Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

By Richard Wood

Scottish Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has said he is “sympathetic” to the idea of electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament.

The Glasgow MSP made the remark while sitting as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee discussing the petition for electoral reform submitted to the Scottish Parliament (17 November 2021).

I am sympathetic, because it is an on-going and worthwhile discussion. In the 1990s, the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the additional member system as the preferred electoral system, but perhaps there is an on-going need to consider alternatives. Obviously, the single transferable vote for local government elections was introduced in the mid-2000s. There have been observations of concerning practices in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections; most notably, the Greens were perhaps stymied in some instances by a decoy green party, which was higher up the list and seduced votes away from the Greens. I certainly noticed that at the Glasgow count, so there are flaws with the current list structure of two ballots, which are worth further investigation.

Paul Sweeney MSP (Glasgow)

The Petitions Committee agreed to write to both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society on the matter. You can read more about my petition, the actions taken by the committee – and the responses – here.

Scottish Labour currently have no official position on which voting system to use at Holyrood. The UK-wide party currently supports First Past the Post for Westminster elections (although progress is being made to change this view).

The Scottish Liberal Democrats support changing AMS to STV and campaigned on this at the 2021 election. The SNP also generally favour STV while the Scottish Greens have moved towards supporting Open List Proportional Representation.

The Scottish Conservatives are resistant to any positive electoral reforms. Indeed, the Conservative UK Government recently passed one of the most regressive bills relating to elections.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

READ MORE: Petitions Committee respond to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s parties say about Holyrood’s voting system? The route to electoral reform

Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

Upgrade Holyrood has joined Make Votes Matter’s alliance for Proportional Representation.

The alliance includes all the UK’s main opposition parties, leading democracy organisations (apart from Labour) and key PR supports from right across the UK. Make Votes Matter’s goal is to replace First Past the Post with Proportional Representation for elections to the House of Commons.

Upgrade Holyrood primarily supports better democracy in Scotland – by arguing for an end to dual mandates, the introduction of a recall process for MSPs and better Proportional Representation at Holyrood. But Upgrade Holyrood also passionately supports the introduction of PR at Westminster.

Founder of Upgrade Holyrood, Richard Wood, said:

“Adopting a system of Proportional Representation is the single-most important improvement we can make to democracy in the UK. We need to correct the distorted link between seats and votes so that voters are accurately represented and wasted votes are minimised.”

“The voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament has its flaws but it does deliver largely proportional results and is far more representative First Past the Post. Westminster has a lot to learn from the way Scottish Parliament elections are conducted.

“Without Proportional Representation at Holyrood, the SNP would unfairly dominate parliament due to their near monopoly of constituency seats. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives would have next to no representation, not to mention that both Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross owe their admittance to the Scottish Parliament to PR.”

“Westminster needs a major shake-up and I am proud that Upgrade Holyrood has joined the Alliance for Proportional Representation to help make that happen.”

_______________________________

More about Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance can be read here.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs PR right now

READ MORE: Why I’m standing for election to the Electoral Reform Society’s Council – Richard Wood

READ MORE: How proportional was Norway’s election? Lessons for the UK

What do Scotland’s parties say about Holyrood’s voting system? The route to electoral reform

By Richard Wood

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
  3. Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.

More about these different systems can be read here.

Sign the petition to improve Scotland’s voting system here.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

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.

READ MORE: These 5 reforms would improve Scotland’s democracy

Scottish National Party (SNP)

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.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross MSP MP – 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens, pledged to replace AMS with STV, most recently in their 2016 Scottish Parliament election manifesto.

However, the party now favours an Open List PR system, as reported by the New Statesman.

Both STV and Open List PR would be improvements on AMS as they improve proportionality and empower voters (if designed effectively).

READ MORE: The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall rule for MSPs

Scottish Conservatives

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

Scottish Labour

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.

READ MORE: Why I’m standing to join the Electoral Reform Society Council – Richard Wood

The route to electoral reform at Holyrood

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.

READ MORE: Petitions Committee responds to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

German election 2021: a comparison with Scotland’s voting system

By Richard Wood

Germany votes for a new Bundestag on Sunday 26 September 2021, bringing an end to the Merkel era after sixteen years. The country uses a proportional voting system (Mixed-Member Proportional) which is very similar to Scotland’s Additional Member System, however, there are some clear differences.

The German system has its flaws, like Scotland’s, but it is significantly more representative than First Past the Post used at Westminster and earlier in the week in Canada.

READ MORE: German and Canadian elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Here’s how the German and Scottish systems compare.

The Scottish electoral system (AMS)

The Scottish Parliament has 129 seats in total. 73 of these are single-member districts where the candidate with the most vote wins, essentially First Past the Post. The other 56 are list seats designed to reduce the inherent disproportionality of the FPTP element. Voters get two ballots – one for each of these types of seats.

Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions with each region providing seven regional list MSPs, meaning that everyone in scotland has eight representatives.

The list seats in each region are distributed once all the constituency seats in that region are counted and are calculated via the D’Hondt method. However, crucial they also take into account the number of constituency seats won by each party in that region. This ensures broadly proportional outcomes overall. This mechanism ensures that regional votes match regional seats.

In practice this means that parties overrepresented in constituency seats (as in their seat share exceeds vote share) pick up fewer regional seats. The SNP do extremely well in constituency seats but other parties get their fair share in regional seats as seen in the 2021 Scottish election where the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives won most of their seats via the regional allocations.

The broad proportionality of AMS makes the system more representative that the appalling First Past the Post system used at Westminster and in Canada on Monday.

READ MORE: Canada votes – the problems of First Past the Post exposed

However, AMS does have a number of faults. These include the proportionality mechanism only ensuring regional not national broad proportionality, no addressing of overhang seats and limited voter power (party lists are completely closed). Other problems include the fact that parties could “game the system” due to two-vote divergence as well as the two classes of MSP that the system produces.

The German electoral system (MMP)

The German system is very similar but also has significant differences with Scotland’s.

Both Scottish AMS and German MMP combine FPTP with a compensatory element to ensure a level of proportionality. Although not perfect, they can be classed as forms of Proportional Representation.

But unlike Scotland, Germany does not have a fixed number of seats.

As in Scotland, German voters get two ballots, one for each element. 299 German seats are elected via FPTP (the CDU/CSU and SPD dominate these constituencies).There are also a further provisional 299 list seats but this number is usually larger.

Germans vote for their lists in each of the 16 states (like in the 8 Scottish regions). These seats are allocated accounting for constituency seats to ensure proportionality. However, the system has a further mechanism to ensure overall seats match overall votes in each state.

Parties often win more constituency seats that they are entitled to under a hypothetical distribution of list votes. Other parties are allocated additional seats to level this out and further seats are added to ensure that the party list vote matches seat distributions. This is done to ensure proportionality at both the state and national levels.

This means that the size of the Bundestag (German parliament) changes in size after each election. This has faced some criticism but it does ensure a high degree of proportionality. In contrast, Holyrood is fixed at 129 members.

There is also a 5% threshold for *most* parties to win list seats. This is not the case in Scotland but there is an unofficial threshold at around that mark due to there only being seven list seats to allocate in each region.

The main advantage German MMP has over Scottish AMS is that extra commitment to proportionality. However, this has a major drawback as it can create incredibly large chambers. More politicians is not exactly popular with voters as a general rule. The outgoing Bundestag has 709 members in total (2017 to 2021).

The Bundestag also has other problems associated with AMS, notably the two types of member and closed party lists. The prospect of gaming the system is at least limited by additional seats allocated to ensure that party list votes match seats won by each party.

That all said, Germany’s commitment to proportionality is truly commendable.

Room for improvement in Scotland and Germany

Scotland’s AMS has done a reasonable job for 22 years but it definitely needs reform. Holyrood could learn from Germany and add levelling and overhang seats. This would be a significant improvement as it would improve proportionality and limit the possibility of gaming the system. We could also learn from the German state of Bavaria and introduce open lists for the regional vote component, strengthening voter power at the ballot box.

These could be positive steps forwards, however, they are arguably sticking plaster solutions.

Instead, Holyrood should learn from elsewhere and adopt a superior voting system to AMS. The Single Transferable Vote or Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats would improve representation and empower voters across the whole country.

You can read about my petition to improve Scotland’s broadly proportional but imperfect voting system (and the response) here.

