Scottish election system is branded a failure

SCOTLAND’S electoral system has failed to meet the aspirations of devolution and should be changed to prevent one party winning an overall majority, a report has claimed.

The paper, co-authored by one of Scotland’s leading political experts, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, says there should be a “more proportional” system and one that’s “less likely to deliver an overall majority” for any party.

It states the current system, which delivered this year’s SNP landslide victory, is “failing to realise the dream of devolution” and that the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament that no party would ever have an overall majority have been “dashed”.

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Prof Curtice’s independent report calls for a shake-up in the way MSPs are elected, with a strongly worded attack on Holyrood’s system, which, he says, allows a party with “less than 50 per cent of the list vote” to win more than half the seats in the parliament. In May, the SNP won an overall majority on 44 per cent of the list vote.

The report, published by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland comes after the SNP used its parliamentary muscle to dominate Holyrood’s committee system, holding nine of the 14 convener posts. The party also elected one of its MSPs, Tricia Marwick, as Presiding Officer.

But last night, parliamentary business minister Brian Adam insisted the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system was “not broken” and that Holyrood was more democratic than Westminster.

Derek MacKay, the SNP business convener, added that “regardless of the system” voters back “the party that best represents their views and ambitions”.

Prof Curtice used the report to suggest an “alternative” to Holyrood’s Additional Member System (AMS), which involves electing MSPs from regional lists as well for individual constituencies – a system also known as regional proportional representation (PR) or “D’Hondt”.

The report, The 2011 Scottish Parliament Election – In Depth, argues for a series of alternatives to AMS, such as the system used by the Greater London Assembly and in parts of Germany, where parties have to pass a threshold in the share of the vote to win parliamentary representation.

Under the proposed reform, known as national PR, voters would elect list MSPs from one Scotland-wide list rather than through a series of regions such as South of Scotland or the North East, with individual constituencies continuing to send members to Holyrood.

Another option for change highlighted in the 40-page report is a system of regional PR called Sainte-Laguë, used in countries including Norway and Sweden, where the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the number of votes it wins on the regional lists.

Prof Curtice said Scottish results under the proposed changes would be more proportional than having lots of different regions returning list MSPs.

He said: “If you divide the country up into smaller units, you are less likely to get a proportionate result than if it is all together.”

He went on to say that one of the original principles behind devolution – that no party could win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament – had “come home to roost” after voters handed the SNP an outright majority in May’s election.

“No system can prevent a party getting an overall majority, but there are systems that can make it more difficult for parties to get one,” he said. “All governments in Scotland since 1999 have failed to get 50 per cent of the list vote, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised the SNP got 44 per cent of the list vote and got an overall majority.”

The report raised the question of how “effective the electoral system was in delivering proportionality and why the SNP were able to secure a majority”.

It said: “The SNP won an overall majority of seats, despite winning well under half of both the constituency and the list vote.

“We examine how effective the electoral system was in delivering proportionality and why the SNP were able to secure a majority. At the same time, we also consider ways in which the system might be amended to make it more proportional, and thereby less likely to deliver an overall majority to a party that wins less than half the vote.

“Although it produces a more proportional result than First Past the Post, the Additional Member System used in Scottish elections has a number of features that favour larger parties over smaller ones. As a result, a party or combination of parties with less than 50 per cent of the list vote may win over half the seats in the parliament, as the SNP’s success in 2011 in winning an overall majority on just 44 per cent of the list vote demonstrated.”

Prof Curtice said changing Holyrood’s electoral system to an “alternative allocation formulation such as Sainte-Laguë could mitigate” that issue.

However, Mr Adam said: “The SNP was handed an overwhelming victory by the Scottish electorate and the party was the clear choice of Scots in May’s election. Also, I’m quite sure that any party at Westminster that got around 45 per cent of the vote would have 70 per cent of MPs.”

Mr MacKay welcomed the section of the report that said voter confusion over ballot papers had improved since the 2007 election.

He said: “There are some welcome conclusions in this report which shows that this result was more proportionate than the previous election and that the problems faced in 2007 have been resolved.

“The problem this report does not address in its recommendations is that control of Scotland’s voting system is held firmly at Westminster.

“The SNP has long argued for fairer voting. However, what this year’s results show is that, regardless of the system, people vote for the party that best represents their views and ambitions.”

The report said smaller parties were being edged out, while the big two, the SNP and Labour, dominated Scotland’s electoral system.

But it also acknowledged improvements in the representation of women, which the report said was “now only just less than 50 per cent.”

Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said: “Concentrations of power are never good. We are convinced our democracy would work better with more parties in the system, so that more voices are represented and heard and that power is shared, checked and balanced.

“The bias against smaller parties is one concern arising from this study of our election system in 2011. Another is the power handed to party machines in deciding who goes where on the list and so, in many cases, who gets a seat.”