Voting commission redraws battle lines

THE Scottish Parliament's mixed voting system of first past the post and proportional representation should be retained, a report released yesterday suggests.

However, MSPs' constituency boundaries should be redrawn along the lines of local authority areas, according to the long-awaited report by the leading microbiologist, Professor Sir John Arbuthnott into how Scotland votes.

The independent inquiry is also recommending that the existing boundaries for regional MSPs be altered to reflect natural local communities.

The commission has rejected calls to abolish the Holyrood list system, which has been mocked by Scottish Labour MPs who are campaigning to stop candidates for Holyrood from standing for election in both a constituency and on "top-up" party lists.

The report instead recommends that the current closed lists be opened to let voters choose either individuals or parties. MSPs will still be allowed to stand in constituencies and also be on the list, according to the report, which also wants to see electronic voting introduced in Scotland by 2011.

Despite the clear rejection of their proposals, Labour MPs last night promised to keep up the pressure for a change and were attacked as "dinosaurs" by the leader of the Scottish National Party.

The report contains a wide range of proposals to end voter confusion over the different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood seats and the four different election systems for Scotland.

Currently elections to Westminster are by first-past-the-post, the additional members system is used for Holyrood, the single transferable vote (STV) will come in for the council elections in 2007 and the party list proportional system is used for the European parliament elections.

Proposals put forward by the commission, which reported to Alistair Darling, the Scottish Secretary, and Jack McConnell, the First Minister, include:

• Redrawing the boundaries for Holyrood seats so that constituencies are all within local government areas;

• Keeping the additional member system, but allowing voters to rank candidates instead of the political parties under the 'closed list' system;

• Introducing electronic voting - possibly using PCs or even mobile phones - by the 2011 elections;

• Using the STV system in Scotland for European elections;

• Holding the Scottish Parliament and council elections at different times;

• Rejecting the idea put forward by some Labour MPs of having just one vote for both constituency and list MSP election as "unacceptable", and

• Considering bringing in STV for the Scottish parliament elections in 2015.

The report, Putting Citizens First: Boundaries Voting And Representation In Scotland, called for the language used to describe the system to be changed, arguing that the term "second vote" was misleading. Instead, there should be a constituency vote and a regional vote.

It said that the constituency MSPs should deal mainly with constituency work while the regional MSPs deal with regional issues.

The commission - with members from four main parties - argued that it was "desirable but not essential" to have the same boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood constituencies.

However, it was the firm rejection of the idea of barring candidates from "dual candidacy" - standing in both a constituency and on the list - that proved the most contentious proposal. The report said: "Dual candidacy only seems problematic to some people because of the legacy of constituency representation within British political culture and the hegemony this creates for some parties.

"Candidates coming in second or third place who are then elected through the regional list are only 'losers' in the context of a first past the post 'winner takes all' electoral system.

"This logic does not sit well within a proportional system and introducing it devalues and undermines the concept of proportionality. The criticism and the pejorative terms in which it is sometimes put, does little to enhance the legitimacy of regional MSPs."

Last night, Jim Devine, the Labour MP for Livingston, said he had the support of nearly 70 MPs for a Commons motion which calls for candidates not to be allowed to stand in a seat and on the list.

Mr Devine said that George Foulkes, the former MP who is now in the House of Lords, was considering introducing legislation to force Holyrood to adopt a measure similar to that being introduced by the UK government for the Welsh Assembly.

Mr Devine said: "There is a substantial move in the House of Commons and the Lords to tackle this anomaly, which some of my colleagues describe as the assisted places scheme."

However, there were no signs that Mr Darling was prepared to act quickly in response to Labour back-benchers whose anger over list MPs had forced him to set up the commission.

Mr Darling said: "There is now an opportunity for full consideration and debate on these proposals.

"However, I can confirm that should I decide to take forward any legislative changes these could not be made before the Holyrood election in 2007."

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, called for the findings to be delivered by Holyrood rather than Westminster.

Mr Salmond said: "The dinosaurs of Scottish politics - Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster - should take note and stop their small-minded attacks on Scotland and our parliament.

"Their plans have been branded 'undemocratic' and they are rightly criticised for being driven by narrow party advantage.

"They should not be given the chance to interfere with or overturn the recommendations in the report.

"Instead, the Scottish Parliament should have primary responsibility for delivering these changes to Scotland's electoral system."

Mr McConnell told MSPs yesterday that the Executive would carefully consider the report but not respond immediately to allow time for dialogue.

The commission, which included Professor Mike Donnelly, Mr McConnell's former senior aide, was unanimous in all but one recommendation. John Lawrie, the chairman of the Scottish Liberal Party, had argued for STV for the Scottish parliament.

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