Two out of four of London’s Conservative list Assembly Members support replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation.
Emma Best AM declared her support for PR at Westminster in an article for 1828 in November 2021 while Andrew Boff AM has been a long-standing advocate of electoral reform and has now joined Make Votes Matter’s PR Alliance (February 2022). The timing is particularly significant due to the government’s regressive Elections Bill returning to the House of Lords that same week.
The other two (Susan Hall AM and Shaun Bailley AM) have yet to declare a position from what I can tell.
Analysis – a broad coalition for reform
The route to achieving Proportional Representation at Westminster is almost certainly through Labour. The idea that the Conservative Party leadership would support PR, led alone implement it, is beyond unlikely, whereas Labour could well support reform ahead of the next general election.
That all said, it is absolutely vital that the movement for PR includes a broad range of supporters including Conservatives. The UK’s journey to adopting Proportional Representation needs to involve all political parties. The fact that two of the four Conservative list London AMs support PR is not insignificant.
In Scotland, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, declared his support for a fairer electoral system at Holyrood last year, implicitly implying his support for reform at Westminster although that is not confirmed.
Like Fraser, London’s Emma Best and Andrew Boff recognise that without PR, they wouldn’t have their positions, meaning that without PR countless conservatives would be unrepresented in the London Assembly (and at Holyrood).
Furthermore, the support of Best and Boff is striking in the context of the government’s regressive Elections Bill which seeks to expand First Past the Post in England and Wales, crucially by replacing the Supplementary Vote for London mayoral elections.
The bulk of the efforts to achieve electoral reform should be on pushing Labour in the right direction and strengthening links with existing allies, as well as making the issue understood better by the wider public, but Conservative support is important too. When the day of change eventually comes, we should do our best to make sure as many people as possible are on board.
It is also worth highlighting that while the London Assembly delivers broadly proportional outcomes, it is not without its failings. Upgrade Holyrood supports reforming the Scottish Parliament which uses a similar system to elect MSPs. It is therefore right that while the London Assembly is fairer than Westminster’s use of First Past the Post, reform is needed ensure better representation.
Read more about the need to reform Scotland’s Additional Member System here.
The UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading (Wednesday 23 February 2022).
The Bill passed in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January (Report Stage and Third Reading) with very limited time dedicated to its debate. Unfortunately none of the amendments designed too remove its most oppressive aspects were successful due to the government having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
With the Bill now in the House of Lords, there is an opportunity for government defeats to push back against the watering down of our democratic standards.
Reasons to oppose the Elections Bill
The Bill will weaken the UK’s already shaky democratic foundations. Instead of upgrading our political system by introducing Proportional Representation and modernising parliament, the Elections Bill is a direct attack on representative democracy.
It contains provisions to expand First Past the Post through abolishing the Supplementary Vote used for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections. The current system is far from perfect but it provides a broader mandate to PCCs and mayors than the unrepresentative FPTP set-up currently used to elect Member of Parliament to the House of Commons.
The Elections Bill is also set to weaken the vital independence of the Electoral Commission. This is an affront to democracy which the Electoral Commission have firmly taken a stand against. In their letter to the government they say:
We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law.
Electoral Commission (21 February 2022)
Furthermore, the government’s bill will introduce voter identification (ID) requirements to address alleged voter fraud. Of course, electoral fraud is wrong and should be stamped out where present, however, the issue is barely a footnote on the pages of modern British politics, not to mention that trials in England have found voter ID to be highly ineffective. What’s more leading campaigns and organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and Hands off Our Vote have highlighted that voter ID is inherently exclusionary – it will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, young people, older people and other demographics. Instead of tackling fraud, voter ID will suppress voters.
The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on the Bill provides more details and further reasons to oppose the Bill here.
What can you do? Taking action to defend democracy
The House of Lords has an opportunity to defeat the government but that is not without its challenges. Here’s what you can do.
Campaign groups from across the democracy sector are coming together to put pressure on the House of Lords to do the right thing.
Unlock Democracy’s action centre is a good starting point, full of calls to actions to campaign against the bill.
Make Votes Matter, who strongly opposed the expansion of First Past the Post, also provide some key actions to take.
The Elections Bill is a regressive piece of legislation that must be stopped. The government’s unrepresentative majority in the House of Commons seems unassailable but there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the Lords.
There is no denying that the Scottish Parliament is considerably more democratic than the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It has all the hallmarks of a modern democracy with its broadly proportional voting system, no unelected upper body and a purpose built horseshoe chamber where members can vote at the push of a button.
