Better Proportional Representation

Upgrade Holyrood proudly supports Proportional Representation. How people vote at the ballot box should be fairly reflected in the make up of any political chamber. The Additional Member System used to elect MSPs is significantly fairer than Westminster’s archaic First Past the Post set-up but improvements can be made to ensure truly representative outcomes in the Scottish Parliament.

Upgrading Holyrood to either the Single Transferable Vote or an open-list system, with mechanisms to ensure national proportionality, would be considerable improvements. An other option would be to upgrade the current system. Any reforms at Westminster should also take this into account and learn from the experience of the Scottish Parliament.

Holyrood’s voting system is better than Westminster’s

First Past the Post is not a representative system. Under FPTP, voters have one ballot paper with one vote for a candidate in their one-member constituency. While this sounds simple and democratic on paper, FPTP distorts how people vote at the ballot box. Labour won a majority of seats on just 35% of all votes cast in the 2005 election. The Conservatives did the same in 2017 with 36% of all votes. Even in 2019, the Conservatives secured an 80-seat majority on just 43% of the vote. FPTP also limits voter choice by encouraging tactical voting and only providing one candidate per party. These outcomes are signs that the UK is not a truly representative democracy.

Contrast this with Holyrood’s Additional Member System (AMS). Voters have two votes, one for a constituency representative (like under FPTP) for one-member districts and one for a party on the regional list. The FPTP component is not representative overall but regional seats, allocated according to regional votes cast while accounting for constituency seats won in each region, contribute to overall regional proportionality.

Under AMS results are broadly proportional and voters have the ability to express support for more than just one candidate in one party. Constituents also have more choice when it comes to choosing which representative to go to with their issues. In 2016, the SNP won 63 of 129 seats (48.8% of all seats) on 46.5% of the constituency vote and 41.7% of the regional vote. This is not fully proportional but a significant improvement on FPTP.

AMS is more proportional than FPTP but it’s not perfect

As highlighted, AMS delivers fairly proportional results and still counts as a form of Proportional Representation. Adopting such a system at Westminster would be a welcome and much-needed reform, however, the Scottish system is not perfect. The problems Scotland’s version of AMS are listed below:

  1. Regional not national proportionality: As the list vote component is based on regional constituencies, additional members result in proportionality region-by-region only. Accordingly, there is no mechanism to ensure overall national proportionality.
  2. Overhang seats: Regional seats address some disproportionality but under AMS parties can win more seats than they are entitled to according to the regional votes. This is called “overhang” and is not addressed by Scotland’s AMS.
  3. Party power: Voters have more choice than under FPTP as they have two votes, however, they only have one choice of candidate per party in the constituency vote and the choice of pre-determined party lists in the regional vote.
  4. The two-vote problem: The nature of two votes under AMS means that there can be significant divergences between the constituency vote and the regional vote. This can lead to “wasted” regional votes if a party wins a significant share of the constituency votes and subsequent speculation about voting tactically on the regional vote. Another possible implication of this is decoy lists in an attempt to “game the system”. Alex Salmond’s Alba party’s goal of creating an unrepresentative supermajority is an example of this.
  5. Constituency seat dominance: At Holyrood, there are 73 constituency seats and 56 list seats. In theory a party could win 50%+ of all seats on constituency seats alone while not even receiving 50% of all votes (in either ballot). This was not far from being the case in 2016.
  6. Retention of “safe seats”: The nature of AMS being a “hybrid system” that keeps FPTP seats, means that safe constituency seats remain under AMS. The same can also be said for “safe” regional seats due to party power over closed party lists as noted above.
  7. Two classes of MSP: The nature of AMS means that there are two types of MSP (constituency and regional). While in theory they should have the same roles, there remains the perception one’s constituency MSP is their main representative. This is likely due to wider dominance of majoritarianism in British politics and is less of an issue in Germany where the constituency MPs are seen as supplementary.
  8. D’Hondt method: The formula used to calculate regional seat allocations has been linked to favouring larger parties at the expense of smaller ones.

You can read my article (published in Politics.co.uk) on the need for electoral reform at Holyrood here.

Would reforming AMS be enough?

The Additional Member System could be replaced by a fairer alternative (outlined below) but if that’s not an option there are a number of recommendations that can make the current system fairer. These should also be taken into account if the UK adopts an Additional Member System at Westminster.

  1. Compensating for overhang with additional (compensation) seats to ensure that parties that lose out are compensated (parties winning overhang seats would get to keep their overhang seats). This is used in New Zealand and would add a few extra MSPs per session depending on the extent of overhang.
  2. Introducing levelling seats would ensure national proportionality in addition to the current regional proportionality and address the problem of overhang seats. This would make the overall election results fairer and see the Scottish voting system more closely resemble Germany’s.
  3. Replacing the closed list component of AMS with an open regional list system will give voters more power at the ballot box while limiting party power. Bavaria has a similar process for electing its state parliament’s additional members.
  4. Altering the distribution of seats to create a more even balance between constituency and regional seats. This could be done by retaining 129 MSPs and making constituencies larger or by increasing the number of MSPs overall.
  5. Changing the formula for electing regional MSPs to a fairer alternative (such as Webster/Sainte-Lague) would be more beneficial to smaller parties who can suffer under D’Hondt.

There are fairer voting systems available: STV or an open-list system

No electoral system is perfect but there are more representative and proportional alternatives to current the Additional Member System. Replacing AMS with one of the alternatives below would improve Scottish democracy and be a better outcome than merely tinkering with AMS.

  1. Supplanting AMS with the Single Transferable Vote (the long-time favourite system of British reformers, supported by the Electoral Reform Society, also currently used at the local level in Scotland) will end the two vote problem and the two types of MSP. It will also improve proportionality (assuming significant district magnitude) and increase voter choice and power by allowing voters to rank candidates. There could also be levelling seats added to ensure national party proportionality of first preference votes (not dissimilar from Malta’s STV system).
  2. A less talked about alternative to AMS (and indeed FPTP at Westminster) is an open-list PR system with multiple multi-member constituencies common across Europe. Such a system would ensure overall proportional results and local representation (assuming regional constituencies with leveling seats like in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway, to address any lack of national proportionality). It would also improve voter choice and power by allowing voters to rank candidates within their party vote.

Politics.co.uk article: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws