[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….. 😉








48 Responses to The MSPs not troubled by the electorate
  1. Interesting & thought provoking article, Eric …… enjoyed reading your analysis.

  2. Another related point. I’ve been banging the drum for open lists, but that’s just one of two reforms I’d like to see to the Holyrood system. The other is more list MSPs.

    Think about it. As it is at the moment the system isn’t perfectly proportional because there aren’t enough list seats to balance out a big skew in the constituency vote. Sorry Eric but this was designed on purpose by Labour politicians to disadvantage the SNP. The thinking was that with more constituency than list seats, this would give an advantage to parties that tended to win a lot of constituencies, or in more general terms it advantaged parties whose support was geographically concentrated in specific places and disadvantaged those with more evenly-spread support.

    Guess what, in 1998 Labour and the LibDems had concentrated support while the SNP and the Tories had more evenly-spread support. Go figure. Labour and the LibDems also had a nice little scheme going which initially seemed set to keep them in power in coalition in perpetuity.

    But the SNP won list seats and these new members worked very hard and eventually started wooing the voters towards them in the constituencies. In 2007 they actually topped the poll. But that was OK, that had been anticipated, and the idea was that the LibDems would go into coalition with the SNP and keep them on a tight rein constitutionally. This should have been a total gravy-train for the LibDems, always in power as the kingmakers whichever of the larger parties actually won, without ever having to win an election themselves.

    But then the LIbDems went off script and didn’t go into coalition with the SNP and the rest is history.

    OK that was a bit of a digression but my point is this. The lower number of list seats was a deliberate fiddle designed to disadvantage the SNP. And then when the SNP’s strength grew it flipped inside out and gave them the advantage. Over 50% of the seats on less than 50% of the vote.

    This shouldn’t happen. There ought to be the same number of list seats as constituency seats so that proper proportionality is achieved. Do that, and allow voters to rank their own party’s list candidates, and it would work a lot better.

    • A lot of food for thought here, Morag. Thanks very much. I see your point about perhaps the best way of working open lists and how complicated that would be for voters. Mind you, as you say it pretty complicated now so maybe it wouldn’t make it any more complicated to have open list candidates voted by party supporters.

      I guess if you import a voting system then you’re importing the values behind it. The dominant value of most post-war European voting systems is to prevent extremists getting in. There’s permanent co-alition and that keeps politics often so much in the middle that voters don’t make much difference. France’s second round will literally keep fascists out this time as they’ll likely top the first round poll. When the SNP took an overall majority in 2011, that blew the whole set of assumptions behind the D’hondt system apart, I think. Indeed, when they dropped back to just under an overall majority it was still a pretty astonishing result, while the media went back to old-speak and reported as if it were a Fttp system.

      Perhaps it’s because of my past, but I still find it hard to accept the notion of people being elected purely on the basis of party patronage.

      • I know what you mean, but you have to bear in mind that people do actually vote for a party list where the names of the candidates are published. I agree it’s generally a bit of a formality but it’s not much different from handing someone a safe seat under an FPTP system.

        We’re back to the basic problem of, who gets to sit in Holyrood to represent the parties that have fairly low support? Under PR they are entitled to representatives so somebody is going to get the job.

        It’s not realistic to expect a party with 15% of the vote to be able to produce candidates capable of doing well in an FPTP constituency, or of personally whipping up substantially more than 15% of the vote in any other way. That’s where they sit and their representatives are never going to appear to have a “popular mandate” the way those from parties with high support do.

        In point of fact the party patronage thing goes right across the spectrum and is just as prevalent in the more popular parties – perhaps even more so because they have safe seats and a much greater chance of winning elections just on the party name no matter who the candidate is. I don’t think there’s any way out of this unless voters get a lot more engaged than they are at present, and I don’t think it’s helpful just to criticise the Tories for their bad choices of candidates.

        It’s even worse with STV in a way. Take the council ward here. We have an SNP councillor at the moment, who is retiring. The SNP vote has gone up a lot since he was elected, and in fact I was fairly gobsmacked when I was sampling some of the boxes last May. The SNP is guaranteed one of the three council seats. Only one SNP candidate is standing. She will inevitably win a seat, irrespective of personal merit. She was essentially gifted the job by the vetting committee who decided she was the only approved candidate eligible to stand.

