By Richard Wood
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.
Regional and national lists
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.
The electoral threshold
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.
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.
ABOUT: Upgrade Holyrood
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @RichardLWood_