“The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened”—Winnie Ewing MSP, 12th May 1999
Whether you’re a unionist or a nationalist, those words from 23 years ago started Scotland down a road that refreshed its sense of itself. By allowing it to exercise discretion beyond the kirk, law and education to which its civic efforts had been restricted for 292 years, new voices and new thinking emerged. Since then, despite major improvements to representation across the UK, no revision to how Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected has been considered.
Closely following the pattern used in Ireland, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, since 1999, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been elected by a proportional system, known as Single Transferrable Vote (STV). The 18 Westminster constituencies also each elect five MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), for a total of 90. Each MLA therefore represents 21,000 people with broad representation of their political orientation.
The Welsh Senedd (formerly Assembly) was set up at the same time as the Scottish Parliament, using the same Additional Member System (AMS) as Scotland; 40 members are elected by the First Past The Post (FPTP) system, while 20 more by AMS, using lists of candidates, ordered by the parties themselves. The five regions each elect four members for a total of 60 in the Senedd. In Scotland, 72 are elected by FPTP from constituencies that now differ considerably from Westminster constituencies, which have been reduced to 59. The eight regions used for AMS were originally European constituencies, which makes them an anachronism. Each elect seven MSPs, for a total of 128 MSPs.
Even without the confusion among MSP and MP constituency responsibilities, the Welsh have found problems of representation overlap between region and constituency. This “two-tier” system of MSPs plagues the Scots too.
To address this, the Welsh are proposing to shift to STV to elect the Senedd. The Welsh Boundary Commission plans to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies in Wales from 40 to 32. The STV plan would be based on these, pairing these into 16, each of which would elect six members by STV, for a total of 96 Senedd, all elected the same way and each representing 32,900 people, rather than the present 52,600. This plan will require 2/3rds of the Senedd to approve. As it comes jointly from Labour and Plaid, it is likely to pass, despite Tory opposition.
Is this not a chance for the Scottish Parliament to improve its confusing democracy?
In Scotland, each MSP currently represents 42,600 people—considerably more than the present NI Assembly or what is proposed for the Welsh Senedd. Given this level of dissatisfaction and confusion with AMS should Scotland follow the lead elsewhere and improve democracy by clarifying representation by adopting uniform STV?
Scottish voters are already familiar with STV though its use to elect councillors—the last being earlier this month. This would not be a new system to learn, but actually one fewer to handle. That said, restriction of council wards to 3 or 4 being elected mitigates against STV’s ability to allow smaller parties fair representation. Both the Irish Dail and the NI Assembly elect five per constituency.
Scotland has 59 Westminster constituencies. There is an argument that, because of their special cases, the Northern and Western Isles, might be better represented by FPTP. Pairing the remaining 56 give 28 mainland STV constituencies sharing boundaries with Westminster. Having each elect five MSPs by STV would give a total of 143 MSPs. These would all be elected on an equal basis, with each MSP representing 38,200 people—closer to other nations.
These paired constituencies would eliminate the present confusion of boundary overlap and obsolete regions. They also simplify community representation. A cross-party group of five MSPs would represent cities like Dundee (East paired with West), Aberdeen (North paired with South), or Perth (Perth & North Perthshire paired with South Perthshire & Ochil).
Election of five MSPs ranked by the voters increases the likelihood of more diverse representation—which eliminates party ranking AMS lists and encourages candidates to become polular with voters, rather than party failthful. The cities exampled above would most likely elect an MSP from all five main parties. This increases local bonds and common interests could reduce the present adversarial nature of Holyrood by compelling the group of five to identify more with those they represent. A more collegiate approach would benefit all.
And we would no longer have 56 regional MSPs “interfering” in constituencies and trying to stretch from Stranraer to Dunbar or Campbeltown to Lerwick.