However, that’s not to say improvements cannot be made, and that is the raison d’être of Upgrade Holyrood.
Scotland’s Additional Member System has shown that Proportional Representation works but there a number of serious flaws in its design. It is time to change the way we elect MSPs.
AMS has delivered broadly proportional outcomes
There are a number of ways to measure the effectiveness of a voting system. These all have a complicated interconnected relationship with one another and there is often a trade off between them. Designing an effective electoral system is often a balancing act between proportionality (the representative link between seats and votes), voter influence, local links and utility of votes.
The Additional Member System is a mixed voting system with 73 MSPs elected via First Past the Post and an Additional 56 MSPs elected across eight different regionals. Voters get two ballots and these regional MSPs are allocated via the regional ballots while taking into account of the number of constituency seats won by each party, a mechanism that aims to ensure a proportional link between seats and votes in each region.
There have been six Scottish Parliament elections since the advent of devolution and all of them have been broadly proportional. The Gallagher Index for each of these elections is low, indicating string levels of proportionality, in contrary to indices for elections to the House of Commons which have had high Gallagher indices.
In Scotland, the number of votes cast per party is strongly linked with the number of seats won.
AMS flaws and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election
On the face of it everything looks in order, however, there are a number of flaws with AMS.
The voting system only aims for regional proportionality. The additional list members only ensure that the total number of MSPs in won by each party in each region is roughly proportional, leading to broadly proportional results overall. There is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality – and the ratio of constituency and list candidates in favour of the former compounds this.
Another significant flaw is that voters have very little control over the individuals elected. Safe seats exist in the First Past the Post element of AMS and parties determine their party list ordering meaning that voters have no say in individual candidates – just parties.
Furthermore, AMS doesn’t address the issue of overhangs which is when a party wins more constituency seats than it should have won on a purely proportional system. In contrast, New Zealand and Germany address this by adding further members to their respective parliaments when overhangs occur.
Lastly, is perhaps the most prolific flaw of the system. The 2021 election exposed one of the Additional Member System’s the possibility for exploitation of the two vote system. Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba part went into the election with an explicit pitch to SNP voters – “back us on the list vote to maximise the pro-independence majority”. The SNP are so dominant in Scottish politics that the majority of their seats are won in First Past the Post constituencies but the number of seats overall is meant to be reflect of regional votes cast. Had all SNP voters backed Alba on the list then their would have been an extremely unrepresentative parliament with the likes of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives squeezed out.
There was nothing illegal about Alba’s plan but it is surely wrong, going against the spirit of a system designed to be proportional, and led to talk of reforming the system in the mainstream media.
It is worth highlighting here that George Galloway’s All for Unity party employed a similar strategy, highlighting that this is a wider problem although Alba’s was certainly the most prolific attempt.
Ultimately, Alba failed in their attempt to exploit the system but the flaw has been so obviously exposed, leading to discussions in mainstream media about the need for reform. Just because Salmond’s venture wasn’t successful doesn’t mean something similar in future could be, not to mention this risk of exploiting the system is just one of the many flaws of AMS.
🚨PICK OF THE WEEK🚨
READ: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws
🗳️"Alba’s strategy is thus an overt attempt to game the system."
After 23 years of devolution it’s time for an upgrade
Six elections and 23 years later it is time for reform. The Welsh Parliament is currently looking at improving its voting system and Scotland should do the same. True, Wales’ voting system, although similar to Scotland’s, is notably less proportional but there’s still a strong case to review what’s happened in Scotland why we need reform.
Here are three alternatives to the Additional Member System.
1. The German model – tinkering with the mixed-member system
One option, perhaps in theory the easiest reform, is to tinker with the system we already have. Compared to Mixed-Member Proportional systems in the likes of Germany and New Zealand, Holyrood is rather basic, with no additional measures to ensure proportionality other than the 56 regional MSPs.
Scotland could take a leaf out of Germany’s book and adopt a levelling system. The German model is similar to Scotland’s, the main difference being that the list vote overall, and in each state, is tied to the overall number of seats won. This is done by the creation of additional list seats (on top of the standard list seats allocated per state) to ensure that list votes cast match overall seats one. This would address the problem exposed by Alba in Scotland and also strengthens proportionality on both the regional and national scales.
In addition to modifying AMS based on the German system, Scotland could also learn from Bavaria and open up the list component of the Additional Member System. Party lists are currently decided by the parties that submit them, giving an astonishing amount of power to party bosses. Allowing voters to rank or order or note their preferred lead candidates in the party list they back would empower citizens across the country.
Modifying AMS with these two changes would on paper improve representationin the Scottish Parliament, however, such reforms are not without risk. A German-style levelling system could create an unprecedented number of MSPs as shown by the surge in Bundestag members at the 2021 German Federal election. Furthermore, opening up the list risks complicating matters as voters would in effect have three ballots at the polling station. These option also retains the element of First Past the Post, meaning that safe seats remain and there are two types of MSP.
While a modified AMS would be somewhat an improvement, if we are going to reform the system we should be more ambitious than this!
2. The Single Transferable Vote – representative, empowering and proven effective in Scotland
An alternative to the Additional Member System would be to scrap it altogether and introduce the tried and tested method, the Single Transferable Vote, widely lauded as the most effective and empowering voting system.
STV has been used to elect Scottish councillors since 2007 so voters are already familiar with it. Claims that it would be overly complicated have been unfounded and it has resulted in largely proportional councils and given voters significant power at the ballot box.
Under STV, Scotland would be divided into multi-member constituencies of district magnitude (the electoral sweet spot for balancing the constituency link and proportionality has been identified as between four and eight members (Carey and Hix 2011)) and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. STV leads to proportional results while empowering voters at the ballot box. It also allows them to vote across party lines which can lead to a more accommodating politics.
Levelling seats could even be added, like in Malta’s STV system, to ensure that seats won overall reflect first preference votes and avoid situations like in Ireland in 2018 where Sinn Fein would have won more seats had they stood enough candidates.
No system will ever fully meet all ideal voting system criteria but the Single Transferable Vote covers all of them very well. STV would deliver proportional outcomes and give voters a significant amount of power, not to mention it is already familiar with the voting Scottish public due to its use in council elections. This is probably the best and most likely alternative to AMS.
3. Open List Proportional Representation – an unknown alternative
Rather than tinkering with the current system or opting for the tried and tested STV model, a third option would be to learn from the likes of Norway, Denmark and Iceland and embrace Open List Proportional Representation (with a levelling seat mechanism to ensure national proportionality). This is the less discussed alternative although it is now backed by the Scottish Greens and is the preferred system of Ballot Box Scotland.
Under Open List Proportional Representation, Scotland would be divided into a number of medium-large constituencies each electing a number of MSPs. Voters would get one ballot and one vote for a party. Seats are allocated via votes on that ballot and additional seats are added to level the system out and ensure national proportionality.
Crucially, voters are empowered as they have the option of indicating their preferred candidates on a party’s list, weakening party power and ensuring voters have a strong say in the personal make up of their parliament.
Such a system ticks the key boxes of voter choice and proportionality. Sure, it has some flaws such as the likelihood if some extremely large constituencies, as well as the lack of cross party voting similar to what happens under STV, but it is worth examining.
The Scottish Parliament needs an upgrade but is there a route to electoral reform at Holyrood?
Change often happens by accident but there are three elements to keep an eye on in the coming years.
The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 explicitly gave the Scottish Parliament the power to change its voting system. A change can come about if two-thirds of MSPs support it.
There is some way to go to get to the magic number of 86 MSPs, but SNP, Lib Dem and Green MSPs all support an alternative voting system, not to mention at least one Conservative, Murdo Fraser MSP. Scottish Labour do not have a position but there is likely some appetite within the party for reviewing the status-quo. Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP has even said he is sympathetic to looking at improving the way we elect MSPs. This all gives a framework for what could happen if there is a real drive to electoral reform although work would still be needed to bring parties together on the type of system Scotland should adopt.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens in Wales. There is a very real possibility of the Senedd ditching its own Additional Member System in favour of the Single Transferable Vote as part of an enlargement to 80-90 members. The Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform is due to make its recommendations by 31 May 2022. If Wales goes down that route, Scotland could very well follow.
It is perfectly plausible to see a route to electoral reform ahead of the 2026 election. The Scottish Parliament has the mechanism to change the voting system is there, not to mention support for change within the parliament. The only major obstacle is the lack of political will, but in time, with persuasion, reform will happen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 to circle 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.
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:
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.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.
More about these different systems can be read here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
First Past the Post flies in the face representative democracy. Westminster’s voting system needs an upgrade.
1. Better Representation overall
First Past the Post (FPTP) means that voters are not fairly represented in the British House of Commons. Under FPTP the share of seats won by a party does not accurately reflect the share of votes won. Proportional Representation would fix this problem by ensuring that seats match votes.
In 2019, the Conservatives won 44% of the vote but won 50% of the seats in the House of Commons. Compare this with the Liberal Democrats who won 7.4% of the vote resulting in just 3.9% of the seats, not to mention the Greens who won just one seat with 2.7% of the vote.
