Scottish election manifestos: democratic reform pledges compared

Scotland’s five main political parties have unveiled their manifestos for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving Scottish representative democracy but what have each of the main political parties pledged to do on this issue?

Scottish Greens

The Greens were the first of the five main parties to release their manifesto, launching their plan for Scotland on Wednesday 14 April. The manifesto focuses on green issues, restructuring the economy and Scottish independence. It also has a section on “Local democracy and communities” with the party pledging to:

  • Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils (more powers and an overall restructuring)
  • Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions
  • Promote more diverse local representation
  • More local, democratic ownership
  • Additional participatory democracy with citizens assembly to be formalised at both local and national levels

The Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP are expected to remain the largest party at Holyrood and were second to launch their manifesto (Thursday 15 April 2021). The party is pledging to:

  • Create a Citizens’ Assembly for under 16s
  • Extend the entitlement to stand for election to all those entitled to vote
  • Introduce a Local Democracy Bill to further empower local communities and to ensure that decisions are most closest to those who they will impact the most

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April, hoping to build on the five MSPs they won in 2016. 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

Scottish Conservatives and Unionists

Scottish Conservatives’ launched their own manifesto on Monday 19 April. The proposal to introduce a recall rule is the most eye-catching of all. The party proposes to:

  • Introduce a recall rule for MSPs (Mackay’s law) – this would allow the public to re MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to parliament for over six months
  • Retain votes at 16 for all Scottish elections
  • Implement a cross-party commission on improving how the Scottish Parliament operates and to improve Scottish Government scrutiny
  • Explore how to modernise the working practices of the Scottish Parliament to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families
  • Cut the cabinet from 12 to six members and freeze MSP and ministerial pay across the next parliament
Douglas Ross MP (by David Woolfall • CC BY 3.0)

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto. Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives. The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy 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

Analysis

Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving representative democracy in Scotland. This blog supports a better voting system for the Scottish Parliament, an end to dual mandates and restrictions on second jobs for MSPs, a return to four-year parliamentary terms, more local democracy and a permanent hybrid parliament even after the pandemic ends, as well as more deliberative democracy where appropriate.

Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats commit to upgrading Scotland’s Additional Member System by replacing it with the Single Transferable Vote. However, it is worth noting that the Greens and the SNP do favour STV as a fairer alternative to AMS.

The Scottish Lib Dems are also the only party committing to a return to four-year parliamentary terms in order to improve frequent democratic accountability.

No parties have pledged to abolish dual mandates although as shown by dual mandate restrictions for Wales and Northern Ireland, this was done by the House of Commons highlighting that this would be a responsibility of Westminster. Therefore such a pledge would likely be out of the scope for manifestos for the Scottish Parliament. That said, the Scottish Lib Dems oppose dual mandates and the SNP’s Alyn Smith MP has proposed a bill on banning dual mandates from Westminster.

The parties all generally pledge to give more powers to local government or reform the way local government operates, which is most welcome, however, this varies from party to party.

Other welcome commitments include recall rules for MSPs in extreme cases (as proposed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), as well as more deliberative democracy in the form of citizens assemblies (the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP).

Overall, there are a range of welcome policy proposals from across the parties but whether they will be delivered remains to be seen.

Scottish election 2021: What did each of the parties commit to on electoral reform in 2016?

The 2021 Scottish election campaign is underway and the launch of the Alba Party has put the issue of Holyrood’s electoral system in the spotlight. Ahead of manifesto launches this month, we take a look at what the parties said about the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system in 2016?

Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP’s 2016 manifesto made no mention of electoral reform at the Scottish Parliament. The party more generally does support the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which would be a welcome alternative to AMS, and has made commitments to STV at Westminster in recent UK General Election manifestos.

However, the party has not made an explicit commitment to STV at Holyrood in any of its Scottish election manifestos since 2003. Let’s hope the party addresses the issue in its 2021 manifesto. And even if they don’t, let’s hope the rise of Alba gets them to address the issue in some capacity.

Scottish Conservatives

Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives leapfrogged Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood in 2016. For a party that generally supports First Past the Post and resists a switch to Proportional Representation at Westminster, the party has certainly benefited from a form of PR at Holyrood.

Unsurprisingly however, the party made no commitment to electoral system reform in their 2016 election manifesto.

Scottish Labour

Labour has long opposed ditching First Past the Post at Westminster but the party was involved in implementing AMS at Holyrood, which is broadly proportional. The party now has over 200 CLPs in favour of PR and the party’s momentum group recently voted to support a switch to PR at Westminster. The party is clearly moving in the right direction ahead of 2024.