        She’ll probably be fine and nobody will bitch, but she is getting that job purely on party patronage just as much as Murdo has his MSP job.

        I keep talking about allowing voters to rank their parties’ list candidates and I think that would go a long way to answer some of your misgivings. But even as it stands, list MSPs are voted for and have just as much exposure to public judgement as many other representatives in other electoral systems.

        And you’ll never get past the fact that it is up to any party who it allows to stand on its behalf. That’s the fundamental pinch point. If a party lets relatively few people past that pinch point, it will always be able to control who is elected. The Holyrood system isn’t much different from any of the others in that respect.

  3. […] motives in devising Scotland’s electoral system were all that ‘noble’, Eric Joyce’s phrase “a cynical abuse of a system designed for a noble purpose” does seem to perfectly […]

  4. While I’m far from convinced that British Labour’s motives in devising Scotland’s electoral system were all that ‘noble’, the phrase “a cynical abuse of a system designed for a noble purpose” does seem to perfectly describe the situation that has developed.

    This is one of these situations which is personally gratifying n that it allows me to demonstrate how open-minded I am. Like Eric Joyce, I used to be quite content with the list system. While there were obvious issues with it – primarily the risk of having two classes of MSP – I regarded this as having been adequately addressed by parliamentary rules and not enough of a problem to outweigh the advantages of proportionality and diversity.

    I’ve changed my mind. Once, I would chastise people for treating list MSPs as inferior. Over time, this insistence on parity grew increasingly forced and false until I reached the point where it became just too much of a denial of reality to be sustained.

    That undeniable and unacceptable reality is, perhaps, most starkly illustrated by the now well-publicised case of Murdo Fraser. An individual replete with the smug pomposity and contemptuous audacity that stems from being accountable to nobody other than the sycophants in his own party.

    There are others, of course. I wouldn’t pump up Murdo Fraser’s already over-inflated ego by suggesting that he was capable of single-handedly bringing Scotland’s parliament into disrepute. But he serves to illustrate what now has to be recognised as a serious issue.

    A large and important part of the legacy of the first independence campaign is a more engaged electorate. The inertia of apathy, that great enemy of democracy, has been at least to some extent overcome by the momentum of the Yes movement. People have been awakened to the power that they hold. They have been given a glimpse of their own potential for political effectiveness. It would be a tragedy if this well of new-found confidence and spirit were to be poisoned by a cynical abuse of the electoral system.

    It is no longer possible to pretend that list MSPs such as Murdo Fraser, Anas Sarwar and Adam Tomkins can enjoy the same status as constituency MSPs. To attempt to continue the pretence is to mock the intelligence of voters who can see for themselves just how much of a charade this is. Something has to change.

    But we must be cautious about throwing the bonny baby out with the murky bathwater. However flawed it may be, proportional representation has facilitated the development of Scotland’s distinctive political culture. Any reform of the electoral system must not put this in jeopardy. The aim must be to devise a system which rids us of the Murdo Frasers but allows us to keep the Patrick Harveys.

    It’s a phrase which has been rendered an intensely irritating bit of politician-speak by its use as means of suggesting a policy is flawed without offering any alternative solution, but I’m obliged to say it anyway. We need to have a debate.

    • The problem is that the Tories choose Murdo as their representative and Tory voters vote for him on the list in sufficient numbers. No matter what the system, if it’s a PR one then the Tories are entitled to MSPs and they’re entitled to choose who stands for their party. No matter the system, Murdo will get in.

      You really, really, can’t devise a system which keeps Murdo out while leaving Patrick Harvie unscathed as their mandates are identical. And I don’t think it’s democratic to try to fiddle a system with the specific purpose of getting rid of an opposing politician you don’t like.

      Curtailing the number of terms a list MSP can serve would be a gross injustice to the many list MSPs who work hard in regions where their party can’t win any or many constituencies, and in some cases actually succeed at the third or fourth attempt in ousting their constituency rival. It would also be a gross injustice to smaller parties whose representation inevitably is entirely via the list.

      The system works. The Tories are entitled to MSPs. and they’re entitled to decide who represents them. They keep picking people like Murdo and Adam and they’ll go on doing that under any new system. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop them. Maybe there’s nothing we should do.

