Delegates at the UK Labour Party Conference in Liverpool have today voted in favour of a motion to put changing the UK’s electoral system to one of Proportional Representation (PR) in the next election manifesto.
The vote follows years of hard work from reform activists, notably the Labour for a New Democracy campaign which includes the likes of Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
The successful vote also comes a year after a similar motion was defeated at the previous conference.
It’s worth highlighting that 60% of local Labour parties support PR. A total of 140 sent motions to this year’s conference in favour of reform.
Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar even made the case for PR at the Labour conference. The Scottish Parliament voting system may not be perfect but it does deliver broadly proportional outcomes so it’s great to see MSPs standing up for PR at Westminster too.
Great to see @AnasSarwar supporting Proportional Representation at #Lab22. Democratic renewal is necessary for social and economic renewal, this conference can bring us a step closer to it. pic.twitter.com/WoXnTt2Iuf
Sweden went to the polls on Sunday 11 September 2022, four years after the previous vote in 2018. The country uses a system of Proportional Representation to elect members of the Riksdag, ensuring that how Swedes vote at the ballot box is reflected in parliament.
The country’s electoral system is worth exploring as an alternative to Holyrood’s broadly proportional but flawed Additional Member System.
What electoral system does Sweden use?
Sweden uses a system of Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats to ensure national proportionality.
The country is divided into 29 constituencies – ranging from 2 to 43 members (Gotland and Stockholm county respectively) – to which parties present lists of candidates in each constituency. Voters get to vote for one party but also have the option to vote for individual candidates, which can alter the list ordering within their constituency. This is the open element of the system, thus further empowering voters at the ballot box.
Elections in Sweden are extremely proportional due to larger multi-member constituencies, however, what sets the country’s system apart from country’s such as Estonia and Latvia which use list PR systems, is that Sweden’s electoral system also employs levelling seats. Once all the votes are counted and seats distributed as per the voters’ wishes, parties win additional seats across the country to ensure that the overall results are as proportional as possible. Of the 349 seats in the Riksdag, 310 are distributed in the first instance while a further 39 are distributed to further improve proportionality. There is also a 4% national threshold for parties to enter the Riksdag. Sweden is not unique in this regard; Norway, Denmark and Iceland also have levelling seats to ensure proportionality overall.
How did Sweden vote at the 2022 election and how proportional was it?
The previous Swedish general election took place in 2018, which was followed by tough negotiations and even a no confidence vote in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. However, Löfven emerged to lead a minority left coalition made up of his own party the Social Democrats, as well as the Greens. Löfven resigned in 2021, making way for party colleague Magdalena Andersson, who led her party into the 2022 election.
The most recent election was an incredibly close-run contest between the left and right blocs. On the left, the Social Democrats maintained their dominant position as the largest party in parliament. however, right of centre parties managed to win a very slim majority of seats, leading to Magdalena Andersson’s resignation on Thursday. The far-right Sweden Democrats replaced the centre-right Moderates as the second largest party in parliament but the Moderate leader is likely to become prime minister due to the toxicity of the Sweden Democrats even amongst the rest of the right. What influence they will have this parliament – and in the years to come – remains to be seen.
But how proportional was the 2022 election? Thanks to Sweden’s Open List PR system, the answer is very.
The Social Democrats for example won 107 seats (30.7%) on 30.4% of the vote. The Sweden Democrats took 73 seats (20.9%) on 20.5% of the vote while the Moderates won 68 seats (19.5%) on 19.5% of the vote. Overall, results were extremely proportional with seats reflecting votes. Furthermore, voters were empowered by the open element of the allowing them to express support for individuals within their chosen party.
Swedish Election Result (6,568 out of 6,578 Districts Counted):
Social Democrats: 107 (+3) Sweden Democrats: 73 (+11) Moderate: 68 (-2) Centre: 24 (-7) Left: 24 (-4) Christian Democrats: 19 (-4) Green: 18 (+2) Liberal: 16% (-4)
How do the Swedish and Scottish electoral systems compare?
The Scottish Parliament’s broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) is significantly fairer than the unrepresentative First Past the Post voting system used for the House of Commons. However, it has a number of flaws that need to be addressed. Problems associated with Holyrood’s mixed-member system are listed below:
1. Regional not national PR – As list members are distributed on a regional basis only, there is no mechanism to ensure overall nationality proportionality. While regional proportionality tends to result in broadly proportional outcomes overall, there is still room for improvement.