Scotland and Germany have similar voting systems which both ensure a strong element of proportionality. The extra commitment to proportionality in Germany is extremely commendable. Both systems have done well to improve representation but both have flaws and improvements can be made.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP supports better Proportional Representation at Holyrood

Canada’s 2021 election – the striking failures of First Past the Post exposed

By Richard Wood

On Monday 20 September Canadians went to the polls after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to turn his Liberal minority governement into a majority one.

The Conservatives soon took the lead in the polls but by the end of the campaign both parties were neck and neck.

In the end, Canada’s House of Commons now looks very similar to the one before it as only a handful of seats changed hands and the parties ended up roughly where they started in terms of seats and votes. The Liberals won the most seats and Justin Trudeau remains prime minister.

Despite this somewhat underwhelming result, the election serves to highlight some of the major flaws of First Past the Post.

Another wrong-winner election

In 2015, the Liberals won a majority of seats on a minority of the vote – while also getting the highest number of votes across the country (but nowhere even near the 50% mark). In 2019 they fell short of a majority of seats, won the most seats but actually secured fewer votes than the Conservatives. Two years later this has happened again.

For the second time in a row, the Conservatives have won more votes than the Liberals but ended up with fewer seats.

First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes, sometimes resulting in the party with the highest number of votes coming second overall. This is known as a wrong-winner election. Canada’s voting system has exaggerated the support of the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives and other parties, giving them an artifically leading place in the House of Commons.

Wrong-winner elections most recently happened in 1951 and February 1974 in the UK. Such elections are not representative at all but at least serve to weaken the argument that First Past the Post provides clear winners that can be easily kicked out.

The second wrong-winner election in a row is bad news for Canadian democracy.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

Inflated representation of the larger parties

First Past the Post consistently subsidises the two largest parties by inflating their seat share well above their vote share. The Liberals may have fallen short of a majority of seats but they won 47% of seats available (158/358) on just 32% of the vote. The Conservatives also slightly benefitted, securing 35% of seats (119) available on 34% of the vote. In the past they have benefited more by securing overall majorities on minority vote shares.

This exaggeration of support is seen over and over in countries that use First Past the Post. At the 2019 UK General Election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats on just 43% of the vote. In 2005, Labour won a majority on an even smaller share of the vote – just 35% of the vote.

Canada’s 2021 election is no different. First Past the Post one again perpetuates the dominance of a country’s largest parties.

Smaller parties punished by FPTP

The flipside of this is that by subsidising the representation of the larger parties in parliament, smaller parties are unfairly punished. Canada’s National Democratic Party, the NDP, secured just 7% of the seats available (25 seats) on almost 18% of the vote.

The Greens also suffered, winning only two seats but a vote share of 2%.

This underrepresentation of smaller parties is key feature of UK elections as well. In 2015, UKIP secured 13% of the vote but only won one seat. The Liberal Democrats are consistently punished by this as are the Greens. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won just 25 seats on 25% of the vote – almost displacing Labour as the country’s second largest party by vote share yet coming nowhere near in terms of seats.

First Past the Post distorts democracy by subsidising larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. Under the status-quo, votes aren’t equal. The Canadian election highlights this once again through the squeezing out of the NDP and the Greens.

Wasted votes

The nature of First Past the Post means that countless votes are wasted in the process of electing MPs. In any Canadian riding, because there is only one member elected, votes going to other parties and votes above and beyond the amount to elect each MP are wasted.

Canada’s 2021 election is no different. The dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives at the expense of the NDP and other parties means wasted votes across the country.

As far as I can tell no one has done exact calculation, but once they’re up they will be added here – I’m sure Fair Vote Canada will be on the case!

First Past the Post exposed

Canada’s 2021 election highlights some of the major flaws of FPTP. The country has a very similar parliament to before, one that does not accurately reflect how people vote.

Like the UK, Canada needs Proportional Representation. It’s time to make votes matter and enact electoral reform.

READ MORE: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

An opportunity for Proportional Representation – a minority government, the NDP and lessons from New Zealand

The one silver lining is that the election certainly puts Canada’s unrepresentative electoral system in the spotlight. Voting reform isn’t the main concern of most ordinary voters but when two wrong-winner elections in a row take place, the issue is certainly given a second glance by ordinary voters. There is an inherent unfairness that cannot be ignored.