      • As ever, Morag, you make very good points. And you may well be correct when you say that it is neither possible nor, indeed, proper to try and “fiddle” the system.

        What occurs to me, however, is that such fiddling may not be necessary. Picking up on Muscleguy’s interesting comments, it may be enough that we are discussing the issue. This may be sufficient to deter the parties from so blatantly exploiting the patronage which the list system (unintendedly) affords them.

        We shall see.

        • I have said all along that the way to deal with Murdo’s ludicrous pronouncements that Sturgeon doesn’t have a mandate and doesn’t speak for Scotland is to mock the weakness of his own mandate mercilessly. Not to try to gerrymander the system to exclude him.

          It’s just a shame that no journalist ever puts this to Murdo. If not Sturgeon, who does speak for Scotland? You, on about 12% of the list vote? How do you define a mandate in a PR system Mr. Fraser, and so on. But they don’t.

        • Given that the British media are vanishingly unlikely to challenge Murdo Fraser in the way you suggest, it is fortunate that mocking him is not at all an arduous task.

    • Gosh, Peter. This is so well put and I don’t disagree with a word of it. Which means it’s brilliant! 🙂

      You’re right, of course, about not making a mess of something which works on the whole pretty well.

      Muscle guy below makes the point that in NZ, people simply ridicule long-term list MPs and this has the desired effect of making the practice unviable. Maybe ridicule is the best way ahead?

      • Thanks Eric. And thank you for raising a topic that, very evidently, arouses a great deal of interest.

        Such discussion is valuable in itself. Not for the first time, Morag has caused me to rethink things. Muscleguy’s comments, also, have informed my thinking.

        The core issue here is maintaining public confidence in our parliament. This would be important at any time. It is absolutely crucial at a time when the British state is set upon denying the legitimacy of Scotland’s democratic institutions as well undermining trust in our public services.

  5. Another alternative is to introduce the Single Transferable Vote system for Scottish Parliament Elections. This would mean using the same voting system as the local elections which would reduce complexity.

    As electors have to rank each candidate there would potentially be more opportunity for people to get rid of MSPs they actively don’t wish to see in parliament.

    • That’s true. Good point. Maybe that’s a better way.

      • I’m not a fan of STV for a number of reasons, one of which is all the brouhaha going on right now trying to explain to people that giving a Tory your 9th (and last) preference is saying “bottom of the class, you, you get in over my dead body”, not “giving them a vote and possibly helping them get epected”.

        Parties can be scuppered by fielding the wrong number of candidates. By-elections are an unfair nightmare. And judging by my ward here, the foregone conclusion nature of the result can deter campaigning. One SNP candidate, guaranteed a seat. Why are we bothering? Especially as we’re not allowed to give the genuinely useful advice which is make sure to rank the LibDem above the Tories to freeze the second Tory out of the third seat. Apparently it’s too complicated and voters wouldn’t understand and if they heard about it the Tories would start telling their voters to vote SNP last. (News flash, they’re already doing that, it’s us who are behind the curve.)

        As a result we may end up with the council going back to Tory control, when we could have prevented that by trying to get all the SNP voters’ fractional transfers piling up on the LibDem.

        So STV ain’t perfect. AMS/d’Hondt has a lot of good points and it seems a shame to talk about ditching it just because a couple of wankers keep getting in. Wankers who’d get in anyway.

        • Morag

          I take your points but no system is perfect.
          STV can be made to work. The Irish seem to know how it works so it can’t be beyond us if we educate people in how best to use the system.

          It will also help if we only have one system for all Scottish elections rather than the current approach which has caused great confusion.

          I like STV because it gives the voter more power than other forms of voting.

        • I’m not sure that it really gives all that much power to the voter, It does allow them to vote against someone as well as for someone, so there’s that, but it doesn’t give much choice of candidates.

          Theoretically the idea is that parties each put up a number of candidates, leaving the voters to choose which one(s) get in. However, parties in practice severely restrict the number of candidates they field, for fear that if they spread their core vote too thinly across too wide a field, their candidates won’t stay in long enough to start benefiting from transfers.

          For example in this ward the SNP is guaranteed one of the three seats. There is only one SNP candidate. Where’s the choice in that? The party won’t put up a second candidate, partly in case the vote is spread too thinly and neither gets in, but also (and more probably, because I think one would get in regardless) because the party wants to control who gets in.

