Furthermore, AMS doesn’t address the issue of overhangs which is when a party wins more constituency seats than it should have won on a purely proportional system. In contrast, New Zealand and Germany address this by adding further members to their respective parliaments when overhangs occur.
Lastly, is perhaps the most prolific flaw of the system. The 2021 election exposed one of the Additional Member System’s the possibility for exploitation of the two vote system. Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba part went into the election with an explicit pitch to SNP voters – “back us on the list vote to maximise the pro-independence majority”. The SNP are so dominant in Scottish politics that the majority of their seats are won in First Past the Post constituencies but the number of seats overall is meant to be reflect of regional votes cast. Had all SNP voters backed Alba on the list then their would have been an extremely unrepresentative parliament with the likes of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives squeezed out.
There was nothing illegal about Alba’s plan but it is surely wrong, going against the spirit of a system designed to be proportional, and led to talk of reforming the system in the mainstream media.
It is worth highlighting here that George Galloway’s All for Unity party employed a similar strategy, highlighting that this is a wider problem although Alba’s was certainly the most prolific attempt.
Ultimately, Alba failed in their attempt to exploit the system but the flaw has been so obviously exposed, leading to discussions in mainstream media about the need for reform. Just because Salmond’s venture wasn’t successful doesn’t mean something similar in future could be, not to mention this risk of exploiting the system is just one of the many flaws of AMS.
🚨PICK OF THE WEEK🚨
READ: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws
🗳️"Alba’s strategy is thus an overt attempt to game the system."
After 23 years of devolution it’s time for an upgrade
Six elections and 23 years later it is time for reform. The Welsh Parliament is currently looking at improving its voting system and Scotland should do the same. True, Wales’ voting system, although similar to Scotland’s, is notably less proportional but there’s still a strong case to review what’s happened in Scotland why we need reform.
Here are three alternatives to the Additional Member System.
1. The German model – tinkering with the mixed-member system
One option, perhaps in theory the easiest reform, is to tinker with the system we already have. Compared to Mixed-Member Proportional systems in the likes of Germany and New Zealand, Holyrood is rather basic, with no additional measures to ensure proportionality other than the 56 regional MSPs.
Scotland could take a leaf out of Germany’s book and adopt a levelling system. The German model is similar to Scotland’s, the main difference being that the list vote overall, and in each state, is tied to the overall number of seats won. This is done by the creation of additional list seats (on top of the standard list seats allocated per state) to ensure that list votes cast match overall seats one. This would address the problem exposed by Alba in Scotland and also strengthens proportionality on both the regional and national scales.
In addition to modifying AMS based on the German system, Scotland could also learn from Bavaria and open up the list component of the Additional Member System. Party lists are currently decided by the parties that submit them, giving an astonishing amount of power to party bosses. Allowing voters to rank or order or note their preferred lead candidates in the party list they back would empower citizens across the country.
Modifying AMS with these two changes would on paper improve representationin the Scottish Parliament, however, such reforms are not without risk. A German-style levelling system could create an unprecedented number of MSPs as shown by the surge in Bundestag members at the 2021 German Federal election. Furthermore, opening up the list risks complicating matters as voters would in effect have three ballots at the polling station. These option also retains the element of First Past the Post, meaning that safe seats remain and there are two types of MSP.
While a modified AMS would be somewhat an improvement, if we are going to reform the system we should be more ambitious than this!
2. The Single Transferable Vote – representative, empowering and proven effective in Scotland
An alternative to the Additional Member System would be to scrap it altogether and introduce the tried and tested method, the Single Transferable Vote, widely lauded as the most effective and empowering voting system.
STV has been used to elect Scottish councillors since 2007 so voters are already familiar with it. Claims that it would be overly complicated have been unfounded and it has resulted in largely proportional councils and given voters significant power at the ballot box.
Under STV, Scotland would be divided into multi-member constituencies of district magnitude (the electoral sweet spot for balancing the constituency link and proportionality has been identified as between four and eight members (Carey and Hix 2011)) and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. STV leads to proportional results while empowering voters at the ballot box. It also allows them to vote across party lines which can lead to a more accommodating politics.
Levelling seats could even be added, like in Malta’s STV system, to ensure that seats won overall reflect first preference votes and avoid situations like in Ireland in 2018 where Sinn Fein would have won more seats had they stood enough candidates.
No system will ever fully meet all ideal voting system criteria but the Single Transferable Vote covers all of them very well. STV would deliver proportional outcomes and give voters a significant amount of power, not to mention it is already familiar with the voting Scottish public due to its use in council elections. This is probably the best and most likely alternative to AMS.
