Scotland’s five main political parties have unveiled their manifestos for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving Scottish representative democracy but what have each of the main political parties pledged to do on this issue?
The Greens were the first of the five main parties to release their manifesto, launching their plan for Scotland on Wednesday 14 April. The manifesto focuses on green issues, restructuring the economy and Scottish independence. It also has a section on “Local democracy and communities” with the party pledging to:
Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils (more powers and an overall restructuring)
Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions
Promote more diverse local representation
More local, democratic ownership
Additional participatory democracy with citizens assembly to be formalised at both local and national levels
The Scottish National Party (SNP)
The SNP are expected to remain the largest party at Holyrood and were second to launch their manifesto (Thursday 15 April 2021). The party is pledging to:
Create a Citizens’ Assembly for under 16s
Extend the entitlement to stand for election to all those entitled to vote
Introduce a Local Democracy Bill to further empower local communities and to ensure that decisions are most closest to those who they will impact the most
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April, hoping to build on the five MSPs they won in 2016. The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:
Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
Return to four-year parliamentary terms
Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and Family friendly
Introduce a recall system for MSPs
Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies
Scottish Conservatives and Unionists
Scottish Conservatives’ launched their own manifesto on Monday 19 April. The proposal to introduce a recall rule is the most eye-catching of all. The party proposes to:
Introduce a recall rule for MSPs (Mackay’s law) – this would allow the public to re MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to parliament for over six months
Retain votes at 16 for all Scottish elections
Implement a cross-party commission on improving how the Scottish Parliament operates and to improve Scottish Government scrutiny
Explore how to modernise the working practices of the Scottish Parliament to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families
Cut the cabinet from 12 to six members and freeze MSP and ministerial pay across the next parliament
Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto. Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives. The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy are to:
Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
Give Holyrood committees more powers
Further devolve powers to local government
Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens
Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving representative democracy in Scotland. This blog supports a better voting system for the Scottish Parliament, an end to dual mandates and restrictions on second jobs for MSPs, a return to four-year parliamentary terms, more local democracy and a permanent hybrid parliament even after the pandemic ends, as well as more deliberative democracy where appropriate.
Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats commit to upgrading Scotland’s Additional Member System by replacing it with the Single Transferable Vote. However, it is worth noting that the Greens and the SNP do favour STV as a fairer alternative to AMS.
The Scottish Lib Dems are also the only party committing to a return to four-year parliamentary terms in order to improve frequent democratic accountability.
No parties have pledged to abolish dual mandates although as shown by dual mandate restrictions for Wales and Northern Ireland, this was done by the House of Commons highlighting that this would be a responsibility of Westminster. Therefore such a pledge would likely be out of the scope for manifestos for the Scottish Parliament. That said, the Scottish Lib Dems oppose dual mandates and the SNP’s Alyn Smith MP has proposed a bill on banning dual mandates from Westminster.
The parties all generally pledge to give more powers to local government or reform the way local government operates, which is most welcome, however, this varies from party to party.
Other welcome commitments include recall rules for MSPs in extreme cases (as proposed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), as well as more deliberative democracy in the form of citizens assemblies (the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP).
Overall, there are a range of welcome policy proposals from across the parties but whether they will be delivered remains to be seen.
First Past the Post flies in the face representative democracy. Westminster’s voting system needs an upgrade.
1. Better Representation overall
First Past the Post (FPTP) means that voters are not fairly represented in the British House of Commons. Under FPTP the share of seats won by a party does not accurately reflect the share of votes won. Proportional Representation would fix this problem by ensuring that seats match votes.
In 2019, the Conservatives won 44% of the vote but won 50% of the seats in the House of Commons. Compare this with the Liberal Democrats who won 7.4% of the vote resulting in just 3.9% of the seats, not to mention the Greens who won just one seat with 2.7% of the vote.
If these distortions don’t convince you that something is very wrong with FPTP, just look at Labour in 2005 who won a majority of seats with just 35% of the vote. The Conservatives did the same in 2015 with just 37% of the vote. And at that same election, UKIP won one MP with 12.6% of the vote while the Greens managed the same on 3.8%.
Proportional Representation is the name for a group of voting systems where the share of votes won by a party is fairly translated into the share of seats they get in parliament. If a form of PR had been used in 2019, the Conservatives, who won 44% of the vote, would have won around 44% of seats available.
All in all, PR is much fairer than FPTP, and adopting a PR system would correct the current skewed relationship between seats and votes.
The main advantage of First Past the Post is supposedly the “constituency link” of one MP per seat as that allegedly improves the link between local issues and national government. However, under FPTP an MP only wins their seat by winning more votes than the next places candidate. By having just one representative from one party, voters can feel unrepresented in their constituency weakening the link between them and their MP.
Under any form of PR where constituents match local, “natural” boundaries, constituents would have multiple representatives, giving them more choice of who to go to with issues to represent them in parliament. With one MP per seat under FPTP, fewer constituents have a direct connection with their MP whereas a proportional system gives voters more choice of representatives to go to with issues between elections. If constituency boundaries take into account local geography, which is common in most democracies with PR, then having multiple representatives per seat will strengthen the coveted constituency link.
3. Less tactical voting
FPTP often forces voters to vote tactically. How often have you heard “X can’t beat Y here, vote for Z”? The current set-up promotes local two-horse races, giving people less of an incentive to vote for their most preferred party. Evidence from BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society suggests that around 3 in ten people planned on voting tactically in the 2019 General Elections.
Elections are an opportunity for constituents to put across their opinions and make their voice heard at the ballot box. First Past the Post distorts this process as thousands feel their only option is to vote for the candidate that will beat the party they like the least. As all votes count equally under PR, there is far less of an incentive to vote tactically and with more than one MP per constituency, voters don’t need to settle for their second, third or even fourth choice in an attempt to make their voice heard.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that no tactical voting exists under PR, especially hybrid systems like the Additional Member System in Scotland and Wales, but it certainly makes it significantly less of a factor.
4. No more electoral deserts
FPTP distorts how most people see the political landscape. Look at any electoral map of Scotland for example, and it looks like the SNP dominate every corner of the country. True, the SNP hold a significant amount of support in Scotland, but the dominance of yellow does not show the whole picture. The same goes for Labour red strongholds in the north and blue Conservative regions in the South East. The parties listed do extremely well in these areas but significant minority support does exist for other parties and single-member winner-take-all districts do not reflect this.
The 2015 UK General Election in Scotland is one of the most extreme examples of this. The SNP turned the map yellow, winning 56 of 59 (95% of) seats available, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems with one seat each. Yet the SNP only won 49.7% of the vote. This was a remarkable result but FPTP inflated the scale of their Scottish victory (and it is worth highlighting that even though FPTP helps the SNP, the party still supports PR).
Under PR, these electoral deserts would be a thing of the past. The SNP would have won around 50% of all Scottish seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have won around 24.3%, 14.9% and 7.5% of seats available respectively. Rather than the 1.7% of Scottish seats they each one.
Although infrequent, wrong-winner elections are a serious problem of FPTP. A wrong-winner election occurs when the party with the most votes overall doesn’t actually win the most seats. This happened in the UK in 1951 when Labour won the most votes but the Conservatives won a majority of seats. It happened again in February 1974 when the Conservatives won the most votes but were beaten on seats by Labour.
More recently, in Canada’s 2019 election Justin Trudeau’s Liberals secured the most seats but on fewer votes than the Conservatives. This ironically happened after Justin Trudeau went back on his promise to make 2015 the last Canadian election held under First Past the Post.
There is something very wrong with these outcomes. Even on its own terms, First Past the Post fails to work.
There is however a silver-lining here. Bear in mind that two wrong-winner elections in a row (1978 and 1981) brought electoral reform to the forefront of mainstream political discourse in New Zealand, paving the way for the eventual switch from FPTP to PR in 1996.
6. No more minority rule
First Past the Post means minority rule most of the time. With the exception of the coalition government of 2010 – 2015 (which had two parties), there hasn’t been a government formed with over 50% of the vote since before the Second World War. All single-party majority governments in the UK in modern times have been formed on a minority of the vote. The most recent Labour government was formed in 2005 with a majority of seats but just 35% of the vote.
Proportional Representation would mean a parliament that reflects how people vote, resulting in a coalition formed from parties that would mos likely have a combined share of the vote of over 50%. This would of course mean that parties would have to compromise but that’s just part of sensible, grown-up politics that recognises that most people don’t vote for one party. Such an outcome is far more representative than elected one-party states on minority vote shares.
Political philosophy and proposed policies come from all walks of life and a range of different parties. FPTP perpetuates the dominance of two large political parties while squeezing out smaller parties and often preventing new voices from getting a foothold in parliament. In some ways, FPTP facilitates a cartel between Labour and the Conservatives.
FPTP tends to result in two-party dominance whereas PR leads to multi-party politics. Switching to Proportional Representation would mean that all votes count, ultimately facilitating a parliament with a diverse range of parties. This is better for democracy as it ensures that all voices get a seat at the legislative table and allows for innovative, new ideas to break through into the mainstream. Put simply, PR would break up the cartel and create a parliament more diverse in terms of its political philosophy and policy propositions.
8. No more more unpredictable chaos
Under FPTP, the link between seats and votes is so skewed that an increase in X percentage points for one party will not result in the same increase in seats as an increase in X percentage points for another party. This makes FPTP a chaotic system.
Furthermore, increases in vote share can even mean a fall in the number of seats won. In 2017, the Scottish Conservatives increased their vote share by 5.5 percentage points. This translated into a loss of seats for the Conservatives and ultimately a loss of single-party majority government.