The Liberals went into the 2015 election supporting Proportional Representation. It is a disappointing misstep of history that Justin Trudeau did not keep his promise to abolish First Past the Post. However, change could still happen in the near future. The emboldened NDP and the ambitious Greens support electoral reform – and with the voting system in the spotlight, there is an opportunity for the pro-reform parties to take advantage of the Liberal minority and push for a democratic upgrade.

Two wrong-winner elections in a row helped pave the way for electoral reform in New Zealand. Could Canada be next? And will the UK also one day adopt Proportional Representation?

We must certainly hope so.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP supports electoral reform

Sign the petition to replace the Scottish Parliament’s voting system with a more proportional alternative

By Richard Wood

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports improving Scotland’s broadly proportional but flawed Additional Member System (AMS), currently used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament.

This is why I have started an official Scottish Parliament petition to replace AMS with a more representative alternative.

The petition is officially entitled PE1901: Replace the voting system for the Scottish Parliament with a more proportional alternativeand can be signed here.

Sign the petition to upgrade Scotland’s voting system now.

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional, but flawed, Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative.

AMS results in more representative parliaments than FPTP used in Westminster but it is not fully proportional. It also results in two classes of MSPs, limits voter choice and can be exploited by decoy parties.

Alternatives such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Open List PR, would empower voters and lead to more representative parliaments.

PE1901

Reasoning behind the petition

The Additional Member System has done well to ensure broadly proportional parliaments but it does have some serious flaws, the full details of which can be read below.

READ MORE: The flaws of AMS and the need for better PR at Holyrood

This petition makes the case for an alternative system to replace AMS. I recognise that different individuals and parties back different alternatives, which is why I have kept the proposed alternative open and reasonably vague to help build a broad coalition for voting reform in Scotland.

For example, the Scottish Lib Dems and SNP favour the Single Transferable Vote (used for local authority elections in Scotland, as well as national elections in Ireland and Malta) while the Scottish Greens now support an Open List PR system (like those used in Denmark and Iceland) but have supported STV in the past.

Earlier this year, Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser MSP broke party ranks and called for reform, highlighting STV as a possible alternative.

In terms of non-party support, the Electoral Reform Society has long supported the Single Transferable Vote while Ballot Box Scotland, who does an incredible job of covering and analysing Scottish electoral politics, favours and Open List PR system with levelling seats.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP calls for electoral reform at Holyrood

The route to electoral reform in Scotland

Changing the voting system at Holyrood requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50%+1 majority as with most votes.

The Scottish Lib Dems were the only party in the parliament to propose changing the voting system in their 2021 manifesto but with the SNP and Scottish Greens in favour of a change in principle, as well as at least one Scottish Conservative MSP behind the idea, there is a possible route to reform.

The two-thirds rule would therefore mean that 86 MSPs would be required for supporting any reform. Together, the SNP (64 seats), the Scottish Greens (7 seats) and the Scottish Lib Dems (4 seats) fall short of that number with a combined total of 75 seats. Even with Murdo Fraser there would be just 76 MSPs in favour of reform.

The Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to back any reform overall due to their long-standing opposition to reform at Westminster. Any moves to supporting reform would lead to calls of hypocrisy if they continued to favour the archaic First Past the Post voting system at Westminster.

The best hope is getting additional support from Scottish Labour who have no position on changing the voting system. That said, there is certainly a route to reform through Scottish Labour who could definitely be persuaded to back reform if the idea gained momentum.

Other hurdles include the the fact that electoral reform is not high on the political agenda and there are different schools of thought on what to replace AMS with as previously mentioned.

Nonetheless, it is important to shift the conversation on this issue, which is why I have lodged the petition.

Please consider adding your name to begin an active conversation about the flaws of AMS and a real discussion on alternatives that provide for better representation.

The petition can be signed here.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs Proportional Representation now

How proportional was Norway’s election? Lessons for Westminster

Norwegian flag – (Pixabay)

By Richard Wood

On Monday 13 September, Norwegians elected their new parliament (called the Storting).

The big stories of the night were the success of the left and centre parties, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitting defeat, and the fall in support of the controversial right-wing populist Progress party.

The election may not have hit the headlines across democratic world in the same way as the upcoming Canadian and German elections, but it has been a significant election for Norway – ending 8 years of right-of-centre governance.

