Elected mayors in Scotland: is now the time for Aberdeen’s Andy Burnham?

The elections of May 2021 were dubbed as “super Thursday” due to the sheer number of votes that took place across the UK. In addition to the 129 MSPs elected in Scotland, Wales voted for a new Welsh parliament, London got a new assembly and thousands of local councillors were elected right across England. Voters in England also voted for new Police and Crime Commissioners as well as directly elected executive mayors.

Compared to the messy English system of local government (with mayors, unitary authorities, parish councils and mord), Scotland’s local government is slick and easy to understand. Next year Scottish voters will be going to the polls to vote for councillors in 32 local authorities using the Single Transferable Vote. There’s a lot wrong with Scottish local governance but complexity isn’t it.

Upgrade Holyrood supports more powers for local authorities and has welcomed proposals to improve the system. Ballot Box Scotland’s blueprint is a fascinating and coherent suggestion to revitalise local democracy and empower communities in all corners of Scotland. But what about the possibility of introducing directly elected executive mayors (DEEMs) like in the England? Could the introduction of mayors invigorate Scottish local government?

It’s an intriguing prospect. Andy Burnham, a possible future Labour leader, has filled his boots as Mayor of Greater Manchester and has become a clear, local champion for the area. A directly elected mayor in Aberdeen or Dundee could play a similar role, pulling the political gravity away from the dominant central belt. The ability to give a face to a local political force, as well as the creation of one clear accountable individual for local issues, would be the main advantage of any reform.

But a directly elected executive mayor would fundamentally alter the nature of local democracy in Scotland.

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports better representative democracy hence the support of Proportional Representation for Westminster elections, as well as better PR for Holyrood elections.

READ MORE: 12 Reasons to support Proportional Representation

Directly elected executive mayors would somewhat clash with these principles. Current council executives are derived from agreements made by parties who together make up a majority of seats. The executive is usually multi-party thanks to the Single Transferable Vote.

Directly elected executive mayors would put an incredible amount of power in the hands of one person (and party). Such mayors are very much in the tradition of majoritarian democracy which limits their ability to fairly represent all in government. Diversity of opinion is important and while an elected mayor could listen to other parties their input would be limited.

These are largely the same arguments against a directly elected executive president. Such roles are ultimately one-seat constituencies that consolidate power in far too concentrated a place.

That said, while there are significant risks with introducing such mayors, they could still be an effective democratic tool in Scottish local government.

Crucially, if such proposals were to be seriously considered by any future Scottish government, there are three principles that they should adhere to in order to retain good representative democracy and weaken risks associated with majoritarian structures of government.

The first is the principle of consent. Any proposals for directly elected executive mayors in say Edinburgh or Glasgow should be ratified by the people that the decision would affect. In practical terms this would amount to local referenda. As an aside there would be an intriguing dynamic if say Edinburgh voted for a directly executive elected mayor while Glasgow rejected such a proposal.

The second is the principle of ensuring widespread support for any successful mayor. In order to be as representative as possible, the most effective way to elect a single-member seat for a single-member institution (such as a local mayor or national president) is one that ensures the winner has majority support. While this does not ensure that every voice is represented in the executive role (which can only be done in multi-member positions), it does maximise representation and strengthens the legitimacy of any elected mayor.

What this means is that the voting system used to elect directly elected mayors should not be First Past the Post. The Home Secretary’s proposals to replace the Supplementary Vote with FPTP for mayoral elections is an absolute travesty that should be fiercely opposed. Elected mayors should have broad support – First Past the Post very clearly does not provide this. However, the Supplementary Vote is not much better. It ensures broader support than FPTP but tactical voting and speculation are embedded into it.

Any elections for DEEMs in Scotland should use a better system. One option would be a two-round system. Voters back their favourite candidate with an ‘X’ and if no candidate wins 50%+1 of the vote then all but the top two candidates advance to a second round. Voters then return to the polls at a second date to select their mayor. This system is used for French presidential elections, as well as for non-executive presidential elections around Europe. It ensures broad support, however, it has numerous problems. The first is that it’s time consuming and turnout can vary in different rounds – local government turnout is so low any way, this is probably not the best approach. The second fault of this system is that when multiple candidates do well enough in the first round, say 8 candidates each get around 10% of the vote. The top two could be ideologically very similar and both advance to the next round. This is a problem if the other six candidates have completely different views.

The best approach to electing any directly executive mayors is therefore an instant run-off system, which would be the Alternative Vote or STV with a district magnitude of one. Under this system, mayors will achieve broad support as voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The third principle is that local councils should not end up as glorified, sentient rubber stamps. That is to say that while DEEMs would render local councils solely legislative bodies, separating the executive from the legislature, they should be able to actively input into the mayor’s agenda and provide high levels of scrutiny. How this would work in practice is not my area of expertise but there are lessons to be learnt from countries around the world where executives are separately elected from the legislature.

Introducing directly elected executive mayors into Scottish democracy would drastically alter the nature of representative democracy in Scotland, which has trended away from majoritarianism. The broadly proportional Scottish Parliament and the 2007 switch to STV for local councils demonstrates this. That said, the suggestion is an intriguing one and could potentially enhance Scottish local democracy – but only with strict controls to ensure representative democracy and multiparty input.

Directly elected executive mayors are not actively supported by Ugrade Holyrood but the prospect is one to examine further.

5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

By Richard Wood

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

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

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

1. Dual mandates are unfair on constituents

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

2. Dual mandates are also impractical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van de Voode (2020)

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

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

4. Dual mandates could lead to corruption

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

As put by Navarro (2009: 19):

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

Navarro (2009: 19)

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

5. Restrictions on dual mandates are gaining popularity

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

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

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

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

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

The route to a dual mandate ban in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

Sources:

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

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