The previous Welsh government, an effective coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and an independent, introduced legislation that gives Welsh local councils the opportunity to switch from First Past the Post to the Single Transferable Vote. But time is running out for councils to adopt it before the next set of local elections.
Of course, it’s disappointing that there wasn’t an automatic switch for all 22 councils, like in Scotland due to the Labour-Lib Dem coalition (2003 – 2007). Instead, individual councils have to make the decision themselves. But we are where we are.
There are real opportunities for change. However, the decks are stacked against reform campaigners. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 sets a deadline for reform ahead of the next elections. The legislation says the following:
“A resolution to exercise the power has no effect unless it is passed before 15 November of the year that is three years before the year in which the next ordinary election of the council is due to be held.”
With the next local elections due in May 2027, the deadline for reform is 15 November 2024, three years ahead of the elections. That’s now just two years away.
That may seem like a while away, but it’ll be November 2024 before we know it. Electoral reform campaigners in Wales will be very much aware of that.
The UK House of Commons has voted against an amendment that would have improved the government’s ill-thought out Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.
The Bill was legislated for to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which ended the right of the prime minister to unilaterally call elections by fixing election dates and giving parliament the power to call elections if an early election is desired.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will see a return to unchecked executive power, with the prime minister able to call an election at a time of their choosing.
On Monday 14 March 2022, parliament had an opportunity to accept an amendment from the House of Lords that would have given parliament the power to decide when an election takes place, rather the prime minister. But unfortunately the House of Commons voted against the amendment.
Analysis – a strengthened executive at the expense of the legislature
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an imperfect piece of legislation but it levelled the playing field by making the UK’s electoral processes significantly fairer.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will weaken UK democracy if passed in full. While not as damaging as the regressive Elections Bill, repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act removes the level playing field and gives electoral advantage to the governing party.
Having fixed election dates ensures that all political parties know when elections are due to take place. And giving parliament having the final say on when elections take place in unusual circumstances, ensures that the executive don’t have an unfair advantage.
This is already the case in Scotland at Holyrood. Westminster must learn from the Scottish Parliament to improve and protect our democracy.
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.
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.
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.
And finally, going all the way back to the original 1999 election, that also had a net overhang of 7 seats but with a much less scattered spread, Labour winning all the excess, versus 5 fewer for the SNP and 2 for the Conservatives. pic.twitter.com/bAP6sVmhW7
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.
Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.
Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?
The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.
Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.
The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.
Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.
However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).
Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.
The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.
The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.
What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?
The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.
Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.
For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.
But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?
Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.
Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).
So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.
In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.
The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.
However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.
Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.
Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.
Thursday 5 May 2022 will be a bumper day of local government elections across the UK.
Councillors are set to be elected across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, all 22 councils in Wales and a significant number of local authorities across in England (including all London boroughs, numerous county councils and metropolitan boroughs). There are no local authority elections in Northern Ireland this year, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly election is taking place on the same day (and with the DUP on the verge of losing their first-place position, it is certainly one to keep an eye on).
The contrast between the way local elections are conducted in Scotland and England will be most striking as English councillors are elected via First Past the Post (often with multiple councillors elected per ward) whereas Scottish Council elections are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote.
England can and must learn from Scotland when it comes to local government.
England’s broken local government
Local elections in England are conducted using the First Past the Post system. Unlike in Westminster elections, these elections often have multiple winners (with each voter getting the same number of votes as positions available). However, the result is the same: votes cast do not match seats won, making local government in England incredibly unrepresentative.
Take a look at Westminster Borough Council. In 2018, the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote while Labour won 41.1%. Under a PR system, both parties would be fairly evenly matched in terms of seats but the reality is far from this. The Conservatives won 41 seats while Labour got just 19. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats achieves 9.4% of the vote but took no seats.
This pattern of skewed election results is repeated right across England and is a direct consequence of plurality voting for local government elections.
In contrast, all 32 local authorities in Scotland are elected via Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) with three and four member wards. Yes, there is a debate to be had about improving STV in Scottish local government, but on the whole, PR-STV delivers largely proportional outcomes and that is something that should be widely applauded.
The first PR-STV local government elections took place in 2007 and were a direct consequence of the renewed Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood following the 2003 election.
On the whole, STV delivered largely proportional election results, while also empowering voters who are able to differentiate between different candidates within a party as well as express their opinion on more than just one individual or faction.
Take a look at Glasgow City Council. Out of 85 seats, the SNP secured 39 seats on 41.0% of first preference votes while Scottish Labour secured 31 seats in 30.2% of First preference votes. The Scottish Conservatives got eight seats on 14.6% of First preference votes while the Greens got seven seats (8.7% of first preferences). Had this election been conducted First Past the Post, the SNP would no doubt have dominated and the Conservatives and Greens would have got none or only a couple of seats.
While the system isn’t perfectly proportional, largely due to most wards only being made up of three or four members, the Glasgow example shows how broadly proportional STV elections are and that smaller parties can break through and win representation they otherwise wouldn’t under FPTP.
Improving local government in Scotland – learning from Northern Ireland
Just like in Scotland, Northern Ireland councils are elected via the Single Transferable Vote. However, while Scottish wards elect three or four members, Northern Irish wards are generally made up of five or six members, sometimes even seven. This higher district magnitude leads to overall more proportional results than in Scotland and should be commended.
How close is local government reform in England and Wales?
Due to the Lib-Lab coalition (2003 – 2007), Scottish local elections are conducted using STV. The 2022 local elections will be the fourth in Scotland to use STV. Since the change came into effect in 2007 there has been some progress on improving local governance south of the border.
The most significant development in making local government elections fairer in the UK occurred in Wales in 2020. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act (given Royal ascent in early 2021) allows local councils to change their voting system from First Past the Post to STV. Unfortunately this isn’t mandatory meaning that councils actively have to make the change. While a compulsory scrapping of FPTP would have been far better, this is still a positive development in making local government fair.
As for England, reform looks unlikely until there is a change of government in Westminster. In fact, English local government is getting more unrepresentative. The government’s regressive Elections Bill is set to abolish the Supplementary Vote used in metro mayor elections and replace it with First Past the Post. The SV is far from perfect, but it provides for a broader mandate than under FPTP.
English local government needs reform. There is a long way to go, but Scotland and Northern Ireland show a path to fair representation.
It is almost certain that Boris Johnson will not lead the Conservative Party into the next UK General Election. The not so closed secret that Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and others are gearing up to take over down the line is more open than ever as all vying candidates speed up their operations to take the reigns from someone who really should never have been there in the first place.
January 2022 has been a rocky month for the prime minister. The dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford from the Conservatives to the Labour Party may have bought the prime minister some time (by uniting the Tories against what in their eyes must be seen as a “beytrayal”) but Johnson will certainly be gone by the end of the year if not the summer.
It is that dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford, which has brought up an age-old question. Should there be a by-election?
The case for mandatory by-elections post-defection
Whenever someone defects, the argument that defectors should test their decision with their electors is always brought up. Often it is relative to party positions at the time. If for example, a Conservative defects as in this case, then Conservatives will largely call for a by-election while Labour will not rule it out (as they know the public often feel strongly on this) but will obfuscate or say it’s probably not necessary. This is exactly what happened in Christian Wakeford’s case.
The main argument for an immediate by-election is that voters tend to vote for parties and leaders, not to mention tactical voting, with local candidates playing a very little part in determining how exactly people vote. This infers that when someone switches allegiance, they have gone against the wishes of their constituents. It is worth saying again this point we are only talking about First Past the Post elections and I am couching language in traditional FPTP terms for ease.
There is a strong logic to this case: voters generally vote for a party and therefore a change in party is unfair on voters who resultantly deserve to have a say.
This is backed by public opinion. A YouGov poll in the wake of the Wakeford defection indicates that 62% of voters support a by-election if an MP switches party – compared to 17% of voters who disagree. Some of that support may be circumstantial due to recent events, with party loyalty playing a key role, but it is clear that most people would prefer to see by-elections in these cases.
Fuethermore, there is also the case that at Westminster voters only have one MP. It follows that with only one voice in parliament, constituents deserve a say when a defection takes place.
Reasons why mandatory by-elections have never been legislated for
So if the call for by-elections happens every time someone defects, and if public opinion supports by-elections, why hasn’t any government mandated it in law?