9. Far fewer wasted votes
First Past the Post has led to countless votes being wasted at the ballot box. Wasted votes are those votes that either go over and above the number required to elect MPs as well as votes that don’t elect any MPs. This hardly chimes with the values of a representative democracy and ultimately weakens the link between voters and representatives.
Proportional Representation would limit wastage significantly and ensure that all votes count equally.
10. Fewer safe seats
First Past the Post has resulted in Labour and the Conservatives holding seats with staggering majorities. Some seats haven’t changed hands in years, weakening voter power and resulting in limited campaigning in places where seats are unlikely to change hands. At the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Reform Society correctly predicted the outcome in 316 seats at the 2019 General Election due to them being classed as safe seats. Their analysis also found that 200 seats had not changed parties since the Second World War. This means that voters can feel powerless at the ballot box and results in parties focusing campaign resources on marginal seats rather than across the entire country.
Proportional Representation would result in multi-member constituencies (the exact nature of these would depend on the type of PR system used) meaning that safe seats would be limited and parties would need to campaign in all areas to pick up votes. This would strengthen democracy and empower voters.
Of course, some PR systems such as AMS used in Scotland, which retains a FPTP element (and a closed list system) would retain safe seats, but the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or an open list system would give voters powers over individual candidates and would significantly reduce safe seats.
11 A more consensus-based politics
Representative democracy should ultimately mean parliaments that reflect how people vote. Majority governments elected with a minority of the vote are not a realistic interpretation of the politics wanted by people. First Past the Post simply doesn’t create a climate of cooperation and consensus.
Proportional Representation is a recognition that cooperation between different political parties is a must to ensure accurate representation. It recognises the reality that no one party is unlikely ever to win a majority of votes and govern alone. Multi-party agreements are a more accurate interpretation of election results, even if a somewhat foreign concept to many in the UK used to single-party governance.
12. Proportional Representation is popular
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it should be supported. But widespread support for PR in the UK and the dominant usage of such systems abroad shows that the idea has significant merit, adding weight to the strong, principled arguments in favour of PR.
Polling consistently shows that most people in the UK support Proportional Representation over First Past the Post. This even often includes most Labour and Conservative voters, whose parties oppose any change away from FPTP. Furthermore, over 80% of OECD countries use some form of PR. Most of Europe also uses PR with only the UK and Belarus using FPTP (although it is worth noting that other countries such as France use a majoritarian system while other like Latvia used Mixed-Member Majoritarian which has only an element of PR).
The trend in recent years has been switching from majoritarian systems to PR.
Switching from our outdated First Past the Post voting system to a form of Proportional Representation is the single most important democratic improvement that Westminster politics can make. PR will not solve all of society’s ills overnight but it will provide a much fairer platform from which policy decisions are ultimately made. Democracy isn’t perfect but a fair voting system strengthens the validity and accountability of democratic decisions made.
Under PR everyone will have a fair stake in the system. Make Votes Matter and other better democracy campaigners are making the case for PR in Westminster. Parliament reflecting how people vote is how representative democracy should work; let’s work together to ensure that upgrading to PR comes sooner rather than later.
Ahead of the Upgrade Holyrood report on dual mandates set to be released later this month, below is an extract looking at the patterns of dual mandate holders in the Scottish Parliament.
The total number of dual mandates held by MSPs in each parliamentary session tells a story that largely reflects the changing political winds of the time. In raw numerical terms, dual mandates are not a dominating feature of Scottish politics but just because they aren’t on the political radar doesn’t mean they should not be addressed. MSPs with dual mandates have fluctuated since 1999 as illustrated in the below figures.
The story of dual mandates at the parliament’s inception was determined by the significant number of MPs elected in 1997 seeking election to the Scottish Parliament at its first election in 1999. Of the 14 newly elected MSPs, most of whom were Labour or SNP, 11 fully committed to the Scottish Parliament by not standing for the UK Parliament in 2001. The other three were Labour’s Donald Dewar, Scotland’s initial first minister who died tragically in 2000, the SNP’s Alex Salmond MSP, who resigned as SNP leader and an MSP in 2001 (before rejoining the parliament in 2007), and Sam Galbraith, a Labour politician who resigned in 2001 for health reasons.
In addition to MSPs with additional House of Commons mandates, three members of the House of Lords were elected to Holyrood in 1999, one from each of the three main UK-wide parties. James Douglas-Hamilton (Conservative), David Steel (Liberal Democrats) and Mike Watson (Labour) all held both roles throughout their time in the Scottish Parliament.
Session 2 (2003 – 2007)
Just five MSPs held dual mandates between 2003 and 2007. The drop largely reflects the settled nature of the chamber, with a limited number of seats changing hands in 2003 meaning that new MSPs were less likely to have existing roles. Two of the MSPs in this session were members of the House of Lords (James Douglas-Hamilton and Mike Watson), who also had dual mandates in session 1.
