The term “dual mandates” refers to the situation where one individual simultaneously holds two (usually elected) political roles. Since the advent of devolution in 1999 (and before that with local authority representatives), dual mandates have been a consequence of Scotland’s multi-layered government. A dual mandate holder in Scotland is anyone who simultaneously holds mandates for the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons, the House of Lords or local councils.
While the number of dual mandate holders has been limited since the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the commitment by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to hold a dual MSP-MP mandate if elected at the 2021 election puts the issue into the spotlight. Similarly, the intentions of Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to do the same have further brought the issue into mainstream political discourse. Many countries and pan-national organisations around the world have in recent years have addressed dual mandates with restrictions in various reforms.
Restrictions in Wales and Northern Ireland make Scotland the only devolved nation where MPs can also hold a second mandate in a devolved administration. The European Parliament banned dual mandates in 2002 and even France, which has a widespread culture of dual mandates, has introduced recent restrictions to address the issue.
The central problem with dual mandates is one of two connected parts. Firstly, an individual elected in one role to one legislative body with a specific set of responsibilities should give all their time and energy to that position. To do otherwise is unfair on constituents and may create conflicts of interest, and even opportunities for corruption.
Secondly, there are related practical considerations. In the case of MSPs, MPs and often Lords, these are full-time (not to mention well-paid) positions. Constituents deserve full-time representatives. It is impossible to expect an MSP-MP to commit the same amount of time and energy to each role that they would do for just one of the positions. Not to mention the challenges of being in Holyrood, Westminster, and one’s constituency. Dual mandates present an insurmountable logistical challenge.
To ensure fair and efficient representation, dual mandates should be restricted in Scotland. Scotland could follow Wales and Northern Ireland (by banning dual mandates with some practical exceptions) or else introduce a ban on candidacy for existing representatives (like in Canada).
A simple ban on representatives taking their seats in a different legislative body while holding another mandate (like in the European Parliament) offers another approach. A model based on the approach taken in Northern Ireland would likely be the best approach for Scotland, but the decision will ultimately be up to legislators after hearing from stakeholders at all levels of governance in Scotland as well as empirical evidence and analyses from experts.
Whatever form they take, restrictions on dual mandates are necessary to build a fairer, efficient, and ultimately more representative Scottish democracy.
When an individual holds two political offices simultaneously they are exercising a dual mandate. The likes of Donald Dewar (Labour), Alex Salmond (SNP) and Jim Wallace (Liberal Democrat) have all held dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons but the phenomenon has been limited in recent years.
However, the return of dual mandate holders looks likely at the upcoming Scottish Parliament election. Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross MP is standing for a regional seat with an explicit commitment to holding both his seats simultaneously if elected to the Scottish Parliament (his current Westminster seat of Moray and one of the Holyrood regional list seats in the highlands and islands). Former SNP now Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey plan on doing the same if elected to Holyrood.
Most parties are guilty of having had dual mandate holders one time of another but dual mandates are ultimately wrong and this should be recognised in legislation. Here are five reasons why.
1. Dual mandates are unfair on constituents
This first point is about the principle of the matter. Constituents deserve full-time representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster. MPs and MSPs have different roles in different chambers with full sets of different responsibilities. Constituents deserve fully committed MPs and MSPs dedicated to representing their electorates in a single, clear capacity. Dual mandates make this impossible.
2. Dual mandates are also impractical
In addition to being unfair on constituents in principle, dual mandates are also extremely impractical. Being an MSP or an MP is a full-time job. Having multiple mandates mean that less work is done on behalf of constituents, ultimately weakening the link between voters and their representatives. Not to mention, MSPs and MPs often work more than the standard working week, further highlighting the impracticalities of dual mandates. There’s also the travel considerations. In normal times dual mandate holders have to be in Edinburgh, London and their constituencies throughout the week. This involves serious logistical juggling.
This argument is backed up by empirical evidence. A study by Navarro (2009: 21) examined dual mandate holders in the European Parliament. Dual mandate holders (in this case MEPs holding addition mandates in their national parliaments) were found to be less productive than single mandate holders as measured by reports made by them, questions tabled, speeches given and attendance in the parliament. While this study was for a different legislature, it adds significant weight to the argument that dual mandates are impractical.
3. Dual mandates don’t necessary strengthen local clout in parliament
One of the most common arguments in favour of dual mandates is that they strengthen the links local communities have with different legislatures as constituents have one point of contact in different levels of governance. It follows that representatives going to a legislature higher up in the governance structure with additional more localised mandates are more likely to account for local interests as opposed to sticking with party policy for example.
This does sound somewhat logical but the empirical evidence fails to back this up. One study (Van de Voode 2020) found that while representatives with multiple mandates feel they have a greater connection with their own communities, that does not translate into how they operate in parliament.
