Douglas Ross’ call to implement Mackay’s Law for absent MSPs is right but hypocritical

By Richard Wood

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?”

Douglas Ross

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.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

Dual mandates are ultimately unfair on voters who deserve full-time representatives in both Edinburgh and London. Not part-timers.

Ross’ proposal of a Mackay’s Law is sound policy that would improve our democracy but the fact he holds a dual mandate makes his position somewhat hypocritical.

Douglas Ross must resign from one of his roles to be taken seriously as someone championing better representative democracy.

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

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

By Richard Wood

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
  3. Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.

More about these different systems can be read here.

Sign the petition to improve Scotland’s voting system here.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

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.

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

Scottish National Party (SNP)

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.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross MSP MP – 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens, pledged to replace AMS with STV, most recently in their 2016 Scottish Parliament election manifesto.

However, the party now favours an Open List PR system, as reported by the New Statesman.

Both STV and Open List PR would be improvements on AMS as they improve proportionality and empower voters (if designed effectively).

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

Scottish Conservatives

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

Scottish Labour

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.

READ MORE: Why I’m standing to join the Electoral Reform Society Council – Richard Wood

The route to electoral reform at Holyrood

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.

Sign the petition to improve Scotland’s voting system here.

These 5 reforms will improve Scotland’s democracy

By Richard Wood

The Scottish Parliament’s democratic set-up is much more representative than Westminster’s own arrangement. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish local authorities use broadly proportionality systems to elect representatives, the First Minister is directly elected by MSPs and votes at Holyrood are cast with the push of a button, anchoring the institution in the 21st century.

Contrasted with Westminster, with its First Past the Post voting system and unelected House of Lords, Holyrood has many more democratic features than the UK Parliament. However, just because Scotland’s democratic framework is fairly good for democracy doesn’t mean we should ignore its faults and not champion improvements.

This is Upgrade Holyrood’s mission: to argue for improvements to Scottish democracy.

Here are five reforms to improve politics in Scotland.

READ MORE: Why I’m standing to join the Electoral Reform Society Council – Richard Wood

1. Better Proportional Representation

When it comes to voting systems, there is no question that Holyrood’s Additional Member System is more representative than Westminster’s archaic First Past the Post arrangement.

AMS is broadly proportional and is designed to be so, unlike FPTP which distorts the link between seats and votes.

That all said, AMS has some significant faults and is far from perfect.

One of the main flaws of AMS is that voter choice is limited. On the constituency ballot, voters can only choose one candidate (and from one party), and on the list ballot, voters have no influence over the ordering of candidates on the party list they select. This ultimately limits voter choice.

In addition, these two types of MSPs create a default two-class system of MSPs. In a country so used to single-member representatives, this still unfortunately creates the perception that one’s FPTP MSP is one’s main MSP.

Furthermore, the system is only broadly proportional as AMS’ proportionality mechanisms only ensure regional proportionality not national proportionality. This is also exacerbated by the fact that there is no direct mechanism ensuring that overall seats match regional list votes (which is the proportional element of the system). The dominance of constituency seats further skews this relationship and even allows the possibility for a party to win a majority on constituency seats alone – even if they don’t win a majority of votes.

Lastly, there is the possibility for parties to game the system by exploiting when one party dominates constituency seats and making a direct pitch for their votes on the regional ballot. This was attempted by the Alba Party in the 2021 election although the attempt ultimately failed.

So what’s the solution?

There a number of options to reform the system. A sticking-plaster approach would be to add levelling seats so that the overall proportional of regional votes cast matches the total of overall seats done. This would improve proportionality and is the approach taken in German. Furthermore, the closed party list could be opened up to improve voter choice (as seen in Bavaria).

Alternatively, Holyrood could adopt the Single Transferable Vote, which would improve voter power, ensure proportionality and end the two types of MSPs. The Scottish Lib Dems supported this in the 2021 election and the SNP and Scottish Greens have been recent supporters of this approach.

Lastly, Holyrood could instead replace AMS with an Open List PR system with levelling seats like in Denmark or Iceland. This would improve proportionality and voter choice and would be a fairer alternative to the status-quo. This alternative is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland.

