A coalition of pro-democracy protestors gathered at London’s Parliament Square on Saturday 5 February to rally against the UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill.
Organised by leading organisations in the democracy sector, including Make Votes Matter, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society, the rally included speeches from across the political spectrum.
Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake, Labour’s John McDonnell, the Lib Dem’s Hina Bokhari, Reform UK leader Richard Tice and Green co-leader Carla Denyer were just some of the leading figures who spoke at the rally. Campaigners from pro-reform groups such as the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were also in attendance to make their case against the controversial piece of legislation.
The rally was one of a number of pro-democracy events held across the country including a similar rally in Manchester later in the afternoon.
The Elections Bill is a deeply damaging piece of legislation which passed in the House of Commons on the evening of Monday 17 January (and due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords later in February).
The bill is set to introduce voter identification requirements, a “solution” to the near non-existent problem of voter fraud which will end up suppressing voters in the most marginalised groups across the country.
The bill also replaces the Supplementary Vote with the clapped-out and unfair First Past the Post electoral system. This unnecessary change will make elected mayors in England less representative and shows just how opposed this government is to any positive voting reform.
In addition to this, the Bill threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission and sets out measures to change spending rules for the worse.
UK politics needs better representation not less, and First Past the Post certainly needs to be ended not extended.
The Elections Bill will level down our democracy but there is hope. The Parliament Square rally shows the vibrancy of the campaign against this regressive bill. Together, we can push back and upgrade our democracy.
Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.
Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?
The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.
Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.
The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.
Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.
However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).
Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.
The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.
The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.
What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?
The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.
Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.
For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.
But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?
Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.
Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).
So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.
In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.
The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.
However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.
Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.
Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.
Thursday 5 May 2022 will be a bumper day of local government elections across the UK.
Councillors are set to be elected across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, all 22 councils in Wales and a significant number of local authorities across in England (including all London boroughs, numerous county councils and metropolitan boroughs). There are no local authority elections in Northern Ireland this year, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly election is taking place on the same day (and with the DUP on the verge of losing their first-place position, it is certainly one to keep an eye on).
The contrast between the way local elections are conducted in Scotland and England will be most striking as English councillors are elected via First Past the Post (often with multiple councillors elected per ward) whereas Scottish Council elections are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote.
England can and must learn from Scotland when it comes to local government.
England’s broken local government
Local elections in England are conducted using the First Past the Post system. Unlike in Westminster elections, these elections often have multiple winners (with each voter getting the same number of votes as positions available). However, the result is the same: votes cast do not match seats won, making local government in England incredibly unrepresentative.
Take a look at Westminster Borough Council. In 2018, the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote while Labour won 41.1%. Under a PR system, both parties would be fairly evenly matched in terms of seats but the reality is far from this. The Conservatives won 41 seats while Labour got just 19. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats achieves 9.4% of the vote but took no seats.
This pattern of skewed election results is repeated right across England and is a direct consequence of plurality voting for local government elections.
In contrast, all 32 local authorities in Scotland are elected via Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) with three and four member wards. Yes, there is a debate to be had about improving STV in Scottish local government, but on the whole, PR-STV delivers largely proportional outcomes and that is something that should be widely applauded.
The first PR-STV local government elections took place in 2007 and were a direct consequence of the renewed Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood following the 2003 election.
On the whole, STV delivered largely proportional election results, while also empowering voters who are able to differentiate between different candidates within a party as well as express their opinion on more than just one individual or faction.
Take a look at Glasgow City Council. Out of 85 seats, the SNP secured 39 seats on 41.0% of first preference votes while Scottish Labour secured 31 seats in 30.2% of First preference votes. The Scottish Conservatives got eight seats on 14.6% of First preference votes while the Greens got seven seats (8.7% of first preferences). Had this election been conducted First Past the Post, the SNP would no doubt have dominated and the Conservatives and Greens would have got none or only a couple of seats.
