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

By Richard Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PE1901

Reasoning behind the petition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The route to electoral reform in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The petition can be signed here.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs Proportional Representation now

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 election 2021: What did each of the parties commit to on electoral reform in 2016?

The 2021 Scottish election campaign is underway and the launch of the Alba Party has put the issue of Holyrood’s electoral system in the spotlight. Ahead of manifesto launches this month, we take a look at what the parties said about the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system in 2016?

Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP’s 2016 manifesto made no mention of electoral reform at the Scottish Parliament. The party more generally does support the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which would be a welcome alternative to AMS, and has made commitments to STV at Westminster in recent UK General Election manifestos.

However, the party has not made an explicit commitment to STV at Holyrood in any of its Scottish election manifestos since 2003. Let’s hope the party addresses the issue in its 2021 manifesto. And even if they don’t, let’s hope the rise of Alba gets them to address the issue in some capacity.

Scottish Conservatives

Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives leapfrogged Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood in 2016. For a party that generally supports First Past the Post and resists a switch to Proportional Representation at Westminster, the party has certainly benefited from a form of PR at Holyrood.

Unsurprisingly however, the party made no commitment to electoral system reform in their 2016 election manifesto.

Scottish Labour

Labour has long opposed ditching First Past the Post at Westminster but the party was involved in implementing AMS at Holyrood, which is broadly proportional. The party now has over 200 CLPs in favour of PR and the party’s momentum group recently voted to support a switch to PR at Westminster. The party is clearly moving in the right direction ahead of 2024.

In 2016, Scottish Labour made no mention of electoral system reform at Holyrood but made other welcome pledges to improve Scottish democracy including a ban on MSPs having second jobs and devolution of powers to local communities. Let’s see what they say in 2021.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long advocated the Single Transferable Vote as the best form of Proportional Representation. The party’s 2016 manifesto didn’t explicitly address the issue of electoral reform but the party strongly supports it. Their 2021 manifesto is yet to be launched but the party has already made clear that switching from AMS to STV will be part of the party’s policy programme.

Scottish Green Party

The Scottish Greens also support the Single Transferable Vote and their 2016 election manifesto included an explicit commitment to reform Holyrood with STV.

A fairer way to elect MSPs. Greens support the use of Single Transferable Vote for future Holyrood elections. This system is already used in local council elections and is more likely to create a diverse parliament that better reflects the views of voters.

Scottish Green Party (2016: 37)

The Greens are therefore likely to include another commitment to STV their upcoming manifesto.

Read more about the need to upgrade Scotland’s voting system here.