Facing the second vote: The Holyrood elections must not lead to a one-party Scotland
The general election is done. The people have spoken.
As heads are scratched and hefty bruises nursed, it will not be long now before attention shifts to the Scottish Parliament elections next year.
There will be another shift, too. One where the Labour and Conservative parties move from spelling out the virtues of an overall majority (the ‘we’re just focused on winning a majority’ line) to apocalyptic warnings on the dangers of the same situation in Scotland (‘the SNP must be held to account in Holyrood’).
Of course, the irony is while Westminster is poorly suited to coalition politics, Holyrood’s voting system and structure was specifically designed to prevent an overall majority from happening. In 2011, 902,000 Scots voted SNP and ‘broke the system’, and, given the historical result the party has gathered in this general election and a growing army of online proselytisers, there’s no reason to suggest they can’t do it again.
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To my mind, the system broke before 2011. I think the most representative parliament in Holyrood’s short history was the second sitting from 2003, which saw the Labour and Liberal Democrat administration held to account by seven Greens, six Scottish Socialists, a senior citizen and three independents, as well as Conservative and SNP MSPs.
In 2007 this ‘rainbow parliament’ was broken by changes to the ballot papers which led to seven per cent of the total votes cast being spoiled. More than 140,000 votes were lost.
Stirling University research revealed the higher the relative level of deprivation, the higher the level of rejected ballot papers, and Canadian elections expert Ron Gould reported the voters had been “treated as an afterthought”.
More damning than that, in his report for the Electoral Commission, Gould accused ministers of “a notable level of party self-interest” when designing the new ballot paper, which inexplicably put the second regional list vote before the constituency one. Douglas Alexander, Scottish Secretary at the time, was widely credited with the idea.
Gould accused ministers of “a notable level of party self-interest” when designing the new ballot paper
If Labour did change the ballot paper in order to stop people voting for smaller parties and independents it worked, but it was the SNP who gained. By listing itself on the regional list as ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’, the SNP turned it into a presidential race, instead of what it should be: an opportunity to be represented by a different MSP in your region.
As the new electronic counting system failed, during the election night coverage the BBC’s Brian Taylor described the events as “a disgrace”, and I have to agree.
I’m a longstanding fan of the Holyrood structure and voting system but by confusing the electorate the larger parties have engineered a situation whereby a single party can dominate legislation.
The journey of a new law through the Scottish Parliament is supposed to undergo the rigour of the committee system, backed up with stakeholder input from stage one. With a single party dominating proceedings, it all starts to look a lot more top-down and establishment than the SNP would like to admit.
The next challenge for the post-referendum ‘switched on’ electorate, then, is to understand the electoral system which brought this about.
Can Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats find the democratic clout by next year to explain the alternative member system, to encourage people to use their second vote to ensure the Scottish Government is held to account? Given it seems all three have engineered their own demise in Scotland, I’m not optimistic. They’ll have to rely on reform of the committee structure at Holyrood, which for the sake of representative democracy, cannot hold back.