While the system isn’t perfectly proportional, largely due to most wards only being made up of three or four members, the Glasgow example shows how broadly proportional STV elections are and that smaller parties can break through and win representation they otherwise wouldn’t under FPTP.
Improving local government in Scotland – learning from Northern Ireland
Just like in Scotland, Northern Ireland councils are elected via the Single Transferable Vote. However, while Scottish wards elect three or four members, Northern Irish wards are generally made up of five or six members, sometimes even seven. This higher district magnitude leads to overall more proportional results than in Scotland and should be commended.
How close is local government reform in England and Wales?
Due to the Lib-Lab coalition (2003 – 2007), Scottish local elections are conducted using STV. The 2022 local elections will be the fourth in Scotland to use STV. Since the change came into effect in 2007 there has been some progress on improving local governance south of the border.
The most significant development in making local government elections fairer in the UK occurred in Wales in 2020. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act (given Royal ascent in early 2021) allows local councils to change their voting system from First Past the Post to STV. Unfortunately this isn’t mandatory meaning that councils actively have to make the change. While a compulsory scrapping of FPTP would have been far better, this is still a positive development in making local government fair.
As for England, reform looks unlikely until there is a change of government in Westminster. In fact, English local government is getting more unrepresentative. The government’s regressive Elections Bill is set to abolish the Supplementary Vote used in metro mayor elections and replace it with First Past the Post. The SV is far from perfect, but it provides for a broader mandate than under FPTP.
English local government needs reform. There is a long way to go, but Scotland and Northern Ireland show a path to fair representation.
It is almost certain that Boris Johnson will not lead the Conservative Party into the next UK General Election. The not so closed secret that Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and others are gearing up to take over down the line is more open than ever as all vying candidates speed up their operations to take the reigns from someone who really should never have been there in the first place.
January 2022 has been a rocky month for the prime minister. The dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford from the Conservatives to the Labour Party may have bought the prime minister some time (by uniting the Tories against what in their eyes must be seen as a “beytrayal”) but Johnson will certainly be gone by the end of the year if not the summer.
It is that dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford, which has brought up an age-old question. Should there be a by-election?
The case for mandatory by-elections post-defection
Whenever someone defects, the argument that defectors should test their decision with their electors is always brought up. Often it is relative to party positions at the time. If for example, a Conservative defects as in this case, then Conservatives will largely call for a by-election while Labour will not rule it out (as they know the public often feel strongly on this) but will obfuscate or say it’s probably not necessary. This is exactly what happened in Christian Wakeford’s case.
The main argument for an immediate by-election is that voters tend to vote for parties and leaders, not to mention tactical voting, with local candidates playing a very little part in determining how exactly people vote. This infers that when someone switches allegiance, they have gone against the wishes of their constituents. It is worth saying again this point we are only talking about First Past the Post elections and I am couching language in traditional FPTP terms for ease.
There is a strong logic to this case: voters generally vote for a party and therefore a change in party is unfair on voters who resultantly deserve to have a say.
This is backed by public opinion. A YouGov poll in the wake of the Wakeford defection indicates that 62% of voters support a by-election if an MP switches party – compared to 17% of voters who disagree. Some of that support may be circumstantial due to recent events, with party loyalty playing a key role, but it is clear that most people would prefer to see by-elections in these cases.
Fuethermore, there is also the case that at Westminster voters only have one MP. It follows that with only one voice in parliament, constituents deserve a say when a defection takes place.
Reasons why mandatory by-elections have never been legislated for
So if the call for by-elections happens every time someone defects, and if public opinion supports by-elections, why hasn’t any government mandated it in law?
The simple answer is that probably a mix of four things. Firstly, such defections are relatively rare in the grand scheme of things, especially in the Scottish Parliament. Secondly, most parties have benefited from defections at some point or and other and each party recognises the political capital gained when a member leaves one party to join theirs. Thirdly, in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t a priority for any government. And lastly, perhaps cynically but more likely the brutally truth, is that fact that defectors fear they will lose a by-election. This would be bad for the party they joined as well as their own career, further putting or governements from ever mandating by-elections in legislation.
These factors probably indicate why no change has been brought forward in legislation either at Holyrood or Westminster. But is there also a case to bring made for the status-quo?
The argument that voters elect MPs or constituency MSPs based on candidates holds very little water. Party preference is overwhelmingly the largest factor in determining how exactly people will vote, alongside tactical voting in FPTP elllections, unless in extreme circumstances. This means that those calling for no automatic by-elections on the basis that voters voted for the candidate not the party really are kidding themselves.
There’s also the argument that this is how it’s always been. Winston Churchill crossed the floor- on no fewer than two occasions. The formation of the SDP in the 1980s largely came from Labour defections while Change UK emerged from Labour and Conservative defections in 2019, with many going on to join the Liberal Democrats.
But just because something has always been one way doesn’t mean we should keep it. For example, Holyrood’s Additional Member System has largely worked well for 23 years but there are better alternatives. Keeping something how it has always been for the sake of keeping it that way is not demicratic best practice at. Therefore, this argument also fails to stand up to scrutiny.
However, one argument that does make sense in favour of the status-quo comes down to the practicalities of it all. Ask yourself this question, if an MP or list MSP had to call a by-election, would they risk it? Clearly some would, such as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2014 (from the Conservatives to UKIP) but others probably would be nervy about it. In which case, often there would be parliamentarians making speeches on topics and voting for legislation without believing what they are doing. This would ultimately be wrong. Keeping the option to defect but not cause a by-election allows MPs and MSPs to be honest about what they believe in rather than being stuck in a party with no realistic way out. This is arguably fairer on voters who deserve honest representatives.
There is also the argument that it should be up to the MP or MSP themselves to cause a by-election. This is partly on the basis that MPs and constituency MSPs are elected individually – which they are, but again it is worth highlighting the importance of party preference rather than preference for individuals at the ballot box. Christian Wakeford clearly feels he doesn’t need to call a by-election but the 2014 UKIP defectors did (and it even paid off). One could argue that it is ultimately up to each MP or MSP to make the decision to call a by-election with the hope of securing their constituents’ seal of approval.
Calls for automatic by-elections will always be made in the hours following an MP or MSP’s defection. Public opinion clearly backs this and the logic that voters should be given a say on their representative’s new allegiance is undeniably strong. In purely theoretical terms, automatic by-elections should probably be standardised for single-seat members. However, the world is more complicated than that. There should surely be some mechanism that allows discontented MSPs/MPs to leave their party. The prospect of a by-election would discourage these representatives from ever following their believes which would be unfair on voters.
Perhaps one way to square the circle would be to introduce automatic by-elections for MPs/constituency MSPs if they directly defect to another party. That would give voters a say in their decision. However, perhaps representatives should still be allowed to voice their change in views while being allowed to remain in parliament. A compromise solution would be to allow MPs or constituency MSPs to become independent without causing a by-election. They could be allowed to stand for a new party at the next election, perhaps, even join them six months ahead of it to show their new allegiance if they choose so. This overall approach would allow outright defectors to face the electorate while also allowing a route for independent minded MPs and MSPs to express dissatisfaction with their party and not insult their voters by joining a new party.
There’s probably no right answer to this but this is a solution that would strike the balance between allowing representatives to be true to themselves and giving voters a say when there is a significant and direct switch in support.
That all said, it goes without saying that MPs should not be elected by First Past the Post and that the above relates to the status-quo not the ideal representative democracy. The same goes for constituency MSPs at Holyrood – the Scottish Parliament also needs a new, fairer and more representative voting system. However, while we have these systems the above could be an answer to constant calls for automatic by-elections.
This article has so far only focused on MPs and constituency MSPs. But what about list MSPs?