The estimated regression models demonstrate that dual mandate holders indeed perceive themselves as local brokers, even when controlling for various systemic, party and individual level factors. On the other hand, they struggle to translate their localized attitudes into localized parliamentary behaviour, which could call one of the main arguments in favour of dual mandate holding into question.
Van de Voode (2020)
The argument of local follow-through doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
4. Dual mandates could lead to corruption
This may sound like a stretch but there is some evidence to suggest that dual mandates can lead to corruption. This is primarily from France where holding multiple mandates at different levels of government has very much been a part of French political culture.
As put by Navarro (2009: 19):
“As noted by Bernard Chantebout, in the French context, the parliamentarians are not usually corrupted in their capacity as parliamentarians: only those MPs who are in charge of a local executive have been convicted of corruption. It is indeed all the more tempting for “cumulants” to accept a bride when they decide (at the local level) about a public tender or about any urban policy that they are protected from prosecution by their parliamentary immunity.”
Navarro (2009: 19)
This definitely isn’t the main reason to ban dual mandates, and is very much a minority problem, but the fact that dual mandates could facilitate this only adds another reason to implement a ban.
5. Restrictions on dual mandates are gaining popularity
There is growing recognition that dual mandates are unfair on constituents. A popular idea alone is no reason to support reform but the current momentum against dual mandates shows that countries are recognising the problems associated with them.
Members of the European Parliament cannot take their seats if they hold a national mandate while members of the provincial legislatures in Canada cannot even stand for federal office.
Even France which has a long history of politicians holding multiple mandates, has taken a stance against them in recent years under Emmanual Macron’s government.
Closer to home, in 2014 the House of Commons banned dual mandates for members of the Welsh Parliament and Northern Assembly. The bans made Scotland the only constituent nation of the UK where dual mandates for the devolved national administration are not banned.
Dual mandates should be banned in Scotland to build a fairer and more efficient democracy. The route to banning dual mandates involves political agreement and likely legislation in Westminster rather than the Scottish Parliament as shown by previous laws made regarding Wales and Northern Ireland.
Douglas Ross’ likely return to Holyrood – in addition to the possible elections of Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to the Scottish Parliament (in addition to their seats in the Commons) – puts the issue clearly in the spotlight.
However, this likely return of dual mandates also stresses the challenges to banning them. The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. From a point of view of the practicalities of parliamentary politics (not to mention Conservative resistance to any democratic improvements), it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will budge on this issue. That said, opposition parties should continue to push for reform.
Dual mandates are not the most important issue in Scottish politics, not to mention that they are not the most important democratic reform campaign issue. Nonetheless, dual mandates are clearly wrong and ultimately unfair on constituents. A ban on dual mandates in Scotland is long overdue. Let’s make 2021 the last Scottish election where dual mandates are possible.
Upgrade Holyrood is a political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics and delivering relevant political analysis and commentary. Scottish politics needs an upgrade and Upgrade Holyrood aims to provide a space to help facilitate that.
The full Upgrade Holyrood report on dual mandates is coming soon. Watch this space.
Scotland’s political framework is more democratic and representative than Westminster’s but there is room for improvement. Upgrade Holyrood aims to facilitate discussions on upgrading Scotland’s democracy and ultimately help bring about change at the Scottish Parliament.
Launched on 8 April 2021, Upgrade Holyrood is a brand-new political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics while delivering relevant political analysis and commentary.
There’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Scottish politics, most notably Holyrood’s proportional voting system, the lack of an undemocratic upper chamber, electronic voting for members and the direct election of the first minister by MSPs. Scotland’s democratic processes are much more evolved than Westminster’s, and London should learn from that.
However, while Holyrood is more democratic than Westminster, there is still room for improvement.
The Alba party’s attempt to exploit a flaw in the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system and the likely return of “dual mandates” at the 2021 election have spotlighted the need for reform. And that’s where Upgrade Holyrood comes in. Scottish representative politics can learn democratic best practice from across Europe and beyond.
Guided by the principle that our democracy can and must be better, Upgrade Holyrood supports:
Accountable representation: a return to fixed four-year parliamentary terms
Fair and efficient representation: an end to dual mandates in Scottish politics and restrictions on second jobs for politicians
Inclusive representation: a permanent hybrid parliament
Local representation: more powers for local communities across Scotland
Proportional representation a fairer voting system to elect MSPs
Upgrade Holyrood provides analysis, opinion and research on solutions to improve Scottish democracy as well as the space to discuss further advancements. Additional commentary on Scottish, British and European politics more generally will also be covered.
Read my article (published in Politics.co.uk) on the need to reform Scotland’s electoral system here.
Upgrade Holyrood was initially launched as Better Holyrood before a name change on 13 April 2021.