In 2016, Scottish Labour made no mention of electoral system reform at Holyrood but made other welcome pledges to improve Scottish democracy including a ban on MSPs having second jobs and devolution of powers to local communities. Let’s see what they say in 2021.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long advocated the Single Transferable Vote as the best form of Proportional Representation. The party’s 2016 manifesto didn’t explicitly address the issue of electoral reform but the party strongly supports it. Their 2021 manifesto is yet to be launched but the party has already made clear that switching from AMS to STV will be part of the party’s policy programme.

Scottish Green Party

The Scottish Greens also support the Single Transferable Vote and their 2016 election manifesto included an explicit commitment to reform Holyrood with STV.

A fairer way to elect MSPs. Greens support the use of Single Transferable Vote for future Holyrood elections. This system is already used in local council elections and is more likely to create a diverse parliament that better reflects the views of voters.

Scottish Green Party (2016: 37)

The Greens are therefore likely to include another commitment to STV their upcoming manifesto.

Read more about the need to upgrade Scotland’s voting system here.

5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

When an individual holds two political offices simultaneously they are exercising a dual mandate. The likes of Donald Dewar (Labour), Alex Salmond (SNP) and Jim Wallace (Liberal Democrat) have all held dual mandates in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons but the phenomenon has been limited in recent years.

However, the return of dual mandate holders looks likely at the upcoming Scottish Parliament election. Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross MP is standing for a regional seat with an explicit commitment to holding both his seats simultaneously if elected to the Scottish Parliament (his current Westminster seat of Moray and one of the Holyrood regional list seats in the highlands and islands). Former SNP now Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey plan on doing the same if elected to Holyrood.

Most parties are guilty of having had dual mandate holders one time of another but dual mandates are ultimately wrong and this should be recognised in legislation. Here are five reasons why.

1. Dual mandates are unfair on constituents

This first point is about the principle of the matter. Constituents deserve full-time representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster. MPs and MSPs have different roles in different chambers with full sets of different responsibilities. Constituents deserve fully committed MPs and MSPs dedicated to representing their electorates in a single, clear capacity. Dual mandates make this impossible.

2. Dual mandates are also impractical

In addition to being unfair on constituents in principle, dual mandates are also extremely impractical. Being an MSP or an MP is a full-time job. Having multiple mandates mean that less work is done on behalf of constituents, ultimately weakening the link between voters and their representatives. Not to mention, MSPs and MPs often work more than the standard working week, further highlighting the impracticalities of dual mandates. There’s also the travel considerations. In normal times dual mandate holders have to be in Edinburgh, London and their constituencies throughout the week. This involves serious logistical juggling.

This argument is backed up by empirical evidence. A study by Navarro (2009: 21) examined dual mandate holders in the European Parliament. Dual mandate holders (in this case MEPs holding addition mandates in their national parliaments) were found to be less productive than single mandate holders as measured by reports made by them, questions tabled, speeches given and attendance in the parliament. While this study was for a different legislature, it adds significant weight to the argument that dual mandates are impractical.

Read more about dual mandates here.

3. Dual mandates don’t necessary strengthen local clout in parliament

One of the most common arguments in favour of dual mandates is that they strengthen the links local communities have with different legislatures as constituents have one point of contact in different levels of governance. It follows that representatives going to a legislature higher up in the governance structure with additional more localised mandates are more likely to account for local interests as opposed to sticking with party policy for example.

This does sound somewhat logical but the empirical evidence fails to back this up. One study (Van de Voode 2020) found that while representatives with multiple mandates feel they have a greater connection with their own communities, that does not translate into how they operate in parliament.

The estimated regression models demonstrate that dual mandate holders indeed perceive themselves as local brokers, even when controlling for various systemic, party and individual level factors. On the other hand, they struggle to translate their localized attitudes into localized parliamentary behaviour, which could call one of the main arguments in favour of dual mandate holding into question.

Van de Voode (2020)

The argument of local follow-through doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

4. Dual mandates could lead to corruption

This may sound like a stretch but there is some evidence to suggest that dual mandates can lead to corruption. This is primarily from France where holding multiple mandates at different levels of government has very much been a part of French political culture.

As put by Navarro (2009: 19):

“As noted by Bernard Chantebout, in the French context, the parlia­mentarians are not usually corrupted in their capacity as parliamentarians: only those MPs who are in charge of a local executive have been convicted of corruption. It is indeed all the more tempting for “cumulants” to accept a bride when they decide (at the local level) about a public tender or about any urban policy that they are protected from prosecution by their parliamentary immunity.”