The main difference is that there are never by-elections for list MSPs. If a list MSP resigns their seat or dies, then the next candidate in their party list takes the seat. In the case of independents, the seat is left vacant until the next election. This obviously means that a defecting MSP cannot call a by-election. They could defect and resign but the next candidate on their original party’s list would replace them.
The most prominent recent example of a list MSP defection was Conservative Michelle Ballantyne’s defection to Reform UK during the last parliamentary term.
One solution to list MSP defections would similar to above. A list MSP could become an independent and keep their seat but if they wanted to change party they would have to resign their seat – but surely in practice very few would take this route. The truth is this is an incredibly difficult square to circle but it’s also worth saying that because constituents have multiple regional representatives it’s less of an issue if a list MSP defects as they have other MSPs to turn to in order to represent them in parliament.
Overall, the issue of defecting parliamentarians is a tricky one to handle. It will always happen. Just as voters change their opinions, so to do MPs and MSPs. There is no obvious answer to calls for automatic by-elections, but this aspect – that our representatives are complicated individuals with unique and often changing perspectives on the world – should not be lost.
The UK Government’s “Elections Bill” was voted through by MPs on the evening of Monday 17 January 2022.
Very little time was given to the Bill which will have some significant impacts on the nature of British democracy when it is likely given Royal Ascent.
The Bill, which will next go to the House of Lords, is symptomatic of the current government’s commitment to consolidating power and introducing regressive electoral reforms. Both the Elections Bill and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will have major negative repercussions.
One of the main controversies of the Bill is the introduction of voter identification requirements which campaign groups have said will further marginalise those groups already less likely to vote. While there is a logic to requiring voters to verify their identity, the problem the bill claims to tackle is almost non-existent. The number of voter fraud cases in the UK stands at only a handful. What’s more, trials in England in 2019 led to the turning away of hundreds of voters, almost half of whom did not return to vote. Instead of addressing a non-existent problem, voter ID will create a whole set of new issues, namely voter suppression.
The Bill will also replace the Supplementary Vote with First Past the Post for mayoral elections in England. The Supplementary Vote is far from the best way to elect single-member positions like mayor or president (the best system would be the Alternative Vote) but it is superior to First Past the Post as it provides a broader, more representatie mandate to the winning candidate. Instead of replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation and preferential systems where necessary, the government is expanding a clapped-out system that fails to represent the people time and time again.
Democracy activists and campaign groups took a strong stance against the bill while opposition parties tabled a series of amendments to rip out the bill’s worst elements and improve it overall, but ultimately none were successful.
The Elections Bill puts Britain on the wrong track. The use of First Past the Post needs to be ended not extended.
Westminster is in desperate need of an upgrade. We need real democracy now.
The UK is a long way from becoming a republic according to current polling. Despite a number of high-profile scandals in recent years, support for the monarchy remains extremely high, largely due to the popular personal appeal of the current monarch herself. But what happens when her son, Prince Charles, takes over is anyone’s guess and will likely spark a key debate about who should represent the country on the world stage.
That all said, Scotland has some of the highest support for abolishing the monarchy across the whole UK. A YouGov poll from spring 2021 put support for the monarchy across the UK at 61% and support for an elected head of state at just 24%. Unlike other polls where sub-samples are often too small to infer conclusions about different demographics, this poll is large enough to do just that. The poll suggests that 49% of voters in Scotland support the monarchy while 33% would support a republic. The full poll can be viewed here.
With this in mind, it’s worth exploring what each of Scotland’s five main political parties make of the monarchy and the prospect of a republic.
The Scottish National Party officially have a position that supports the monarchy. Had Scotland become independent in 2014, the country would have most likely remained in the Commonwealth and retained the monarchy similar to the likes of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. For outside observors this may seem peculiar due to the SNP’s strong stance against British institutions, however, there are a number of factors at play that have let to this position. One is the strategic advantage gained by supporting the monarchy to win over voters unsure about the uncertainties of independence. The more independence looks less of a clean break with the UK, the more likely uncertain voters may take a gamble goes the thinking. Furthermore, the monarchy isn’t just a British institution, the history of the Scottish monarchy as part of the British monarchy should not be overstated.
