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by Jenni Davidson
06 April 2021
Lib Dems propose changing the voting system for Scottish Parliament elections

Willie Rennie - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Lib Dems propose changing the voting system for Scottish Parliament elections

The Scottish Liberal Democrats want to change the voting system in Scottish Parliament elections to remove the ability for parties or groups of parties to game the system.

The Lib Dems are proposing getting rid of the current additional member system of two votes and replacing it with the single transferable vote system used for council elections in Scotland.

This would reflect “a truer form of proportional representation which is subject to less manipulation by political parties”, said Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie at a media briefing.

Under this system voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, with the winning candidates elected to multi-member constituencies.

These multi-member constituencies would be larger than the current Scottish Parliament constituencies but smaller than the present regions.

The proposal comes in response to attempts by nationalists to gain a ‘supermajority’ of MSPs in favour of independence that is greater than the level of support for independence among the population as a whole by strategic use of the second vote.

Although Rennie said he did not believe it would succeed on this occasion, he said the possibility that it could ought to provoke parties to act.

“I think when people realise what is ahead, then I think they'll turn back,” he said.

“You know, the prospect of three nationalist parties arguing with each other, of Alex Salmond arguing with Nicola Sturgeon on the floor of the parliament every week, of the Conservatives continuing the obsession about the constitutional issue – because they both feed off each other – when people see that, I think they will turn back.

“And that's what we're trying to present to them.

“But I think the fact that it possibly could happen is justification in itself for changing the system, because if it's not this time, it may be another time misused by somebody else.

“And it would be wrong for, you know, a party that's getting … 45, 50 per cent of the vote, [to be] getting 90 per cent of the seats.

“That would be completely unpalatable.

“So therefore, that's why it should tempt other parties to engage in proper reform on this, rather than using the inertia to hold things back.

“I hope it does encourage others to accept if it's not just this time, it might be another time.”

Asked why the unionist parties did not get together and do that same, Rennie replied that he didn’t think anybody “who's got a longer-term interest of the parliament at heart should be adopting that approach”.

The proposals come as part of series of Lib Dem election commitments to parliamentary reform.

Other proposals include returning to holding Scottish Parliament elections every four years, introducing a system for the public to recall MSPs if they behave inappropriately or do not carry out the role to an acceptable standard, and creating a new rule of contempt of parliament by which MSPs could force the government to act in response to parliamentary votes.

Rennie pointed out that the Scottish Government had ignored parliamentary votes on testing of five-year-olds and releasing an OECD report on education.

A contempt of parliament rule would prevent them doing that in the future, in the way that Theresa May was forced to release her Brexit legal advice under threat of contempt of parliament at Westminster.

“It just shifts the balance more in favour of the power of parliament,” he said.

The party is also proposing a ‘duty to record’, which would make it mandatory for the Scottish Government to keep written minutes of key meetings, and expanding the freedom of information system to cover companies that provide services on behalf of government.

Other proposed measures include introducing a ‘licence to criticise’ that protects organisations in receipt of public money from having their funding cut if they speak out against the government, and strengthening the role of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee to scrutinise any proposed government grants over £250,000 before they are paid out.

Rennie explained: “The right for organisations that receive government money to criticise the government should be protected.

“So Devi Sridhar is a good example of this, she said that last year an awful lot of the public health experts were reluctant to speak out because of fear of losing their funding.

“That happens, we know, right across charities, and the third sector, and that kind of subtle threat needs to be removed.

“So that we need to give them a right to be able to criticise.

He continued: “Freedom of information needs to be extended, basically to follow the money.

“So if there's government money, the public should have a right to know. That should be commercial contracts.

“So ScotRail, for instance, isn't subject to FOI. They should be, for that part of their business that receives the public money.

“We had the battle before over housing associations, and eventually that was won and the sky didn't fall in.

“So we should be able to extend the freedom of information laws.

“And then the Public Audit Committee should be given oversight, the ability to scrutinise on grants for businesses of over £250,000.

“It'll give an extra check to make sure the money is going to the right places, because once the money is gone, it's very difficult for the parliament to do anything about it.”

The Lib Dems also want to continue with the remote voting system that has been used by the parliament during lockdown to make parliament more family friendly, work with other parties on a culture of respect in the parliament, introducing more training for MSPs and their staff, strengthen safeguarding procedures in politics and introduce a new complaints process in the civil service.

Rennie concluded: “We think that these far reaching proposals will help to restore public confidence in parliament, will help to rebalance the relationship between government and parliament, and will also give individuals greater access to information, scrutiny, and also give the power of individual MSPs to hold the government to account.

“All of those things, we believe, will refresh the Scottish Parliament and allow us to get back to those days back in the late 1990s, where we believed this was going to be a brand new world that was going to set the standard for politics across the globe.

“I think we need to try and get those aspirations back and this is perhaps one of the ways of doing that.”

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