          It’s the same problem as the Holyrood list, and indeed as with safe seats in any system. The parties control who is permitted to stand, and if that control is tight enough the voters don’t actually get much of a choice and the elected representative is pretty much their on the basis of party patronage again.

  6. Another option, which has its own virtue, is to have open lists where the voters choose the particular list candidate for their party. This way, the voters get to choose so the most popular candidate in a party list gets elected first.

    • I think that suggestion has a lot of merit.

    • An open list for the regions is definitely worth looking at. It’s quite common in Europe and one of the many variants would allow voters a degree of influence over the election of list MSPs

      I’d change the council elections to D’Hondt AMS with open lists also. It’s daft that we have three different electoral systems

      • Yes, this seems to be emerging as a good idea here. Along with my own (and Muscleguy’s) idea of ridicule?

    • Yes, that sounds like a workable way of doing it.

      • I think open lists have to be voted on only by the voters who are actually voting for that party. Otherwise you throw the selection of a small party’s top candidates wide open to being overwhelmed by the preferences of their larger rivals.

        Think back to the 1980s when the SNP had less than 20% of the vote and Labour were riding high. So far more Labour voters than SNP. How would we have liked it if the entire voter base, i.e. mostly Labour voters, got to choose who the top SNP candidates would be?

        So again now. Far more SNP voters than Tories. Tories are going to lose to the SNP anyway. Is it then fair to allow a voter base dominated by SNP voters to select the top Tory candidates?

        I’m sure there is some way to devise a ballot paper where voters who wish to do it can rank the list candidates for the party they are casting their list vote for. STV, ironically, is probably a good way of running that part!

  7. I’m not very persuaded by this. You mention the effect on the Greens but handwave it away as if it mattered little. I think it matters a lot. A small party with <10% of the vote isn't going to win constituency seats, but is still entitled to representation. A party like that is in particular need of experienced people in parliament, and indeed of "big beasts" who become well-known and able to operate within the system and use it to their advantage. Forcing parties like that to field a new crop of candidates every eight years or so, including finding a new leader, seems pretty harsh. Patrick Harvie is not the problem here.

    The problem seems to be mainly that the parties that are shrinking in Scotland, both Labour and Conservative (the Tories still stand lower in the polls than they did in Thatcher's day) have a penchant for putting absolute arseholes high on their regional lists. Adam Tomkins, Murdo Fraser, Anas Sarwar and I'm sure you can go on. Rewriting the rules to try to prevent political parties putting up arseholes is probably not going to get anyone very far.

    The basic problem is that we're talking about parties with around or under 20% of the vote. Candidates standing for these parties aren't going to get much more than that in a constituency except perhaps rarely when local issues come into play. It's not realistic to say, well you can't win a constituency, you have been rejected, you have no mandate to be in parliament. Parties with <20% of the vote are still entitled to representatives, and these representatives will inevitably be "unpopular" by the metric of constituency wins.

    It seems doubly unfair then to penalise these less popular parties a second time by declaring that their representatives, and only theirs, will be kicked out after two terms. Fine for the SNP nowadays when constituency seats are there for the taking, but a permanent ball-and-chain on parties with a smaller share of the vote.

    Also, it's not the case that these "arsehole" types aren't elected. The party lists are published, and the names are displayed on the wall as you enter the polling station. If Tories still vote Tory on the list with Adam Tomkins' name at the top of it, then that's their right. Let's face it, we'll never like the people the Tories put forward for election, but we don't have to. They're their representatives, not ours.

    The Tories will get some MSPs, and they will be the candidates they select, and we can't actually stop it. Insisting that they swap one arsehole for another every two terms isn't going to change that much, while at the same time it will damage parties like the Greens.

    Fundamentally, this issue seems to arise because Murdo Fraser and Adam Tomkins in particular delight in running to the media declaring that "Nicola Sturgeon does not speak for Scotland" and "the SNP has no mandate". Not unnaturally people look at the mandates of these two charmers and come to the fairly obvious conclusion that these mandates are pretty tenuous compared to those of Sturgeon and the SNP.

    The solution is to smack them down, and hard. To remind them of the relative polling strengths of them and their party compared to Sturgeon and the SNP. Not to rewrite the rules with malicious intent.