Former SNP Leader and First Minister Alex Salmond has been incredibly supportive of the Queen and the institution of the monarchy (a view he no longer holds with his Alba party now in favour of a republic) while it has been suggested that current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a more neutral approach to the institution.
That said, there are a number of significant figures within the party who support abolishing the monarchy such as Christine Grahame MSP and former Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham.
Unsurprisingly, both the Scottish Conservatives and the UK-wide Conservative and Unionist Party are pro-monarchy. Small-c conservative ideology concerns the preservation of old institutions and only making small changes when deemed practical and when necessary to survive. Overall, the party is incredibly supportive of the monarchy although it is worth noting that centre-right republicans do exist. Most notably in Scotland, former Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins held anti-monarchy views (before being elected in 2016).
The official Labour position is pro-monarchy however, unlike the Conservatives there is widespread support within Labour ranks for adopting a republican position. Former UK-leader Jeremy Corbyn has consistently argued for abolition of the monarchy (although he didn’t further that cause while leader) and other leading UK Labour figures such as Clive Lewis support that position.
In Scottish Labour, there are a number of MSPs with republican views such as Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) and Katy Clark (West of Scotland). There is no doubt that there are more even though the party officially backs the monarchy.
The Scottish Greens support an independent Scottish republic. This has long been the position of the party.
This makes them the only pro-republic party represented at Holyrood although Alba supports a republic and does have two MPs due to defections in 2021.
The Liberal Democrats currently support retaining the monarchy, however, there is some support for a change in position within the party. Back in 1994, Liz Truss (yes, that Liz Truss, once a Lib Dem activist now Conservative foreign secretary) spoke in favour of a motion at party conference to replace the monarchy with a republican system.
The motion failed and while there is no major appetite for change either in the Scottish or federal parties, there is of course a minority of republic supporting members. In 2013, the Lib Dems for a Republic group was set up but it has seemingly fizzled out.
While the party officially supports the monarchy, an investigation by the Scottish Lib Dems in 2021 held the royals to account by finding that a royal privilege (called the Queen’s Consent) was used by the monarchy to intervene in Scottish Parliament legislation.
The Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee have written to the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society about reforming the voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament.
The action is a direct result of my petition (submitted 12 October 2021) calling on electoral reform at Holyrood, ideally by introducing a more proportional system where voters have a significant amount of power over candidates within parties, such as the Single Transferable Vote.
The petition called on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative. It highlighted that while AMS is broadly proportional, and significantly better than First Past the Post (FPTP) used at Westminster, it has a number of significant flaws.
Meeting on 17 November 2021, the cross-party Committee discussed the consequences of any change and agreed to write to both the UK’s Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.
The action came from the suggestion of committee member David Torrance MSP (SNP, Kirkcaldy) who said:
“I do not know whether there is any appetite from any of the political parties or the Government to change the voting system, but I think that we should write to the key stakeholders—the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and the Electoral Commission—to seek their views on what the petitioner is asking for.”
David Torrance MSP (17 November 2021)
Electoral Commission response
The Electoral Commission responded on 2 December with the following:
The Electoral Commission holds no view on which voting system is preferable for any election. These matters are rightly for elected representatives to decide. However, where a new voting system is introduced then we would provide advice to the relevant parliaments and governments on any implications for voters and electoral administrators to ensure that voters were able to cast their votes and have them counted in the way they intended. This would include details of any voter information campaigns which the Electoral Commission would run to raise awareness of the new voting system.
I note that in the Committee’s meeting on 17 November members raised concerns about the ‘list order effect’ on STV ballot papers. It may be helpful to note that in 2019, at the request of the Scottish Government, the Electoral Commission carried out research to assess the impact on voters of any changes to the ordering of candidates on ballot papers for Scottish council elections.
