Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has voiced his support for electoral reform of the Scottish Parliament in an article for the Scotsman (published 2 June 2021).
Conservative support for a switch from First Past the Post to PR at Westminster is generally limited – as is Conservative support for a more proportional system at Holyrood. Murdo Fraser’s support for change is welcome although it is worth noting he has not clarified if he supports PR at Westminster. But based on his opposition to distorted electoral outcomes, he should really be consistent in his thinking and support PR at all levels.
Fraser’s arguments for reform at Holyrood are broadly in-keeping with the arguments for reform made by Upgrade Holyrood – albeit in much more party politically-charged language (not to mention the constitutional question).
That said, this is a welcome move from Fraser who is only in his position thanks to the proportional element of Scotland’s voting system.
The Additional Member System used for Holyrood elections is far more representative than FPTP used at Westminster. Under AMS, seats broadly reflect votes but it isn’t perfect.
AMS has a number of flaws, many of which Murdo Fraser rightly highlights. These include the opportunity for parties to “game the list” (ultimately distorting overall representation), the ratio between constituency MSPs and regional MSPs, two classes of MSPs, limited voter choice and the lack of national proportionality.
There is an opportunity to build a coalition for change at Holyrood. But the question is what system would be best?
One alternative would be a moderate change: making AMS more closely resemble the system used in Germany by having levelling seats so that overall seats reflect regional vote shares. This could also incorporate an open-list element like in Bavaria.
Murdo Fraser posits this option:
“The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.”
Murdo Fraser MSP (2021)
However, this would merely be a sticking-plaster approach and could bring problems of its own like an overpopulated legislature as seen in Germany’s Bundestag.
Adopting the Single Transferable Vote or a full PR system (with multiple constituencies, levelling seats and open lists) would be better alternatives. Murdo Fraser even goes as far as saying there should be a fundamental review of the current arrangement, clearly highlighting the Single Transferable Vote as an alternative to AMS.
An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.
This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.
Murdo Fraser (2021)
Murdo Fraser’s intervention shows that there is an opportunity to upgrade the electoral system at Holyrood. Only the Scottish Lib Dems supported electoral reform (STV) in their 2021 manifesto although the SNP do favour the system in general. The Greens have backed the system in the past but are now more in favour of Open List PR.
There would be a major political challenge for the Scottish Conservatives if they backed STV at Holyrood (if they continue to defend FPTP at Westminster) but the movement for reform at Holyrood is growing.
Murdo Fraser will in time have to respond on his views about Westminster if he continues to push the line for change at Holyrood. If he comes out in favour of PR that’s great news for campaigners and if he doesn’t then it exposes a major hypocrisy that can be easily challenged.
Upgrading Scotland’s electoral system ahead of the 2026 election is a strong possibility. But the campaign for reform must begin now.
You can read more about the flaws of AMS and the alternatives here.
Scottish Green Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater launched the party’s 2021 election manifesto today (Wednesday 14 April). The manifesto, entitled Our Common Future, is largely what was expected from the Scottish Green party: environmental commitments, a restructuring of the economy and a commitment to Scottish independence.
In 2016 the party won six MSPs (now down to five due to the resignation of Andy Wightman) and hope to win even more in May. Polling suggests they could do just that and win a record share of MSPs at Holyrood.
Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving democracy in Scotland. So what have the Scottish Greens pledged on strengthening Scotland’s democracy?
In terms of proposed democratic reforms, the Greens have focused on local improvements. The Greens have a section on “Local Democracy and Communities” where they highlight three achievements in the past five years. They say they:
~Won over £500 million additional investment in local services, from swimming pools to schools
~Introduced new powers for councils to raise local levies on tourism and workplace car parking
~Championed participatory democracy, including Scotland’s citizens assemblies
Scottish Greens Manifesto (2021)
The manifesto commits the party to five key pledges on local democracy and communities. These are:
We believe in Local Government. It plays a critical role in all of our lives, which is why we have focused on empowering and properly funding it over the last Parliament. We believe that rebuilding local democracy and empowering local government to meet the needs of the public should be at the heart of a green recovery.
The Scottish Greens will:
• Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils. We will reverse the 50-year decline in the status of local government by backing widespread decentralisation of powers to local government and addressing the massive disparity between Scotland and other European countries, with Scottish councils ten times bigger than the European average.
• Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions. Local councils are best placed to determine what’s needed in their areas, but across a huge range of policies, the Scottish Government has legislated to give Ministers a veto. We will always presume that such provisions should be removed from laws unless it can be demonstrated they are absolutely necessary and proportionate.