If these distortions don’t convince you that something is very wrong with FPTP, just look at Labour in 2005 who won a majority of seats with just 35% of the vote. The Conservatives did the same in 2015 with just 37% of the vote. And at that same election, UKIP won one MP with 12.6% of the vote while the Greens managed the same on 3.8%.
Proportional Representation is the name for a group of voting systems where the share of votes won by a party is fairly translated into the share of seats they get in parliament. If a form of PR had been used in 2019, the Conservatives, who won 44% of the vote, would have won around 44% of seats available.
All in all, PR is much fairer than FPTP, and adopting a PR system would correct the current skewed relationship between seats and votes.
The main advantage of First Past the Post is supposedly the “constituency link” of one MP per seat as that allegedly improves the link between local issues and national government. However, under FPTP an MP only wins their seat by winning more votes than the next places candidate. By having just one representative from one party, voters can feel unrepresented in their constituency weakening the link between them and their MP.
Under any form of PR where constituents match local, “natural” boundaries, constituents would have multiple representatives, giving them more choice of who to go to with issues to represent them in parliament. With one MP per seat under FPTP, fewer constituents have a direct connection with their MP whereas a proportional system gives voters more choice of representatives to go to with issues between elections. If constituency boundaries take into account local geography, which is common in most democracies with PR, then having multiple representatives per seat will strengthen the coveted constituency link.
3. Less tactical voting
FPTP often forces voters to vote tactically. How often have you heard “X can’t beat Y here, vote for Z”? The current set-up promotes local two-horse races, giving people less of an incentive to vote for their most preferred party. Evidence from BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society suggests that around 3 in ten people planned on voting tactically in the 2019 General Elections.
Elections are an opportunity for constituents to put across their opinions and make their voice heard at the ballot box. First Past the Post distorts this process as thousands feel their only option is to vote for the candidate that will beat the party they like the least. As all votes count equally under PR, there is far less of an incentive to vote tactically and with more than one MP per constituency, voters don’t need to settle for their second, third or even fourth choice in an attempt to make their voice heard.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that no tactical voting exists under PR, especially hybrid systems like the Additional Member System in Scotland and Wales, but it certainly makes it significantly less of a factor.
4. No more electoral deserts
FPTP distorts how most people see the political landscape. Look at any electoral map of Scotland for example, and it looks like the SNP dominate every corner of the country. True, the SNP hold a significant amount of support in Scotland, but the dominance of yellow does not show the whole picture. The same goes for Labour red strongholds in the north and blue Conservative regions in the South East. The parties listed do extremely well in these areas but significant minority support does exist for other parties and single-member winner-take-all districts do not reflect this.
The 2015 UK General Election in Scotland is one of the most extreme examples of this. The SNP turned the map yellow, winning 56 of 59 (95% of) seats available, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems with one seat each. Yet the SNP only won 49.7% of the vote. This was a remarkable result but FPTP inflated the scale of their Scottish victory (and it is worth highlighting that even though FPTP helps the SNP, the party still supports PR).
Under PR, these electoral deserts would be a thing of the past. The SNP would have won around 50% of all Scottish seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have won around 24.3%, 14.9% and 7.5% of seats available respectively. Rather than the 1.7% of Scottish seats they each one.
Although infrequent, wrong-winner elections are a serious problem of FPTP. A wrong-winner election occurs when the party with the most votes overall doesn’t actually win the most seats. This happened in the UK in 1951 when Labour won the most votes but the Conservatives won a majority of seats. It happened again in February 1974 when the Conservatives won the most votes but were beaten on seats by Labour.
More recently, in Canada’s 2019 election Justin Trudeau’s Liberals secured the most seats but on fewer votes than the Conservatives. This ironically happened after Justin Trudeau went back on his promise to make 2015 the last Canadian election held under First Past the Post.
There is something very wrong with these outcomes. Even on its own terms, First Past the Post fails to work.
There is however a silver-lining here. Bear in mind that two wrong-winner elections in a row (1978 and 1981) brought electoral reform to the forefront of mainstream political discourse in New Zealand, paving the way for the eventual switch from FPTP to PR in 1996.
6. No more minority rule
First Past the Post means minority rule most of the time. With the exception of the coalition government of 2010 – 2015 (which had two parties), there hasn’t been a government formed with over 50% of the vote since before the Second World War. All single-party majority governments in the UK in modern times have been formed on a minority of the vote. The most recent Labour government was formed in 2005 with a majority of seats but just 35% of the vote.