2. Limited voter power – Under AMS voters have no power over the ordering of party lists. Furthermore, the constituency vote element limits voter power by creating safe seats and targeted marginal seats while also being “lists of one”.
3. Two types of MSPs – Due to the nature of mixed-member systems, the Scottish Parliament has two types of MSP. While in theory they perform the same functions, this can vary in practice, particularly on the casework side of things.
4. The two-vote problem – Voters have two votes, and while they should ideally work in tandem to result in proportional outcomes, it creates the opportunities for parties to exploit this by only standing in the list and asking established parties’ supporters to back them on the list. This was highlighted when Alba was established with the express intention to do this in 2021. This clearly goes against the spirit of AMS and could create highly disproportionate elections.
5. Constituency seats remain (and dominate!) – Single-member constituencies still come with many of the flaws they have in FPTP. They result in wasted votes and can lead to safe seats, as well as marginal seats which can result in parties focusing on them rather than giving attention to the wider region or country. Furthermore, the fact that constituency seats make up a significant majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, this can result in overhangs (which aren’t addressed by AMS) and skew overall proportionality – particularly if one party dominates single-member seats.
Upgrade Holyrood is committed to making the case for improving Scotland’s democracy, and that includes arguing for a review of the current system and outlining alternatives. The type of system used for Swedish elections – an Open List PR system with levelling seats – is one option that would address many of the faults of AMS.
Levelling seats would rectify the problem of limited national proportionality. And while there would technically be two types of MSP, under a Swedish model, these are given back to constituencies, minimising that problem to a minimum. Furthermore, voters would only have one party vote, ending the two vote problem, and single-seat constituencies would come to an end. Voters would also be empowered by being able to influence party lists unlike under AMS where parties present unalterable lists.
But what would such a system look like in practice?
Ballot Box Scotland is a strong advocate of Holyrood adopting an Open List PR system (with levelling seats), which they categorise as Scandinavian-style PR. For those wondering what Holyrood would look like if it adopted a system like Sweden, BBS has designed such a model for Scotland and used the most recent Scottish Parliament election results to give an indication of what seat distribution would look like.
This is shown below. Of course, it’s worth noting that the size of any constituencies in such a system if it were to be adopted would be up to the designers so it wouldn’t necessarily reflect the below. Furthermore, in terms of seat projections, the below uses the regional vote to determine how people would cast their singular Open List PR vote. In reality, many who voted ‘SNP constituency and Green regional’ might instead have use their one vote for the SNP although this is all speculation of course. In addition, the type of voting system used very much determines how people vote and so how people may have voted under this system could be completely different (e.g. smaller parties may be more considered).
So, what support is there for a Swedish-style system among Scottish parties? The Scottish Greens support a Scandinavian-style system while the Lib Dems favour the Single Transferable Vote (which again would be better than AMS if designed effectively), as do the SNP while Labour and the Conservatives are largely missing from this debate (although figures such as Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP recognise the faults of the current system).
That all said, a Sweden-like system is not the only alternative to the current set-up at Holyrood. Two other alternatives would be the Single Transferable Vote (which would address many of AMS’ problems, ensure proportionality and vastly improve voter choice and power) and a modified mixed-member system with open lists and guaranteed overall proportionality (similar to Bavaria’s electoral system).
Sweden’s election provides just one model that Holyrood – and perhaps Westminster (although that seems far less likely and possibly undesirable for such a large populous) – could adopt to improve electoral outcomes. Reform is needed, and to achieve change it is vital that we look to other parliaments for guidance.
The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all gained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The famous Baltic Chain of Freedom of 1989 was vital in ending Soviet control of the region, paving the way for three independent republics.
There are striking similarities between the three Baltic democracies and some crucial differences too. All are republics, all use list systems to elect some or all of their MPs who have four-year terms, and all have written, codified constitutions.
Having recently visited Latvia and Lithuania (previously visiting Estonia in 2019), I’ve taken the time to highlight the electoral systems of each of the Baltic state and comparing them to Holyrood and Westminster.
Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and is most northern of the three Baltic states, bordering Latvia to the south, as well as Russia to the east.
Since gaining independence in 1990, the Estonian Parliament – the Riigikogu – has had eight elections. Members are elected via a Closed List Proportional Representation system with multiple constituencies and no levelling seats, a model similar to what was used to elect UK Members of the European system. It also resembles the expected new system for the Welsh Parliament, as proposed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.
