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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 times.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The proposal has several logical flaws, most of which arise from the party identification (see 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.

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 of proportionality).

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?

Some problems

A list is made here of the main flaws that we have noticed. We cannot guarantee that the list is complete.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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".
  6. 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 by one.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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 instead).
  11. 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.)
  12. 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.
  13. 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).
  14. 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).
  15. It is not specified what happens if a party list is exhausted.
  16. 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?


  1. The Internet Scottish Office pages, and those from the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
The above paper records our comments at the time that it was written. We recognise that some of its queries have now been answered.
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