New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

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?

Overview

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.

READ MORE: How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

Proportionality

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

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.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s 2022 election? Lessons for the UK

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.

Overhangs

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.

READ MORE: Comparing Germany and Scotland’s voting systems

Māori electorates

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.

READ MORE: Petitions Committee responds to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

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.

READ MORE: Scotland’s parties and electoral system change – the route to voting reform at Holyrood

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5 reasons to support the Removal from Office and Recall Bill

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By Richard Wood

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:

  1. To remove absent MSPs from office
  2. To lower the jail time threshold for removal from office
  3. 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.

READ MORE: These 5 reforms will improve Scottish democracy

2. Criminals have no place in parliament

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.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s alliance for Proportional Representation

3. Taxpayer money

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.

READ MORE: Why Holyrood needs a recall rule for MSPs

4. Accountability – why we need a recall rule

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.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV Council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

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.

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre has outlined other models from elsewhere where recall rules have been successful.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

By Richard Wood

Scottish Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has said he is “sympathetic” to the idea of electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament.

The Glasgow MSP made the remark while sitting as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee discussing the petition for electoral reform submitted to the Scottish Parliament (17 November 2021).

I am sympathetic, because it is an on-going and worthwhile discussion. In the 1990s, the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the additional member system as the preferred electoral system, but perhaps there is an on-going need to consider alternatives. Obviously, the single transferable vote for local government elections was introduced in the mid-2000s. There have been observations of concerning practices in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections; most notably, the Greens were perhaps stymied in some instances by a decoy green party, which was higher up the list and seduced votes away from the Greens. I certainly noticed that at the Glasgow count, so there are flaws with the current list structure of two ballots, which are worth further investigation.

Paul Sweeney MSP (Glasgow)

The Petitions Committee agreed to write to both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society on the matter. You can read more about my petition, the actions taken by the committee – and the responses – here.

Scottish Labour currently have no official position on which voting system to use at Holyrood. The UK-wide party currently supports First Past the Post for Westminster elections (although progress is being made to change this view).

The Scottish Liberal Democrats support changing AMS to STV and campaigned on this at the 2021 election. The SNP also generally favour STV while the Scottish Greens have moved towards supporting Open List Proportional Representation.

The Scottish Conservatives are resistant to any positive electoral reforms. Indeed, the Conservative UK Government recently passed one of the most regressive bills relating to elections.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

READ MORE: Petitions Committee respond to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s parties say about Holyrood’s voting system? The route to electoral reform

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

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.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

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.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to support the Removal from Office and Recall Bill

Scottish Green 2021 manifesto launch: what have the party pledged on improving democracy?

Image by Michaela Wenzler from Pixabay

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.

Notes:

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.

5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: These 5 reforms will improve Scotland’s democracy

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.

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s parties think of the British monarchy and republicanism?

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.

READ MORE: The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall rule for MSPs

The route to a dual mandate ban in Scotland

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.

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

Sources:

Navarro, J. (2009). Multiple Office-Holders in France and in Germany: An Elite Within the Elite. SFB 580 Mitteilungen 33(1): 6–56. Access here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322854700_Multiple-Office_Holders_in_France_and_in_Germany_An_Elite_Within_the_Elite

Van de Voorde, N. and de Vet, B., 2020. Is All Politics Indeed Local? A Comparative Study of Dual Mandate‐Holders’ Role Attitudes and Behaviours in Parliament. Swiss Political Science Review, 26(1), pp.51-72. Access here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/spsr.12388

Upgrade Holyrood launched: Scottish democracy can and must be better

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.

Upgrading Scottish democracy

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.

Notes:

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.