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5 May 2021

Is Scotland’s electoral system broken?

The attempt by Alex Salmond’s Alba Party to “game the system” has prompted new calls for electoral reform. But is there appetite for change at Holyrood?  

By Dani Garavelli

Ever since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 – with the Additional Member System (AMS) chosen as the mechanism by which MSPs would be elected – parties have been accused of trying to “game the system”. 

AMS involves two ballots: one for constituency MSPs who are elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP), like their Westminster counterparts; the other for MSPs on regional lists. In general, the more constituencies a party wins in any region, the fewer list seats it will secure.

The dominant party – once Labour, now the SNP – will win the bulk of the constituencies and so, some insist, putting your cross beside those parties on the list is a “wasted” vote. Smaller parties often use this argument to piggy-back on larger ones. The pro-independence Scottish Green Party has consistently appealed to left-leaning independence supporters to lend it their second vote. In 2003 the party’s Second Vote Green campaign won them seven list MSPs, up six from 1999.

This strategy is neither fool-proof nor uncontroversial. But the Scottish Greens, at least, is a separate party with a separate and established support base.

This is not true of Alex Salmond’s new vehicle. Like the Greens, Alba has been urging SNP supporters to vote for its list candidates on 6 May by dangling the prospect of a pro-independence “supermajority”. Unlike the Greens, however, Alba is an upstart created with this strategy in mind. Leaving aside the disingenuousness of trying to secure seats on the back of a party you plan to undermine, is Alba’s approach undemocratic? Allan Faulds, the founder of Ballot Box Scotland, which charts polls and elections, believes so.

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“It’s fundamentally unfair,” he said. Gaming the system [in the way Alba is attempting] means voters who have secured their choice of representative in the constituency are saying: ‘Oh, and now we want our choice in the list as well, but you can’t have yours.’”

[See also: Why the SNP fears Alba is still a threat

Alba’s dramatic entry into the election has focused attention on some of AMS’s other perceived flaws. It has reignited the debate over whether alternative systems – for example the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – would be better.

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AMS was always a compromise. The prevailing theory  that it was introduced to scupper the SNP’s chances of a majority  is a myth (back then, the kind of support the party enjoys today was unimaginable). Rather, it marked a recognition on behalf of Scottish Labour that many people opposed devolution because they feared a Scottish Parliament would be dominated by the party’s industrial heartlands.

But a balance had to be struck between Labour’s desire to retain the upper hand and the Liberal Democrats’ desire for a fully proportional voting system. The hybrid of AMS – used in New Zealand – was the result. There were further tussles over the number of list MSPs – Labour wanted fewer, the Lib Dems more – but the final tally was 73 constituency MSPs and 56 list ones.

For the first three parliaments, AMS produced predictable results  two Labour-Lib Dem coalitions followed by an SNP minority government. But then, in 2011, the SNP gained a majority – something that was supposed to be impossible for any party.

Jack McConnell, who was general secretary of Scottish Labour when AMS was adopted and served as first minister from 2001-07, claims the voting system has not always performed as anticipated. “The threshold of who gets seats from the lists is erratic,” he said. “And they were meant to compensate parties for losing out under FPTP, not operate like a separate election.”

And yet, Willie Sullivan, the director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, insists that AMS is far superior to FPTP. He points out the 2011 result was, in fact, the one in which the number of seats secured by the parties most closely mirrored their share of the vote.

But AMS’s greatest flaw may be that – even more than FPTP – it encourages tactical voting in a context where it is almost impossible to second-guess the outcome. “In a good system, you would know the best thing you can do to get more of the people you want into parliament is to vote for them,” said James Mackenzie, a former head of media for the Scottish Greens who has campaigned for electoral reform. “But the current system doesn’t do that.”

[See also: Who speaks for Scotland?]

So, should Scotland’s electoral system change? And, if so, what to? For years, most parties – the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens  favoured STV, which is used in Ireland.

STV was introduced in Scottish local government elections in 2007, so voters are familiar with the system. They rank the parties and candidates they want in order of preference. But it has its limitations, too. “A basic aspect of PR is that the more seats you are electing at the one time the more proportional it is, but if you are electing more seats they need to be over a wider geographic area. There’s a balance to be struck between local representation and proportionality and STV leans local,” said Faulds.

Instead of STV, he recommends an Open List PR system modelled on those used in Scandinavia. “Open list systems use larger geographic areas  bigger than constituencies but smaller than the existing list regions,” Faulds said. “Most of the seats in a given area would be elected proportionally using the vote in that area, but there would also be a small number of seats on top, based on the national vote. Those seats would be slotted back into the regions where those parties did best.

“This works well because you still have local representation, but you are also using the national vote so everyone is properly represented.”

***

All this is theoretical. If Alba wins seats – and particularly if pro-independence parties are over-represented – that might focus minds. But under the Scotland Act, it takes a two-thirds majority to change the electoral system. Though the Lib Dems and the SNP still favour STV, and the Greens back an Open List PR system, this is unlikely to be a priority for an administration dealing with a pandemic. 

The SNP said electoral reform should be a greater priority for Westminster than Holyrood while Labour’s focus is on improving accountability at the Scottish Parliament. The party has committed to exploring reforms including the strengthening of the powers of committees and introducing a right to recall MSPs.

In England, FPTP is currently the focus of controversy because of Labour’s predicted defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, a seat the party has held since it was first contested in 1974. Labour supporters claim FPTP has a right-wing bias, while Conservatives argue the system helped Labour win the constituency for 47 years.

What is undisputed is that FPTP tends to create two-horse races and that both MPs and national parties are often elected with significantly less than 50 per cent of the vote. And yet the UK government appears to be doubling down. Earlier this year, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced plans to change the system used to elect the London mayor and crime commissioners from the Supplementary Vote to FPTP.

Would Holyrood invite political upheaval simply to scrap a system everyone agrees is better than FPTP?

“AMS is a pretty good system,” Sullivan concluded. “Everyone always thinks it is going to be gamed, but it usually works out fine. Scotland’s political culture and institutions, while far from perfect, are a lot better than Westminster’s and the way we elect our parliament is a big part of that.”

[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker]