Sweden’s proportional voting system – an alternative for Scotland?

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: How do elections work in the Baltics? Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

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.

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

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.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws via Politics.co.uk

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).

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

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.

READ MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

How do elections work in the Baltics? Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

By Richard Wood

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.

Latvian flag (via Pixabay)

Estonia

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.

READ MORE: New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

Estonian Riigikogu

Latvia

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.

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

Latvian Saeima

Lithuania

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.

READ MORE: Malta’s proportional election – a strong alternative to First Past the Post

Lithuanian Seimas

Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

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.

READ MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

Northern Ireland Assembly election – the benefits of Proportional Representation

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

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.

READ MORE: New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

Scottish local elections

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.

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

Scottish Parliament and UK general elections

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.

READ MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

By Richard Wood

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.

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

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.

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

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!

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

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

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.

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

Scottish voting reform – where next?

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.

READ MORE: New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

By Richard Wood

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?

Overview

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.

READ MORE: How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

Proportionality

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.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

Regional and national lists

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.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s 2022 election? Lessons for the UK

The electoral threshold

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.

Overhangs

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.

READ MORE: Comparing Germany and Scotland’s voting systems

Māori electorates

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.

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

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.

READ MORE: Scotland’s parties and electoral system change – the route to voting reform at Holyrood

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

By Richard Wood

Thursday 5 May 2022 will be a bumper day of local government elections across the UK.

Councillors are set to be elected across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, all 22 councils in Wales and a significant number of local authorities across in England (including all London boroughs, numerous county councils and metropolitan boroughs). There are no local authority elections in Northern Ireland this year, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly election is taking place on the same day (and with the DUP on the verge of losing their first-place position, it is certainly one to keep an eye on).

The contrast between the way local elections are conducted in Scotland and England will be most striking as English councillors are elected via First Past the Post (often with multiple councillors elected per ward) whereas Scottish Council elections are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote.

England can and must learn from Scotland when it comes to local government.

England’s broken local government

Local elections in England are conducted using the First Past the Post system. Unlike in Westminster elections, these elections often have multiple winners (with each voter getting the same number of votes as positions available). However, the result is the same: votes cast do not match seats won, making local government in England incredibly unrepresentative.

Take a look at Westminster Borough Council. In 2018, the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote while Labour won 41.1%. Under a PR system, both parties would be fairly evenly matched in terms of seats but the reality is far from this. The Conservatives won 41 seats while Labour got just 19. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats achieves 9.4% of the vote but took no seats.

This pattern of skewed election results is repeated right across England and is a direct consequence of plurality voting for local government elections.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why Westminster should adopt Proportional Representation now

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Scotland

In contrast, all 32 local authorities in Scotland are elected via Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) with three and four member wards. Yes, there is a debate to be had about improving STV in Scottish local government, but on the whole, PR-STV delivers largely proportional outcomes and that is something that should be widely applauded.

The first PR-STV local government elections took place in 2007 and were a direct consequence of the renewed Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood following the 2003 election.

On the whole, STV delivered largely proportional election results, while also empowering voters who are able to differentiate between different candidates within a party as well as express their opinion on more than just one individual or faction.

Take a look at Glasgow City Council. Out of 85 seats, the SNP secured 39 seats on 41.0% of first preference votes while Scottish Labour secured 31 seats in 30.2% of First preference votes. The Scottish Conservatives got eight seats on 14.6% of First preference votes while the Greens got seven seats (8.7% of first preferences). Had this election been conducted First Past the Post, the SNP would no doubt have dominated and the Conservatives and Greens would have got none or only a couple of seats.

While the system isn’t perfectly proportional, largely due to most wards only being made up of three or four members, the Glasgow example shows how broadly proportional STV elections are and that smaller parties can break through and win representation they otherwise wouldn’t under FPTP.

READ MORE: It’s time to upgrade Holyrood’s voting system

Improving local government in Scotland – learning from Northern Ireland

Just like in Scotland, Northern Ireland councils are elected via the Single Transferable Vote. However, while Scottish wards elect three or four members, Northern Irish wards are generally made up of five or six members, sometimes even seven. This higher district magnitude leads to overall more proportional results than in Scotland and should be commended.