READ MORE: Scotland needs better Proportional Representation now

2. Banning dual mandates

An elected representative holds a dual mandate when they are elected to two different legislatures. This means that MSPs who are also MPs, MSPs who are also councillors and MSPs who are also Lords (who are unelected but still count) hold dual mandates.

Dual mandates are ultimately unfair on constituents who deserve full-time representatives as being an MSP is a full-time time job, as is being an MP.

Holding a dual mandate is also impractical, especially when considering travel between parliaments and constituencies. On top of that, academic evidence suggests that dual mandate holders are less productive than single mandate holders, further highlighting the unfairness on constituents.

Scotland should follow the lead of Wales, Northern Ireland, the EU and Canada and ban dual mandates to improve Scottish democracy.

Related to this, another improvement would be to impose restrictions on MSPs from working additional jobs outside parliament.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

3. A recall rule for MSPs

One aspect of representative democracy which Westminster has right and Holyrood has wrong is the process for recalling members who bring the parliament into disrepute. The Westminster set-up for this isn’t perfect and certainly needs fine-tuning, but the House of Commons’ procedures for removing law-breaking MPs is reasonably robust.

The Recall of MPs Act (2015) provides three circumstances where a recall petition can come into force. If any MP recieves a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted for providing false or misleading expenses claims, then a recall petition is triggered.

If this happens to an MP, their constituents will be able to sign a petition and if 10% of constituents sign in the set time period, then a by-election will be triggered. This provides a clear route for removing MSPs when necessary.

The Scottish Parliament should learn from Westminster and introduce a clear recall framework.

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

4. A permanent hybrid parliament

The pandemic has changed how democracy is done in Scotland. Westminster may have reverted to in-person voting and speaking in the chamber, but Scotland retains an element of physical-virtual hybrid parliamentary process.

This should be reviewed and retained in some form as a permanent feature. MSPs are often travelling for work and regularly have commitments in the constituency away from Edinburgh.

Allowing the continuation of an adapted hybrid parliament, with appropriate checks and balances, would make better use of MSPs’ time and turn Holyrood into a more inclusive environment.

recent report from the Centenary Action Group has called for this at Westminster to ensure a more inclusive, compassionate parliament. Holyrood should take this into consideration when examining how it should work after the Covid-19 pandemic.

5. A return to four-year parliamentary terms

Fixed-term parliaments ensure a level playing field as all parties know when the next election is and can plan accordingly. That the UK Government plans on repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a democratic outrage.

The Scottish Parliament was set-up with four-year fixed parliamentary terms, however, the Scottish Government changed this to every five year to avoid clashes with UK Parliament elections.

While there was logic in that decision, extending the length of parliamentary terms ultimately weakens the accountability of MSPs and the Scottish Government.

There is no right answer for how far apart elections should be but twice a decade does not seem frequent enough.

Four-year terms would strike a sensible balance between infrequent elections (five-year terms) and constant campaigning (as seen in the USA with two-year terms).

The Scottish Parliament should recognise this revert to four-year fixed terms.

READ MORE: Why I’m standing to join the Electoral Reform Society Council – Richard Wood

The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall system for MSPs

When it comes to democratic processes, there’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Holyrood but there’s one really obvious improvement Holyrood can make by learning from Westminster.

Despite being stuck in the past, with its unrepresentative voting system, the undemocratic House of Lords and much more, the introduction of a recall process at Westminster was a welcome innovation that has made British democracy more accountable.

Westminster’s recall system was introduced in 2015 by the coalition government. The Recall of MPs Act (2015) provides three circumstances where a recall petition can come into force. If any MP recieves a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted for providing false or misleading expenses claims, then a recall petition is triggered.

If this happens to an MP, their constituents will be able to sign a petition and if 10% of constituents sign in the set time period, then a by-election will be triggered.

There is no similar provision for MSPs in Scotland despite calls for a recall mechanism during the last parliament.

Only two parties called for the introduction of a recall process during the last election – the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Here’s what they said:

Scottish Liberal Democrats“Continue to call for the introduction of a recall system for elected
representatives.”

Scottish Conservatives “At Westminster, there are clear rules around recall, allowing a by-election to take place in certain circumstances, but no such rules exist for MSPs. We will introduce Mackay’s Law, allowing the
public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or cailed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months. This will mean that Scotland will never again face the scandal of a disgraced former minister remaining an MSP, earning over £100,000 and failing to represent his constituents.”