    • Thanks, Morag. When I wrote the piece, I was thinking that it didn’t really account for the Greens (and maybe another SSP-like party). I decided to be flippant about the Greens because it’s my natural instinct when faced with them. I mean, I like plenty of Greens and in particular I like the fact that they support independence. It’s just that I find the Greens as a political party a bit disingenuous and get easily fed up with some Green party nonsense. I SUPPOSE you’re right (sigh), though. My proposal may not be perfect. I laughed when I read; “Patrick Harvie is not the problem here”. Fair enough!

      There is this, though. The Greens do game the system. The system’s designed to produce a proportionate result – the second vote balances the first. But of course the Greens don’t stand in all constituencies, so they distort the balancing effect.

      Anyway, I still think there’s a problem with someone spending a whole career in parliament having only been a creature of party patronage. So there.

      • I more or less agree with you about the Greens. However, they’re the living example of the problem with the sulution you were proposing so they obviously had to be co-opted for that purpose.

        An electoral system has to be equitable to all parties’ interests. AMS/d’Hondt was very good to the SNP for ten years. Nicola Sturgeon was a list MSP for two terms. If we propose changes because of perceived problems we have to be careful that the problems are real systemic ones and not simply that we get a few results we personally don’t like. Any changes should be even-handed and impartial – not devised to get rid of particular representatives.

        I don’t think what the Greens are doing is gaming the system as you describe it. They’re demonstrating exactly why having two votes is a good idea. Some have suggested having only the constituency vote, and then using that vote also to make up the list MSPs (again using d.Hondt). The problem with that is that voters tend to went to vote for constituency candidates who have a hope of winning, and this will inevitably depress the voting strength of parties like the Greens. They’d do significantly worse under that system.

        There’s really nothing wrong with regarding the list vote as the voters’ expression of how the overall balance of the parliament should be, so that Green voters can vote for their party where it matters without feeling that their constituency vote has been wasted. If smaller parties then decide it’s not worth their while to fight all the constituencies I don’t see the problem. It’s not a distorsion, on the contrary the two-vote system prevents a distorsion.

        As to your last objection, surely opening the lists to the popular vote of the voters who support that party would answer that point. The only problem with that is that it’s maybe expecting a bit much of a lot of casual voters, but I think it would improve the system and counter your last point.

  8. The list candidates will have been announced in advance so people know who they are voting for. The second vote is every bit as valid as the first as a democratic mandate.

    • Thanks Noel. You’re right in theory, but I don’t think it has bearing on the second vote much. It’s true that the parties used to put up their biggest hitters (e.g. Donald Dewar) at the top of a list, even ‘though they would likely be elected in a constituency, to make it look stronger somehow, but I think the general conclusion was that this didn’t make much difference.

  9. Very good article, Eric. I think we all know who you’re talking about when you talk about a man who will have got 20 years out of consistently losing the popular vote… not to mention the leadership election.

    I think, though, that Willie Rennie managed to get himself elected in North East Fife this time around, by virtue of an anti SNP vote.

    • Yes, he did. You’re right. I’d forgotten. Actually, I like Willie; he’s a nice chap and a very good organiser. The best way to deal with Lib Dems is to always assume they’ll go to the highest bidder. Except any who might support independence – those ones are motivated only by principle….:-)

  10. In New Zealand there is an MMP electoral system we the electorate forced on the politicians. There the lists are national, not regional and a party has to get at least 5% of the list vote to get one MP which keeps out the also rans.

    The system there is that the party big wigs are first on the List but all fight constituencies too, their presence on the list is just in case. Most who get in on the list have fought at a constituency but not all.

    No system is perfect but there there is no equivalent of the Tory MSP who has never won an election at least 8 times but is still in our parliament. He would be a laughing stock in NZ and any party keeping him would be punished in the polls.

    But then in NZ the parliament is scared of the electorate and the cycle is only 3 years. Keeps them on their toes.

    When I say we forced the change on them I mean it. No grubby compromise cooked up by the supposed great and good in a smoky room as the last PR referendum here in the UK. We actually had a national conversation about voting systems before the internet before coalescing around MMP.

    • That’s really interesting. So the public response to a guy staying a list MP for 20 years would be to ridicule the notion and this dissuades the parties from trying it. That seems a pretty ideal thing – no need for the state to actually regulate because folk take a commonsense position. I must remember this – it’s a super example of people power.

