The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall system for MSPs

When it comes to democratic processes, there’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Holyrood but there’s one really obvious improvement Holyrood can make by learning from Westminster.

Despite being stuck in the past, with its unrepresentative voting system, the undemocratic House of Lords and much more, the introduction of a recall process at Westminster was a welcome innovation that has made British democracy more accountable.

Westminster’s recall system was introduced in 2015 by the coalition government. The Recall of MPs Act (2015) provides three circumstances where a recall petition can come into force. If any MP recieves a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted for providing false or misleading expenses claims, then a recall petition is triggered.

If this happens to an MP, their constituents will be able to sign a petition and if 10% of constituents sign in the set time period, then a by-election will be triggered.

There is no similar provision for MSPs in Scotland despite calls for a recall mechanism during the last parliament.

Only two parties called for the introduction of a recall process during the last election – the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Here’s what they said:

Scottish Liberal Democrats“Continue to call for the introduction of a recall system for elected
representatives.”

Scottish Conservatives “At Westminster, there are clear rules around recall, allowing a by-election to take place in certain circumstances, but no such rules exist for MSPs. We will introduce Mackay’s Law, allowing the
public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or cailed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months. This will mean that Scotland will never again face the scandal of a disgraced former minister remaining an MSP, earning over £100,000 and failing to represent his constituents.”

READ MORE: Tory MSP calls for better Proportional Representation at Holyrood

That there have been six years since the introduction of the recall process at Westminster gives an opportunity to learn from the legislation in London – as well as from elsewhere.

The House of Commons system ensures that constituents can’t just recall politicans for any reason. There are clearly defined routes to recall – sensibly setting boundaries although there is room for expansion – that can be adapted for the Scottish Parliament.

The case for a recall system is as simple as it is obvious. MSPs who bring the Scottish Parliament into disrepute have no place in the chamber. The exact reasons that would lead to a recall petition (and potential by- election) would need defined but those outlined for MPs at Westminster, as well as the detailed reasons offered in the Scottish Conservative manifesto clearly highlight the need for a such a system. The fact that MSPs can break the law or not turn up to work and keep their job is a democratic outrage. The Scottish Parliament needs to learn from Westminster and adopt a recall process.

Scottish democracy needs an upgrade and the introduction of a recall system would help do just that.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

However, there is one practical stumbling block to the introduction of a recall rule. It is worth considering the two different types of MSP at Holyrood (although Upgrade Holyrood supports switching from AMS to a more representative electoral system). Recall would ultimately lead to a by-election for any MSP elected in a single seat constituency, however, the route to recall would be more complex for a regional MSP.

There are some solutions but the answer is far from obvious:

A region-wide by-election (a fascinating prospect but one that throws up questions about the very nature of the Holyrood voting system).

A decision taken by the party that the MSP belongs to over whether to remove the MSP and let the next candidate in the list taking up the post (however, this would give a significant amount of power to parties and take away the electorate’s option to have their say).

A parliamentary vote of confidence. If the MSP loses then they would be expelled from parliament. The next candidate on that party’s list would then take their seat. This might be the most sensible option but there would need to be significant checks to ensure that it wouldn’t be abused.

The correct answer to this is unclear (and there would be similar questions if Scotland adopts the Single Transferable Vote of an Open List PR system with levelling seats), however, introducing a recall mechanism would ultimately improve Scottish democracy.

It’s time to introduce a recall rule. Let’s learn from Westminster and adopt a recall system to improve Scottish democracy.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why the UK needs Proportional Representation

READ MORE: 8 Scottish Liberal Democrat 2021 manifesto pledges to improve democracy

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

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.

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.

Scottish election manifestos: democratic reform pledges compared

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

Scottish Greens

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

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

The Scottish National Party (SNP)

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

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

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April, hoping to build on the five MSPs they won in 2016. The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:

  • Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
  • Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
  • Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
  • Return to four-year parliamentary terms
  • Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and Family friendly
  • Introduce a recall system for MSPs
  • Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
  • Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies

Scottish Conservatives and Unionists

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

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

Scottish Labour

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

  • Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
  • Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
  • Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
  • Give Holyrood committees more powers
  • Further devolve powers to local government
  • Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scottish Conservative 2021 election manifesto: democracy and electoral reform commitments

Douglas Ross MP (by David Woolfall • CC BY 3.0)

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party launched their manifesto at 11am on Monday 19 April 2021.

When it comes to making changes to improve democracy, conservatives are usual timid in their approach. One only needs to look at their attitudes towards House of Lords reform under the coalition and their initial opposition to the Scottish Parliament to see that. More recently, at a UK the Conservative Party is hardening its stance against any positive changes at all, with the party even going as far as pledging to replace the slightly fairer supplementary vote used for mayoral elections with the archaic First Past the Post voting system. That said it is worth remember that the party does have some proponents of electoral reform, most notably Derek Thomas MP who is part of the Make Votes Matter alliance for Proportional Representation.

When it comes to improving Scottish democracy, the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto takes some small steps.

The manifesto has a section on strengthening Scotland’s democracy.

A recall rule (“Mackay’s law”)

The party’s manifesto commits the party to introducing a recall rule for MSPs similar to the one that exists in Westminster. The party have branded it as Mackay’s law following Derek Mackay’s resignation as finance minister and as SNP member in February 2021. This would allow “the public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months”.

Votes at 16

The party also promises to retain votes at 16 for Scottish elections, showing that the party fully accepts this and that there is broad consensus for votes at 16 in Scotland.

On the voting franchise, they oppose votes for prisoners, which is a discussion for another time.

SEE ALSO: 5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

Scottish Government numbers and MSP pay

The manifesto also makes a promise to cut the number of cabinet members in the Scottish Government and freeze MSP and ministerial pay over the next five years. There are question marks over whether such a move would improve Scottish democracy.

We believe in efficient government, not costly politics. The SNP used to promise a “smaller, better-focused ministerial team” that would “reduce bureaucracy” but over their 14 years in government the SNP have become more bloated than the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition they replaced.

To reduce the cost of politics and get the Scottish Government 100 per cent focused on the task of rebuilding our country, we support a reduction in the size of the Cabinet from 12 to 6, as the SNP themselves did in 2007, and a cap on the number of ministers and advisers. This will create a more focused team, solely engaged in our economic recovery and the running of devolved public services.

Given the need to maximise resources going to our frontline public services and the need for politicians to lead by example, we will support a freeze in MSP and ministerial pay for the next five years.

Scottish Conservative Manifesto (2021)

Strengthening the opposition

In this section of the Scottish Conservative manifesto, the party references the Alex Salmond enquiry, making the case that the Scottish Parliament needs to be able to better scrutinise the Scottish Government. The party pledges its support to lead a cross-party commission on doing this, with a remit including the accountability of ministers in parliament and the need for MSPs to have additional legal protections in debates.

Interestingly, the manifesto also tags on the possibility of the commission examining the practices of the Scottish Parliament “to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families”. Although not explicit, this pledge opens the possibility for the party to support permanent hybrid working even after the pandemic, which would be most welcome.

Analysis

Overall, the party’s pledges on improving Scotland’s democracy are unsurprisingly timid and conservative (with a small c). The pledge to keep votes at 16 shows that the policy now has widespread support in Scotland, even if the UK Conservative does not support an extension of the UK franchise.

Their proposal for a recall mechanism is most welcome, although there would need to be significant checks and balances like at Westminster to prevent the system being exploited politically.

Unsurprisingly, the party does not support a voting system upgrade (that would be headline news here and probably elsewhere too) nor does it support an end to dual mandates (hardly unexpected considering Douglas Ross plans on holding one if elected to Holyrood). The party’s manifesto also fails to mention restrictions on second jobs for MSPs or a return to four-year parliamentary terms.

Lastly, as already mentioned the party does not mention a permanent hybrid parliament but its proposed commission would have a remit for recommending ways to make parliamentary life easier for MSPs with young families. This potentially covers the possibility of a hybrid parliament and would be a welcome upgrade to Scottish parliamentary politics.

You can read the full manifesto here.

SEE ALSO: Scottish Green 2021 manifesto launch: what have the party pledged on improving democracy?