A total of 101 members are elected to the Riigikogu across 12 electoral districts ranging from five to fifteen members. This gives the country highly proportional elections while also retaining a reasonable degree of local representation. The three largest districts by representation cover Tallinn (the country’s capital and home of the national parliament) and the surrounding area.
It’s worth highlighting here that unlike at Holyrood and Westminster, when an MP joins the Estonian government they leave they stop being an MP. This gives a more formal separation of the legislature and executive than what we’re used to in the UK. The idea is an intriguing one although it only works due to the country’s list system: when an MP joins the government, the next person on their party’s list replaces them as an MP. This of course has the consequence that when a minister returns to the legislature, their substitute MP vacates their seat.
The country last voted in 2019, following which a coalition was formed led by the centre-right Centre Party. However, the government collapsed less than two years later; liberal Reform Party, led by Kaja Kallas, subsequently formed a cabinet with the Centre Party as the junior coalition partner. That arrangement didn’t last long either, but Kallas remained prime minister, after forming a coalition with the conservative Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party. The next election is expected to take place in March 2023.
As an independent, democratic republic, the country also has a non-executive president as Head of state. Unlike some other European countries with a similar set-up, Estonia’s president is elected by members of its national parliament rather than by a nation-wide vote. Its Baltic neighbours have also have non-executive presidents, but more on that below.
Latvia has a population just shy of 2 million, and like its less populous northern neighbour, the country uses a closed list proportional system to elect its members. The Saeima, the country’s parliament, has 100 members, one short of Estonia’s Rijikogu, and is based in the capital city of Riga.
Proportionality is a key principle in Latvian democracy. So much so that Articles 6 and 7 of the country’s constitution enshrine it in law:
6. The Saeima shall be elected in general, equal and direct elections, and by secret ballot based on proportional representation.
7. In the division of Latvia into separate electoral districts, provision for the number of members of the Saeima to be elected from each district shall be proportional to the number of electors in each district.
Latvian Constitution (Article 6)
While Latvia uses a Closed List PR system like Estonia, the system is rather different in design. The Saeima’s 100 members are spread across just five electoral districts. The capital Riga elects 36 members – that’s over a third of representatives. The other four districts elect 26, 13, 13, 12 members respectively.
This voting system leads to highly proportional elections, however, local representation is less than in Estonia, especially in the super-constituency of Riga.
The next Latvian election is scheduled to take place on 1 October 2022. The previous election saw three previously unrepresented parties gain representation in the Saeima. The pre-election governing coalition led by the centre-right, agrarian Union of Greens and Farmers since 2016 lost significant support, leading to a new government. After months of negotiations, a five-party coalition was formed with the centre-right New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš becoming prime minister in early 2019. New Unity is the smallest party in parliament, making Kariņš very much a compromise prime minister for the diverse coalition he heads.
Two final things. Like in Estonia, Latvian MPs formally exit the legislature when they join the government, making way for substitute MPs. And finally, Latvia’s non-executive president is elected by members of its national parliament just like in Estonia.
In line with it having the largest population of the three Baltic states (2.8 million people), Lithuania’s parliament (called the Seimas – not to be confused with Latvia’s Saeima) has the largest number of members of the three Baltic states. The country votes for 141 deputies every four years. However, unlike its northern neighbours, Lithuania doesn’t use what can be characterised as a proportional system.
The Seimas’ has 141 members (although the chamber has 142 for the sake of symmetrical design!) are elected in two ways. Just over half of MPs, 71, are elected from single-member districts. Candidates are only elected if they win a majority of votes in their constituency; if no candidate does then a run-off is held two weeks later to determine the elected representative.
The remaining 70 members are elected via proportional lists with a 5% threshold. There is also a degree of openness to the list element where voters can express a preference for a candidate of their choosing.
Unlike similar systems used in the likes of Scotland, Germany and New Zealand there is no link between single-member seats and the proportional element. This results in a Mixed-Member Majoritarian system where overall results are only somewhat proportional. This is also known as parallel voting.
This limited proportionality is best shown via the Gallagher Index, which provides a standardised measure of proportionality to compare different systems at different elections. The closer to 1 an election is, the more proportional it is. The 2019 Estonian and 2018 Latvian elections yielded Gallagher scores of 5.28 and 5.51 respectively. Lithuania’s score was 9.49 overall. Lithuanian elections therefore have proportional elements but are far from fully proportional.
