Scratch under the surface of the Scottish Green Party and you find not a cuddly group of promoters of cycling, recycling and protecting wildlife, but a group of hard-left extremists intent on dismantling free enterprise, and restricting personal freedom in the process.
For those in business in Scotland, already concerned about their ability to recover post-Covid, the prospect of the Greens having more influence in government is deeply worrying, bringing with it the certainty of higher taxes and stricter regulation.
Similar concerns are felt in rural communities where the urban-centred Greens’ lack of understanding of, for example, the economics of farming and country sports, causes alarm.
This is not just about economics: given the Greens’ radical views on social policy issues, such as Gender Recognition Act reform, there are many within the SNP who would revolt against Nicola Sturgeon tying the knot with Patrick Harvie on any formal basis.
We are in this situation because Holyrood’s voting system delivered a pro-independence majority at last month’s election, when most of the votes cast, in the constituency ballot at least, were for pro-Union parties. How is this possible, when the Scottish Parliament was established on the basis that it should be elected by proportional representation?
The Additional Member System that exists for Holyrood gives every individual two votes: one for the constituency, and a second for the party lists. If each voter used both their votes to support the same party, we would have a Parliament more or less exactly representative of the overall share of the votes cast. However, the weakness of AMS as it exists in Scotland is that it is subject to “gaming” of the system, to deliver an artificial outcome.
This was the approach adopted by Alex Salmond’s ill-fated Alba Party, which tried to persuade those who were voting SNP in the constituency to give their list vote to Alba, to create an artificial “super-majority” in favour of independence.
Alba ultimately failed spectacularly, but it does look like the Greens benefited by Alba promoting the vote-splitting approach, with an increase in vote share and a net gain of two seats. This means we have a Parliament with a pro-independence majority, when that does not reflect the share of votes actually cast.
Perhaps this gaming of the system is most easily illustrated with an example. A Conservative voter in the constituency of, say, Edinburgh Pentlands has two votes, just as an SNP voter in that constituency has. Each will vote for their respective party to be the constituency representative. In the case of Edinburgh Pentlands, the SNP vote went towards electing an SNP MSP, whilst that was not the case for the Conservative vote.
The Conservative voter then casts his party list vote for the Scottish Conservatives, and that helps elect three Conservative MSPs to represent the Lothians Region. But if the SNP supporter votes Green on the party list, rather than SNP, he contributes towards electing two Green MSPs to represent the same region. So the Conservative voter has only one vote that counts; whilst the SNP-Green voter has both votes count – effectively seeing his votes at double the value of his Conservative counterpart.
If this gaming of the system is to become more of a trend in the future, then it means that the Additional Member System as currently constructed is not delivering proportionate outcomes that were intended when the Scottish Parliament was established.
I think most people would think that in a proportional system it would only be fair and reasonable that if the Scottish Conservatives achieved, say, 25 per cent of the votes across Scotland, then they should be rewarded with 25 per cent of the seats. If that is not what is happening, then the system needs to change.
One simple way to address the problem would be to give each voter simply one vote with one ballot paper, rather than the two that currently exist. Thus both “vote splitting” and gaming of the system would be avoided, and a more purely proportional outcome delivered.
But perhaps it is time for a more fundamental review of Holyrood’s voting system. The Additional Member System introduced in 1999 was something of a messy compromise, between those who wished to retain a constituency-based system, and those who wanted proportional representation.
It creates two classes of MSPs – 73 representing constituencies, and 56 on party lists representing regions. Perhaps most worryingly, it gives undue power to party hierarchies who have unfettered discretion as to how candidates are ranked on the party lists.
The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.
An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.
This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.
STV was introduced for Scottish local elections in 2007, operates without difficulty, and is now well understood. There seems no particular reason why its adoption for Holyrood elections should not now be considered.
Whatever the outcome of the current flirtation between the SNP and Greens, the very fact that it is taking place makes the case for voting reform a strong one. Amongst other necessary parliamentary reforms, I hope that this is something that we can see some attention paid to over the next five years.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife