The UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading (Wednesday 23 February 2022).
The Bill passed in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January (Report Stage and Third Reading) with very limited time dedicated to its debate. Unfortunately none of the amendments designed too remove its most oppressive aspects were successful due to the government having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
With the Bill now in the House of Lords, there is an opportunity for government defeats to push back against the watering down of our democratic standards.
Reasons to oppose the Elections Bill
The Bill will weaken the UK’s already shaky democratic foundations. Instead of upgrading our political system by introducing Proportional Representation and modernising parliament, the Elections Bill is a direct attack on representative democracy.
It contains provisions to expand First Past the Post through abolishing the Supplementary Vote used for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections. The current system is far from perfect but it provides a broader mandate to PCCs and mayors than the unrepresentative FPTP set-up currently used to elect Member of Parliament to the House of Commons.
The Elections Bill is also set to weaken the vital independence of the Electoral Commission. This is an affront to democracy which the Electoral Commission have firmly taken a stand against. In their letter to the government they say:
We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law.
Electoral Commission (21 February 2022)
Furthermore, the government’s bill will introduce voter identification (ID) requirements to address alleged voter fraud. Of course, electoral fraud is wrong and should be stamped out where present, however, the issue is barely a footnote on the pages of modern British politics, not to mention that trials in England have found voter ID to be highly ineffective. What’s more leading campaigns and organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and Hands off Our Vote have highlighted that voter ID is inherently exclusionary – it will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, young people, older people and other demographics. Instead of tackling fraud, voter ID will suppress voters.
The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on the Bill provides more details and further reasons to oppose the Bill here.
What can you do? Taking action to defend democracy
The House of Lords has an opportunity to defeat the government but that is not without its challenges. Here’s what you can do.
Campaign groups from across the democracy sector are coming together to put pressure on the House of Lords to do the right thing.
Unlock Democracy’s action centre is a good starting point, full of calls to actions to campaign against the bill.
Make Votes Matter, who strongly opposed the expansion of First Past the Post, also provide some key actions to take.
The Elections Bill is a regressive piece of legislation that must be stopped. The government’s unrepresentative majority in the House of Commons seems unassailable but there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the Lords.
There is no denying that the Scottish Parliament is considerably more democratic than the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It has all the hallmarks of a modern democracy with its broadly proportional voting system, no unelected upper body and a purpose built horseshoe chamber where members can vote at the push of a button.
However, that’s not to say improvements cannot be made, and that is the raison d’être of Upgrade Holyrood.
Scotland’s Additional Member System has shown that Proportional Representation works but there a number of serious flaws in its design. It is time to change the way we elect MSPs.
AMS has delivered broadly proportional outcomes
There are a number of ways to measure the effectiveness of a voting system. These all have a complicated interconnected relationship with one another and there is often a trade off between them. Designing an effective electoral system is often a balancing act between proportionality (the representative link between seats and votes), voter influence, local links and utility of votes.
The Additional Member System is a mixed voting system with 73 MSPs elected via First Past the Post and an Additional 56 MSPs elected across eight different regionals. Voters get two ballots and these regional MSPs are allocated via the regional ballots while taking into account of the number of constituency seats won by each party, a mechanism that aims to ensure a proportional link between seats and votes in each region.
There have been six Scottish Parliament elections since the advent of devolution and all of them have been broadly proportional. The Gallagher Index for each of these elections is low, indicating string levels of proportionality, in contrary to indices for elections to the House of Commons which have had high Gallagher indices.
In Scotland, the number of votes cast per party is strongly linked with the number of seats won.
AMS flaws and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election
On the face of it everything looks in order, however, there are a number of flaws with AMS.
The voting system only aims for regional proportionality. The additional list members only ensure that the total number of MSPs in won by each party in each region is roughly proportional, leading to broadly proportional results overall. There is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality – and the ratio of constituency and list candidates in favour of the former compounds this.
Another significant flaw is that voters have very little control over the individuals elected. Safe seats exist in the First Past the Post element of AMS and parties determine their party list ordering meaning that voters have no say in individual candidates – just parties.
Furthermore, AMS doesn’t address the issue of overhangs which is when a party wins more constituency seats than it should have won on a purely proportional system. In contrast, New Zealand and Germany address this by adding further members to their respective parliaments when overhangs occur.
Lastly, is perhaps the most prolific flaw of the system. The 2021 election exposed one of the Additional Member System’s the possibility for exploitation of the two vote system. Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba part went into the election with an explicit pitch to SNP voters – “back us on the list vote to maximise the pro-independence majority”. The SNP are so dominant in Scottish politics that the majority of their seats are won in First Past the Post constituencies but the number of seats overall is meant to be reflect of regional votes cast. Had all SNP voters backed Alba on the list then their would have been an extremely unrepresentative parliament with the likes of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives squeezed out.