But what voting system does Norway use? And how proportional was its recent election and what lessons can we learn in the UK?

READ MORE: Why I’m standing in the Electoral Reform Society Council election – Richard Wood

Norway’s electoral system explained

Unlike the UK, Norway uses a form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect its parliaments. This means that, unlike at Westminster, how people vote at the ballot box is accurately reflected in the parliament. Without a form of PR to elect representatives, unlike Norway’s Storting, the House of Commons is semi-representative at best.

At the last UK election, the Conservatives got 43.6% of the vote but thanks to the UK’s First Past the Post system, they won 56% of seats in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems won 11.6% of the vote but only 3% of seats available while the Green Party of England and Wales won 2.7% of the vote but only one seat.

The UK’s voting system clearly distorts the link between seats and votes, unfairly advantaging larger parties and wasting countless votes.

This is not the case in Norway.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs Proportional Representation now

The vast majority of OECD countries use some form of Proportional Representation to elect their MPs and Norway is one of them.

Norway uses a form of Open List PR with a 4% threshold to elect 169 MPs across 19 constituencies. This includes levelling seats to further ensure national party proportionality. Voters also have a say over the ordering of party lists in their constituency for the party they vote for, empowering voters more than in a Closed List PR system (such as the one previously used for UK elections to the EU parliament where lists were inflexible) or First Past the Post.

More about the voting system can be read on the Electoral Reform Society’s site here.

Norway’s 2021 election results

The country’s voting system ensures that seats broadly match votes. The full results for the 2021 election are show below.

  • Labour: 26.4% of the vote (48 seats), 28.4% of seats)
  • Conservatives: 20.5% votes (36 seats), 21.3% of seats
  • Centre: 13.6% of the vote (28 seats), 16.6% of seats
  • Progress: 11.7% of the vote (21 seats), 12.4% of seats
  • Socialist Left: 7.5% of the vote (13 seats), 7.7% of seats
  • Red: 4.7% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
  • Liberal: 4.5% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
  • Green: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
  • Christian Democrat: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
  • Patient Focus: 0.2% of the vote (1 seat), 0.6% of seats

On the back of these results, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitted defeat and it now looks likely that a left of centre government will be formed – led by the Labour Party. Analysis suggests that complex coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP calls for electoral reform

How proportional was Norway’s 2021 election?

Put simply, Norway’s latest election results were very proportional. The proportion of seats won by each party strongly correlates with the proportion of votes cast for each party as shown by the above results. This is in stark contrast with UK election results such as the 2005 election where Labour won a majority on just 35% of the vote or the 2015 election where UKIP won just 1 seat on 13% of the vote.

Overall, there is a strong link between seats and votes at Norwegian elections. However, it is worth caveating that seats are distributed so that rural areas have slightly more representation per person than urban counterparts, slightly skewing the link between seats and votes.

Furthermore, although thresholds are common in PR systems, the 4% threshold in Norway means that elections are not purely proportional – this may be reduced to 3% in the coming years. This is for information purposes and the merits of thresholds in such systems can be debated elsewhere as the purpose of this article is to highlight how much more representative a PR system is than FPTP. For more about the ins and outs of Norway’s election system, please read the Electoral Reform Society article on PR in Norway.

After eight years of a Conservative-led government, Norway has voted for a change. The Labour Party may have lost seats in this election but PR means that government formation is not about who is the biggest party. Instead Nowegian parliaments accurately represent how people vote with governments formed by whichever coalition of parties can command a majority in the Storting. In this case, the governing right-of-centre parties lost seats overall while the left and centre made gains. All in all, the distribution of seats fairly reflects votes cast at the ballot box.

Norwegian elections are highly proportional and have limited wasted votes. Norwegian votes matter – all thanks to Proportional Representation.

Westminster should learn from countries such as Norway and adopt Proportional Representation to upgrade UK democracy.

Upgrade Holyrood is a Scottish politics site dedicated to improving Scottish democracy while at the same time being an advocate for PR and other democratic improvements at the UK-level.

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

Follow Upgrade Holyrood on Twitter: @UpgradeHolyrood

READ MORE: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight (via Politics.co.uk)

Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Upgrade Holyrood’s Richard Wood has written a new article for Politics.co.uk (published 9 September 2021), highlighting the upcoming German and Canadian elections and the need for Proportional Representation in the UK.