• Promote more diverse local representation. Women, people of colour, disabled people, trans people, and others with protected characteristics remain under-represented in local government. We will work to remove barriers to their full participation. We will increase the annual allowance for councillors, so it enables everyone to make it a full-time role. We will clarify ambiguity around maternity and parental leave, and extend access to public office funding across all protected characteristics.
• Put local, democratic ownership at the heart of a Green Recovery. We will back Councils to be able to own vital green infrastructure including public transport and local energy companies.
• Stimulate participatory democracy at local level. Greens pioneered participatory decision-making in Scotland, both locally and nationally. We will work to formalise citizens assemblies on an ongoing basis, locally and nationally, and introduce statutory duties on Councils and the wider public sector to support and enable new levels of local governance.
Scottish Green Party (2021)
Upgrade Holyrood supports reforms to Scottish Local government. Devolution shouldn’t just go from London to Edinburgh; it should flow from Edinburgh to local authorities and go directly in the hands of communities. Ballot Box Scotland has produced some excellent analysis and possible solutions for reforming local government that would restructure it in a way that brings government closer to constituents. The Greens’ proposals echo a lot of that. Their recognition that Scottish councils are abnormally large and that powers are far from citizens are most welcome.
The Scottish Green Party’s ambition to improve diversity in local government is welcome, with their plan to increase councillor remuneration something worth considering.
The party also beats the drum for participatory democracy – and not just on the local level. Local citizens’ assemblies have increased in occurrence in recent years. They have been used in Canada to explore options for electoral reform and are proposed by Make Votes Matter as a tool to find agreement for a fair alternative to First Past the Post at Westminster. The first citizens assembly in Scotland published its report in January 2021, outlining 60 proposals for improving how Scotland is run. And in December 2020, a report put together by the Sortition Foundation, the Electoral Reform Society, RSA and Common Weal outlined what a permanent second chamber in the form of a citizens assembly could look like in Scotland. More local citizens assemblies could well be used in future alongside traditional representative democracy.
However, while the Scottish Greens’ manifesto discusses ways to improve local democracy and government, and it does make clear the party’s position Scottish independence and the EU, it doesn’t address ways to improve democratic processes and mechanisms in the Scottish Parliament.
Better Proportional Representation
The Scottish Greens support the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and included a commitment to replacing the Additional Member System at Holyrood with STV in their 2016 manifesto. The Scottish Parliament’s voting system does not get a mention in the 2021 manifesto although it is assumed the Greens do still support it.
Ending dual mandates
The Greens’ new manifesto doesn’t say anything about dual mandates, which have been a topic for discussion with Douglas Ross, Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey all planning on holding dual mandates if elected to the Scottish Parliament in May.
Other improvements to Holyrood democracy
It is also worth noting that the party’s manifesto says nothing in preventing MSPs from holding second jobs, as well as nothing on making parliamentary terms four years, as supported by Upgrade Holyrood, nor does it say anything on creating a permanent hybrid parliament. Again it is worth saying that just because these policies aren’t in the manifesto doesn’t mean that the party doesn’t support them.
Overall, devolving power closer to communities is a good thing and some of the party’s policies will do just that. The Green party’s proposals for more participatory democracy are also welcome as a way to innovate the mechanics of representative democracy in Scotland.
One main manifesto down, four to go.
The Scottish Greens’ manifesto (Our Common Future) was launched on Wednesaday 14 April 2021 by Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. The full document can be accessed here.
When an individual holds two political offices simultaneously they are exercising a dual mandate. The likes of Donald Dewar (Labour), Alex Salmond (SNP) and Jim Wallace (Liberal Democrat) have all held dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons but the phenomenon has been limited in recent years.
However, the return of dual mandate holders looks likely at the upcoming Scottish Parliament election. Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross MP is standing for a regional seat with an explicit commitment to holding both his seats simultaneously if elected to the Scottish Parliament (his current Westminster seat of Moray and one of the Holyrood regional list seats in the highlands and islands). Former SNP now Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey plan on doing the same if elected to Holyrood.
Most parties are guilty of having had dual mandate holders one time of another but dual mandates are ultimately wrong and this should be recognised in legislation. Here are five reasons why.
1. Dual mandates are unfair on constituents
This first point is about the principle of the matter. Constituents deserve full-time representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster. MPs and MSPs have different roles in different chambers with full sets of different responsibilities. Constituents deserve fully committed MPs and MSPs dedicated to representing their electorates in a single, clear capacity. Dual mandates make this impossible.