The simple answer is that probably a mix of four things. Firstly, such defections are relatively rare in the grand scheme of things, especially in the Scottish Parliament. Secondly, most parties have benefited from defections at some point or and other and each party recognises the political capital gained when a member leaves one party to join theirs. Thirdly, in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t a priority for any government. And lastly, perhaps cynically but more likely the brutally truth, is that fact that defectors fear they will lose a by-election. This would be bad for the party they joined as well as their own career, further putting or governements from ever mandating by-elections in legislation.
These factors probably indicate why no change has been brought forward in legislation either at Holyrood or Westminster. But is there also a case to bring made for the status-quo?
The argument that voters elect MPs or constituency MSPs based on candidates holds very little water. Party preference is overwhelmingly the largest factor in determining how exactly people will vote, alongside tactical voting in FPTP elllections, unless in extreme circumstances. This means that those calling for no automatic by-elections on the basis that voters voted for the candidate not the party really are kidding themselves.
There’s also the argument that this is how it’s always been. Winston Churchill crossed the floor- on no fewer than two occasions. The formation of the SDP in the 1980s largely came from Labour defections while Change UK emerged from Labour and Conservative defections in 2019, with many going on to join the Liberal Democrats.
But just because something has always been one way doesn’t mean we should keep it. For example, Holyrood’s Additional Member System has largely worked well for 23 years but there are better alternatives. Keeping something how it has always been for the sake of keeping it that way is not demicratic best practice at. Therefore, this argument also fails to stand up to scrutiny.
However, one argument that does make sense in favour of the status-quo comes down to the practicalities of it all. Ask yourself this question, if an MP or list MSP had to call a by-election, would they risk it? Clearly some would, such as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2014 (from the Conservatives to UKIP) but others probably would be nervy about it. In which case, often there would be parliamentarians making speeches on topics and voting for legislation without believing what they are doing. This would ultimately be wrong. Keeping the option to defect but not cause a by-election allows MPs and MSPs to be honest about what they believe in rather than being stuck in a party with no realistic way out. This is arguably fairer on voters who deserve honest representatives.
There is also the argument that it should be up to the MP or MSP themselves to cause a by-election. This is partly on the basis that MPs and constituency MSPs are elected individually – which they are, but again it is worth highlighting the importance of party preference rather than preference for individuals at the ballot box. Christian Wakeford clearly feels he doesn’t need to call a by-election but the 2014 UKIP defectors did (and it even paid off). One could argue that it is ultimately up to each MP or MSP to make the decision to call a by-election with the hope of securing their constituents’ seal of approval.
Calls for automatic by-elections will always be made in the hours following an MP or MSP’s defection. Public opinion clearly backs this and the logic that voters should be given a say on their representative’s new allegiance is undeniably strong. In purely theoretical terms, automatic by-elections should probably be standardised for single-seat members. However, the world is more complicated than that. There should surely be some mechanism that allows discontented MSPs/MPs to leave their party. The prospect of a by-election would discourage these representatives from ever following their believes which would be unfair on voters.
Perhaps one way to square the circle would be to introduce automatic by-elections for MPs/constituency MSPs if they directly defect to another party. That would give voters a say in their decision. However, perhaps representatives should still be allowed to voice their change in views while being allowed to remain in parliament. A compromise solution would be to allow MPs or constituency MSPs to become independent without causing a by-election. They could be allowed to stand for a new party at the next election, perhaps, even join them six months ahead of it to show their new allegiance if they choose so. This overall approach would allow outright defectors to face the electorate while also allowing a route for independent minded MPs and MSPs to express dissatisfaction with their party and not insult their voters by joining a new party.
There’s probably no right answer to this but this is a solution that would strike the balance between allowing representatives to be true to themselves and giving voters a say when there is a significant and direct switch in support.
That all said, it goes without saying that MPs should not be elected by First Past the Post and that the above relates to the status-quo not the ideal representative democracy. The same goes for constituency MSPs at Holyrood – the Scottish Parliament also needs a new, fairer and more representative voting system. However, while we have these systems the above could be an answer to constant calls for automatic by-elections.
This article has so far only focused on MPs and constituency MSPs. But what about list MSPs?
The main difference is that there are never by-elections for list MSPs. If a list MSP resigns their seat or dies, then the next candidate in their party list takes the seat. In the case of independents, the seat is left vacant until the next election. This obviously means that a defecting MSP cannot call a by-election. They could defect and resign but the next candidate on their original party’s list would replace them.
