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by Alistair Clark
19 May 2023
Transparency and Scottish party politics: How do we make things better?

Nicola Sturgeon ended her term as first minister in March

Transparency and Scottish party politics: How do we make things better?

Aside from the ins and outs of each candidate’s positions on independence, social issues and the economy, one of the broad underlying issues of the SNP leadership contest was around transparency. Questions were raised around party finances, with donations and loans to the SNP coming under scrutiny. Concerns were also raised around the transparency of the internal party voting process and the number of members entitled to vote.

Scotland likes to pride itself on its democratic heritage. These questions suggest that there is still some way to go in achieving greater transparency around party politics.

Comprehensive party funding and spending regulations in Britain only date to the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). When that Act was passed, the internet was in its infancy and the Scottish Parliament was sitting on the Mound and barely a year old.

There is one thing that a newly elected first minster might do, and do relatively quickly, to signal some change in this area and to introduce increased transparency to Scottish electoral politics.

More transparency around Holyrood elections

Unfortunately, under the current regulations around campaign spending, Scottish Parliament elections are actually less transparent than those to the House of Commons.

In a UK general election, political parties must report donations, loans and spending to the Electoral Commission weekly. This is not the case for contests to Holyrood. Donations, loans and campaign spending remain on the normal three-monthly reporting pattern that also applies outside election periods.

This is likely to have been an oversight, given that the Scottish Parliament had only just been set up when PPERA was being legislated for. Yet, even if campaign spending is restricted to around £1.5m per party for Scottish Parliament elections, Holyrood now has considerably more powers than it did in 2000. It is the centre of Scottish political life, set up to be more accessible to the public. This difference between reporting for the two institutions seems an increasingly unsustainable anomaly in an act which was originally set up to improve transparency.

In the interests of transparency, the new first minister should act to bring regulation around Scottish Parliament election funding and spending into line with practice for Westminster elections. The Scottish Government has the power to alter electoral laws for Holyrood and local elections. Unfortunately, this has not been considered in the Scottish Government’s recent electoral reform consultation.

This was a missed opportunity. Parties may not like this suggestion. But given that Scottish parties already comply with weekly reporting requirements for UK general elections, there is no obvious reason for them not being able to also comply with such requirements for Scottish parliament contests.

From a problem to an opportunity

The SNP’s difficulties around transparency will continue to attract attention until they are satisfactorily explained. With funding and spending, this is unlikely to be until after the conclusion of the ongoing police enquiry. The proposal here would not affect the ability of the party to run its own elections or manage its funding as it finds appropriate.

These difficulties nevertheless present a window of opportunity to consider aspects of Scottish party finance regulation and transparency that were not considered when PPERA was set up. This opportunity should be taken. Increased transparency around campaign donations and spending for Scottish Parliament elections would at least be a positive outcome for what has been a problematic episode.

Alistair Clark is Professor of Political Science at Newcastle University. He has written extensively on electoral integrity, party regulation and Scottish local elections

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