There was nothing illegal about Alba’s plan but it is surely wrong, going against the spirit of a system designed to be proportional, and led to talk of reforming the system in the mainstream media.
It is worth highlighting here that George Galloway’s All for Unity party employed a similar strategy, highlighting that this is a wider problem although Alba’s was certainly the most prolific attempt.
Ultimately, Alba failed in their attempt to exploit the system but the flaw has been so obviously exposed, leading to discussions in mainstream media about the need for reform. Just because Salmond’s venture wasn’t successful doesn’t mean something similar in future could be, not to mention this risk of exploiting the system is just one of the many flaws of AMS.
🚨PICK OF THE WEEK🚨
READ: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws
🗳️"Alba’s strategy is thus an overt attempt to game the system."
After 23 years of devolution it’s time for an upgrade
Six elections and 23 years later it is time for reform. The Welsh Parliament is currently looking at improving its voting system and Scotland should do the same. True, Wales’ voting system, although similar to Scotland’s, is notably less proportional but there’s still a strong case to review what’s happened in Scotland why we need reform.
Here are three alternatives to the Additional Member System.
1. The German model – tinkering with the mixed-member system
One option, perhaps in theory the easiest reform, is to tinker with the system we already have. Compared to Mixed-Member Proportional systems in the likes of Germany and New Zealand, Holyrood is rather basic, with no additional measures to ensure proportionality other than the 56 regional MSPs.
Scotland could take a leaf out of Germany’s book and adopt a levelling system. The German model is similar to Scotland’s, the main difference being that the list vote overall, and in each state, is tied to the overall number of seats won. This is done by the creation of additional list seats (on top of the standard list seats allocated per state) to ensure that list votes cast match overall seats one. This would address the problem exposed by Alba in Scotland and also strengthens proportionality on both the regional and national scales.
In addition to modifying AMS based on the German system, Scotland could also learn from Bavaria and open up the list component of the Additional Member System. Party lists are currently decided by the parties that submit them, giving an astonishing amount of power to party bosses. Allowing voters to rank or order or note their preferred lead candidates in the party list they back would empower citizens across the country.
Modifying AMS with these two changes would on paper improve representationin the Scottish Parliament, however, such reforms are not without risk. A German-style levelling system could create an unprecedented number of MSPs as shown by the surge in Bundestag members at the 2021 German Federal election. Furthermore, opening up the list risks complicating matters as voters would in effect have three ballots at the polling station. These option also retains the element of First Past the Post, meaning that safe seats remain and there are two types of MSP.
While a modified AMS would be somewhat an improvement, if we are going to reform the system we should be more ambitious than this!
2. The Single Transferable Vote – representative, empowering and proven effective in Scotland
An alternative to the Additional Member System would be to scrap it altogether and introduce the tried and tested method, the Single Transferable Vote, widely lauded as the most effective and empowering voting system.
STV has been used to elect Scottish councillors since 2007 so voters are already familiar with it. Claims that it would be overly complicated have been unfounded and it has resulted in largely proportional councils and given voters significant power at the ballot box.
Under STV, Scotland would be divided into multi-member constituencies of district magnitude (the electoral sweet spot for balancing the constituency link and proportionality has been identified as between four and eight members (Carey and Hix 2011)) and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. STV leads to proportional results while empowering voters at the ballot box. It also allows them to vote across party lines which can lead to a more accommodating politics.
Levelling seats could even be added, like in Malta’s STV system, to ensure that seats won overall reflect first preference votes and avoid situations like in Ireland in 2018 where Sinn Fein would have won more seats had they stood enough candidates.
No system will ever fully meet all ideal voting system criteria but the Single Transferable Vote covers all of them very well. STV would deliver proportional outcomes and give voters a significant amount of power, not to mention it is already familiar with the voting Scottish public due to its use in council elections. This is probably the best and most likely alternative to AMS.
3. Open List Proportional Representation – an unknown alternative
Rather than tinkering with the current system or opting for the tried and tested STV model, a third option would be to learn from the likes of Norway, Denmark and Iceland and embrace Open List Proportional Representation (with a levelling seat mechanism to ensure national proportionality). This is the less discussed alternative although it is now backed by the Scottish Greens and is the preferred system of Ballot Box Scotland.
Under Open List Proportional Representation, Scotland would be divided into a number of medium-large constituencies each electing a number of MSPs. Voters would get one ballot and one vote for a party. Seats are allocated via votes on that ballot and additional seats are added to level the system out and ensure national proportionality.
