Next year marks 25 years of devolution following the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. After some bumps along the way, the Scottish Parliament is undeniably a success story. However, while its use of a broadly proportional voting system makes it more representative than the parliament in Westminster (what with FPTP in the Commons and the continued existence of the House of Lords), the Scottish Parliament needs reform. Put simply, Holyrood needs an upgrade.
Upgrade Holyrood champions better democracy in Scotland. With next year marking a quarter of a century of devolution, it will be the perfect time to reflect, assess and improve upon the democratic mechanisms of the Scottish Parliament.
First things first, Scotland’s voting system sounds great at first glance but there is significant room for improvement. The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures broad proportionality but only goes so far as having a mechanism for regional proportionality. What’s more it fails to address overhangs, retains single-member districts and leaves open the possibility for parties to “game the system” as seen with Alba’s failed attempt to win a “supermajority” for independence at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Furthermore, voters still have limited powers over individual candidates.
The system is significantly more proportional than First Past the Post but alternatives do exist – and those alternatives must be examined and adopted. There are three likely routes that the Scottish Parliament could take on this issue: AMS with modifications, Open List PR or the Single Transferable Vote.
Tinkering around the edges by adopting a German style mixed-member voting system to address overhangs and ensure national party proportionality would be a minor improvement but it would cause some headaches of it’s own – Germany’s Bundestag is growing with each election. The Scottish public are likely to be approving of significantly more politicians. What’s more such a system would retain single-member constituencies.
Open List PR with levelling seats – as in Denmark, Sweden or Iceland – this would improve proportionality, give voters power over individual candidates and crucially end single-member districts. This would be one option for the Scottish Parliament that’s worth considering. If we were to go down this route then we would to ensure that any lists are regional, open for voters to enhance their power and have levelling seats to ensure both regional and national proportional representation.
The final alternative is often seen as the gold-standard voting system (if implemented properly) – the Single Transferable Vote. Already used to elect councillors in Scotland, STV would provide proportionality (depending on district sizes), give voters an enormous amount of power at elections and provide voters with multi-party representation. What’s more, the system is backed by the SNP, Lib Dems, as well as some Labour and Conservative MSPs. The Scottish Greens recently supported it before backing Open List PR.
The Scottish Parliament must therefore examine its voting system in any 25-year review of devolution.
But it’s not just the electoral system where the Scottish Parliament needs improvements.
Holyrood needs to end dual mandates – primarily for joint MSP-MPs and MSP-Lords but also place restrictions on MSP-councillors. Dual mandates are unfair on voters who deserve fully-committed representatives. On top of that, there also needs to be a restriction on second jobs for MSPs, again for similar reasons.
We also need a return to four-year parliamentary terms. It’s right that election terms are fixed – as they give a level playing field to all parties and candidates – but five-year terms are too long and are only something the Scottish Parliament slipped into during the last decade as a result of Westminster’s very brief adoption of fixed five-year terms.
What’s more, the Scottish Parliament also needs a recall rule. Holyrood is ahead of Westminster on many fronts but the lack of ability for constituents to recall MSPs is a major flaw. In practice this will be difficult to achieve due to the mixed-member system and by-election blueprint for recalls at Westminster but any review of the functioning of the Scottish Parliament should include a reform of this nature.
2024 will be a milestone year for Scotland – 25 years of devolution have undoubtedly changed the Scottish political landscape forever.
Devolution works and what’s more it works well. This should be celebrated. But with that success comes room for improvement. There will be time to take stock next year and assess a way to move forward on these reforms – hopefully with cross-party support. It’s time to upgrade Holyrood.
By Richard Wood(Founder of Upgrade Holyrood, electoral reform campaigner)
The big stories of this year’s US elections were the Republican wave failing to materialise – thanks to the Democrats holding the Senate – and a razor-thin win for Republicans in the House. But November 2022 should also be remembered as a significant time for electoral reform in the USA.
Before getting into the details here, it’s worth framing the nature of electoral reform in the US. American reform movements by and large make the case for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In the case of single-member districts, RCV is simply the Alternative Vote (used in the Australian House of Representatives) whereas multi-member RCV districts are simply the Single Transferable Vote (used for Scottish local councils, as well as elections in Ireland, Malta and the Australian Senate).
Fair Vote USA (a 30-year-old organisation) and new campaign Fix Our House both advocate for proportional US elections.
The biggest win for Proportional Representation in November 2022 was the outcome of a referendum where people voted to adopt proportional multi-member Ranked Choice Voting.
Voters in Portland, Oregon backed wide-ranging proposals to reform the city’s charter including a provision to abolish First Past the Post voting and instead introduce multi-member districts with candidates ranked in order of preference. In 2024, the city of around 650,00 people will now have its first elections conducted under proportional Ranked Choice Voting. This is a massive win for better democracy campaigns and credit should be given to the Portland for Change campaign group who backed the reforms.
On top of that, on the other side of the country Portland, Oregon’s namesake Portland, Maine (with a population of 68,000) also voted for STV.
It’s also worth highlighting that other places voted to replace First Past the Post with RCV in single-member districts. The Alternative Vote is far from perfect for electing multi-member bodies but in the American context this is an exciting development. According to Fair Vote USA, the places that did this are: Nevada; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; Multnomah County, OR; Fort Collins, CO; Evanston, IL; Portland, ME; and Ojai, CA.
