By Richard Wood
Next year marks 25 years of devolution following the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. After some bumps along the way, the Scottish Parliament is undeniably a success story. However, while its use of a broadly proportional voting system makes it more representative than the parliament in Westminster (what with FPTP in the Commons and the continued existence of the House of Lords), the Scottish Parliament needs reform. Put simply, Holyrood needs an upgrade.
Upgrade Holyrood champions better democracy in Scotland. With next year marking a quarter of a century of devolution, it will be the perfect time to reflect, assess and improve upon the democratic mechanisms of the Scottish Parliament.
First things first, Scotland’s voting system sounds great at first glance but there is significant room for improvement. The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures broad proportionality but only goes so far as having a mechanism for regional proportionality. What’s more it fails to address overhangs, retains single-member districts and leaves open the possibility for parties to “game the system” as seen with Alba’s failed attempt to win a “supermajority” for independence at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Furthermore, voters still have limited powers over individual candidates.
The system is significantly more proportional than First Past the Post but alternatives do exist – and those alternatives must be examined and adopted. There are three likely routes that the Scottish Parliament could take on this issue: AMS with modifications, Open List PR or the Single Transferable Vote.
Tinkering around the edges by adopting a German style mixed-member voting system to address overhangs and ensure national party proportionality would be a minor improvement but it would cause some headaches of it’s own – Germany’s Bundestag is growing with each election. The Scottish public are likely to be approving of significantly more politicians. What’s more such a system would retain single-member constituencies.
Open List PR with levelling seats – as in Denmark, Sweden or Iceland – this would improve proportionality, give voters power over individual candidates and crucially end single-member districts. This would be one option for the Scottish Parliament that’s worth considering. If we were to go down this route then we would to ensure that any lists are regional, open for voters to enhance their power and have levelling seats to ensure both regional and national proportional representation.
The final alternative is often seen as the gold-standard voting system (if implemented properly) – the Single Transferable Vote. Already used to elect councillors in Scotland, STV would provide proportionality (depending on district sizes), give voters an enormous amount of power at elections and provide voters with multi-party representation. What’s more, the system is backed by the SNP, Lib Dems, as well as some Labour and Conservative MSPs. The Scottish Greens recently supported it before backing Open List PR.
The Scottish Parliament must therefore examine its voting system in any 25-year review of devolution.
But it’s not just the electoral system where the Scottish Parliament needs improvements.
Holyrood needs to end dual mandates – primarily for joint MSP-MPs and MSP-Lords but also place restrictions on MSP-councillors. Dual mandates are unfair on voters who deserve fully-committed representatives. On top of that, there also needs to be a restriction on second jobs for MSPs, again for similar reasons.
We also need a return to four-year parliamentary terms. It’s right that election terms are fixed – as they give a level playing field to all parties and candidates – but five-year terms are too long and are only something the Scottish Parliament slipped into during the last decade as a result of Westminster’s very brief adoption of fixed five-year terms.
What’s more, the Scottish Parliament also needs a recall rule. Holyrood is ahead of Westminster on many fronts but the lack of ability for constituents to recall MSPs is a major flaw. In practice this will be difficult to achieve due to the mixed-member system and by-election blueprint for recalls at Westminster but any review of the functioning of the Scottish Parliament should include a reform of this nature.
2024 will be a milestone year for Scotland – 25 years of devolution have undoubtedly changed the Scottish political landscape forever.
Devolution works and what’s more it works well. This should be celebrated. But with that success comes room for improvement. There will be time to take stock next year and assess a way to move forward on these reforms – hopefully with cross-party support. It’s time to upgrade Holyrood.