Navarro (2009: 19)

This definitely isn’t the main reason to ban dual mandates, and is very much a minority problem, but the fact that dual mandates could facilitate this only adds another reason to implement a ban.

5. Restrictions on dual mandates are gaining popularity

There is growing recognition that dual mandates are unfair on constituents. A popular idea alone is no reason to support reform but the current momentum against dual mandates shows that countries are recognising the problems associated with them.

Members of the European Parliament cannot take their seats if they hold a national mandate while members of the provincial legislatures in Canada cannot even stand for federal office.

Even France which has a long history of politicians holding multiple mandates, has taken a stance against them in recent years under Emmanual Macron’s government.

Closer to home, in 2014 the House of Commons banned dual mandates for members of the Welsh Parliament and Northern Assembly. The bans made Scotland the only constituent nation of the UK where dual mandates for the devolved national administration are not banned.

READ MORE: Patterns of dual mandates in Scotland since 1999

The route to a dual mandate ban in Scotland

Dual mandates should be banned in Scotland to build a fairer and more efficient democracy. The route to banning dual mandates involves political agreement and likely legislation in Westminster rather than the Scottish Parliament as shown by previous laws made regarding Wales and Northern Ireland.

Douglas Ross’ likely return to Holyrood – in addition to the possible elections of Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey to the Scottish Parliament (in addition to their seats in the Commons) – puts the issue clearly in the spotlight.

However, this likely return of dual mandates also stresses the challenges to banning them. The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. From a point of view of the practicalities of parliamentary politics (not to mention Conservative resistance to any democratic improvements), it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will budge on this issue. That said, opposition parties should continue to push for reform.

Dual mandates are not the most important issue in Scottish politics, not to mention that they are not the most important democratic reform campaign issue. Nonetheless, dual mandates are clearly wrong and ultimately unfair on constituents. A ban on dual mandates in Scotland is long overdue. Let’s make 2021 the last Scottish election where dual mandates are possible.

Upgrade Holyrood is a political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics and delivering relevant political analysis and commentary. Scottish politics needs an upgrade and Upgrade Holyrood aims to provide a space to help facilitate that.

The full Upgrade Holyrood report on dual mandates is coming soon. Watch this space.

Sources:

Navarro, J. (2009). Multiple Office-Holders in France and in Germany: An Elite Within the Elite. SFB 580 Mitteilungen 33(1): 6–56. Access here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322854700_Multiple-Office_Holders_in_France_and_in_Germany_An_Elite_Within_the_Elite

Van de Voorde, N. and de Vet, B., 2020. Is All Politics Indeed Local? A Comparative Study of Dual Mandate‐Holders’ Role Attitudes and Behaviours in Parliament. Swiss Political Science Review, 26(1), pp.51-72. Access here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/spsr.12388

Upgrade Holyrood launched: Scottish democracy can and must be better

Scotland’s political framework is more democratic and representative than Westminster’s but there is room for improvement. Upgrade Holyrood aims to facilitate discussions on upgrading Scotland’s democracy and ultimately help bring about change at the Scottish Parliament.

Upgrading Scottish democracy

Launched on 8 April 2021, Upgrade Holyrood is a brand-new political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics while delivering relevant political analysis and commentary.

There’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Scottish politics, most notably Holyrood’s proportional voting system, the lack of an undemocratic upper chamber, electronic voting for members and the direct election of the first minister by MSPs. Scotland’s democratic processes are much more evolved than Westminster’s, and London should learn from that.

However, while Holyrood is more democratic than Westminster, there is still room for improvement.

The Alba party’s attempt to exploit a flaw in the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system and the likely return of “dual mandates” at the 2021 election have spotlighted the need for reform. And that’s where Upgrade Holyrood comes in. Scottish representative politics can learn democratic best practice from across Europe and beyond.

Guided by the principle that our democracy can and must be better, Upgrade Holyrood supports:

  • Accountable representation: a return to fixed four-year parliamentary terms
  • Fair and efficient representation: an end to dual mandates in Scottish politics and restrictions on second jobs for politicians
  • Inclusive representation: a permanent hybrid parliament
  • Local representation: more powers for local communities across Scotland
  • Proportional representation a fairer voting system to elect MSPs

Upgrade Holyrood provides analysis, opinion and research on solutions to improve Scottish democracy as well as the space to discuss further advancements. Additional commentary on Scottish, British and European politics more generally will also be covered.

Notes:

Read my article (published in Politics.co.uk) on the need to reform Scotland’s electoral system here.

Upgrade Holyrood was initially launched as Better Holyrood before a name change on 13 April 2021.