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.
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.