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Voting matters - Issue 9, May 1998
Comments on the Scottish Electoral proposals
I D Hill, R F Maddock and B A Wichmann.
Co-incidentally, all three authors have been members of the British
Standards Institution programming language standards committee at various
It is clear than the proposal (made in July by the Government in advance of the September 1997 Referendum) is an
incomplete draft. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to list the logical
problems which are in this draft, since it is unclear how a complete
proposal would rectify the flaws. In some cases, aspects which are undefined
could be resolved by taking the proposals made at the Scottish
Constitutional Convention, but this is something to be submitted to a
referendum to authorise a constitutional change. No matter how worthy that
body, it would be absurd to regard its proposals as being in any way
definitive for such a purpose.
Why admit the existence of parties?
Although the existence of parties is a key aspect of the proposals, we feel
bound to query this for the reasons below.
The whole process appears to have been designed to give as much power as
possible to party organisations and as little as possible to the electorate,
making a mockery of what democracy should be.
- To formally acknowledge the existence of political parties is not
currently part of the UK electoral framework. Surely such a significant step
should be justified by showing that the general objectives can only be
satisfied by this step.
- Who is to be entitled to register a party? How are the names of such
parties to be resolved to avoid confusion? Several names could cause
confusion: The New Labour Party or The Tory Party or even just Liberal.
- The proposal appears to suggest that the stated objective is to attain
proportionality of party representation within the Scottish Parliament.
However, the UK already accepts that proportionality can be attained without
formal recognition of parties by means of the Single Transferable Voting
system used for the Northern Ireland European Elections.
- The proposal has several logical flaws, most of which arise from the
party identification (see below).
On the other hand, the recent case of the Literal Democrats indicates that
standardized party labels have some benefits.
Can one have independent MSPs?
It is clear that independent MSPs could not be elected from the Party lists,
but for the constituency MSPs this appears to be possible. After all, we
have such an MP for Westminster and therefore the question is not academic.
The basic right for anyone to seek election should not be unreasonably
restricted and therefore one must assume that those seeking election as a
constituency MSP need not have a party affiliation.
Can a 'rejected' MSP be elected?
This can happen under the German system and results in the electorate being
very sceptical about elections. This happens as follows:
A candidate who is seeking re-election is both a constituency candidate and
is on a party list. If the candidate fails to obtain election for the
constituency, the person can nevertheless be elected via the party list. If
the person concerned was overtly unpopular and lost by a significant swing,
then to be subsequently elected is perverse.
No electoral system should give rise to anomalies as gross as the above,
since it can seriously damage the electoral process in the eyes of the
electorate. (However, we know that 'perfection' is not possible for
electoral systems which implies that minor anomalies cannot be avoided.)
One party list or many?
It is not clear if there is a single party list for each party, or one for
each European Constituency. Note that the rules appear to allow for a party
which is already over-represented to obtain additional seats due to being
under-represented within one European Constituency (thus increasing the lack
Better proportionality would be obtained for a single list allocated on the
basis of the entire Scottish vote. If the aim is to elect on the basis of
European Constituencies, then why not STV for each such constituency?
A list is made here of the main flaws that we have noticed. We
cannot guarantee that the list is complete.
- Who specifies the party lists? In practice, a good fraction of the MSPs
are not determined by the electorate but by those who draw up the lists. In
consequence, it is most important that the mechanism for producing these
lists should be well-defined (or even an explicit statement that the party
organisations determine the list by means of their own choosing). If the
list is specified by the party organisations without any electoral process,
then it is clear that this aspect is less democratic than any other
mechanism currently in use within the UK.
- When are the party lists published, and by whom? Is the list on the
ballot paper? Surely the lists have to be published by the returning
officers, but what restriction, if any, is placed upon the lists? (One could
allow 'cross- benchers' to appear, as in the Lords. We assume that the lists
are published before polling day!) The Scottish Constitutional Convention
proposals appear to suggest that the list is just that, with no 'party' as
such, which leaves open how parties are linked to constituency MSP's to
determine the number of additional members.
- Can a (previously) sitting MSP also be on a party list? If this is
allowed, then the German problem arises, as noted above. In consequence, it
seems best to exclude this. Obviously, if an MSP is elected as a
constituency member, then one must assume that his/her name is deleted from
the party list. This might present a practical problem if the MSP appeared
on a different list from his/her own European Constituency.
- What duplicates can appear on the party lists? If a person could appear
on the party list for more than one European constituency, then logical
problems arise due to the coupling of the voting between the European
Constituencies. In particular, the result would depend upon the order in
which the European Constituencies were considered.
- The dependence of the proposals on the European Constituencies seems
odd since the government has indicated its intention that the next European
election, which will occur before the elections to the Scottish parliament,
will use a regional list system, and thus the current European
constituencies will no longer exist. The white paper does say that if the
European constituencies are changed the boundary commission will make
"appropriate arrangements for the Scottish Parliament".
- A popular MSP could stand as an 'independent' so that his/her seat
would not count for his/her party, thus increasing their additional members
- In a somewhat similar position to the last problem, a party could have
a different label for its constituency candidates than for its party list.
This would make the party list label appear under-represented (no seats),
thus being eligible for additional members.
- Apart from the voting system, we regard it as quite wrong that Scottish
MPs will apparently be allowed to continue to vote at Westminster for what
is to happen in England on the devolved issues.
- The statement that the number of Scottish seats [in Westminster] will
be reviewed begs more questions than it answers. The number of seats could
even be increased! (However, Donald Dewar, introducing the white paper in
the Commons, indicated that the number of Westminster constituencies was
likely to be reduced at the next boundary review, and the white paper says
that such changes would lead to corresponding changes in the number of both
constituency and additional members in the Scottish parliament.)
- It has been noted in New Zealand that a result of a mixed system of
constituency members and party lists is a potential conflict between local
party workers (who want to get their constituency member elected) and the
party organisation (who might prefer the next person on the list
- The proposals call for 129 members which appears to be a consequence of
the constituency numbers with the need for 56 additional members to obtain
proportionality. Contrast this with STV for each of the 7 European
Constituencies which could obtain the same degree of proportionality with
around half the number of MSPs. (The cost saving would be very significant,
and the body might well be more effective.)
- Candidates must be resident in the UK, including therefore
resident outside Scotland, which is different from most local elections in
Britain, where the candidate must reside in the area administered by the
assembly in question.
- Can a Westminster MP simultaneously be an MSP? Nothing is mentioned
about this, so one assumes the answer is yes, as it is for MEP, MP, county
councillor, district councillor, parish councillor,... However, the
proposals made by the Scottish Constitutional Convention state that being an
MSP is a full-time appointment and thus excluding such roles (except
perhaps being a Peer).
- The arrangements for by-elections are not stated, although proposals
were made by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which we assume apply
(namely, a conventional by-election for constituency MSPs, and the next on
the party list for the additional members).
- It is not specified what happens if a party list is exhausted.
- If an MSP, elected from the party list, resigns from the party or is
expelled from it, is resignation as an MSP to be required?
The above paper records our comments at the time that it was written. We
recognise that some of its queries have now been answered.
- The Internet Scottish Office pages, and those from the Scottish
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