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s political parties think of the monarchy?

How close is local government reform in England and Wales?

Due to the Lib-Lab coalition (2003 – 2007), Scottish local elections are conducted using STV. The 2022 local elections will be the fourth in Scotland to use STV. Since the change came into effect in 2007 there has been some progress on improving local governance south of the border.

The most significant development in making local government elections fairer in the UK occurred in Wales in 2020. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act (given Royal ascent in early 2021) allows local councils to change their voting system from First Past the Post to STV. Unfortunately this isn’t mandatory meaning that councils actively have to make the change. While a compulsory scrapping of FPTP would have been far better, this is still a positive development in making local government fair.

As for England, reform looks unlikely until there is a change of government in Westminster. In fact, English local government is getting more unrepresentative. The government’s regressive Elections Bill is set to abolish the Supplementary Vote used in metro mayor elections and replace it with First Past the Post. The SV is far from perfect, but it provides for a broader mandate than under FPTP.

English local government needs reform. There is a long way to go, but Scotland and Northern Ireland show a path to fair representation.

READ MORE: UK Government’s Elections Bill will expand FPTP’s dominance

READ MORE: Should defecting MSPs and MPs face by-elections?

What do each of Scotland’s political parties say on the monarchy and republicanism?

By Richard Wood

The UK is a long way from becoming a republic according to current polling. Despite a number of high-profile scandals in recent years, support for the monarchy remains extremely high, largely due to the popular personal appeal of the current monarch herself. But what happens when her son, Prince Charles, takes over is anyone’s guess and will likely spark a key debate about who should represent the country on the world stage.

That all said, Scotland has some of the highest support for abolishing the monarchy across the whole UK. A YouGov poll from spring 2021 put support for the monarchy across the UK at 61% and support for an elected head of state at just 24%. Unlike other polls where sub-samples are often too small to infer conclusions about different demographics, this poll is large enough to do just that. The poll suggests that 49% of voters in Scotland support the monarchy while 33% would support a republic. The full poll can be viewed here.

With this in mind, it’s worth exploring what each of Scotland’s five main political parties make of the monarchy and the prospect of a republic.

The SNP

The Scottish National Party officially have a position that supports the monarchy. Had Scotland become independent in 2014, the country would have most likely remained in the Commonwealth and retained the monarchy similar to the likes of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. For outside observors this may seem peculiar due to the SNP’s strong stance against British institutions, however, there are a number of factors at play that have let to this position. One is the strategic advantage gained by supporting the monarchy to win over voters unsure about the uncertainties of independence. The more independence looks less of a clean break with the UK, the more likely uncertain voters may take a gamble goes the thinking. Furthermore, the monarchy isn’t just a British institution, the history of the Scottish monarchy as part of the British monarchy should not be overstated.

Former SNP Leader and First Minister Alex Salmond has been incredibly supportive of the Queen and the institution of the monarchy (a view he no longer holds with his Alba party now in favour of a republic) while it has been suggested that current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a more neutral approach to the institution.

That said, there are a number of significant figures within the party who support abolishing the monarchy such as Christine Grahame MSP and former Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham.

Scottish Conservatives

Unsurprisingly, both the Scottish Conservatives and the UK-wide Conservative and Unionist Party are pro-monarchy. Small-c conservative ideology concerns the preservation of old institutions and only making small changes when deemed practical and when necessary to survive. Overall, the party is incredibly supportive of the monarchy although it is worth noting that centre-right republicans do exist. Most notably in Scotland, former Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins held anti-monarchy views (before being elected in 2016).

SEE MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual MSP MP mandates

Scottish Labour

The official Labour position is pro-monarchy however, unlike the Conservatives there is widespread support within Labour ranks for adopting a republican position. Former UK-leader Jeremy Corbyn has consistently argued for abolition of the monarchy (although he didn’t further that cause while leader) and other leading UK Labour figures such as Clive Lewis support that position.

In Scottish Labour, there are a number of MSPs with republican views such as Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) and Katy Clark (West of Scotland). There is no doubt that there are more even though the party officially backs the monarchy.

