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

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why Westminster should adopt Proportional Representation now

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Scotland

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.

READ MORE: It’s time to upgrade Holyrood’s voting system

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.

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s political parties think of the monarchy?

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.

READ MORE: UK Government’s Elections Bill will expand FPTP’s dominance

READ MORE: Should defecting MSPs and MPs face by-elections?

The Christian Wakeford question: should defecting MPs and MSPs face by-elections?

By Richard Wood

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.

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

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?

READ MORE: Holyrood should introduce a recall rule for MSPs

Arguments 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.

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s political parties think of the monarchy?

What is the solution?

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.

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

List MSP defections

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 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.

READ MORE: The route to reforming Scotland’s struggling voting system

Elections Bill set to wrongly expand First Past the Post’s dominance in UK politics

By Richard Wood

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 stand 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 problems, namely voter suppression.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

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.

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

What do each of Scotland’s political parties say on the monarchy and republicanism?

By Richard Wood

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 SNP

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.

Scottish Conservatives

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).

SEE MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual MSP MP mandates

Scottish Labour

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.

Scottish Greens

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.

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

Scottish Liberal Democrats

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.

SEE MORE: About Upgrade Holyrood

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?

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: How do Scotland’s political parties view the monarchy and the prospect of a republic?

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.

READ MORE: About Upgrade Holyood

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.