READ MORE: Tory MSP calls for better Proportional Representation at Holyrood

That there have been six years since the introduction of the recall process at Westminster gives an opportunity to learn from the legislation in London – as well as from elsewhere.

The House of Commons system ensures that constituents can’t just recall politicans for any reason. There are clearly defined routes to recall – sensibly setting boundaries although there is room for expansion – that can be adapted for the Scottish Parliament.

The case for a recall system is as simple as it is obvious. MSPs who bring the Scottish Parliament into disrepute have no place in the chamber. The exact reasons that would lead to a recall petition (and potential by- election) would need defined but those outlined for MPs at Westminster, as well as the detailed reasons offered in the Scottish Conservative manifesto clearly highlight the need for a such a system. The fact that MSPs can break the law or not turn up to work and keep their job is a democratic outrage. The Scottish Parliament needs to learn from Westminster and adopt a recall process.

Scottish democracy needs an upgrade and the introduction of a recall system would help do just that.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

However, there is one practical stumbling block to the introduction of a recall rule. It is worth considering the two different types of MSP at Holyrood (although Upgrade Holyrood supports switching from AMS to a more representative electoral system). Recall would ultimately lead to a by-election for any MSP elected in a single seat constituency, however, the route to recall would be more complex for a regional MSP.

There are some solutions but the answer is far from obvious:

A region-wide by-election (a fascinating prospect but one that throws up questions about the very nature of the Holyrood voting system).

A decision taken by the party that the MSP belongs to over whether to remove the MSP and let the next candidate in the list taking up the post (however, this would give a significant amount of power to parties and take away the electorate’s option to have their say).

A parliamentary vote of confidence. If the MSP loses then they would be expelled from parliament. The next candidate on that party’s list would then take their seat. This might be the most sensible option but there would need to be significant checks to ensure that it wouldn’t be abused.

The correct answer to this is unclear (and there would be similar questions if Scotland adopts the Single Transferable Vote of an Open List PR system with levelling seats), however, introducing a recall mechanism would ultimately improve Scottish democracy.

It’s time to introduce a recall rule. Let’s learn from Westminster and adopt a recall system to improve Scottish democracy.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why the UK needs Proportional Representation

READ MORE: 8 Scottish Liberal Democrat 2021 manifesto pledges to improve democracy

Elected mayors in Scotland: is now the time for Aberdeen’s Andy Burnham?

The elections of May 2021 were dubbed as “super Thursday” due to the sheer number of votes that took place across the UK. In addition to the 129 MSPs elected in Scotland, Wales voted for a new Welsh parliament, London got a new assembly and thousands of local councillors were elected right across England. Voters in England also voted for new Police and Crime Commissioners as well as directly elected executive mayors.

Compared to the messy English system of local government (with mayors, unitary authorities, parish councils and mord), Scotland’s local government is slick and easy to understand. Next year Scottish voters will be going to the polls to vote for councillors in 32 local authorities using the Single Transferable Vote. There’s a lot wrong with Scottish local governance but complexity isn’t it.

Upgrade Holyrood supports more powers for local authorities and has welcomed proposals to improve the system. Ballot Box Scotland’s blueprint is a fascinating and coherent suggestion to revitalise local democracy and empower communities in all corners of Scotland. But what about the possibility of introducing directly elected executive mayors (DEEMs) like in the England? Could the introduction of mayors invigorate Scottish local government?

It’s an intriguing prospect. Andy Burnham, a possible future Labour leader, has filled his boots as Mayor of Greater Manchester and has become a clear, local champion for the area. A directly elected mayor in Aberdeen or Dundee could play a similar role, pulling the political gravity away from the dominant central belt. The ability to give a face to a local political force, as well as the creation of one clear accountable individual for local issues, would be the main advantage of any reform.

But a directly elected executive mayor would fundamentally alter the nature of local democracy in Scotland.

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports better representative democracy hence the support of Proportional Representation for Westminster elections, as well as better PR for Holyrood elections.