The full article can be read here: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight.

Two leading democracies go to the polls later this month, both facing far from certain outcomes. The end of the Merkel era places Germany at a crossroads with a diverse range of multi-party coalitions on the table. Meanwhile, Canada’s election is Justin Trudeau’s gamble to turn his minority government into a majority one, despite polls suggesting this could backfire and hand power to the country’s Conservatives.

Held within a week of each other, these elections are two very different interpretations of democracy due to their contrasting electoral systems. They show how the UK has two possible futures ahead. The Canadian route, based around First Past the Post (FPTP), typifies just a semi-representative democracy. And the German route, based around Proportional Representation (PR),which ensures an accurate link between votes cast and seats won.

Richard Wood (2021)

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

By Richard Wood

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has voiced his support for electoral reform of the Scottish Parliament in an article for the Scotsman (published 2 June 2021).

Conservative support for a switch from First Past the Post to PR at Westminster is generally limited – as is Conservative support for a more proportional system at Holyrood. Murdo Fraser’s support for change is welcome although it is worth noting he has not clarified if he supports PR at Westminster. But based on his opposition to distorted electoral outcomes, he should really be consistent in his thinking and support PR at all levels.

Fraser’s arguments for reform at Holyrood are broadly in-keeping with the arguments for reform made by Upgrade Holyrood – albeit in much more party politically-charged language (not to mention the constitutional question).

That said, this is a welcome move from Fraser who is only in his position thanks to the proportional element of Scotland’s voting system.

The Additional Member System used for Holyrood elections is far more representative than FPTP used at Westminster. Under AMS, seats broadly reflect votes but it isn’t perfect.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

AMS has a number of flaws, many of which Murdo Fraser rightly highlights. These include the opportunity for parties to “game the list” (ultimately distorting overall representation), the ratio between constituency MSPs and regional MSPs, two classes of MSPs, limited voter choice and the lack of national proportionality.

There is an opportunity to build a coalition for change at Holyrood. But the question is what system would be best?

One alternative would be a moderate change: making AMS more closely resemble the system used in Germany by having levelling seats so that overall seats reflect regional vote shares. This could also incorporate an open-list element like in Bavaria.

Murdo Fraser posits this option:

“The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.”

Murdo Fraser MSP (2021)

However, this would merely be a sticking-plaster approach and could bring problems of its own like an overpopulated legislature as seen in Germany’s Bundestag.

Adopting the Single Transferable Vote or a full PR system (with multiple constituencies, levelling seats and open lists) would be better alternatives. Murdo Fraser even goes as far as saying there should be a fundamental review of the current arrangement, clearly highlighting the Single Transferable Vote as an alternative to AMS.

An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.

This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.

Murdo Fraser (2021)

Murdo Fraser’s intervention shows that there is an opportunity to upgrade the electoral system at Holyrood. Only the Scottish Lib Dems supported electoral reform (STV) in their 2021 manifesto although the SNP do favour the system in general. The Greens have backed the system in the past but are now more in favour of Open List PR.

There would be a major political challenge for the Scottish Conservatives if they backed STV at Holyrood (if they continue to defend FPTP at Westminster) but the movement for reform at Holyrood is growing.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

Murdo Fraser will in time have to respond on his views about Westminster if he continues to push the line for change at Holyrood. If he comes out in favour of PR that’s great news for campaigners and if he doesn’t then it exposes a major hypocrisy that can be easily challenged.

Upgrading Scotland’s electoral system ahead of the 2026 election is a strong possibility. But the campaign for reform must begin now.

You can read more about the flaws of AMS and the alternatives here.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to support the Removal from Office and Recall Bill

How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

The final Scottish Parliament results came in on Saturday night after a roller-coaster two-day count (please let’s never have that again!). The Scottish Parliament was created with a broadly proportional voting system to ensure that seats match votes but how proportional was the election?

The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures that the link between seats and votes is far more representative than Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP).

A good voting system should have a strong link between votes and seats. That a party can win a majority on 43% of the vote (2019) – let alone 35% of the vote (2005) – is a clear sign that First Past the Post fails to facilitate proper representative democracy. There are a number of ways to measure how representative an electoral system is but the most widely-known method is the Gallagher Index. There is no need to go in the maths behind it here but a low Gallagher Index score shows good proportionality while a higher one indicates bad proportionality.