Electoral Commission response to letter from Petitions Committee (2 December 2021)
The response is unsurprising. As the Commission notes, they have no view on which electoral system should be used. In the Scottish Parliament’s case that is up to MSPs who would need a two-thirds majority to enact any electoral system change.
There is one positive at the end though that is worth pointing out – the research highlighted by the Electoral Commission addresses concerns about list ordering in Single Transferable Vote elections. It suggests that “in the testing we undertook, the order of the candidates had no impact on voters’ ability to find and vote for their preferred candidates on the ballot paper”, which indicates that this argument against STV has very little to no merit.
In response to the petition, the Scottish Government submitted a response on 19 October 2021. The submission contained the following:
The practical effect of the proposal in the petition would be to change the method used to elect the membership of the Scottish Parliament.
As the Committee will be aware, the system used for electing members to the Scottish Parliament was set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the act of the United Kingdom Parliament which makes provision for a Scottish Parliament.
Until the passing of the Scotland Act 2016, elections for the membership of the Scottish Parliament were a reserved matter for the UK Parliament. It was only with the commencement of the relevant provisions of that Act on 18 May 2017 (The Scotland Act 2016 (Commencement No. 6) Regulations 2017) that it became within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to consider changes to the method of electing its membership.
As you are aware, the current system is the Additional Member System which does have an element of proportional representation through the use of two ballot papers, one of which elects additional members from a list. I would advise that the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.
Scottish Government submission (19 October 2021)
Again, the Scottish Government’s submission is unsurprising. It lays out the fact that until the Scotland Act (2016), the electoral system at Holyrood was determined by Westminster but the Scottish Parliament now has the power to make changes.
It then notes that, “the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.”
Scottish Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has said he is “sympathetic” to the idea of electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament.
The Glasgow MSP made the remark while sitting as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee discussing the petition for electoral reform submitted to the Scottish Parliament (17 November 2021).
I am sympathetic, because it is an on-going and worthwhile discussion. In the 1990s, the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the additional member system as the preferred electoral system, but perhaps there is an on-going need to consider alternatives. Obviously, the single transferable vote for local government elections was introduced in the mid-2000s. There have been observations of concerning practices in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections; most notably, the Greens were perhaps stymied in some instances by a decoy green party, which was higher up the list and seduced votes away from the Greens. I certainly noticed that at the Glasgow count, so there are flaws with the current list structure of two ballots, which are worth further investigation.“
Paul Sweeney MSP (Glasgow)
The Petitions Committee agreed to write to both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society on the matter. You can read more about my petition, the actions taken by the committee – and the responses – here.
Scottish Labour currently have no official position on which voting system to use at Holyrood. The UK-wide party currently supports First Past the Post for Westminster elections (although progress is being made to change this view).
The Scottish Liberal Democrats support changing AMS to STV and campaigned on this at the 2021 election. The SNP also generally favour STV while the Scottish Greens have moved towards supporting Open List Proportional Representation.
The Scottish Conservatives are resistant to any positive electoral reforms. Indeed, the Conservative UK Government recently passed one of the most regressive bills relating to elections.
The alliance includes all the UK’s main opposition parties, leading democracy organisations (apart from Labour) and key PR supports from right across the UK. Make Votes Matter’s goal is to replace First Past the Post with Proportional Representation for elections to the House of Commons.
Upgrade Holyrood primarily supports better democracy in Scotland – by arguing for an end to dual mandates, the introduction of a recall process for MSPs and better Proportional Representation at Holyrood. But Upgrade Holyrood also passionately supports the introduction of PR at Westminster.
“Adopting a system of Proportional Representation is the single-most important improvement we can make to democracy in the UK. We need to correct the distorted link between seats and votes so that voters are accurately represented and wasted votes are minimised.”
“The voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament has its flaws but it does deliver largely proportional results and is far more representative First Past the Post. Westminster has a lot to learn from the way Scottish Parliament elections are conducted.