The other three were existing councillors who either resigned at a local level following election to Holyrood in 2003 (Mike Pringle of the Liberal Democrats) or became MSPs halfway through the Holyrood term in 2005 (Labour’s Charlie Gordon and the Liberal Democrats’ Andrew Arbuckle). Both Charlie Gordon MSP and Andrew Arbuckle MSP stayed as councillors until the 2007 local elections, which were held the same day as the next Scottish General Election.
Session 3 (2007 – 2011)
Five of the six MSPs who were also councillors in this session were SNP members, first elected to Holyrood at the 2007 election, as part of the party’s success at the time. Two resigned as councillors in 2009, one resigned as a councillor in August 2007 and one, Stefan Tymkewycz, stepped down as an MSP just three months into the job to concentrate on his role as an Edinburgh councillor. The other two councillors (the SNP’s Willie Coffey and the Lib Dem’s Jim Hume) held both positions throughout the session. There were also thee MSPs who were MPs, one being Alex Salmond who returned to Holyrood at the 2007 election and became first minister, and two Labour MPs (Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson) who won Westminster seats in 2010 and did not stand for re-election in 2011.
In addition, three MSPs (Labour’s George Foulkes and former First Minister Jack McConnell and the Lib Dem’s Nicol Stephen) were appointed to the House of Lords in Session 3. All three stepped down from Holyrood at the 2011 election.
Session 4 (2011 – 2016)
The high number of MSPs who were also councillors in Session 4 is largely down to the SNP’s success at the 2011 election where they secured an overall majority. All of these members either did not stand for re-election to council in 2012 or resigned before then. Three Labour councillors (Cara Hilton, Lesley Brennan and Jayne Baxter) were not initially elected in 2011 but moved up the list to replace colleagues who resigned in Session 4 and become MSPs themselves.
In addition, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives Annabel Goldie MSP was appointed to the House of Lords in Session 4 and Alex Salmond MSP became an MP once again at the 2015 election. Both held dual mandates throughout the rest of the fourth Scottish Parliamentary term.
Session 5 (2016 – 2021)
Dual mandates in session 5 were largely the result of the influx of new Conservative MSP’s when the party led by Ruth Davidson leapfrogged Labour to become the official opposition at Holyrood. This was the case for seven of the sixteen MSPs who were all councillors, all of whom stepped down from their local councils for the 2017 local elections. This also was the case for two Labour MSPs (Colin Smyth and Monica Lennon).
A further three SNP councillors were elected to Holyrood in 2016 but stood down as councillors throughout 2016. Two more, (the then Conservative’s Michelle Ballantyne and the Liberal Democrats’ Beatrice Wishart) stepped down as councillors soon after they joined Holyrood in the middle of the session via ascension on the list system and a constituency by-election respectively. In contrast, Tom Mason was a Conservative councillor throughout the session having joined the parliament in 2017 following Ross Thomson’s resignation.
Lastly, there were two MSPs who also held MP mandates. Ross Thomson and Douglas Ross were first elected to Holyrood in 2016 but were subsequently elected to Westminster in 2017 following which they quit as MSPs. Thomson’s departure led the appointment of Councillor Tom Mason as an MSP for the North East region. Mason remained MSP and Councillor despite criticism about his dual mandate role.
In July 2020, Douglas Ross declared his intention to stand for Holyrood ahead of his Scottish Conservative leadership launch with the commitment to holding a dual mandate for both parliaments. In the same week, former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was given a seat in the House of Lords, however, she said she would not take her place until the end of her mandate at Holyrood.
Overall, dual mandate patterns are largely representative of changing political winds such as the influx of Labour and SNP MSPs at the parliament’s inception, the surge in support for the SNP in 2007 and 2011 and the jump in representation of Scottish Conservatives in 2016.
Dual mandates in the 1999 – 2003 session are largely the result of Labour and SNP MPs taking up the new opportunity of the Scottish Parliament while the 2003 election says little due to limited change. However, dual mandates in subsequent sessions are largely symptomatic of the Scottish (and British) political career ladder. Local government is often viewed as a stepping-stone to Holyrood or Westminster hence the significant rise in MSP-councillors. There are also hints of a pattern of this with MPs becoming MSPs and vice versa; the career-ladder will depend on an individual’s position on the union, that is to say whether they view Holyrood or Westminster as the main point in Scottish politics.
Dual mandates are not a major issue and are often resolved within a year or two when new MSPs step down as councillors at subsequent local elections. This situation more closely resembles the German pattern of “transitory” dual mandates discussed previously rather than the French situation where the accumulation of mandates has been a widespread phenomenon (Navarro 2009).