READ MORE: 12 Reasons to support Proportional Representation

Directly elected executive mayors would somewhat clash with these principles. Current council executives are derived from agreements made by parties who together make up a majority of seats. The executive is usually multi-party thanks to the Single Transferable Vote.

Directly elected executive mayors would put an incredible amount of power in the hands of one person (and party). Such mayors are very much in the tradition of majoritarian democracy which limits their ability to fairly represent all in government. Diversity of opinion is important and while an elected mayor could listen to other parties their input would be limited.

These are largely the same arguments against a directly elected executive president. Such roles are ultimately one-seat constituencies that consolidate power in far too concentrated a place.

That said, while there are significant risks with introducing such mayors, they could still be an effective democratic tool in Scottish local government.

Crucially, if such proposals were to be seriously considered by any future Scottish government, there are three principles that they should adhere to in order to retain good representative democracy and weaken risks associated with majoritarian structures of government.

The first is the principle of consent. Any proposals for directly elected executive mayors in say Edinburgh or Glasgow should be ratified by the people that the decision would affect. In practical terms this would amount to local referenda. As an aside there would be an intriguing dynamic if say Edinburgh voted for a directly executive elected mayor while Glasgow rejected such a proposal.

The second is the principle of ensuring widespread support for any successful mayor. In order to be as representative as possible, the most effective way to elect a single-member seat for a single-member institution (such as a local mayor or national president) is one that ensures the winner has majority support. While this does not ensure that every voice is represented in the executive role (which can only be done in multi-member positions), it does maximise representation and strengthens the legitimacy of any elected mayor.

What this means is that the voting system used to elect directly elected mayors should not be First Past the Post. The Home Secretary’s proposals to replace the Supplementary Vote with FPTP for mayoral elections is an absolute travesty that should be fiercely opposed. Elected mayors should have broad support – First Past the Post very clearly does not provide this. However, the Supplementary Vote is not much better. It ensures broader support than FPTP but tactical voting and speculation are embedded into it.

Any elections for DEEMs in Scotland should use a better system. One option would be a two-round system. Voters back their favourite candidate with an ‘X’ and if no candidate wins 50%+1 of the vote then all but the top two candidates advance to a second round. Voters then return to the polls at a second date to select their mayor. This system is used for French presidential elections, as well as for non-executive presidential elections around Europe. It ensures broad support, however, it has numerous problems. The first is that it’s time consuming and turnout can vary in different rounds – local government turnout is so low any way, this is probably not the best approach. The second fault of this system is that when multiple candidates do well enough in the first round, say 8 candidates each get around 10% of the vote. The top two could be ideologically very similar and both advance to the next round. This is a problem if the other six candidates have completely different views.

The best approach to electing any directly executive mayors is therefore an instant run-off system, which would be the Alternative Vote or STV with a district magnitude of one. Under this system, mayors will achieve broad support as voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The third principle is that local councils should not end up as glorified, sentient rubber stamps. That is to say that while DEEMs would render local councils solely legislative bodies, separating the executive from the legislature, they should be able to actively input into the mayor’s agenda and provide high levels of scrutiny. How this would work in practice is not my area of expertise but there are lessons to be learnt from countries around the world where executives are separately elected from the legislature.

Introducing directly elected executive mayors into Scottish democracy would drastically alter the nature of representative democracy in Scotland, which has trended away from majoritarianism. The broadly proportional Scottish Parliament and the 2007 switch to STV for local councils demonstrates this. That said, the suggestion is an intriguing one and could potentially enhance Scottish local democracy – but only with strict controls to ensure representative democracy and multiparty input.

Directly elected executive mayors are not actively supported by Ugrade Holyrood but the prospect is one to examine further.

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

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.

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.

How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

The final Scottish Parliament results came in on Saturday night after a roller-coaster two-day count (please let’s never have that again!). The Scottish Parliament was created with a broadly proportional voting system to ensure that seats match votes but how proportional was the election?

The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures that the link between seats and votes is far more representative than Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP).

A good voting system should have a strong link between votes and seats. That a party can win a majority on 43% of the vote (2019) – let alone 35% of the vote (2005) – is a clear sign that First Past the Post fails to facilitate proper representative democracy. There are a number of ways to measure how representative an electoral system is but the most widely-known method is the Gallagher Index. There is no need to go in the maths behind it here but a low Gallagher Index score shows good proportionality while a higher one indicates bad proportionality.