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens support an independent Scottish republic. This has long been the position of the party.

This makes them the only pro-republic party represented at Holyrood although Alba supports a republic and does have two MPs due to defections in 2021.

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

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats currently support retaining the monarchy, however, there is some support for a change in position within the party. Back in 1994, Liz Truss (yes, that Liz Truss, once a Lib Dem activist now Conservative foreign secretary) spoke in favour of a motion at party conference to replace the monarchy with a republican system.

The motion failed and while there is no major appetite for change either in the Scottish or federal parties, there is of course a minority of republic supporting members. In 2013, the Lib Dems for a Republic group was set up but it has seemingly fizzled out.

While the party officially supports the monarchy, an investigation by the Scottish Lib Dems in 2021 held the royals to account by finding that a royal privilege (called the Queen’s Consent) was used by the monarchy to intervene in Scottish Parliament legislation.

SEE MORE: About Upgrade Holyrood

Petitions Committee responds to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

By Richard Wood

The Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee have written to the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society about reforming the voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The action is a direct result of my petition (submitted 12 October 2021) calling on electoral reform at Holyrood, ideally by introducing a more proportional system where voters have a significant amount of power over candidates within parties, such as the Single Transferable Vote.

The petition called on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative. It highlighted that while AMS is broadly proportional, and significantly better than First Past the Post (FPTP) used at Westminster, it has a number of significant flaws.

Meeting on 17 November 2021, the cross-party Committee discussed the consequences of any change and agreed to write to both the UK’s Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

The action came from the suggestion of committee member David Torrance MSP (SNP, Kirkcaldy) who said:

“I do not know whether there is any appetite from any of the political parties or the Government to change the voting system, but I think that we should write to the key stakeholders—the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and the Electoral Commission—to seek their views on what the petitioner is asking for.”

David Torrance MSP (17 November 2021)

Electoral Commission response

The Electoral Commission responded on 2 December with the following:

The Electoral Commission holds no view on which voting system is preferable for any election. These matters are rightly for elected representatives to decide. However, where a new voting system is introduced then we would provide advice to the relevant parliaments and governments on any implications for voters and electoral administrators to ensure that voters were able to cast their votes and have them counted in the way they intended. This would include details of any voter information campaigns which the Electoral Commission would run to raise awareness of the new voting system.

I note that in the Committee’s meeting on 17 November members raised concerns about the ‘list order effect’ on STV ballot papers. It may be helpful to note that in 2019, at the request of the Scottish Government, the Electoral Commission carried out research to assess the impact on voters of any changes to the ordering of candidates on ballot papers for Scottish council elections.

Electoral Commission response to letter from Petitions Committee (2 December 2021)

The response is unsurprising. As the Commission notes, they have no view on which electoral system should be used. In the Scottish Parliament’s case that is up to MSPs who would need a two-thirds majority to enact any electoral system change.

There is one positive at the end though that is worth pointing out – the research highlighted by the Electoral Commission addresses concerns about list ordering in Single Transferable Vote elections. It suggests that “in the testing we undertook, the order of the candidates had no impact on voters’ ability to find and vote for their preferred candidates on the ballot paper”, which indicates that this argument against STV has very little to no merit.

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

Scottish Government evidence submission

In response to the petition, the Scottish Government submitted a response on 19 October 2021. The submission contained the following:

The practical effect of the proposal in the petition would be to change the method used to elect the membership of the Scottish Parliament.

As the Committee will be aware, the system used for electing members to the Scottish Parliament was set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the act of the United Kingdom Parliament which makes provision for a Scottish Parliament.

Until the passing of the Scotland Act 2016, elections for the membership of the Scottish Parliament were a reserved matter for the UK Parliament. It was only with the commencement of the relevant provisions of that Act on 18 May 2017 (The Scotland Act 2016 (Commencement No. 6) Regulations 2017) that it became within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to consider changes to the method of electing its membership.

As you are aware, the current system is the Additional Member System which does have an element of proportional representation through the use of two ballot papers, one of which elects additional members from a list. I would advise that the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Government submission (19 October 2021)

Again, the Scottish Government’s submission is unsurprising. It lays out the fact that until the Scotland Act (2016), the electoral system at Holyrood was determined by Westminster but the Scottish Parliament now has the power to make changes.