The most prominent recent example of a list MSP defection was Conservative Michelle Ballantyne’s defection to Reform UK during the last parliamentary term.
One solution to list MSP defections would similar to above. A list MSP could become an independent and keep their seat but if they wanted to change party they would have to resign their seat – but surely in practice very few would take this route. The truth is this is an incredibly difficult square to circle but it’s also worth saying that because constituents have multiple regional representatives it’s less of an issue if a list MSP defects as they have other MSPs to turn to in order to represent them in parliament.
Overall, the issue of defecting parliamentarians is a tricky one to handle. It will always happen. Just as voters change their opinions, so to do MPs and MSPs. There is no obvious answer to calls for automatic by-elections, but this aspect – that our representatives are complicated individuals with unique and often changing perspectives on the world – should not be lost.
The UK Government’s “Elections Bill” was voted through by MPs on the evening of Monday 17 January 2022.
Very little time was given to the Bill which will have some significant impacts on the nature of British democracy when it is likely given Royal Ascent.
The Bill, which will next go to the House of Lords, is symptomatic of the current government’s commitment to consolidating power and introducing regressive electoral reforms. Both the Elections Bill and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will have major negative repercussions.
One of the main controversies of the Bill is the introduction of voter identification requirements which campaign groups have said will further marginalise those groups already less likely to vote. While there is a logic to requiring voters to verify their identity, the problem the bill claims to tackle is almost non-existent. The number of voter fraud cases in the UK stands at only a handful. What’s more, trials in England in 2019 led to the turning away of hundreds of voters, almost half of whom did not return to vote. Instead of addressing a non-existent problem, voter ID will create a whole set of new issues, namely voter suppression.
The Bill will also replace the Supplementary Vote with First Past the Post for mayoral elections in England. The Supplementary Vote is far from the best way to elect single-member positions like mayor or president (the best system would be the Alternative Vote) but it is superior to First Past the Post as it provides a broader, more representatie mandate to the winning candidate. Instead of replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation and preferential systems where necessary, the government is expanding a clapped-out system that fails to represent the people time and time again.
Democracy activists and campaign groups took a strong stance against the bill while opposition parties tabled a series of amendments to rip out the bill’s worst elements and improve it overall, but ultimately none were successful.
The Elections Bill puts Britain on the wrong track. The use of First Past the Post needs to be ended not extended.
Westminster is in desperate need of an upgrade. We need real democracy now.
The UK is a long way from becoming a republic according to current polling. Despite a number of high-profile scandals in recent years, support for the monarchy remains extremely high, largely due to the popular personal appeal of the current monarch herself. But what happens when her son, Prince Charles, takes over is anyone’s guess and will likely spark a key debate about who should represent the country on the world stage.
That all said, Scotland has some of the highest support for abolishing the monarchy across the whole UK. A YouGov poll from spring 2021 put support for the monarchy across the UK at 61% and support for an elected head of state at just 24%. Unlike other polls where sub-samples are often too small to infer conclusions about different demographics, this poll is large enough to do just that. The poll suggests that 49% of voters in Scotland support the monarchy while 33% would support a republic. The full poll can be viewed here.
With this in mind, it’s worth exploring what each of Scotland’s five main political parties make of the monarchy and the prospect of a republic.
The Scottish National Party officially have a position that supports the monarchy. Had Scotland become independent in 2014, the country would have most likely remained in the Commonwealth and retained the monarchy similar to the likes of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. For outside observors this may seem peculiar due to the SNP’s strong stance against British institutions, however, there are a number of factors at play that have let to this position. One is the strategic advantage gained by supporting the monarchy to win over voters unsure about the uncertainties of independence. The more independence looks less of a clean break with the UK, the more likely uncertain voters may take a gamble goes the thinking. Furthermore, the monarchy isn’t just a British institution, the history of the Scottish monarchy as part of the British monarchy should not be overstated.
Former SNP Leader and First Minister Alex Salmond has been incredibly supportive of the Queen and the institution of the monarchy (a view he no longer holds with his Alba party now in favour of a republic) while it has been suggested that current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a more neutral approach to the institution.
That said, there are a number of significant figures within the party who support abolishing the monarchy such as Christine Grahame MSP and former Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham.
Unsurprisingly, both the Scottish Conservatives and the UK-wide Conservative and Unionist Party are pro-monarchy. Small-c conservative ideology concerns the preservation of old institutions and only making small changes when deemed practical and when necessary to survive. Overall, the party is incredibly supportive of the monarchy although it is worth noting that centre-right republicans do exist. Most notably in Scotland, former Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins held anti-monarchy views (before being elected in 2016).
The official Labour position is pro-monarchy however, unlike the Conservatives there is widespread support within Labour ranks for adopting a republican position. Former UK-leader Jeremy Corbyn has consistently argued for abolition of the monarchy (although he didn’t further that cause while leader) and other leading UK Labour figures such as Clive Lewis support that position.
In Scottish Labour, there are a number of MSPs with republican views such as Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) and Katy Clark (West of Scotland). There is no doubt that there are more even though the party officially backs the monarchy.
The Scottish Greens support an independent Scottish republic. This has long been the position of the party.
This makes them the only pro-republic party represented at Holyrood although Alba supports a republic and does have two MPs due to defections in 2021.
The Liberal Democrats currently support retaining the monarchy, however, there is some support for a change in position within the party. Back in 1994, Liz Truss (yes, that Liz Truss, once a Lib Dem activist now Conservative foreign secretary) spoke in favour of a motion at party conference to replace the monarchy with a republican system.
The motion failed and while there is no major appetite for change either in the Scottish or federal parties, there is of course a minority of republic supporting members. In 2013, the Lib Dems for a Republic group was set up but it has seemingly fizzled out.
While the party officially supports the monarchy, an investigation by the Scottish Lib Dems in 2021 held the royals to account by finding that a royal privilege (called the Queen’s Consent) was used by the monarchy to intervene in Scottish Parliament legislation.
Improving Scotland’s democracy is central to Upgrade Holyrood’s mission. Scotland needs better Proportional Representation, a recall rule, an end to dual mandates, and other changes that will ultimately better our country’s democratic design.
Both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Lib Dems supported a recall rule for MSPs that bring parliament into disrepute in their 2021 manifestos. The Conservatives detailed that this would include the right for constituents to recall MSPs if they stopped turning up for six months.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has since renewed his party’s plan, as reported by the BBC.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Ross said:
“The ex-SNP finance secretary, Derek Mackay, resigned in disgrace and was never seen in parliament again.
“Yet Scottish taxpayers were forced to continue to pay him £100,000.
“In no other job could someone pocket a six-figure salary while hiding at home. So why would we stand for it in the Scottish Parliament?”
The so-called Mackay’s Law is a welcome proposal and something all parties can and should get behind. That former Minister Derek Mackay was able to claim a salary and not show up for work for over a year is detrimental democratic practice. Voters should be empowered and represented, not diminished and ignored.
However, it is difficult to take the Scottish Conservative leader too seriously on this matter. There is a level of hypocrisy here as Douglas Ross is often absent from his role as an MSP. This is because he is also an MP, and therefore has to be in both Westminster and Holyrood.
He is of course not absent for six months spells, but by holding two roles he is not fully effectively representing his constituents.
Members of the Scottish Parliament are currently elected using the Additional Member System, which leads to broadly proportional results. This means that the proportion of seats won by each party roughly reflects the share of votes cast for that party.
This relationship is far superior to the distorted relationship between seats and votes in Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system.
However, AMS does has its flaws. The system is only proportional at the regional level and does not address the problems that follow when parties win more constituency seats than they should be entitled to as per the regional vote in a particular region. This skews overall proportionality. Further, party lists are closed, limiting voter choice, and there are always two types of MSP in practice – list and constituency. Lastly there are opportunities for parties to game the system such as Alba and All for Unity in 2021, which I wrote about ahead of the 2021 election for Politics.co.uk.
There are three main alternatives to AMS that would improve Scotland’s representation:
A moderated AMS where additional seats are added to address overhangs and to ensure seats match list votes overall (such as in Germany) alongside open lists (as seen in Bavaria.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.
More about these different systems can be read here.