2. Dual mandates are also impractical
In addition to being unfair on constituents in principle, dual mandates are also extremely impractical. Being an MSP or an MP is a full-time job. Having multiple mandates mean that less work is done on behalf of constituents, ultimately weakening the link between voters and their representatives. Not to mention, MSPs and MPs often work more than the standard working week, further highlighting the impracticalities of dual mandates. There’s also the travel considerations. In normal times dual mandate holders have to be in Edinburgh, London and their constituencies throughout the week. This involves serious logistical juggling.
This argument is backed up by empirical evidence. A study by Navarro (2009: 21) examined dual mandate holders in the European Parliament. Dual mandate holders (in this case MEPs holding addition mandates in their national parliaments) were found to be less productive than single mandate holders as measured by reports made by them, questions tabled, speeches given and attendance in the parliament. While this study was for a different legislature, it adds significant weight to the argument that dual mandates are impractical.
3. Dual mandates don’t necessary strengthen local clout in parliament
One of the most common arguments in favour of dual mandates is that they strengthen the links local communities have with different legislatures as constituents have one point of contact in different levels of governance. It follows that representatives going to a legislature higher up in the governance structure with additional more localised mandates are more likely to account for local interests as opposed to sticking with party policy for example.
This does sound somewhat logical but the empirical evidence fails to back this up. One study (Van de Voode 2020) found that while representatives with multiple mandates feel they have a greater connection with their own communities, that does not translate into how they operate in parliament.
The estimated regression models demonstrate that dual mandate holders indeed perceive themselves as local brokers, even when controlling for various systemic, party and individual level factors. On the other hand, they struggle to translate their localized attitudes into localized parliamentary behaviour, which could call one of the main arguments in favour of dual mandate holding into question.
Van de Voode (2020)
The argument of local follow-through doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
This may sound like a stretch but there is some evidence to suggest that dual mandates can lead to corruption. This is primarily from France where holding multiple mandates at different levels of government has very much been a part of French political culture.
As put by Navarro (2009: 19):
“As noted by Bernard Chantebout, in the French context, the parliamentarians are not usually corrupted in their capacity as parliamentarians: only those MPs who are in charge of a local executive have been convicted of corruption. It is indeed all the more tempting for “cumulants” to accept a bride when they decide (at the local level) about a public tender or about any urban policy that they are protected from prosecution by their parliamentary immunity.”
Navarro (2009: 19)
This definitely isn’t the main reason to ban dual mandates, and is very much a minority problem, but the fact that dual mandates could facilitate this only adds another reason to implement a ban.
5. Restrictions on dual mandates are gaining popularity
There is growing recognition that dual mandates are unfair on constituents. A popular idea alone is no reason to support reform but the current momentum against dual mandates shows that countries are recognising the problems associated with them.
Members of the European Parliament cannot take their seats if they hold a national mandate while members of the provincial legislatures in Canada cannot even stand for federal office.
Even France which has a long history of politicians holding multiple mandates, has taken a stance against them in recent years under Emmanual Macron’s government.
Closer to home, in 2014 the House of Commons banned dual mandates for members of the Welsh Parliament and Northern Assembly. The bans made Scotland the only constituent nation of the UK where dual mandates for the devolved national administration are not banned.
Dual mandates should be banned in Scotland to build a fairer and more efficient democracy. The route to banning dual mandates involves political agreement and likely legislation in Westminster rather than the Scottish Parliament as shown by previous laws made regarding Wales and Northern Ireland.
Douglas Ross’ likely return to Holyrood – in addition to the possible elections of Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to the Scottish Parliament (in addition to their seats in the Commons) – puts the issue clearly in the spotlight.
However, this likely return of dual mandates also stresses the challenges to banning them. The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. From a point of view of the practicalities of parliamentary politics (not to mention Conservative resistance to any democratic improvements), it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will budge on this issue. That said, opposition parties should continue to push for reform.
Dual mandates are not the most important issue in Scottish politics, not to mention that they are not the most important democratic reform campaign issue. Nonetheless, dual mandates are clearly wrong and ultimately unfair on constituents. A ban on dual mandates in Scotland is long overdue. Let’s make 2021 the last Scottish election where dual mandates are possible.
Sign the petition to reform Holyrood’s electoral system here
Upgrade Holyrood is a political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics and delivering relevant political analysis and commentary. Scottish politics needs an upgrade and Upgrade Holyrood aims to provide a space to help facilitate that.
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.