      • I think the ridicule might be a bit selective. Some people in that particular glass house throw a lot more stones than others….

  11. The problem with these perpetual list MSPs is that there is no electoral accountability, we can’t get rid of them if we so wish. Not ideal but perhaps some restrictions on list candidates might help, such as having a list for each constituency/area and a candidate can only appear on one list. Perhaps even extend it so each parties list is subject to STV (as used in council elections) so if you vote for a party you also get a say in who represents the party.

    • Yes, John. The trickiness is that the only accountability of list MSPs is to their party, however much it’s dressed up otherwise. I think so, anyway. Others disagree, of course.

      • I agree Eric, but they should be accountable to the voters. We need to find a way to resolve that. As far as I can see voting on the list hierarchy is the only way to do so.

  12. Ya cain’t have it both ways. ALL proportional representational systems have this kind of feature. By design – because they want to represent minorities. Just remember that the SNP would have had precious few MSPs in the earlydays without this.
    PS I support the SNP so don’t shout out to me on that one.

    • THIS. A thousand times this.

      • I’m thinking either ridicule (see Muscleguy below) and maybe open lists? Perhaps people wouldn’t ridicule the Green Party folk who it’d be understood could only be elected that way, whereas they should really ridicule people from major parties?

        • Yes, I think I just said something like that above.

          As far as open lists go I think you can only allow people who have voted for that party on the list to rank the candidates. Otherwise the supporters of the biggest party in effect get to choose the representatives for the smaller parties.

    • Thanks for this. You can have it both ways, of course, because it’s up to Scots to design their own parliament. A simple rule that list members could only stay in parliament for 8 consective years (or 12, perhaps) would do it.

  13. Interesting article Eric , I like the way you tackle difficult problems , that take longer than a sentence to explain, re your recent posts on education, and foreign policy.
    I always thought the d’hondt system does a good job-by and large. 46% of the electorate voted SNP, and they got 47% of the MSP’s, 22% voted Tory as first vote and they got 20% of the MSP’s.
    Which works out pretty fair, IMO.
    As the WHOLE electorate , get a representation of some sort.

    As opposed to FPTP, where as you know , 35-45% of those that voted garnered all the MPS, for decades .
    The rest of the electorate (3 in 4) who did NOT vote for the biggest party, got very little coverage.
    for nigh on 70 years in Scotland ONE party or the other has been dominant, and larger than all others combined.
    for democracy to be healthy anywhere, you need a viable opposition.

    Whether the electorate regards list MSP’s as failures is a moot point .
    Do voters vote strictly for who they consider most talented, or do they just vote for whoever their party has chosen to put up?

    We will only know if we had a list of names on the ballot paper, and no corresponding party, that way we would find out if they are voting for the person of the party.

    So for me its makes no difference is someone is a list MSP or not, there votes are counted equal in Holyrood after all.

    • The lists of names are on display in the polling stations as you walk in the door. Not that it wouldn’t be a good idea to put them on the ballot paper as well, but voters can’t say they’re forced to vote blind.

      Half the voters probably don’t even bother to notice who their party’s constituency candidate is either. I heard about one incident in a polling station near a county boundary. It was given the wrong ballot papers. It was 10 am and a good few people had already voted before the mistake was noticed. They’d just put their cross against the party without even looking at the candidate’s name.

    • Thanks very much, Papko. Yes, I think the proportionate effect is pretty fair. On the whole the system seems to be fine. The question of patronage is interesting, though, and that’s where the odd situ in Scotland comes in. It’s odd to stand for election, lose then get in anyway. And it’s odd, it seems to me, that a mechanism designed to produce a proportionate voting power in a chamber has been turned into one which gives parties the right of patronage to, in effect, keep people in parliament for full careers.

      • I don’t think it’s odd that people lose constituency elections and then “get in anyway”. Candidates standing for small parties are inevitably going to do badly by the metric of “can you win a FPTP seat”. So they try for a constituency and they lose, or they don’t try at all and are parachuted in without even facing the electorate in a constituency. Which would you prefer? Because it has to be one or the other.

        Keep thinking about open lists. If that can be made to work it answers most of your objections I think.


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