The Gallagher Index scores for the previous Scottish elections, according to Electoral Reform Society calculations, are shown below.

1999: 8.5, 2003: 8.2, 2007: 9.1, 2011: 8.6, 2016: 6.2

On their own the Gallagher index scores do not how much but compared to UK election scores we can see that the Scottish Parliament is far fairer than First Past the Post used at Westminster. Take the 2015 election for example, which had the Conservatives win a majority on 37% of the vote and UKIP winning 13% of the vote but only one seat. The Gallagher score on that occasion was 15, with all other elections since 1974 having Gallagher indices with double digits.

The 2016 election was therefore the most proportional since the advent of devolution in 1999 but what about the most recent 2021 election? Upgrade Holyrood’s own 2021 Gallagher index calculations gets a figure of 7.8, making the 2021 election the second most proportional election since 1999. (Update: Ballot Box Scotland has a figure of 7.3 so I will need to revisit my calculations but either way we’re in the same rough area).

This can be seen from the performances of each party: SNP (regional vote share 40.3%, seat share 49.6%), Scottish Conservatives (23.5%, 24%), Scottish Labour (18%, 17.1%), Scottish Greens (8.1%, 6.2%) and the Scottish Lib Dems (5.1%, 3.1%). Overall, this is broadly proportional although the SNP outperform due to their constituency dominance.

As mentioned, the Additional Member System, despite being far more representative in terms of proportionality than First Past the Post, has its flaws. Alba’s plan to game the system, by explicitly calling on voters to vote SNP in constituencies and Alba on the list, shows one clear fault: the risk of so-called satellite parties standing in the regions with an explicit intention of artificially exaggerating the support of one party. Had a supermajority materialised, the Gallagher index would likely have rivalled UK election scores. The same goes with All for Unity which had a similar strategy for unionist voters.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws

The system may not have been successfully gamed by Alba on this occasion but the party has certainly exposed a key flaw of the system, highlighting the need for reform.

This is compounded by the fact that AMS is far from perfect in other aspects. The ratio of constituency to regional seats creates a constituency bias – a party could win a majority on constituency seats alone on less than half the vote (the SNP were three away from doing so in 2021). The version of AMS in Wales is even worse in this respect with 40 constituency seats and 20 regional ones. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour won 30 seats but on less than 40% of the vote.

Furthermore, there is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality. Measures to ensure regional proportionality accumulate to deliver broadly nationally proportional results, however, they stop short of explicitly doing so.

In addition to that, another problem of AMS is the continued existence of FPTP seats which encourages tactical voting. Tactical voting will always happen in any system to some degree, but as many people as possible should be able to vote for their first choice, not their least favourite option.

Lastly, voters have limited choice over candidates within different parties – the list component of AMS ensures better overall representation but the fact that it is closed means that voters get what parties present. There are other flaws too which can be read about here.

It cannot be said enough that AMS is an improvement on FPTP. The UK needs proroportional representation. AMS results are broadly proportional and constituents are represented by a diverse range of parties but that doesn’t mean there are not better alternatives.

A sticking plaster approach to improving on AMS would be to retain the current system and add levelling seats like in Germany to ensure that seats overall match the regional vote. This would improve proportionality but voters are unlikely to support more politicians. An open-list element could be added to the regional list which would ensure voter choice like on Bavaria. In theory this would be an excellent improvement but adding a potential third ballot risks complicating things.

A better alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which would involve multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates by order of preference. STV would deliver proportional outcomes while give voters a significant amount of power over candidates and parties. It is currently supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, as well as leading reform groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.

There is also the less talked about system of open-list PR with levelling seats, which is used in the likes of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, and is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland (who has been an invaluable resource during the 2021 election it must be said!). Under such a system there would be multi-member systems where voters choose one party but get to vote for candidates within that party. Once seats are distributed there would then be a mechanism to allocate additional seats to ensure proportional outcomes overall.

Overall, the 2021 Scottish election delivered a broadly proportional outcome, which should be commended. the fact that Westminster still uses First Past the Post is a travesty, putting us at odds with most democracies. That said we should learn still from the flaws exposed from the likes of Alba and All for Unity and reform Scotland’s voting system for the better.