Proportional Representation would mean a parliament that reflects how people vote, resulting in a coalition formed from parties that would mos likely have a combined share of the vote of over 50%. This would of course mean that parties would have to compromise but that’s just part of sensible, grown-up politics that recognises that most people don’t vote for one party. Such an outcome is far more representative than elected one-party states on minority vote shares.
Political philosophy and proposed policies come from all walks of life and a range of different parties. FPTP perpetuates the dominance of two large political parties while squeezing out smaller parties and often preventing new voices from getting a foothold in parliament. In some ways, FPTP facilitates a cartel between Labour and the Conservatives.
FPTP tends to result in two-party dominance whereas PR leads to multi-party politics. Switching to Proportional Representation would mean that all votes count, ultimately facilitating a parliament with a diverse range of parties. This is better for democracy as it ensures that all voices get a seat at the legislative table and allows for innovative, new ideas to break through into the mainstream. Put simply, PR would break up the cartel and create a parliament more diverse in terms of its political philosophy and policy propositions.
8. No more more unpredictable chaos
Under FPTP, the link between seats and votes is so skewed that an increase in X percentage points for one party will not result in the same increase in seats as an increase in X percentage points for another party. This makes FPTP a chaotic system.
Furthermore, increases in vote share can even mean a fall in the number of seats won. In 2017, the Scottish Conservatives increased their vote share by 5.5 percentage points. This translated into a loss of seats for the Conservatives and ultimately a loss of single-party majority government.
9. Far fewer wasted votes
First Past the Post has led to countless votes being wasted at the ballot box. Wasted votes are those votes that either go over and above the number required to elect MPs as well as votes that don’t elect any MPs. This hardly chimes with the values of a representative democracy and ultimately weakens the link between voters and representatives.
Proportional Representation would limit wastage significantly and ensure that all votes count equally.
10. Fewer safe seats
First Past the Post has resulted in Labour and the Conservatives holding seats with staggering majorities. Some seats haven’t changed hands in years, weakening voter power and resulting in limited campaigning in places where seats are unlikely to change hands. At the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Reform Society correctly predicted the outcome in 316 seats at the 2019 General Election due to them being classed as safe seats. Their analysis also found that 200 seats had not changed parties since the Second World War. This means that voters can feel powerless at the ballot box and results in parties focusing campaign resources on marginal seats rather than across the entire country.
Proportional Representation would result in multi-member constituencies (the exact nature of these would depend on the type of PR system used) meaning that safe seats would be limited and parties would need to campaign in all areas to pick up votes. This would strengthen democracy and empower voters.
Of course, some PR systems such as AMS used in Scotland, which retains a FPTP element (and a closed list system) would retain safe seats, but the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or an open list system would give voters powers over individual candidates and would significantly reduce safe seats.
11 A more consensus-based politics
Representative democracy should ultimately mean parliaments that reflect how people vote. Majority governments elected with a minority of the vote are not a realistic interpretation of the politics wanted by people. First Past the Post simply doesn’t create a climate of cooperation and consensus.
Proportional Representation is a recognition that cooperation between different political parties is a must to ensure accurate representation. It recognises the reality that no one party is unlikely ever to win a majority of votes and govern alone. Multi-party agreements are a more accurate interpretation of election results, even if a somewhat foreign concept to many in the UK used to single-party governance.
12. Proportional Representation is popular
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it should be supported. But widespread support for PR in the UK and the dominant usage of such systems abroad shows that the idea has significant merit, adding weight to the strong, principled arguments in favour of PR.
Polling consistently shows that most people in the UK support Proportional Representation over First Past the Post. This even often includes most Labour and Conservative voters, whose parties oppose any change away from FPTP. Furthermore, over 80% of OECD countries use some form of PR. Most of Europe also uses PR with only the UK and Belarus using FPTP (although it is worth noting that other countries such as France use a majoritarian system while other like Latvia used Mixed-Member Majoritarian which has only an element of PR).
The trend in recent years has been switching from majoritarian systems to PR.
Switching from our outdated First Past the Post voting system to a form of Proportional Representation is the single most important democratic improvement that Westminster politics can make. PR will not solve all of society’s ills overnight but it will provide a much fairer platform from which policy decisions are ultimately made. Democracy isn’t perfect but a fair voting system strengthens the validity and accountability of democratic decisions made.
Under PR everyone will have a fair stake in the system. Make Votes Matter and other better democracy campaigners are making the case for PR in Westminster. Parliament reflecting how people vote is how representative democracy should work; let’s work together to ensure that upgrading to PR comes sooner rather than later.
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.
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.
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.
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.