The USA is unlikely to adopt Proportional Representation at a national level any time soon, but progress is being made in the right direction. That the US’ 26th largest city voted in favour of PR should not be underestimated.
The previous Welsh government, an effective coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and an independent, introduced legislation that gives Welsh local councils the opportunity to switch from First Past the Post to the Single Transferable Vote. But time is running out for councils to adopt it before the next set of local elections.
Of course, it’s disappointing that there wasn’t an automatic switch for all 22 councils, like in Scotland due to the Labour-Lib Dem coalition (2003 – 2007). Instead, individual councils have to make the decision themselves. But we are where we are.
There are real opportunities for change. However, the decks are stacked against reform campaigners. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 sets a deadline for reform ahead of the next elections. The legislation says the following:
“A resolution to exercise the power has no effect unless it is passed before 15 November of the year that is three years before the year in which the next ordinary election of the council is due to be held.”
With the next local elections due in May 2027, the deadline for reform is 15 November 2024, three years ahead of the elections. That’s now just two years away.
That may seem like a while away, but it’ll be November 2024 before we know it. Electoral reform campaigners in Wales will be very much aware of that.
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.
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.
Swedish Election Result (6,568 out of 6,578 Districts Counted):
Social Democrats: 107 (+3) Sweden Democrats: 73 (+11) Moderate: 68 (-2) Centre: 24 (-7) Left: 24 (-4) Christian Democrats: 19 (-4) Green: 18 (+2) Liberal: 16% (-4)
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.
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).
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.
The citizens of Malta voted for a new House of Representatives on 26 March 2022. Unlike elections to the UK’s House of Commons, how Maltese vote is actually reflected in parliament due to the country’s system of Proportional Representation (specifically, the Single Transferable Vote).
Scottish and UK politics have much to learn from Malta.
In 2017, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party won 37 seats (on 55% of the vote) ahead of the National Force’s 30 (on 43.7% of the vote). Unusually for a country using Proportional Representation, Malta has a fairly consistent two-party system.
The country changed prime minister’s in 2020 and at the recent 2022 election, Labour held on to power by winning one more seat than it achieved at the last election. Here’s what happened in 2022 and how Maltese elections work.
Malta uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect its representatives. The country is split into 13 constituencies, each with five members, and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. This leads to largely proportional outcomes and a significant degree of voter empowerment.
Unlike in other countries using STV, a two-party system has dominated Malta for decades, with only a handful of third parties gaining representation despite the relatively low barriers of entry to the House of Representatives compared to the challenges they face in countries using majoritarian and pluralitarian systems such as First Past the Post.
Malta’s STV also has a final twist that doesn’t exist in places such as Scotland, Ireland and Australia’s Senate. Under standard STV it is still possible for the party with the most first preference votes to win fewer seats than an opposition party. The Maltese system addresses this by giving additional seats to the party with the most first preference votes across the whole of Malta. This is a sensible solution to addressing one of the flaws of an otherwise representing and empowering electoral system, one which could even be built upon for STV elections in Scotland and the UK.
Due to STV and the Maltese twist on it, elections in Malta are highly proportional.
At the 2022 election, the Labour Party won 38 (56.72%) seats on 55.11% of first preference votes. The Nationalist Party secured 29 (43.28%) seats on 42.74% of the vote. There was clearly a strong link between seats and votes.
But looking at the overall figures only offers one level of analysis.
One tried and tested way to measure proportionality, and crucially compare proportionality of different systems, is to calculate the Gallagher index for an elections. More on the mathematics behind the indices can be read here, but the closer to zero the index is, the more proportional it is.
In Malta’s case, elections are highly proportional with indices consistently around the 1 mark for elections in the 21st century. The election result in 2017 was similar to 2022 (Labour won 37 seats on 55.04% of first preference votes while the National Party won 28 seats on 42.12% of the vote). The Gallagher Index for that election vote was 1.01. In fact every Maltese election since 1987 has had a Gallagher index less than 2, showing just how proportional Malta’s electoral system is.
In comparison, Scottish Parliament elections are largely proportional – the Gallagher index for 2016 was 5.6 while the index for 2021 was 7.03. However, UK elections are highly unrepresentative thanks to First Past the Post, for example, the Gallagher Index for the 2019 elections was 11.80.
Elections in Malta are highly proportional while and empower voters to a high degree. The Single Transferable Vote is far superior to First Past the Post, used to elect MPs in the UK, and more representative, and empowering, than the Additional Member System used at Holyrood. What’s more a version of the “Maltese twist” on the traditional STV is one worth considering when it comes to UK elections.
At the last UK election, the Conservatives won a majority on 43% of the vote while parties such as the Greens and Lib Dems were significantly unrepresented. Had the UK been using STV, the election outcome would have been much more representative than under First Past the Post. Furthermore, the UK could build on the Maltese version of STV by implementing its own levelling twist. Say under STV one party won more seats than another but fewer first preference votes, a number of levelling seat could be added to ensure a fairer outcome and tackle questions of illegitimacy.
STV Proportional Representation is clearly fairer than First Past the Post, as shown by the Maltese election. However, STV is already used for Scottish local elections, as well as Northern Ireland’s Stormont and local elections. Westminster has much to learn from Malta but also from elections for devolved administrations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
🚨PICK OF THE WEEK🚨
READ: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws
🗳️"Alba’s strategy is thus an overt attempt to game the system."
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.
More about these different systems can be read here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.