The future of Scotland's electoral system

The choices for Scotland on its electoral system

The use of the Additional Member System (AMS) in Scottish Parliament elections has been in place since its opening in 1999. It has never been subject to a majoritarian style vote, and so it is almost impossible to tell if a change in systems benefits any one cause or party. However, the election of certain parties and candidates aligned with certain causes can be attributed to the benefits of the system itself. Furthermore, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in Local Authority elections can also be used to meet ideological ends more effectively than majoritarian electoral systems, while also providing a major boost to localised grassroots political causes. By analysing some of the features and consequences of these systems, we can draw some conclusions regarding the benefits to political parties, independent candidates, and most importantly, the electorate themselves.

AMS consists of two ballots. The first is a constituency vote in which one vote is cast for a preferred candidate in one of 73 constituencies in a First Past the Post system. However, the second ballot is what ensures the proportionality. One vote is cast for a political party in one of eight regions (made up of eight to ten constituencies) and, depending on the proportion of the votes across parties, eight seats are divided between the parties, with them selecting their candidates on a pre-planned, prioritised list. If a party wins two regional seats, the first two candidates on their party’s list are elected.

This system is much better at representing ideologies which spread across parties, while allowing for the increased likelihood of coalition in order to collaborate on said ideology. For example, on Scottish independence, while the SNP may enjoy the largest vote share within the pro-independence movement, other pro-independence parties, most notably the Scottish Greens, are able to increase their share of the vote, and seats in Holyrood, thanks to such voters who may vote on ideology rather than political support by, for example, placing their constituency vote for a popular SNP candidate; and their list vote for the party which is generally less popular in their constituency but, in combination with votes across the rest of their region, will allow for their views to be represented at parliament. In fact, this situation, which led to the coalition of the minority SNP government with the Scottish Greens is often attributed to the popularity of the current government, as the 8 Green MSPs were all elected via the second ballot Party List but are able to bring more environmental debate to the forefront of the parliamentary programme, popular with the younger electorate in particular.

However, shared ideologies do not always translate into an increased popularity in proportional representative voting systems. For example, the new Alba Party, an SNP breakaway party which also supports independence, failed to secure a single seat in Holyrood last year despite proportionality. It could be argued that voters felt more comfortable voting for more familiar parties with the same ideology in order to avoid splitting their vote, risking opposing parties gaining more seats. While this is more of an issue in majoritarian electoral systems such as First Past the Post, there is still the possibility of vote splitting under AMS since each ballot still consists of a single, FPTP style vote.

Other proportional voting systems used in Scotland can accommodate for these concerns regarding vote splitting. In Scottish local authority elections, STV is used to rank preferred candidate on the ballot, with voters selecting as many candidates as they wish in order, with a 1 at their first preference, a 2 at their second preference, and so on. In terms of voting by ideology, this allows for a wider variety of candidates to gain seats on a local council, and much like AMS, is more likely to produce a coalition of parties and independent candidates who may have a singular ideological goal in mind. For example, in the South Lanarkshire Council elections, where no majority was achieved (as is standard under Proportional Representation), an unlikely working coalition of Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors for the ideological purpose of taking charge away from the previous SNP administration. This system also allows for independent candidates to contribute on an equal platform to ideologically aligned candidates who have access to party funding, creating an equilibrium in which a larger proportion of voters are represented, and more localised issues can be debated and legislated by representing a broader range of issues at the table. In the previous example, two independent councillors are now on the administration of a local council despite this lack of party politics, able to bring local issues to the table and initiate beneficial change on par with their party-funded colleagues.

So what does all of this mean for the voters of Scotland? We can take from our examples of the SNP-Green coalition at Holyrood, and SLC’s ‘anyone-but-SNP-Green’ coalition that in fact, when it comes down to the issues that matter, the electorate knows where to place their votes in a way that makes it effective. A pro-independence stance at the national level, and a prioritisation of grassroots issues at the local level across the political spectrum shows that, in terms of ideology, they are indeed voting for the things that matter to them, rather than staunchly supporting any one party for the sake of achieving broader ideological goals, such as Scottish independence. While they do not need Proportional Representation in order to do that, it is clear that these systems benefit the wide spectrum of opinions within the electorate, and make their intentions clearer than ever.

Here at Common Weal, we believe proportional electoral systems are key to providing this clear picture of the voices and opinions on the ground, and how they can be influenced by local and national debate of the big and small issues. We are pro-independence, as we believe this to be the only way we can ensure a fairer society is created at the ballot box, and not determined by the outdated systems still in use at Westminster.

About the author

Nicola Biggerstaff


Nicola Biggerstaff is the Policy Co-ordinator at Common Weal Scotland.

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Common Weal Think Tank

Common Weal is a Scottish pro-independence think tank and advocacy group which campaigns for social and economic equality in Scotland.