3. Open List Proportional Representation – an unknown alternative
Rather than tinkering with the current system or opting for the tried and tested STV model, a third option would be to learn from the likes of Norway, Denmark and Iceland and embrace Open List Proportional Representation (with a levelling seat mechanism to ensure national proportionality). This is the less discussed alternative although it is now backed by the Scottish Greens and is the preferred system of Ballot Box Scotland.
Under Open List Proportional Representation, Scotland would be divided into a number of medium-large constituencies each electing a number of MSPs. Voters would get one ballot and one vote for a party. Seats are allocated via votes on that ballot and additional seats are added to level the system out and ensure national proportionality.
Crucially, voters are empowered as they have the option of indicating their preferred candidates on a party’s list, weakening party power and ensuring voters have a strong say in the personal make up of their parliament.
Such a system ticks the key boxes of voter choice and proportionality. Sure, it has some flaws such as the likelihood if some extremely large constituencies, as well as the lack of cross party voting similar to what happens under STV, but it is worth examining.
The Scottish Parliament needs an upgrade but is there a route to electoral reform at Holyrood?
Change often happens by accident but there are three elements to keep an eye on in the coming years.
The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 explicitly gave the Scottish Parliament the power to change its voting system. A change can come about if two-thirds of MSPs support it.
There is some way to go to get to the magic number of 86 MSPs, but SNP, Lib Dem and Green MSPs all support an alternative voting system, not to mention at least one Conservative, Murdo Fraser MSP. Scottish Labour do not have a position but there is likely some appetite within the party for reviewing the status-quo. Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP has even said he is sympathetic to looking at improving the way we elect MSPs. This all gives a framework for what could happen if there is a real drive to electoral reform although work would still be needed to bring parties together on the type of system Scotland should adopt.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens in Wales. There is a very real possibility of the Senedd ditching its own Additional Member System in favour of the Single Transferable Vote as part of an enlargement to 80-90 members. The Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform is due to make its recommendations by 31 May 2022. If Wales goes down that route, Scotland could very well follow.
It is perfectly plausible to see a route to electoral reform ahead of the 2026 election. The Scottish Parliament has the mechanism to change the voting system is there, not to mention support for change within the parliament. The only major obstacle is the lack of political will, but in time, with persuasion, reform will happen.
The 1990s were a time of radical political change both here in Scotland and on the other side of the world in New Zealand.
In 1996, New Zealand held its first election using a form of Proportional Representation, after two referenda and decades of campaigning. And three years later Scotland did the same with the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Both countries use a distinct form of PR – also used in the likes of Wales, Germany and Lesotho – that combines single-seat constituencies with compensatory party list members. Both systems lead to broadly proportional outcomes but how do they compare?
Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected in one of two ways. 73 are elected via single-seat constituencies and a further 56 are elected via eight regions.
The New Zealand Parliament is generally made up of 120 Members with 72 elected in single-seat constituencies (65 in general electorates and seven Māori ones) and the 48 others elected nation-wide.
In both Scotland and New Zealand, voters get two ballots and list seats are distributed by taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party to deliver overall broadly proportional results. Scotland’s set-up is referred to as the Additional Member System while New Zealand’s is Mixed-Member Proportional.
Both systems were designed to achieve overall proportional results and both have been largely successful in this aim. Compared to elections to the UK’s House of Commons, where the Conservatives won a massive majority of seats on just 43% of the vote and previous First Past the Post elections in New Zealand (when in 1993 the National Party won a majority on 35% of the vote), Scottish Parliament elections and modern New Zealand elections result in parliaments where seats roughly match votes.
The latest Scottish election, while slightly less representative than the one held in 2016, is still a fairly good example of the broadly proportional nature of AMS (despite Alba’s plan to unfairly exploit the system). In 2021, the SNP won 63 of 129 seats (48%) on 40.3% of the party vote. The Scottish Conservatives won 31 seats (24%) on 23.5% the party vote ahead of Scottish Labour on 22 seats (17.1%) and 17.9% of the vote. The Greens also won 8 seats (6.2%) on 8.1% and the Scottish Lib Dems secured 4 seats (3.1%) on 5.1% of the party vote. At Holyrood, seats broadly match votes although the SNP are clearly overrepresented to a notable degree, but the flaws of the system are discussed below.
New Zealand’s elections tell a similar story. Take the latest vote for example. Held in October 2020, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party managed to win a majority of seats (65 out of 121) but crucially that was won on a majority of the vote (50.01%). The opposition National Party secured 33 seats (27.27%) on 25.6% of the vote while the Alliance Party won 10 seats (8.3%) on 7.6% of the vote and the Greens also secured 10 seats on 7.8% of the vote. In New Zealand, there is a strong link between seats and votes.
Constituency to list members ratio
Both the Scottish and New Zealand parliaments have almost the same ratio of constituency members to list members. In Mixed-Member Proportional systems, the larger the proportion of list members the more proportional the system is overall.