The Liberal Democrats have long argued for Proportional Representation. The party explicitly favours the Single Transferable Voting system, which splits the country into multi-member constituencies (probably between five and seven members with some exceptions). Voters then rank candidates by order of preference. Candidates that reach the quota if first preferences are elected and surplus votes are transfered until all places are filled. This empowers voters and leads to proportional results – in can be modified like in Malta to ensure even more accurate proportionality.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long supported STV. While in government with Scottish Labour, they changed the local authority electoral system from First Past the Post. The party continues to argue for STV to replace AMS at Holyrood. The pledge was included in their 2021 manifesto – making them the only party to include a voting reform pledge in their most recent platform to the electorate.
The SNP support the general principle of Proportional Representation.
The party also tends to favour the Single Transferable Vote. They have called for a switch to STV PR in various manifestos over the years in line with this position, most recently in their 2019 General Election manifesto.
The Conservative party favours First Past the Post and is resistant to any moves away from this at the UK level. Seemingly just one Conservative MP goes against against party line by supporting PR – Derek Thomas, Member of Parliament for St. Ives.
In Scotland, the party does not have an official position on the voting system used at Holyrood although it is always worth highlighting that without it, they would have very limited representation at Holyrood without PR.
That said, there is some support for PR within Scottish Conservative ranks and even some support for reform to an even fairer system.
In June 2021, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser called for reform of Holyrood’s voting system. He has yet to address any hypocrisy if he still supports FPTP at Westminster, and while his support for reform of the Scottish Parliament is rooted in unionist/nationalist arguments, this is a positive sign.
He suggested the opening of AMS’ regional list component, like in Bavaria, but has also said that replacing the whole thing with STV would be another option.
The Scottish Conservatives as a whole are unlikely to support reform – due to awkward questions about their lack of support for PR at Westminster – but Murdo Fraser may have some sway when it comes to bringing a handful of Conservatives on board.
Labour set up the Scottish Parliament and came to an agreement for adopting the Additional Member System with other parties and stakeholders as part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This was in the late 90s when it is worth remembering that Labour went into the general election promising a referendum on Proportional Representation (which never materialised despite the Jenkins report that followed New Labour’s ascent to power).
The party seems to have no formal position on Holyrood’s voting system, but again there is a hypocrisy if they are happy with AMS at Holyrood while favouring FPTP at Westminster. Not to mention, like with the Conservatives, if the Scottish Parliament didn’t have a form of PR they would have next to no representation.
While the party is unlikely to formally support a change in voting system, at least while UK Labour remains favourable to First Past the Post, it is worth remembering that the party did implement AMS for the Scottish Parliament (and other devolved administrations) and were willing to compromise on the issue of council elections by agreeing to implement STV as part of their coalition with the Lib Dems.
While Scottish Labour has no position, there is definitely a softness towards reform within the party.
The magic number to change the voting system at Holyrood is 86. The Scotland Act sets out that any electoral system change requires a two-thirds majority, making this more challenging than a simple majority. The case for this high threshold makes sense: to change the rules of the game, there should be a broad consensus in favour of that change rather than just a basic majority.
Looking at where current support for different systems lies, the most likely new alternative system would be STV due to SNP and Lib Dem support, as well as former Green support. That said, there may also be support for minor reforms such as opening the list element, but any changes to AMS rather than switching to STV or Open List PR would likely be a sticking-plaster, leaving many questions unanswered.
However, in the current 2016 – 2021 parliament, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens still fall short of that crucial two-thirds majority. Even with Conservative Murdo Fraser added in, the numbers don’t add up.
That said, all is not lost. If there was a real drive for reform, Scottish Labour would probably want to be part of that conversation. They pioneered the Scottish Parliament and have shown willingness to work towards fair voting such as with local authorities while in government with the Lib Dems. Scottish Labour are definitely part of the road to reform.
Overall, the issue of electoral reform at Holyrood is less vital than switching to Proportional Representation at Westminser. That members of the UK Parliament and still elected by FPTP is unacceptable. Nonetheless, after 22 years of devolution we should be reviewing how it’s worked so far and crucially assess the voting system. AMS works reasonably well but improvements still can be made. There is not an immediate burning drive to replace AMS but those conversations are necessary. Just because Holyrood delivers better representation than Westminster, doesn’t mean we should not strive for better.
There is a route to reform and that is something we must build towards, especially as Holyrood approaches its 25th birthday.
Scottish democracy can be better. Let’s seize the opportunity ahead of 2026.