However, despite not being a massive issue, discussed dual mandates are problematic as they divide the attention of elected representatives.
The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party launched their manifesto at 11am on Monday 19 April 2021.
When it comes to making changes to improve democracy, conservatives are usual timid in their approach. One only needs to look at their attitudes towards House of Lords reform under the coalition and their initial opposition to the Scottish Parliament to see that. More recently, at a UK the Conservative Party is hardening its stance against any positive changes at all, with the party even going as far as pledging to replace the slightly fairer supplementary vote used for mayoral elections with the archaic First Past the Post voting system. That said it is worth remember that the party does have some proponents of electoral reform, most notably Derek Thomas MP who is part of the Make Votes Matter alliance for Proportional Representation.
When it comes to improving Scottish democracy, the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto takes some small steps.
The manifesto has a section on strengthening Scotland’s democracy.
A recall rule (“Mackay’s law”)
The party’s manifesto commits the party to introducing a recall rule for MSPs similar to the one that exists in Westminster. The party have branded it as Mackay’s law following Derek Mackay’s resignation as finance minister and as SNP member in February 2021. This would allow “the public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months”.
Votes at 16
The party also promises to retain votes at 16 for Scottish elections, showing that the party fully accepts this and that there is broad consensus for votes at 16 in Scotland.
On the voting franchise, they oppose votes for prisoners, which is a discussion for another time.
The manifesto also makes a promise to cut the number of cabinet members in the Scottish Government and freeze MSP and ministerial pay over the next five years. There are question marks over whether such a move would improve Scottish democracy.
We believe in efficient government, not costly politics. The SNP used to promise a “smaller, better-focused ministerial team” that would “reduce bureaucracy” but over their 14 years in government the SNP have become more bloated than the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition they replaced.
To reduce the cost of politics and get the Scottish Government 100 per cent focused on the task of rebuilding our country, we support a reduction in the size of the Cabinet from 12 to 6, as the SNP themselves did in 2007, and a cap on the number of ministers and advisers. This will create a more focused team, solely engaged in our economic recovery and the running of devolved public services.
Given the need to maximise resources going to our frontline public services and the need for politicians to lead by example, we will support a freeze in MSP and ministerial pay for the next five years.
Scottish Conservative Manifesto (2021)
Strengthening the opposition
In this section of the Scottish Conservative manifesto, the party references the Alex Salmond enquiry, making the case that the Scottish Parliament needs to be able to better scrutinise the Scottish Government. The party pledges its support to lead a cross-party commission on doing this, with a remit including the accountability of ministers in parliament and the need for MSPs to have additional legal protections in debates.
Interestingly, the manifesto also tags on the possibility of the commission examining the practices of the Scottish Parliament “to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families”. Although not explicit, this pledge opens the possibility for the party to support permanent hybrid working even after the pandemic, which would be most welcome.
Overall, the party’s pledges on improving Scotland’s democracy are unsurprisingly timid and conservative (with a small c). The pledge to keep votes at 16 shows that the policy now has widespread support in Scotland, even if the UK Conservative does not support an extension of the UK franchise.
Their proposal for a recall mechanism is most welcome, although there would need to be significant checks and balances like at Westminster to prevent the system being exploited politically.
Unsurprisingly, the party does not support a voting system upgrade (that would be headline news here and probably elsewhere too) nor does it support an end to dual mandates (hardly unexpected considering Douglas Ross plans on holding one if elected to Holyrood). The party’s manifesto also fails to mention restrictions on second jobs for MSPs or a return to four-year parliamentary terms.
Lastly, as already mentioned the party does not mention a permanent hybrid parliament but its proposed commission would have a remit for recommending ways to make parliamentary life easier for MSPs with young families. This potentially covers the possibility of a hybrid parliament and would be a welcome upgrade to Scottish parliamentary politics.
Scottish Green Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater launched the party’s 2021 election manifesto today (Wednesday 14 April). The manifesto, entitled Our Common Future, is largely what was expected from the Scottish Green party: environmental commitments, a restructuring of the economy and a commitment to Scottish independence.
In 2016 the party won six MSPs (now down to five due to the resignation of Andy Wightman) and hope to win even more in May. Polling suggests they could do just that and win a record share of MSPs at Holyrood.
Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving democracy in Scotland. So what have the Scottish Greens pledged on strengthening Scotland’s democracy?
In terms of proposed democratic reforms, the Greens have focused on local improvements. The Greens have a section on “Local Democracy and Communities” where they highlight three achievements in the past five years. They say they:
~Won over £500 million additional investment in local services, from swimming pools to schools
~Introduced new powers for councils to raise local levies on tourism and workplace car parking
~Championed participatory democracy, including Scotland’s citizens assemblies
Scottish Greens Manifesto (2021)
The manifesto commits the party to five key pledges on local democracy and communities. These are:
We believe in Local Government. It plays a critical role in all of our lives, which is why we have focused on empowering and properly funding it over the last Parliament. We believe that rebuilding local democracy and empowering local government to meet the needs of the public should be at the heart of a green recovery.
The Scottish Greens will:
• Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils. We will reverse the 50-year decline in the status of local government by backing widespread decentralisation of powers to local government and addressing the massive disparity between Scotland and other European countries, with Scottish councils ten times bigger than the European average.
• Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions. Local councils are best placed to determine what’s needed in their areas, but across a huge range of policies, the Scottish Government has legislated to give Ministers a veto. We will always presume that such provisions should be removed from laws unless it can be demonstrated they are absolutely necessary and proportionate.
• Promote more diverse local representation. Women, people of colour, disabled people, trans people, and others with protected characteristics remain under-represented in local government. We will work to remove barriers to their full participation. We will increase the annual allowance for councillors, so it enables everyone to make it a full-time role. We will clarify ambiguity around maternity and parental leave, and extend access to public office funding across all protected characteristics.
• Put local, democratic ownership at the heart of a Green Recovery. We will back Councils to be able to own vital green infrastructure including public transport and local energy companies.
• Stimulate participatory democracy at local level. Greens pioneered participatory decision-making in Scotland, both locally and nationally. We will work to formalise citizens assemblies on an ongoing basis, locally and nationally, and introduce statutory duties on Councils and the wider public sector to support and enable new levels of local governance.
Scottish Green Party (2021)
Upgrade Holyrood supports reforms to Scottish Local government. Devolution shouldn’t just go from London to Edinburgh; it should flow from Edinburgh to local authorities and go directly in the hands of communities. Ballot Box Scotland has produced some excellent analysis and possible solutions for reforming local government that would restructure it in a way that brings government closer to constituents. The Greens’ proposals echo a lot of that. Their recognition that Scottish councils are abnormally large and that powers are far from citizens are most welcome.
The Scottish Green Party’s ambition to improve diversity in local government is welcome, with their plan to increase councillor remuneration something worth considering.
The party also beats the drum for participatory democracy – and not just on the local level. Local citizens’ assemblies have increased in occurrence in recent years. They have been used in Canada to explore options for electoral reform and are proposed by Make Votes Matter as a tool to find agreement for a fair alternative to First Past the Post at Westminster. The first citizens assembly in Scotland published its report in January 2021, outlining 60 proposals for improving how Scotland is run. And in December 2020, a report put together by the Sortition Foundation, the Electoral Reform Society, RSA and Common Weal outlined what a permanent second chamber in the form of a citizens assembly could look like in Scotland. More local citizens assemblies could well be used in future alongside traditional representative democracy.
However, while the Scottish Greens’ manifesto discusses ways to improve local democracy and government, and it does make clear the party’s position Scottish independence and the EU, it doesn’t address ways to improve democratic processes and mechanisms in the Scottish Parliament.
Better Proportional Representation
The Scottish Greens support the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and included a commitment to replacing the Additional Member System at Holyrood with STV in their 2016 manifesto. The Scottish Parliament’s voting system does not get a mention in the 2021 manifesto although it is assumed the Greens do still support it.
Ending dual mandates
The Greens’ new manifesto doesn’t say anything about dual mandates, which have been a topic for discussion with Douglas Ross, Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey all planning on holding dual mandates if elected to the Scottish Parliament in May.
Other improvements to Holyrood democracy
It is also worth noting that the party’s manifesto says nothing in preventing MSPs from holding second jobs, as well as nothing on making parliamentary terms four years, as supported by Upgrade Holyrood, nor does it say anything on creating a permanent hybrid parliament. Again it is worth saying that just because these policies aren’t in the manifesto doesn’t mean that the party doesn’t support them.
Overall, devolving power closer to communities is a good thing and some of the party’s policies will do just that. The Green party’s proposals for more participatory democracy are also welcome as a way to innovate the mechanics of representative democracy in Scotland.
One main manifesto down, four to go.
The Scottish Greens’ manifesto (Our Common Future) was launched on Wednesaday 14 April 2021 by Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. The full document can be accessed here.
The 2021 Scottish election campaign is underway and the launch of the Alba Party has put the issue of Holyrood’s electoral system in the spotlight. Ahead of manifesto launches this month, we take a look at what the parties said about the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system in 2016?
Scottish National Party (SNP)
The SNP’s 2016 manifesto made no mention of electoral reform at the Scottish Parliament. The party more generally does support the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which would be a welcome alternative to AMS, and has made commitments to STV at Westminster in recent UK General Election manifestos.
However, the party has not made an explicit commitment to STV at Holyrood in any of its Scottish election manifestos since 2003. Let’s hope the party addresses the issue in its 2021 manifesto. And even if they don’t, let’s hope the rise of Alba gets them to address the issue in some capacity.
Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives leapfrogged Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood in 2016. For a party that generally supports First Past the Post and resists a switch to Proportional Representation at Westminster, the party has certainly benefited from a form of PR at Holyrood.
Unsurprisingly however, the party made no commitment to electoral system reform in their 2016 election manifesto.
Labour has long opposed ditching First Past the Post at Westminster but the party was involved in implementing AMS at Holyrood, which is broadly proportional. The party now has over 200 CLPs in favour of PR and the party’s momentum group recently voted to support a switch to PR at Westminster. The party is clearly moving in the right direction ahead of 2024.
In 2016, Scottish Labour made no mention of electoral system reform at Holyrood but made other welcome pledges to improve Scottish democracy including a ban on MSPs having second jobs and devolution of powers to local communities. Let’s see what they say in 2021.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long advocated the Single Transferable Vote as the best form of Proportional Representation. The party’s 2016 manifesto didn’t explicitly address the issue of electoral reform but the party strongly supports it. Their 2021 manifesto is yet to be launched but the party has already made clear that switching from AMS to STV will be part of the party’s policy programme.
Scottish Green Party
The Scottish Greens also support the Single Transferable Vote and their 2016 election manifesto included an explicit commitment to reform Holyrood with STV.
A fairer way to elect MSPs. Greens support the use of Single Transferable Vote for future Holyrood elections. This system is already used in local council elections and is more likely to create a diverse parliament that better reflects the views of voters.
Scottish Green Party (2016: 37)
The Greens are therefore likely to include another commitment to STV their upcoming manifesto.
Read more about the need to upgrade Scotland’s voting system here.
When an individual holds two political offices simultaneously they are exercising a dual mandate. The likes of Donald Dewar (Labour), Alex Salmond (SNP) and Jim Wallace (Liberal Democrat) have all held dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons but the phenomenon has been limited in recent years.
However, the return of dual mandate holders looks likely at the upcoming Scottish Parliament election. Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross MP is standing for a regional seat with an explicit commitment to holding both his seats simultaneously if elected to the Scottish Parliament (his current Westminster seat of Moray and one of the Holyrood regional list seats in the highlands and islands). Former SNP now Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey plan on doing the same if elected to Holyrood.
Most parties are guilty of having had dual mandate holders one time of another but dual mandates are ultimately wrong and this should be recognised in legislation. Here are five reasons why.
1. Dual mandates are unfair on constituents
This first point is about the principle of the matter. Constituents deserve full-time representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster. MPs and MSPs have different roles in different chambers with full sets of different responsibilities. Constituents deserve fully committed MPs and MSPs dedicated to representing their electorates in a single, clear capacity. Dual mandates make this impossible.
2. Dual mandates are also impractical
In addition to being unfair on constituents in principle, dual mandates are also extremely impractical. Being an MSP or an MP is a full-time job. Having multiple mandates mean that less work is done on behalf of constituents, ultimately weakening the link between voters and their representatives. Not to mention, MSPs and MPs often work more than the standard working week, further highlighting the impracticalities of dual mandates. There’s also the travel considerations. In normal times dual mandate holders have to be in Edinburgh, London and their constituencies throughout the week. This involves serious logistical juggling.
This argument is backed up by empirical evidence. A study by Navarro (2009: 21) examined dual mandate holders in the European Parliament. Dual mandate holders (in this case MEPs holding addition mandates in their national parliaments) were found to be less productive than single mandate holders as measured by reports made by them, questions tabled, speeches given and attendance in the parliament. While this study was for a different legislature, it adds significant weight to the argument that dual mandates are impractical.
3. Dual mandates don’t necessary strengthen local clout in parliament
One of the most common arguments in favour of dual mandates is that they strengthen the links local communities have with different legislatures as constituents have one point of contact in different levels of governance. It follows that representatives going to a legislature higher up in the governance structure with additional more localised mandates are more likely to account for local interests as opposed to sticking with party policy for example.
This does sound somewhat logical but the empirical evidence fails to back this up. One study (Van de Voode 2020) found that while representatives with multiple mandates feel they have a greater connection with their own communities, that does not translate into how they operate in parliament.
The estimated regression models demonstrate that dual mandate holders indeed perceive themselves as local brokers, even when controlling for various systemic, party and individual level factors. On the other hand, they struggle to translate their localized attitudes into localized parliamentary behaviour, which could call one of the main arguments in favour of dual mandate holding into question.
Van de Voode (2020)
The argument of local follow-through doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
This may sound like a stretch but there is some evidence to suggest that dual mandates can lead to corruption. This is primarily from France where holding multiple mandates at different levels of government has very much been a part of French political culture.