Contrast the broadly proportional Scottish and New Zealand systems together with the system used in Wales. The Welsh system is near identical to Scotland’s except there are only 60 members with 40 being constituency MSs and 20 being list MSs, resulting in a ratio of 2:1. This means that Welsh elections are only somewhat proportional. At the 2021 Welsh election, the Labour Party won 30 seats on just 36.2% of the vote, due to their dominance of constituency seats.
The key difference between the Scottish and New Zealand electoral systems is the nature of the party list element. New Zealand’s list MPs are elected nationwide, meaning that parties only have one list each for the entire country and the distribution of list MPs is determined by list votes overall while taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party across the entire country.
Meanwhile, Scotland is split into eight electoral regions. List MSPs are allocated via the total number of list votes in a region while accounting for only the number of seats won by each party in that particular region. The main consequence of this is that there is no mechanism to make sure Scottish results are nationally proportional, just regionally proportional.
Electoral thresholds are common in countries with Proportional Representation. This means that to win seats in a legislature a party only qualifies if they win a certain percentage of the vote.
The Scottish Parliament has no threshold to enter parliament but in practice, as only eight list MSPs are elected per region, there is effectively a moderate threshold that changes at each election depending on how votes are cast. This is different in each region.
New Zealand takes a different approach by applying a 5% threshold for its parliament. In 2020, this meant the New Zealand First Party failed to win any seats as they only won 4.6% of the vote. The exception to this rule is if a party wins a constituency, in which case they are entitled to win list seats.
The term overhang refers to when a party wins more constituency seats than it would be entitled to under a purely proportional system based on the party list vote alone. This happens in the Scottish Parliament on occasion but there is no mechanism to address it. In contrast, when a New Zealand party wins more constituency seats than it is entitled to (based on its list vote share) then the party keeps its extra seat and the parliament’s size is increased to accommodate this. The current size of the New Zealand parliament is 121.
If Holyrood had a similar mechanism in place, both the 2011-2016 and 2016-2021 Scottish Parliament’s would have had 130 MSPs to account for overhangs. According to Ballot Box Scotland, the current Parliament would have 133 seats.
And finally, going all the way back to the original 1999 election, that also had a net overhang of 7 seats but with a much less scattered spread, Labour winning all the excess, versus 5 fewer for the SNP and 2 for the Conservatives. pic.twitter.com/bAP6sVmhW7
One final difference between the two systems is New Zealand’s Māori constituencies (known as electorates). In addition to the country’s 65 general electorates that cover the entire country, as well as the list seats, there are a further seven Māori electorates which have traditionally been held by representatives of Māori. This was started as a temporary measure but has since become a permanent feature of New Zealand politics, enabling Māori representatives (from any party) guaranteed seats in parliament.
Time for electoral reform in New Zealand and Scotland?
Both systems have provided broadly proportional results in their respective parliaments but there is room for reform.
Mixed-Member Proportional systems have the advantage of proportionality but do have a number of significant flaws. Chiefly, the lack of guaranteed proportionality (especially due to the two vote nature of MMP and the ratio of electorates to list seats, as well as, at least in Scotland the lack of a mechanism to ensure national proportionality), the lack of voter choice and the risk of manipulation.
There is also the issue of safe seats which remain due to the First Past the Post element of AMS/MMP.
A sticking plaster approach to address these problems would be to open up the list element, meaning that voters could rank candidates within their preferred power, a move that would further empower voters at the ballot box. This happens in Bavaria but risks complicating things with the introduction of a third completely different ballot. This could be combined with the addition of levelling seats to ensure nationality proportionality by making seats match list votes although this could lead to massive parliaments like in Germany where the number of seats won is approaching 1,000.
Rather than opting for tinkering that could cause its own problems, Scotland and New Zealand could adopt more representative voting systems. One tried and tested alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which has been used for Scottish local elections since 2007. This could improve proportionality and empower voters. Another alternative would be an Open List PR system with levelling seats to ensure overall proportionality.
Appetite for electoral system change is currently limited, certainly in Scotland, but after 23 years of devolution and an election where one party led by a former First Minister tried to exploit the flaws of AMS in such an overt way, conversations about Scottish electoral reform should start now.
Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson has lodged his proposal for a Removal from Office and Recall Bill (19 January 2022). This potential Act of Parliament is a direct response to the ministerial resignation of then Finance Secretary Derek Mackay in February 2020, as a result of him messaging a teenage boy, and his subsequent disappearance from parliament while claiming a full salary as an MSP.
If passed in the Scottish Parliament, the Bill will make MSPs more accountable to the electorate by setting out new terms to remove MSPs from office where appropriate. The bill has three main functions:
To remove absent MSPs from office
To lower the jail time threshold for removal from office
To establish a system of recall for MSPs
Here are five reasons why all five of Scotland’s political parties should come together and pass the Bill.
1. Democratic duty of participation
Legislators have a duty to act on behalf of their constituents and attend parliament. Turning up at parliament is the bare minimum that should be required of MSPs. Under the status-quo, MSPs can remain in post even if they don’t show up for work (while claiming a salary!). This is simply unacceptable.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will mean automatic expulsion from parliament if an MSP fails to show up for six months. Importantly, the Bill will have a provision so that MSPs on maternity leave or those affected by ill-health are exempt from this reform.
This automatic expulsion will address the problem of non-attendance and is the right step forward for Scottish democracy. It is also worth noting that such a provision has existed in government as a result of Section 35 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. To put that in context, the Scottish Parliament is almost half a century behind Scottish councils. It must catch up.
Holyrood must learn from the rules of local government and support Graham Simpson’s bill.
Elected officials should act and behave in a way that is expected of them. Standards in public life are extremely important – as have been shown by events of the last few months in Westminster. It is therefore vital that anyone jailed while serving as an MSP should not be in their position.
The current rules ban MSPs from their job if they go to jail for more than a year. This means that representatives jailed for a year or less can remain in post, a loophole that is simply unacceptable. This could have happened in 2013 had Bill Walker MSP not resigned from parliament. Graham Simpson MSP highlights this in his proposal, saying:
Bill Walker, the former MSP for Dunfermline, was convicted of 23 charges of assault and one of breach of the peace in August 2013, yet was sentenced to just a year in prison. If he had not resigned then the Parliament would have had no power available to it to remove him and, consequently, the people of Dunfermline would have been represented for a year by an MSP in jail.
Graham Simpson MSP (19 January 2022)
Thankfully, the Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ratify this problem by containing a provision to expel MSPs from parliament of they go to jail for one year or less.
In addition to the moral argument that MSPs have a duty to attend parliament, participate in debates and vote, there is also the issue of money. Absent MSPs mean wasted taxpayer money.
When Derek Mackay stopped turning up to parliament between February 2020 and May 2021, he cost the taxpayers a heft sum for doing very little – if anything – at all.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ensure that MSPs absent for six months or more (without a valid reason) are booted out of Holyrood. The main argument for this is to ensure that constituents are fairly represented in parliament but their is also a strong case to ensure taxpayer money is not wasted, adding weight the need for change.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill crucially adds a mechanism allowing constituents to recall their MSPs. This is vital to improve accountability so that the public have a say on members that bring the parliament into disrepute.
Of course, this needs to be done carefully to ensure the mechanism doesn’t become a political tool. Appropriate checks and balances can be put in place, taking a steer from the process set-up at Westminster in 2015. The UK’s Recall of MPs Act 2015 sets out the following three conditions for a recall petition:
A custodial prison sentence (including a suspended sentence)
Suspension from the House of at least 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days, following a report by the Committee on Standards
A conviction for providing false or misleading expenses claims
Furthermore such a system should also account for both types of MSPs elected (constituency and regional). The exact way to do this is hard to say as highlighted in the Bill’s proposals.
5. Positive experiences from Westminster and around the world
Lastly, the proposed measures in the Removal from Office and Recall Bill have been tried and tested elsewhere, showing that they are workable. Upgrade Holyrood advocates for democratic best practice and learning from how other democracies conduct themselves. The functions proposed in the bill have a history of working elsewhere.
The House of Commons has had a recall rule since 2015 and to date has been used on three occasions. Crucially, it has not been used as a political tool and the mechanism is largely viewed as a success. While there are still questions to be answered about how this would practically work for regional members, it is right that the balanced approach of the recall process at Westminster should be the starting point for reform of the Scottish Parliament.
Next steps for the bill – contribute to the consultation and write to your MSP
The Bill has a long way to becoming law as it needs the support of MSPs from different parties to overcome the first hurdle to be introduced to the chamber. One action to help move this forward is to ask your MSPs to back the motion. You can find out who your MSPs are here.
Another way to help out is by contributing to the open consultation, which will close on 13 April 2022. Make your case for the Removal from Office and Recall Bill here.
You can read more about the consultation and the Bill here.
Where do Scotland’s political parties stand on the bill?
The Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats both supported recall proposals in their 2021 manifestos, the former’s leading to Graham Simpson’s bill.
Scottish Labour did not include a similar proposal but have since come around to supporting the bill, as reported by Holyrood Magazine. Scotland’s two governing parties, the SNP and Scottish Greens, have yet to voice their support.
These days, Scottish politics is viewed as extremely polarised but surely this is one issue where Holyrood’s five parties can come together. Even if there are disagreements on some of the detail, surely there is enough common ground on the principles to introduce and pass the bill.