Polling suggests most Scots oppose dual mandates and second jobs for politicians

A new Panelbase poll suggests that most Scots oppose dual mandates, the practice where politicians hold more than one elected position.

Dual mandate holders have been minimal in recent years but Douglas Ross’ intention to remain an MP if he becomes an MSP in May has put the issue into the spotlight.

The findings come from a Panelbase poll commissioned by Scot Goes Pop conducted between 21 and 26 April.

The poll asked voters for their views on Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross’ intentions if he wins a seat at Holyrood. It found that 67% of Scots think the MP for Moray should give up at least one of his numerous positions if elected to the Scottish Parliament on 6 May.

Ross has explicitly committeed to holding a dual mandate as have former SNP now Alba MPs Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill who are standing for seats in Holyrood.

The Panelbase poll specifically asked about Ross but the findings therefore indicate that most Scots would favour banning the practice of dual mandates as well as restrictions on jobs in addition to being employed as an MP or MSP.

READ MORE: Patterns of dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament since 1999

Dual mandates were banned for Wales and Northern Ireland in 2014.

The practice is also banned in the European Parliament and other countries such as Canada. Even France, which has had a strong culture of dual mandates, has restricted the practice in recent years.

The case against dual mandates is strong as they are ultimately unfair on constituents who deserve full-time representatives. This is backed up by academic evidence which suggests that dual mandate holders are less productive than full-time committed representatives. Considering that MPs work more than a standard working week, this should not come as a surprise.

Dual mandates should be banned in the name of fair and efficient representation.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates for MSPs and MPs

8 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges to improve Scottish democracy

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April with a key campaign pledge of putting the recovery first.

The party served in coalition government with Scottish Labour after the first two Holyrood elections. Their second stint in coalition led to local government reform in the shape of the Single Transferable Vote replacing First Past the Post voting system for council elections. This was a big win for democracy campaigners that would not have been possible without the party.

In 2007 the Lib Dems stayed out of government as the SNP took charge and in 2011 they dropped to just five MSPs due to backlash against the Westminster coalition. Five years later, the party kept steady with five MSPs and are going into the election with the hope of building on that total.

Manifesto pledges

The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:

  • Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
  • Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
  • Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
  • Return to four-year parliamentary terms
  • Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and family friendly
  • Introduce a recall system for MSPs
  • Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
  • Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies

Analysis

The party’s manifesto commits to a number of pledges that chime with the main focuses of Upgrade Holyrood.

Replacing the Additional Member System with a fairer alternative is a welcome pledge as is a return to four-year parliamentary terms. The Scottish Lib Dems are the only main party with these pledges but the SNP and the Greens support STV in principle so electoral reform in that shape could be on the table. Although it is worth noting that such a change would require a two-thirds majority.

Using lessons learnt from the pandemic to make Holyrood more flexible is also welcome as it hints at the continuance of a hybrid parliament even when we return for normality. The Scottish Conservatives have also hinted at this in their manifesto. Such a change would be beneficial for constituents as well as the MSPs representing them.

Further citizens’ asemblies and a recall rule for MSPs are also welcome as they would empower citizens and improve accountability of the legislature.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat 2021 election manifesto can be viewed here.

6 Scottish Labour manifesto pledges on improving democracy

Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto.

Party overview

Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives on 6 May.

The party has lost seats at every single Scottish election since 1999 so reversing this trend would be a positive step for the party, which went from being Scotland’s dominant party in the 2007 Scottish General Election (and 2010 UK election) to battling it out with the Conservatives for second place in 2016 and 2021.

The party is now on its tenth permanent leader since devolution but polls suggest Anas Sarwar is cutting through. A win for Scottish Labour would be to take second place from Douglas Ross’ Scottish Conservatives.

Manifesto pledges on Scottish democracy

The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy in 2021 are to:

  • Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
  • Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
  • Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
  • Give Holyrood committees more powers
  • Further devolve powers to local government
  • Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens

Manifesto

The full Scottish Labour manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election can be accessed here.

SEE MORE: A comparison of the five main parties’ 2021 manifestos

Scottish Labour and electoral reform manifesto commitments in 2016