Crucially, voters are empowered as they have the option of indicating their preferred candidates on a party’s list, weakening party power and ensuring voters have a strong say in the personal make up of their parliament.
Such a system ticks the key boxes of voter choice and proportionality. Sure, it has some flaws such as the likelihood if some extremely large constituencies, as well as the lack of cross party voting similar to what happens under STV, but it is worth examining.
The Scottish Parliament needs an upgrade but is there a route to electoral reform at Holyrood?
Change often happens by accident but there are three elements to keep an eye on in the coming years.
The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 explicitly gave the Scottish Parliament the power to change its voting system. A change can come about if two-thirds of MSPs support it.
There is some way to go to get to the magic number of 86 MSPs, but SNP, Lib Dem and Green MSPs all support an alternative voting system, not to mention at least one Conservative, Murdo Fraser MSP. Scottish Labour do not have a position but there is likely some appetite within the party for reviewing the status-quo. Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP has even said he is sympathetic to looking at improving the way we elect MSPs. This all gives a framework for what could happen if there is a real drive to electoral reform although work would still be needed to bring parties together on the type of system Scotland should adopt.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens in Wales. There is a very real possibility of the Senedd ditching its own Additional Member System in favour of the Single Transferable Vote as part of an enlargement to 80-90 members. The Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform is due to make its recommendations by 31 May 2022. If Wales goes down that route, Scotland could very well follow.
It is perfectly plausible to see a route to electoral reform ahead of the 2026 election. The Scottish Parliament has the mechanism to change the voting system is there, not to mention support for change within the parliament. The only major obstacle is the lack of political will, but in time, with persuasion, reform will happen.
The 1990s were a time of radical political change both here in Scotland and on the other side of the world in New Zealand.
In 1996, New Zealand held its first election using a form of Proportional Representation, after two referenda and decades of campaigning. And three years later Scotland did the same with the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Both countries use a distinct form of PR – also used in the likes of Wales, Germany and Lesotho – that combines single-seat constituencies with compensatory party list members. Both systems lead to broadly proportional outcomes but how do they compare?
Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected in one of two ways. 73 are elected via single-seat constituencies and a further 56 are elected via eight regions.
The New Zealand Parliament is generally made up of 120 Members with 72 elected in single-seat constituencies (65 in general electorates and seven Māori ones) and the 48 others elected nation-wide.
In both Scotland and New Zealand, voters get two ballots and list seats are distributed by taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party to deliver overall broadly proportional results. Scotland’s set-up is referred to as the Additional Member System while New Zealand’s is Mixed-Member Proportional.
Both systems were designed to achieve overall proportional results and both have been largely successful in this aim. Compared to elections to the UK’s House of Commons, where the Conservatives won a massive majority of seats on just 43% of the vote and previous First Past the Post elections in New Zealand (when in 1993 the National Party won a majority on 35% of the vote), Scottish Parliament elections and modern New Zealand elections result in parliaments where seats roughly match votes.
The latest Scottish election, while slightly less representative than the one held in 2016, is still a fairly good example of the broadly proportional nature of AMS (despite Alba’s plan to unfairly exploit the system). In 2021, the SNP won 63 of 129 seats (48%) on 40.3% of the party vote. The Scottish Conservatives won 31 seats (24%) on 23.5% the party vote ahead of Scottish Labour on 22 seats (17.1%) and 17.9% of the vote. The Greens also won 8 seats (6.2%) on 8.1% and the Scottish Lib Dems secured 4 seats (3.1%) on 5.1% of the party vote. At Holyrood, seats broadly match votes although the SNP are clearly overrepresented to a notable degree, but the flaws of the system are discussed below.
New Zealand’s elections tell a similar story. Take the latest vote for example. Held in October 2020, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party managed to win a majority of seats (65 out of 121) but crucially that was won on a majority of the vote (50.01%). The opposition National Party secured 33 seats (27.27%) on 25.6% of the vote while the Alliance Party won 10 seats (8.3%) on 7.6% of the vote and the Greens also secured 10 seats on 7.8% of the vote. In New Zealand, there is a strong link between seats and votes.
Constituency to list members ratio
Both the Scottish and New Zealand parliaments have almost the same ratio of constituency members to list members. In Mixed-Member Proportional systems, the larger the proportion of list members the more proportional the system is overall.
Contrast the broadly proportional Scottish and New Zealand systems together with the system used in Wales. The Welsh system is near identical to Scotland’s except there are only 60 members with 40 being constituency MSs and 20 being list MSs, resulting in a ratio of 2:1. This means that Welsh elections are only somewhat proportional. At the 2021 Welsh election, the Labour Party won 30 seats on just 36.2% of the vote, due to their dominance of constituency seats.
