Euan McColm: Proportional representation gets my vote

A fairer representation of what people voted for would force our politicans to work with each other writes Euan McColm

List MSPs - including Nicola Sturgeon, at one stage - have often been looked down upon as second class politicians, because they did not win a constituency vote. Picture: PA
List MSPs - including Nicola Sturgeon, at one stage - have often been looked down upon as second class politicians, because they did not win a constituency vote. Picture: PA
List MSPs - including Nicola Sturgeon, at one stage - have often been looked down upon as second class politicians, because they did not win a constituency vote. Picture: PA

When the Scottish Parliament opened for business in 1999, it was clear that - as far as Labour politicians were concerned - there were two classes of MSPs.

The A-list comprised those members who had won a first-past-the-post (FPTP) contests in one of 73 Holyrood constituencies. The majority of these were Labour MSPs and they heartily enjoyed looking down their noses at those 56 colleagues who’d found their way to the debating chamber via regional lists, where proportional representation was meant to act as a brake on any one party dominating the parliament.

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If you had won a constituency, you had a personal mandate, went the thinking. What’s more, those MSPs afflicted by machismo could revel in the defeat of others. If you were a list MSP, you hadn’t even really beaten anyone. You were in Holyrood thanks to dumb luck rather than talent.

The Labour Party was so dismissive of senior politicians - former Tory leader David McLetchie, say, or Nicola Sturgeon in the early years of her parliamentary career - who had been elected through proportional representation that it made a point of refusing to use the lists to offer safety net to its candidates. If a Labour candidate was standing in a constituency, it was all or nothing.

That was all very well until 2011 when the SNP won a Holyrood landslide and Labour lost a number of talented figures who might otherwise have been saved. Roll up! Roll up! See your actual hubris in action!

These days the Labour Party is less snooty about MSPs elected by proportional representation. This is just as well, since the majority of Labour’s members at Holyrood - including Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale - stood as candidates on regional lists.

In five elections, proportional representation has ensured the make-up of the Scottish Parliament resembles the preferences of the electorate. At different times, all of the major parties have had cause to be grateful for the existence of the system.

At general elections, FPTP remains the only race in town. And when a party’s having a great night - the SNP in 2015, for example, when it won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats - it’s a system that can obliterate under-performing parties.

An attempt by the Liberal Democrats to introduce PR when they were in coalition with the Conservatives came to naught when voters rejected the adoption of the Alternative Vote System in a referendum in 2011.

A report by the Electoral Reform Society, published yesterday, highlights the flaws with FPTP. According to the ERS, as many as 1.8 million Scottish votes in June’s general election had no impact on the result. The society revealed that 66.4 per cent of votes did not assist in electing an MP.

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In June, Labour won 27 per cent of the votes cast yet got just 12 per cent of the seats. The SNP, on the other hand, returned almost 60 per cent of Scottish seats on 37 per cent of the votes cast.

The ERS pointed to a “sea of wasted votes and a surge in tactical voting” and said it was time for Westminster to adopt a system similar to the one used at Holyrood elections.

I dearly wish MPs would get behind this idea. The introduction of proportional representation at UK general elections would not only lead to the make-up of the House of Commons more accurately reflecting the preferences of voters, it would leave politicians with no option but to conduct themselves differently.

Across Europe, coalition government is commonplace. It is not easy but, done well, it can create policy agendas with wide support. Proportional representation undermines tribalism and necessitates co-operation.

Yes, it’s true that the last coalition at Westminster, with the Tories and Lid Dems governing together between 2010-15, ended badly for the junior partners. But perhaps that’s because we don’t yet fully understand the advantages of coalition.

Even those who screamed “sell outs” at the Lib Dems for cutting a deal with the Tories would have to concede that the party tempered some of the most extreme tendencies of its senior partners. The Lib Dems made their mark on Government and, even if their traditional supporters didn’t think much of them for doing so, showed us how smaller parties can ensure their supporters have a say.

Our major political parties are engaged in a tiresome battle where phoney outrage is everything. There’s no space to share or develop ideas when you’ve a full timetable of demonising the other lot to be getting on with.

Under a proportional representation system, MPs would have no choice but to work together. The worst excesses of an increasingly intemperate debate would be curbed. Perhaps, if MPs spent less time launching exhausting attacks on each other’s propriety or morality and more collaborating, we might have a more effective legislature.

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After two bruising referendums on matters constitutional, the tone of political debate has sunk to new lows.

There remains substantial opposition among some politicians - by and large those in safe seats - to the idea of electoral reform at Westminster. Theirs is an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach.

But the reality is that it is broke.

The FPTP system has had its day. It delivers a House of Commons that doesn’t resemble the country and allows winning parties to ignore good ideas because they come from bad people (of political opponents, depending on your stomach for this kind of thing).

Proportional representation at Westminster might take the anger out of our politics and force opposing parties to work together in the national interest.