The 2020 election led to the formation of a government headed by popular independent MP Ingrida Šimonytė. This is an interesting situation, which follows the 2019 non-executive presidential election (which unlike Estonia and Latvia was a nationwide election) which Šimonytė lost. However, she remained a popular figure, winning the most preference votes in the 2020 parliamentary election, and has a strong relationship with the centre-right Homeland Union. She now leads a centre-right cabinet consisting of independents, the Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party.
When it comes to comparing the electoral systems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Westminster, the Baltic states come out on top. Even the semi-proportional Lithuanian system is significantly more representative than First Past the Post.
Of the three Baltic states, Estonia has the best balance of proportionality and local representation whereas Latvia’s mega-constituencies reduce local links and Lithuania’s mixed-member majoritarian system limits proportionality. Of course, all three are significantly more representative than First Past the Post, which distorts the link between seats and votes, leads to countless wasted votes and encourages tactical voting.
Were Westminster to adopt any of the three systems from the Baltics, representation would improve significantly.
The situation is somewhat different when making comparisons with the Scottish Parliament, which has used the proportional Additional Member System (AMS) since the advent of devolution in 1999. Unlike the mixed-member majoritarian system of Lithuania, Holyrood’s AMS is mixed-member proportional (MMP) as the constituency election results directly impact the distribution of list seats to compensate for lack of proportionality. The system has some significant flaws – which I’ve written about extensively here – but overall it delivers broadly proportional outcomes. Take a look at the most recent Scottish and Lithuanian elections. The Gallagher score for Scotland was 7.03, making it more proportional than Lithuania’s 9.49.
However, when comparing Scotland’s Gallagher scores to Estonia and Latvia, it is clear that the northern Baltic states have more proportional elections. This highlights the flaw that Holyrood elections are only broadly proportional (due to the balance of MSP types and the fact that votes are only regionally representative).
That said Scotland’s AMS means better local representation that Estonian and Latvia (with all constituents eight MSPs – one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs). I should say here that I am of course in no position to call for reform in other countries, but the purpose of this to to show comparisons between Holyrood and Westminster with electoral systems around the world.
First Past the Post is significantly flawed. The UK needs to adopt a proportional alternative. Scotland’s AMS is a significant improvement but is in need of reform. When looking to make democratic improvements it is vital to look outward and see what other countries offer. That is a key part of the Upgrade Holyrood mission.
The citizens of Malta voted for a new House of Representatives on 26 March 2022. Unlike elections to the UK’s House of Commons, how Maltese vote is actually reflected in parliament due to the country’s system of Proportional Representation (specifically, the Single Transferable Vote).
Scottish and UK politics have much to learn from Malta.
In 2017, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party won 37 seats (on 55% of the vote) ahead of the National Force’s 30 (on 43.7% of the vote). Unusually for a country using Proportional Representation, Malta has a fairly consistent two-party system.
The country changed prime minister’s in 2020 and at the recent 2022 election, Labour held on to power by winning one more seat than it achieved at the last election. Here’s what happened in 2022 and how Maltese elections work.
Malta uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect its representatives. The country is split into 13 constituencies, each with five members, and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. This leads to largely proportional outcomes and a significant degree of voter empowerment.
Unlike in other countries using STV, a two-party system has dominated Malta for decades, with only a handful of third parties gaining representation despite the relatively low barriers of entry to the House of Representatives compared to the challenges they face in countries using majoritarian and pluralitarian systems such as First Past the Post.
Malta’s STV also has a final twist that doesn’t exist in places such as Scotland, Ireland and Australia’s Senate. Under standard STV it is still possible for the party with the most first preference votes to win fewer seats than an opposition party. The Maltese system addresses this by giving additional seats to the party with the most first preference votes across the whole of Malta. This is a sensible solution to addressing one of the flaws of an otherwise representing and empowering electoral system, one which could even be built upon for STV elections in Scotland and the UK.
Due to STV and the Maltese twist on it, elections in Malta are highly proportional.
At the 2022 election, the Labour Party won 38 (56.72%) seats on 55.11% of first preference votes. The Nationalist Party secured 29 (43.28%) seats on 42.74% of the vote. There was clearly a strong link between seats and votes.
But looking at the overall figures only offers one level of analysis.
One tried and tested way to measure proportionality, and crucially compare proportionality of different systems, is to calculate the Gallagher index for an elections. More on the mathematics behind the indices can be read here, but the closer to zero the index is, the more proportional it is.
In Malta’s case, elections are highly proportional with indices consistently around the 1 mark for elections in the 21st century. The election result in 2017 was similar to 2022 (Labour won 37 seats on 55.04% of first preference votes while the National Party won 28 seats on 42.12% of the vote). The Gallagher Index for that election vote was 1.01. In fact every Maltese election since 1987 has had a Gallagher index less than 2, showing just how proportional Malta’s electoral system is.
In comparison, Scottish Parliament elections are largely proportional – the Gallagher index for 2016 was 5.6 while the index for 2021 was 7.03. However, UK elections are highly unrepresentative thanks to First Past the Post, for example, the Gallagher Index for the 2019 elections was 11.80.
Elections in Malta are highly proportional while and empower voters to a high degree. The Single Transferable Vote is far superior to First Past the Post, used to elect MPs in the UK, and more representative, and empowering, than the Additional Member System used at Holyrood. What’s more a version of the “Maltese twist” on the traditional STV is one worth considering when it comes to UK elections.
At the last UK election, the Conservatives won a majority on 43% of the vote while parties such as the Greens and Lib Dems were significantly unrepresented. Had the UK been using STV, the election outcome would have been much more representative than under First Past the Post. Furthermore, the UK could build on the Maltese version of STV by implementing its own levelling twist. Say under STV one party won more seats than another but fewer first preference votes, a number of levelling seat could be added to ensure a fairer outcome and tackle questions of illegitimacy.
STV Proportional Representation is clearly fairer than First Past the Post, as shown by the Maltese election. However, STV is already used for Scottish local elections, as well as Northern Ireland’s Stormont and local elections. Westminster has much to learn from Malta but also from elections for devolved administrations.
Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday 5 May to elect a new assembly. The election is going ahead as scheduled but follows the recent collapse of the executive as a result of First Minister Paul Givan’s resignation. The election could make history, with Sinn Fein looking likely to emerge as the largest party after years of unionist dominance.
Assembly members are elected via the Single Transferable Vote, a form of Proportional Representation with multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates in order of preference.
Voters in Scotland also go to the polls on 5 May – this time to elect councillors across all 32 local authorities. Like the election in Northern Ireland, Scottish councillors are elected via STV. However, the Northern Irish system has lessons for Scotland’s democracy – both at the local level and at Holyrood.
Northern Ireland Assembly election
For Northern Ireland elections, the province is split into 18 constituencies. Each constituency has five members, meaning a total of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly.
By allowing voters to rank candidates, voters have a significant degree of control over who is elected, rather than just which party. This is an important element of representative democracy, which is lacking at elections to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.
Elections are also extremely proportional. In 2017, the DUP won 28.1% of first-preference votes and ended up with 31.1% of seats. Sinn Fein won 27.9% of the first preference votes and 30% of all seats while the UUP won 12.9% of first preference votes and 13.3% of all seats.
The Gallagher index, used to measure proportionality and compare across systems, for the last election was 3.34. The closer to one an election is, the more proportional it is. Compare this to the UK’s last election, which had a Gallagher index of 11.80.
In short, Northern Ireland elections are extremely proportional.
Scotland is split into 32 council areas, each electing a different number of councillors. The vast majority of these are elected in three or four member wards via STV. Like in Northern Ireland, council results are largely proportional and voters have more power than parties.
However, the fact that councillors are only elected in three or four member wards, as opposed to five member wards in Northern Ireland, decreases proportionality. Of course, the more local councillors are, the better – as they deal with local issues – but it is worth considering that wards with higher district magnitude lead to more representative results. If there is ever an opportunity to increase the number of councillors in Scotland, then increasing the number of representatives in each ward is worth considering.
Northern Ireland shows that a more representative parliament is possible. UK elections are incredibly unrepresentative. STV would be a far more representative system than First Past the Post. When the UK does eventually adopt Proportional Representation, there are positive lessons from Northern Ireland’s use of STV.
Furthermore, there are lessons for Holyrood. The Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System is broadly proportional but has a number of problems, such as the lack of voter empowerment, opportunities for exploitation and no mechanism to ensure national proportionality.
The Scottish Parliament needs a fairer voting system. STV is tried and tested in Scotland and has been successful in Northern Ireland. After 23 years of devolution, it’s time for Scotland to take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book and adopt a fairer system, such as STV.
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.
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.
The 1990s were a time of radical political change both here in Scotland and on the other side of the world in New Zealand.
In 1996, New Zealand held its first election using a form of Proportional Representation, after two referenda and decades of campaigning. And three years later Scotland did the same with the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Both countries use a distinct form of PR – also used in the likes of Wales, Germany and Lesotho – that combines single-seat constituencies with compensatory party list members. Both systems lead to broadly proportional outcomes but how do they compare?
Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected in one of two ways. 73 are elected via single-seat constituencies and a further 56 are elected via eight regions.
The New Zealand Parliament is generally made up of 120 Members with 72 elected in single-seat constituencies (65 in general electorates and seven Māori ones) and the 48 others elected nation-wide.
In both Scotland and New Zealand, voters get two ballots and list seats are distributed by taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party to deliver overall broadly proportional results. Scotland’s set-up is referred to as the Additional Member System while New Zealand’s is Mixed-Member Proportional.
Both systems were designed to achieve overall proportional results and both have been largely successful in this aim. Compared to elections to the UK’s House of Commons, where the Conservatives won a massive majority of seats on just 43% of the vote and previous First Past the Post elections in New Zealand (when in 1993 the National Party won a majority on 35% of the vote), Scottish Parliament elections and modern New Zealand elections result in parliaments where seats roughly match votes.
The latest Scottish election, while slightly less representative than the one held in 2016, is still a fairly good example of the broadly proportional nature of AMS (despite Alba’s plan to unfairly exploit the system). In 2021, the SNP won 63 of 129 seats (48%) on 40.3% of the party vote. The Scottish Conservatives won 31 seats (24%) on 23.5% the party vote ahead of Scottish Labour on 22 seats (17.1%) and 17.9% of the vote. The Greens also won 8 seats (6.2%) on 8.1% and the Scottish Lib Dems secured 4 seats (3.1%) on 5.1% of the party vote. At Holyrood, seats broadly match votes although the SNP are clearly overrepresented to a notable degree, but the flaws of the system are discussed below.
New Zealand’s elections tell a similar story. Take the latest vote for example. Held in October 2020, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party managed to win a majority of seats (65 out of 121) but crucially that was won on a majority of the vote (50.01%). The opposition National Party secured 33 seats (27.27%) on 25.6% of the vote while the Alliance Party won 10 seats (8.3%) on 7.6% of the vote and the Greens also secured 10 seats on 7.8% of the vote. In New Zealand, there is a strong link between seats and votes.
Constituency to list members ratio
Both the Scottish and New Zealand parliaments have almost the same ratio of constituency members to list members. In Mixed-Member Proportional systems, the larger the proportion of list members the more proportional the system is overall.
Contrast the broadly proportional Scottish and New Zealand systems together with the system used in Wales. The Welsh system is near identical to Scotland’s except there are only 60 members with 40 being constituency MSs and 20 being list MSs, resulting in a ratio of 2:1. This means that Welsh elections are only somewhat proportional. At the 2021 Welsh election, the Labour Party won 30 seats on just 36.2% of the vote, due to their dominance of constituency seats.
The key difference between the Scottish and New Zealand electoral systems is the nature of the party list element. New Zealand’s list MPs are elected nationwide, meaning that parties only have one list each for the entire country and the distribution of list MPs is determined by list votes overall while taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party across the entire country.
Meanwhile, Scotland is split into eight electoral regions. List MSPs are allocated via the total number of list votes in a region while accounting for only the number of seats won by each party in that particular region. The main consequence of this is that there is no mechanism to make sure Scottish results are nationally proportional, just regionally proportional.
Electoral thresholds are common in countries with Proportional Representation. This means that to win seats in a legislature a party only qualifies if they win a certain percentage of the vote.
The Scottish Parliament has no threshold to enter parliament but in practice, as only eight list MSPs are elected per region, there is effectively a moderate threshold that changes at each election depending on how votes are cast. This is different in each region.
New Zealand takes a different approach by applying a 5% threshold for its parliament. In 2020, this meant the New Zealand First Party failed to win any seats as they only won 4.6% of the vote. The exception to this rule is if a party wins a constituency, in which case they are entitled to win list seats.
The term overhang refers to when a party wins more constituency seats than it would be entitled to under a purely proportional system based on the party list vote alone. This happens in the Scottish Parliament on occasion but there is no mechanism to address it. In contrast, when a New Zealand party wins more constituency seats than it is entitled to (based on its list vote share) then the party keeps its extra seat and the parliament’s size is increased to accommodate this. The current size of the New Zealand parliament is 121.
If Holyrood had a similar mechanism in place, both the 2011-2016 and 2016-2021 Scottish Parliament’s would have had 130 MSPs to account for overhangs. According to Ballot Box Scotland, the current Parliament would have 133 seats.
And finally, going all the way back to the original 1999 election, that also had a net overhang of 7 seats but with a much less scattered spread, Labour winning all the excess, versus 5 fewer for the SNP and 2 for the Conservatives. pic.twitter.com/bAP6sVmhW7
One final difference between the two systems is New Zealand’s Māori constituencies (known as electorates). In addition to the country’s 65 general electorates that cover the entire country, as well as the list seats, there are a further seven Māori electorates which have traditionally been held by representatives of Māori. This was started as a temporary measure but has since become a permanent feature of New Zealand politics, enabling Māori representatives (from any party) guaranteed seats in parliament.
Time for electoral reform in New Zealand and Scotland?
Both systems have provided broadly proportional results in their respective parliaments but there is room for reform.
Mixed-Member Proportional systems have the advantage of proportionality but do have a number of significant flaws. Chiefly, the lack of guaranteed proportionality (especially due to the two vote nature of MMP and the ratio of electorates to list seats, as well as, at least in Scotland the lack of a mechanism to ensure national proportionality), the lack of voter choice and the risk of manipulation.
There is also the issue of safe seats which remain due to the First Past the Post element of AMS/MMP.
A sticking plaster approach to address these problems would be to open up the list element, meaning that voters could rank candidates within their preferred power, a move that would further empower voters at the ballot box. This happens in Bavaria but risks complicating things with the introduction of a third completely different ballot. This could be combined with the addition of levelling seats to ensure nationality proportionality by making seats match list votes although this could lead to massive parliaments like in Germany where the number of seats won is approaching 1,000.
Rather than opting for tinkering that could cause its own problems, Scotland and New Zealand could adopt more representative voting systems. One tried and tested alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which has been used for Scottish local elections since 2007. This could improve proportionality and empower voters. Another alternative would be an Open List PR system with levelling seats to ensure overall proportionality.
Appetite for electoral system change is currently limited, certainly in Scotland, but after 23 years of devolution and an election where one party led by a former First Minister tried to exploit the flaws of AMS in such an overt way, conversations about Scottish electoral reform should start now.
A coalition of pro-democracy protestors gathered at London’s Parliament Square on Saturday 5 February to rally against the UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill.
Organised by leading organisations in the democracy sector, including Make Votes Matter, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society, the rally included speeches from across the political spectrum.
Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake, Labour’s John McDonnell, the Lib Dem’s Hina Bokhari, Reform UK leader Richard Tice and Green co-leader Carla Denyer were just some of the leading figures who spoke at the rally. Campaigners from pro-reform groups such as the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were also in attendance to make their case against the controversial piece of legislation.
The rally was one of a number of pro-democracy events held across the country including a similar rally in Manchester later in the afternoon.
The Elections Bill is a deeply damaging piece of legislation which passed in the House of Commons on the evening of Monday 17 January (and due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords later in February).
The bill is set to introduce voter identification requirements, a “solution” to the near non-existent problem of voter fraud which will end up suppressing voters in the most marginalised groups across the country.
The bill also replaces the Supplementary Vote with the clapped-out and unfair First Past the Post electoral system. This unnecessary change will make elected mayors in England less representative and shows just how opposed this government is to any positive voting reform.
In addition to this, the Bill threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission and sets out measures to change spending rules for the worse.
UK politics needs better representation not less, and First Past the Post certainly needs to be ended not extended.
The Elections Bill will level down our democracy but there is hope. The Parliament Square rally shows the vibrancy of the campaign against this regressive bill. Together, we can push back and upgrade our democracy.
Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.
Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?
The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.
Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.
The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.
Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.
However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).
Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.
The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.
The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.
What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?
The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.
Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.
For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.
But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?
Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.
Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).
So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.
In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.
The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.
However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.
Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.
Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.