The key difference between the Scottish and New Zealand electoral systems is the nature of the party list element. New Zealand’s list MPs are elected nationwide, meaning that parties only have one list each for the entire country and the distribution of list MPs is determined by list votes overall while taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party across the entire country.
Meanwhile, Scotland is split into eight electoral regions. List MSPs are allocated via the total number of list votes in a region while accounting for only the number of seats won by each party in that particular region. The main consequence of this is that there is no mechanism to make sure Scottish results are nationally proportional, just regionally proportional.
Electoral thresholds are common in countries with Proportional Representation. This means that to win seats in a legislature a party only qualifies if they win a certain percentage of the vote.
The Scottish Parliament has no threshold to enter parliament but in practice, as only eight list MSPs are elected per region, there is effectively a moderate threshold that changes at each election depending on how votes are cast. This is different in each region.
New Zealand takes a different approach by applying a 5% threshold for its parliament. In 2020, this meant the New Zealand First Party failed to win any seats as they only won 4.6% of the vote. The exception to this rule is if a party wins a constituency, in which case they are entitled to win list seats.
The term overhang refers to when a party wins more constituency seats than it would be entitled to under a purely proportional system based on the party list vote alone. This happens in the Scottish Parliament on occasion but there is no mechanism to address it. In contrast, when a New Zealand party wins more constituency seats than it is entitled to (based on its list vote share) then the party keeps its extra seat and the parliament’s size is increased to accommodate this. The current size of the New Zealand parliament is 121.
If Holyrood had a similar mechanism in place, both the 2011-2016 and 2016-2021 Scottish Parliament’s would have had 130 MSPs to account for overhangs. According to Ballot Box Scotland, the current Parliament would have 133 seats.
And finally, going all the way back to the original 1999 election, that also had a net overhang of 7 seats but with a much less scattered spread, Labour winning all the excess, versus 5 fewer for the SNP and 2 for the Conservatives. pic.twitter.com/bAP6sVmhW7
One final difference between the two systems is New Zealand’s Māori constituencies (known as electorates). In addition to the country’s 65 general electorates that cover the entire country, as well as the list seats, there are a further seven Māori electorates which have traditionally been held by representatives of Māori. This was started as a temporary measure but has since become a permanent feature of New Zealand politics, enabling Māori representatives (from any party) guaranteed seats in parliament.
Time for electoral reform in New Zealand and Scotland?
Both systems have provided broadly proportional results in their respective parliaments but there is room for reform.
Mixed-Member Proportional systems have the advantage of proportionality but do have a number of significant flaws. Chiefly, the lack of guaranteed proportionality (especially due to the two vote nature of MMP and the ratio of electorates to list seats, as well as, at least in Scotland the lack of a mechanism to ensure national proportionality), the lack of voter choice and the risk of manipulation.
There is also the issue of safe seats which remain due to the First Past the Post element of AMS/MMP.
A sticking plaster approach to address these problems would be to open up the list element, meaning that voters could rank candidates within their preferred power, a move that would further empower voters at the ballot box. This happens in Bavaria but risks complicating things with the introduction of a third completely different ballot. This could be combined with the addition of levelling seats to ensure nationality proportionality by making seats match list votes although this could lead to massive parliaments like in Germany where the number of seats won is approaching 1,000.
Rather than opting for tinkering that could cause its own problems, Scotland and New Zealand could adopt more representative voting systems. One tried and tested alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which has been used for Scottish local elections since 2007. This could improve proportionality and empower voters. Another alternative would be an Open List PR system with levelling seats to ensure overall proportionality.
Appetite for electoral system change is currently limited, certainly in Scotland, but after 23 years of devolution and an election where one party led by a former First Minister tried to exploit the flaws of AMS in such an overt way, conversations about Scottish electoral reform should start now.
Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson has lodged his proposal for a Removal from Office and Recall Bill (19 January 2022). This potential Act of Parliament is a direct response to the ministerial resignation of then Finance Secretary Derek Mackay in February 2020, as a result of him messaging a teenage boy, and his subsequent disappearance from parliament while claiming a full salary as an MSP.
If passed in the Scottish Parliament, the Bill will make MSPs more accountable to the electorate by setting out new terms to remove MSPs from office where appropriate. The bill has three main functions:
To remove absent MSPs from office
To lower the jail time threshold for removal from office
To establish a system of recall for MSPs
Here are five reasons why all five of Scotland’s political parties should come together and pass the Bill.