It then notes that, “the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.”

READ MORE: The route to electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament

Electoral Reform Society Scotland

The Petitions Committee also wrote to the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

As of 6 February 2022, there has yet to be a response.

Petition timeline and key documents

READ ALSO: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Some lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

A second chamber rooted in deliberative democracy will improve Scotland’s politics

By Will Stringer

Imagine a future for Scotland’s democracy where the 99% of us who are usually locked out of political decision making are hardwired in. A future where there are multiple, local, national and international entry points for you to get involved, hear from experts, share your ideas and make change. This change isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s what’s required to meet the multiple complex and profound challenges that are facing us globally today. Challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and forced migration. For too long, democracy has been eroded by vested interests with the money to keep power in the hands of the few. That needs to change. 

This is a future that Scotland has the opportunity to lead the way on, breaking new ground on how citizens are involved in decision making. 

So, what does that look like? 

Democratic innovations take multiple forms, from deliberative mini-publics through to participatory budgeting. In this article, we’ll be focusing on two related forms of deliberative democracy; one that you may be familiar with, citizens’ assemblies, and the second, a House of Citizen for Scotland.

Deliberative democracy

First, let’s get to grips with the jargon. Deliberative democracy is where people come together to hear from multiple points of view. People are enabled to discuss issues and to find common ground to produce outcomes e.g., proposals/recommendations. There are many ways of doing deliberative democracy, and methods and tools are being developed all the time. One of the most notable examples that we have are citizens’ assemblies.

Citizens’ assemblies

Broadly speaking, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative bunch of people, selected by lottery, to decide how we should live together. In Scotland we have had two national assemblies, the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of Scotland and the Climate Assembly. In both cases, around 100 people representing the diversity of Scotland were brought together to hear from experts, discuss amongst themselves, and draw up recommendations for the Scottish parliament. Citizens’ assemblies are powerful for many reasons, one of the most notable is their ability to reduce the powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes. This was recognised by the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland, where one of their key recommendations was to create a citizen-led second chamber in Scotland – a House of Citizens.

In Scotland we currently have a commitment from the SNP for an annualised citizens’ assembly, with a range of issues already identified as contenders for discussion over the coming years. This is a welcome step in the right direction, national citizens’ assemblies can break political deadlocks and allow citizens to listen to expertise and create solutions. If that’s the case you may be wondering why the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland called for a House of Citizens, and why is it of such value?

A House of Citizens

A House of Citizens would have four key characteristics: 

  1. Like a citizens’ assembly, members would represent the diversity from across Scotland. Hardwiring in the 99% of us usually locked out of political decision making
  1. The members would serve 1-2 year terms. This prevents creating ‘just another political elite’, and reduces the influence of lobbying. 
  1. The people who understand the challenges faced by ordinary people are ordinary people. That’s why ordinary citizens as members of the House of Citizens would decide on topics for citizens’ assemblies across the country; this decentralises power and ensures local democracy is a cornerstone of the House of Citizens.
  1. Members would select legislation to be scrutinised, so as to improve the quality of legislation that comes from Scottish parliament. Politicians can’t continue to mark their own homework, we need to improve the decisions that Scottish parliament takes that affects all of our lives.

Beyond the value already described, a House of Citizens hardwires deliberation into Scotland’s parliament and strengthens the civic muscle of Scotland. Imagine being able to go to your local pub, and be served by someone who had experience in the House of Citizens?

Of course, the House of Citizens doesn’t act in isolation – and reform of democracy needs to happen at a local, national and international level if we are to address the democratic crisis. But a House of Citizens is something that can begin to be put into action now, shaping the future of Scotland’s democracy as a global leader in citizen participation.

The full proposals for a Scottish House of Citizens – by the Sortition Foundation, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Common Weal and RSA – can be read here.

About the author

This is a guest post by Will Stringer, Campaign Coordinator for the Sortition Foundation, which advocates for deliberative democracy. Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Upgrade Holyrood.

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