“Without Proportional Representation at Holyrood, the SNP would unfairly dominate parliament due to their near monopoly of constituency seats. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives would have next to no representation, not to mention that both Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross owe their admittance to the Scottish Parliament to PR.”
“Westminster needs a major shake-up and I am proud that Upgrade Holyrood has joined the Alliance for Proportional Representation to help make that happen.”
More about Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance can be read here.
Imagine a future for Scotland’s democracy where the 99% of us who are usually locked out of political decision making are hardwired in. A future where there are multiple, local, national and international entry points for you to get involved, hear from experts, share your ideas and make change. This change isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s what’s required to meet the multiple complex and profound challenges that are facing us globally today. Challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and forced migration. For too long, democracy has been eroded by vested interests with the money to keep power in the hands of the few. That needs to change.
This is a future that Scotland has the opportunity to lead the way on, breaking new ground on how citizens are involved in decision making.
So, what does that look like?
Democratic innovations take multiple forms, from deliberative mini-publics through to participatory budgeting. In this article, we’ll be focusing on two related forms of deliberative democracy; one that you may be familiar with, citizens’ assemblies, and the second, a House of Citizen for Scotland.
First, let’s get to grips with the jargon. Deliberative democracy is where people come together to hear from multiple points of view. People are enabled to discuss issues and to find common ground to produce outcomes e.g., proposals/recommendations. There are many ways of doing deliberative democracy, and methods and tools are being developed all the time. One of the most notable examples that we have are citizens’ assemblies.
Broadly speaking, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative bunch of people, selected by lottery, to decide how we should live together. In Scotland we have had two national assemblies, the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of Scotland and the Climate Assembly. In both cases, around 100 people representing the diversity of Scotland were brought together to hear from experts, discuss amongst themselves, and draw up recommendations for the Scottish parliament. Citizens’ assemblies are powerful for many reasons, one of the most notable is their ability to reduce the powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes. This was recognised by the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland, where one of their key recommendations was to create a citizen-led second chamber in Scotland – a House of Citizens.
🤔What does a fair algorithm for selecting members of citizens' assemblies look like?
In Scotland we currently have a commitment from the SNP for an annualised citizens’ assembly, with a range of issues already identified as contenders for discussion over the coming years. This is a welcome step in the right direction, national citizens’ assemblies can break political deadlocks and allow citizens to listen to expertise and create solutions. If that’s the case you may be wondering why the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland called for a House of Citizens, and why is it of such value?
A House of Citizens
A House of Citizens would have four key characteristics:
Like a citizens’ assembly, members would represent the diversity from across Scotland. Hardwiring in the 99% of us usually locked out of political decision making
The members would serve 1-2 year terms. This prevents creating ‘just another political elite’, and reduces the influence of lobbying.
The people who understand the challenges faced by ordinary people are ordinary people. That’s why ordinary citizens as members of the House of Citizens would decide on topics for citizens’ assemblies across the country; this decentralises power and ensures local democracy is a cornerstone of the House of Citizens.
Members would select legislation to be scrutinised, so as to improve the quality of legislation that comes from Scottish parliament. Politicians can’t continue to mark their own homework, we need to improve the decisions that Scottish parliament takes that affects all of our lives.
Beyond the value already described, a House of Citizens hardwires deliberation into Scotland’s parliament and strengthens the civic muscle of Scotland. Imagine being able to go to your local pub, and be served by someone who had experience in the House of Citizens?
Of course, the House of Citizens doesn’t act in isolation – and reform of democracy needs to happen at a local, national and international level if we are to address the democratic crisis. But a House of Citizens is something that can begin to be put into action now, shaping the future of Scotland’s democracy as a global leader in citizen participation.
The full proposals for a Scottish House of Citizens – by the Sortition Foundation, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Common Weal and RSA – can be read here.
About the author
This is a guest post by Will Stringer, Campaign Coordinator for the Sortition Foundation, which advocates for deliberative democracy.Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Upgrade Holyrood.