1. Democratic duty of participation
Legislators have a duty to act on behalf of their constituents and attend parliament. Turning up at parliament is the bare minimum that should be required of MSPs. Under the status-quo, MSPs can remain in post even if they don’t show up for work (while claiming a salary!). This is simply unacceptable.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will mean automatic expulsion from parliament if an MSP fails to show up for six months. Importantly, the Bill will have a provision so that MSPs on maternity leave or those affected by ill-health are exempt from this reform.
This automatic expulsion will address the problem of non-attendance and is the right step forward for Scottish democracy. It is also worth noting that such a provision has existed in government as a result of Section 35 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. To put that in context, the Scottish Parliament is almost half a century behind Scottish councils. It must catch up.
Holyrood must learn from the rules of local government and support Graham Simpson’s bill.
Elected officials should act and behave in a way that is expected of them. Standards in public life are extremely important – as have been shown by events of the last few months in Westminster. It is therefore vital that anyone jailed while serving as an MSP should not be in their position.
The current rules ban MSPs from their job if they go to jail for more than a year. This means that representatives jailed for a year or less can remain in post, a loophole that is simply unacceptable. This could have happened in 2013 had Bill Walker MSP not resigned from parliament. Graham Simpson MSP highlights this in his proposal, saying:
Bill Walker, the former MSP for Dunfermline, was convicted of 23 charges of assault and one of breach of the peace in August 2013, yet was sentenced to just a year in prison. If he had not resigned then the Parliament would have had no power available to it to remove him and, consequently, the people of Dunfermline would have been represented for a year by an MSP in jail.
Graham Simpson MSP (19 January 2022)
Thankfully, the Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ratify this problem by containing a provision to expel MSPs from parliament of they go to jail for one year or less.
In addition to the moral argument that MSPs have a duty to attend parliament, participate in debates and vote, there is also the issue of money. Absent MSPs mean wasted taxpayer money.
When Derek Mackay stopped turning up to parliament between February 2020 and May 2021, he cost the taxpayers a heft sum for doing very little – if anything – at all.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ensure that MSPs absent for six months or more (without a valid reason) are booted out of Holyrood. The main argument for this is to ensure that constituents are fairly represented in parliament but their is also a strong case to ensure taxpayer money is not wasted, adding weight the need for change.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill crucially adds a mechanism allowing constituents to recall their MSPs. This is vital to improve accountability so that the public have a say on members that bring the parliament into disrepute.
Of course, this needs to be done carefully to ensure the mechanism doesn’t become a political tool. Appropriate checks and balances can be put in place, taking a steer from the process set-up at Westminster in 2015. The UK’s Recall of MPs Act 2015 sets out the following three conditions for a recall petition:
A custodial prison sentence (including a suspended sentence)
Suspension from the House of at least 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days, following a report by the Committee on Standards
A conviction for providing false or misleading expenses claims
Furthermore such a system should also account for both types of MSPs elected (constituency and regional). The exact way to do this is hard to say as highlighted in the Bill’s proposals.
5. Positive experiences from Westminster and around the world
Lastly, the proposed measures in the Removal from Office and Recall Bill have been tried and tested elsewhere, showing that they are workable. Upgrade Holyrood advocates for democratic best practice and learning from how other democracies conduct themselves. The functions proposed in the bill have a history of working elsewhere.
The House of Commons has had a recall rule since 2015 and to date has been used on three occasions. Crucially, it has not been used as a political tool and the mechanism is largely viewed as a success. While there are still questions to be answered about how this would practically work for regional members, it is right that the balanced approach of the recall process at Westminster should be the starting point for reform of the Scottish Parliament.
Next steps for the bill – contribute to the consultation and write to your MSP
The Bill has a long way to becoming law as it needs the support of MSPs from different parties to overcome the first hurdle to be introduced to the chamber. One action to help move this forward is to ask your MSPs to back the motion. You can find out who your MSPs are here.
Another way to help out is by contributing to the open consultation, which will close on 13 April 2022. Make your case for the Removal from Office and Recall Bill here.
You can read more about the consultation and the Bill here.
Where do Scotland’s political parties stand on the bill?
The Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats both supported recall proposals in their 2021 manifestos, the former’s leading to Graham Simpson’s bill.
Scottish Labour did not include a similar proposal but have since come around to supporting the bill, as reported by Holyrood Magazine. Scotland’s two governing parties, the SNP and Scottish Greens, have yet to voice their support.
These days, Scottish politics is viewed as extremely polarised but surely this is one issue where Holyrood’s five parties can come together. Even if there are disagreements on some of the detail, surely there is enough common ground on the principles to introduce and pass the bill.
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.