Lesley Riddoch: Let's try to make Holyrood fairer

Pride in our parliament is fine, but let's consider ways to make it fairer and more democratic, writes Lesley Riddoch

Pomp and ceremony: peers wait to hear the Queens Speech at the State Opening of Parliament at Westminster. Picture: AFP/Getty

Will the fifth Scottish Parliament be the first to give the relatively young institution its first major overhaul? Since its inception there’s been justifiable pride that Holyrood’s electoral structures and governance systems are fairer, more modern and less pompous than Westminster. There are no unelected peers, no arcane ceremonies and no men in wigs, stockings and garters (well, none that we know of).

Holyrood’s debating chamber is shaped in a consensus-enhancing semi-circle, not the confrontational opposing benches of the Commons. And we elect MSPs using a semi-proportional system whilst Westminster thunders on with first-past-the-post. Admittedly Scotland’s claims to modernity aren’t very impressive in a North European context. In Sweden, you can vote early, retrieve your vote and change it right up until election day. In Western Europe 21 out of 28 countries use some form of PR and most of the Nordic nations have used it since the 1920s.

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But surely the Holyrood set-up ain’t bad? Well, mebbes aye, mebbes naw.

Last week’s Scottish elections demonstrated that our electoral system still makes voters indulge in guesswork and tactical voting to achieve the least worst outcome instead of voting directly for their favourite party or candidate. Unionists who normally support other parties voted Tory and Lib Dem in certain constituencies last week to make sure the SNP didn’t win. Equally some voters supported the SNP with their first vote but “split the ticket” to vote Green on the list. There’s nothing wrong with that. Voters are perfectly entitled to be as wily as party leaders who now run Scottish elections like quasi-presidential campaigns.

But wouldn’t it have been easier with a fully proportional election system? The single transferable vote (STV) is already used for Scottish council elections but has proved unpopular in rural areas because the multi-member wards are so large. That inherent problem with STV is exacerbated in Scotland, because councils are physically huge but the councillor contingent is relatively small. So islands like Islay have no resident councillors and the nearest (a two-hour boat ride away) may have different political allegiances.

Supporters of the current additional member system (AMS) for Holyrood point out that “remote” voters can choose to be represented by a more sympatico list MSP.

But that’s precisely what STV does with the added bonus that the local representatives elected reflect the votes cast more closely and each has the same status and responsibility for constituency work. Adopting STV or another form of PR for Holyrood would end the problematic “two classes of MSPs” immediately. And if the class of 2016 doesn’t reform the way Scottish elections work, Westminster might just conceivably beat us to it. This weekend, papers reported that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has called on the Labour party to support a switch to proportional representation saying the status quo risks the legitimacy of parliament.

He’s right – and not just about the Commons.

But it’s not just time to look afresh at the Holyrood voting system (and the size of local councils). It’s also high time to ask if the business of opposition is taken seriously enough in Scotland.

That may seem a crazy question after an election animated by the race to come second. But consider. Holyrood has no revising second chamber and each committee chair bar one is appointed by the Scottish Government. That’s different in Westminster where committee chairs are elected by MPs and can make names and careers for themselves without holding Ministerial Office through the tenacity and quality of their interrogations. Surely committee chairs at Holyrood should be elected in the same independent way?

Secondly, there really is no “official opposition” in the Scottish Parliament and relatively little cash available. In both Holyrood and Westminster the second largest party gets first dibs at Question Time, first response in government debates and a larger fraction of debate topics. But the official opposition in the Commons gets substantially more cash from the public purse to support research and running costs. Each Westminster opposition party gets £16,956.16 per MP plus £33.86 for every 200 votes cast for that party. So UK Labour currently gets more than £1.5 million plus £789,979.10 for the leader of the opposition’s office plus a special salary for Jeremy Corbyn on top of his wage as an MP.

Far fewer perks come the way of the opposition in Scotland.

Each Holyrood party gets £7,977.38 per MSP and the larger parties get an extra £29,015 per annum through the Party Leaders’ Allowance Scheme. Smaller parties receive half that amount. So Westminster’s official opposition receives around 30 times more than the opposition at Holyrood.

Is that fair?

When funding rules were last debated in 1999, the SNP’s deputy leader at the time, John Swinney attacked the Labour government for showing, “no hint of benevolence, no sense of fairness”. Mike Russell, recently cabinet secretary for education, said ”there is no doubt that by dramatically reducing the amount of Short Money available to parties, the Labour Party is attempting to ensure that the work of the opposition is undermined.”

Strangely though, no change was made once the tables turned and Labour became the official opposition. Is that right – especially when there is no second chamber in Scotland to check legislation, and no set of independently elected committee chairs to act as the collective awkward squad?

Thirdly, gender equality. This was going to be the election that saw Scotland top the world league table. But the Conservatives – with an overwhelmingly male slate of candidates – took more seats than expected, the Lib Dems de-selected the only female candidate at the top of any regional list and two female Green candidates narrowly missed election – all of which contributed to a gender standstill.

Meanwhile BBC Scotland’s election night coverage has been criticised by the pressure group Women 50;50 for having no female pundits or analysts on air during the first few hours of Thursday night’s coverage. One commentator said on Twitter: “It needs to be normal to see women talking about politics and economics across the media.”

Can this be tackled with more civic pressure or is it time for something stronger?

Finally, there’s been much talk about bringing people into the legislative process. The Greens want to create a written constitution in a crowd-sourced way as Icelanders did. Why not?

This new Rainbow Parliament can stick with what’s aye been or get ahead of the curve again in a consensual way. I’d guess that would be popular with voters – whatever they made of the actual result.