As put by Navarro (2009: 19):
“As noted by Bernard Chantebout, in the French context, the parliamentarians are not usually corrupted in their capacity as parliamentarians: only those MPs who are in charge of a local executive have been convicted of corruption. It is indeed all the more tempting for “cumulants” to accept a bride when they decide (at the local level) about a public tender or about any urban policy that they are protected from prosecution by their parliamentary immunity.”
Navarro (2009: 19)
This definitely isn’t the main reason to ban dual mandates, and is very much a minority problem, but the fact that dual mandates could facilitate this only adds another reason to implement a ban.
5. Restrictions on dual mandates are gaining popularity
There is growing recognition that dual mandates are unfair on constituents. A popular idea alone is no reason to support reform but the current momentum against dual mandates shows that countries are recognising the problems associated with them.
Members of the European Parliament cannot take their seats if they hold a national mandate while members of the provincial legislatures in Canada cannot even stand for federal office.
Even France which has a long history of politicians holding multiple mandates, has taken a stance against them in recent years under Emmanual Macron’s government.
Closer to home, in 2014 the House of Commons banned dual mandates for members of the Welsh Parliament and Northern Assembly. The bans made Scotland the only constituent nation of the UK where dual mandates for the devolved national administration are not banned.
Dual mandates should be banned in Scotland to build a fairer and more efficient democracy. The route to banning dual mandates involves political agreement and likely legislation in Westminster rather than the Scottish Parliament as shown by previous laws made regarding Wales and Northern Ireland.
Douglas Ross’ likely return to Holyrood – in addition to the possible elections of Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to the Scottish Parliament (in addition to their seats in the Commons) – puts the issue clearly in the spotlight.
However, this likely return of dual mandates also stresses the challenges to banning them. The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. From a point of view of the practicalities of parliamentary politics (not to mention Conservative resistance to any democratic improvements), it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will budge on this issue. That said, opposition parties should continue to push for reform.
Dual mandates are not the most important issue in Scottish politics, not to mention that they are not the most important democratic reform campaign issue. Nonetheless, dual mandates are clearly wrong and ultimately unfair on constituents. A ban on dual mandates in Scotland is long overdue. Let’s make 2021 the last Scottish election where dual mandates are possible.
Sign the petition to reform Holyrood’s electoral system here
Upgrade Holyrood is a political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics and delivering relevant political analysis and commentary. Scottish politics needs an upgrade and Upgrade Holyrood aims to provide a space to help facilitate that.
On 31 March 2021 I had an article published in Politics.co.uk highlighting the need to replace Scotland’s electoral system with a fairer alternative.
The launch of the Alba party and Alex Salmond’s explicit intention to exploit a loophole in the Additional Member System spurred me on to actually launch Upgrade Holyrood.
Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has launched a new party with the intention of forming a “supermajority” for independence in the Scottish parliament, together with the SNP and the Greens. His Alba party has momentum, but its strategy is to exploit a fault in Scotland’s largely proportional hybrid voting system. Alex Salmond’s latest venture exposes the need for electoral reform at Holyrood.
To someone with a limited knowledge of Scottish politics, Alba may sound like a development that will hurt the SNP in May’s Scottish election. But this is far from the case.
Richard Wood (2021) via Politics.co.uk
Scottish democracy can and must be better. Scotland’s voting system needs an upgrade.
Scotland’s political framework is more democratic and representative than Westminster’s but there is room for improvement. Upgrade Holyrood aims to facilitate discussions on upgrading Scotland’s democracy and ultimately help bring about change at the Scottish Parliament.
Launched on 8 April 2021, Upgrade Holyrood is a brand-new political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics while delivering relevant political analysis and commentary.
There’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Scottish politics, most notably Holyrood’s proportional voting system, the lack of an undemocratic upper chamber, electronic voting for members and the direct election of the first minister by MSPs. Scotland’s democratic processes are much more evolved than Westminster’s, and London should learn from that.
However, while Holyrood is more democratic than Westminster, there is still room for improvement.
The Alba party’s attempt to exploit a flaw in the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system and the likely return of “dual mandates” at the 2021 election have spotlighted the need for reform. And that’s where Upgrade Holyrood comes in. Scottish representative politics can learn democratic best practice from across Europe and beyond.
Guided by the principle that our democracy can and must be better, Upgrade Holyrood supports:
Accountable representation: a return to fixed four-year parliamentary terms
Fair and efficient representation: an end to dual mandates in Scottish politics and restrictions on second jobs for politicians
Inclusive representation: a permanent hybrid parliament
Local representation: more powers for local communities across Scotland
Proportional representation a fairer voting system to elect MSPs
Upgrade Holyrood provides analysis, opinion and research on solutions to improve Scottish democracy as well as the space to discuss further advancements. Additional commentary on Scottish, British and European politics more generally will also be covered.
Read my article (published in Politics.co.uk) on the need to reform Scotland’s electoral system here.
Upgrade Holyrood was initially launched as Better Holyrood before a name change on 13 April 2021.