The Gallagher Index scores for the previous Scottish elections, according to Electoral Reform Society calculations, are shown below.

1999: 8.5, 2003: 8.2, 2007: 9.1, 2011: 8.6, 2016: 6.2

On their own the Gallagher index scores do not how much but compared to UK election scores we can see that the Scottish Parliament is far fairer than First Past the Post used at Westminster. Take the 2015 election for example, which had the Conservatives win a majority on 37% of the vote and UKIP winning 13% of the vote but only one seat. The Gallagher score on that occasion was 15, with all other elections since 1974 having Gallagher indices with double digits.

The 2016 election was therefore the most proportional since the advent of devolution in 1999 but what about the most recent 2021 election? Upgrade Holyrood’s own 2021 Gallagher index calculations gets a figure of 7.8, making the 2021 election the second most proportional election since 1999. (Update: Ballot Box Scotland has a figure of 7.3 so I will need to revisit my calculations but either way we’re in the same rough area).

This can be seen from the performances of each party: SNP (regional vote share 40.3%, seat share 49.6%), Scottish Conservatives (23.5%, 24%), Scottish Labour (18%, 17.1%), Scottish Greens (8.1%, 6.2%) and the Scottish Lib Dems (5.1%, 3.1%). Overall, this is broadly proportional although the SNP outperform due to their constituency dominance.

As mentioned, the Additional Member System, despite being far more representative in terms of proportionality than First Past the Post, has its flaws. Alba’s plan to game the system, by explicitly calling on voters to vote SNP in constituencies and Alba on the list, shows one clear fault: the risk of so-called satellite parties standing in the regions with an explicit intention of artificially exaggerating the support of one party. Had a supermajority materialised, the Gallagher index would likely have rivalled UK election scores. The same goes with All for Unity which had a similar strategy for unionist voters.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws

The system may not have been successfully gamed by Alba on this occasion but the party has certainly exposed a key flaw of the system, highlighting the need for reform.

This is compounded by the fact that AMS is far from perfect in other aspects. The ratio of constituency to regional seats creates a constituency bias – a party could win a majority on constituency seats alone on less than half the vote (the SNP were three away from doing so in 2021). The version of AMS in Wales is even worse in this respect with 40 constituency seats and 20 regional ones. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour won 30 seats but on less than 40% of the vote.

Furthermore, there is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality. Measures to ensure regional proportionality accumulate to deliver broadly nationally proportional results, however, they stop short of explicitly doing so.

In addition to that, another problem of AMS is the continued existence of FPTP seats which encourages tactical voting. Tactical voting will always happen in any system to some degree, but as many people as possible should be able to vote for their first choice, not their least favourite option.

Lastly, voters have limited choice over candidates within different parties – the list component of AMS ensures better overall representation but the fact that it is closed means that voters get what parties present. There are other flaws too which can be read about here.

It cannot be said enough that AMS is an improvement on FPTP. The UK needs proroportional representation. AMS results are broadly proportional and constituents are represented by a diverse range of parties but that doesn’t mean there are not better alternatives.

A sticking plaster approach to improving on AMS would be to retain the current system and add levelling seats like in Germany to ensure that seats overall match the regional vote. This would improve proportionality but voters are unlikely to support more politicians. An open-list element could be added to the regional list which would ensure voter choice like on Bavaria. In theory this would be an excellent improvement but adding a potential third ballot risks complicating things.

A better alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which would involve multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates by order of preference. STV would deliver proportional outcomes while give voters a significant amount of power over candidates and parties. It is currently supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, as well as leading reform groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.

There is also the less talked about system of open-list PR with levelling seats, which is used in the likes of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, and is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland (who has been an invaluable resource during the 2021 election it must be said!). Under such a system there would be multi-member systems where voters choose one party but get to vote for candidates within that party. Once seats are distributed there would then be a mechanism to allocate additional seats to ensure proportional outcomes overall.

Overall, the 2021 Scottish election delivered a broadly proportional outcome, which should be commended. the fact that Westminster still uses First Past the Post is a travesty, putting us at odds with most democracies. That said we should learn still from the flaws exposed from the likes of Alba and All for Unity and reform Scotland’s voting system for the better.