[New postscript below main article]
There’s been talk amongst SNP MSPs and MPs about changing the way the Scottish parliament list system works. They’re fed up that some folk stand at election after election, often coming third or even fourth but then entering parliament anyway on their party’s list.
I initially viewed this as a bit of light political fun; SNP MPs taking a pop at parties who can’t win constituency seats. But the more you think about it today, the more there does seem to a problem which really does threaten public confidence in the Scottish parliament. The election system for the Scottish parliament does indeed seem to be being abused by a class of MSP which seems to be treating the voting system and voters with contempt. Perhaps it is time MSPs took a serious look at it.
The present D’hondt voting system was chosen on largely political grounds. The UK Labour Government knew it couldn’t deploy the first-past-the-post system many of its MPs argued for because – ironically in retrospect – it knew this would lack credibility since it would have appeared then designed to guarantee Labour complete control of the new parliament for years to come.
This constituency-plus-list-system was chosen because it seemed to offer a pretty good likelihood that all the parties would get seats, so it would look fair, but that the SNP would likely always be kept out of power by the anti-SNP majority.
Of course, for parties the all-important detail is how the numbers at Holyrood pan out. The fact that with a D’Hondt system there would be two types of MSP with quite different types of mandate was viewed as a lower-pay-grade administrative problem.
Quite rightly, parliament wrote the equality of the two types of sitting MSP into its rules. But that didn’t alter the reality that one type of MSP is elected by constituents, defeating others running against them; and the other is put into Holyrood largely through party patronage as a means of balancing the voting numbers in parliament. One has quite clearly defined and accountable constituency duties, the other does not.
It was accepted from the start that list MSPs would likely identify a weaker opposition-held seat in their region and work it hard for the next election. In my own Westminster constituency, a list-MSP did exactly that, eventually narrowly winning the seat at the third try. He’s a big asset to Scottish politics today. To many folk, while it might be annoying for the MSP holding the constituency, that seemed like a fair bit of rough-and-tumble. It’s politics after all, and nothing’s perfect. At least that meant that list MSPs recognised that they were there essentially to make the numbers up and that it was preferable to hold a constituency seat.
What was never foreseen, though, (apart from complete SNP domination, obv!) was that there would be a long-term class of MSP entirely insulated from the messy business of getting elected; nor party leaders would themselves come third or worse in their constituency but go on anyway to play a leading role in parliament.
It’s not fair to discriminate against folk who have a go in a constituency when some folk stands as list-candidates only. But it really doesn’t seem right now that a gilded few leading politicians can fail year after year to be elected only for that democratic detail to be rendered irrelevant.
For example, one of Scotland’s highest profile MSPs was made an MSP by his party, not the electorate, when another MSP resigned in 2001. In 2021, having lost every election since then, he’ll celebrate 20 years as an MSP not troubled by will of the electorate. By any standards, that seems like a cynical abuse of a system designed for a noble purpose.
In the end, the Scottish parliament was a new departure designed to strip away the worst elements of the UK parliament. For the most part, it’s been successful in that. The recent call by the SNP president for the parliament to stand up more to her party leader was a good example of this maturity.
On the other hand, this carbuncle of a gilded elite looks precisely like what the Scottish parliament was designed to avoid. It’s awful; and it’s quite easy to fix, too.
Green MSPs, who oppose the whole notion of hierarchies, careerism and elites, would presumably have no difficulty agreeing a two-consecutive-term limit for list MSPs. It might be harder for the SNP to get their list MSPs to agree, but surely that would be the right thing.
For Labour and the Lib Dems, led by list MSPs, it might be harder to get agreement at the parliamentary level. Within those party memberships, though, there might be greater support for the idea of list MSPs standing down once they’ve had their shot – that might even lead to some much-needed renewal? A changing of the old-guard?
The Conservatives? Well, that party is in business to serve the interests of elites, so let’s not expect too much there.
And if change isn’t possible at the parliamentary level, perhaps the SNP, Greens and Labour would like to lead the way by making this a rule within their own parties?
Let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, let’s poke fun at the long-serving failures.
Wisdom of hindsight: As Morag points out in comments, I didn’t really think through the Green Party (and other minor party) implications. Actually, the comments are all really educative and thanks for everyone who’s contributed. From the comments, three things seem to emerge.
First, although minor parties game the system by not standing in all constituencies, it does seem right that they get a fair crack of the whip and there’s no doubt that the Greens greatly enhance parliament.
Second, an open list system would enable people to reduce the likelihood of those creatures of party patronage staying in parliament for life regardless of how voters feel about them.
Third, Muscleguy points out that in New Zealand, the public attitude to those creatures of patronage is to ridicule them and make it unviable for parties to keep putting them up year after year.
Perhaps out of this comes the beginning of a solution. Don’t have arbitrary time limits, have open lists and publicly ridicule those major party politicians who stay only by virtue of patronage. Folk would understand that smaller parties can only be elected through the list and would excuse them boots (or sandals) in this respect?
Thoughts? Other than the obvious one that The Scottish Labour Party and Liberal Democrats would be close to being excused boots on this basis….. 😉