Is Scottish Democracy failing to realise dream of devolution?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 18th November 2011

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland recently held an event to launch our report examining the “remarkable” results of the May 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election.

Under the heading ‘A health check’, report co-author; Professor Curtice, examined the potential problems revealed by close analysis of the 2011 election and answered questions from MSPs and journalists who came along to join the discussion.

Firstly, Prof. Curtice considered turnout. Turnout is still only around 50% in Scottish Parliamentary Elections down from a high of 58% in the first election in 1999. More worryingly, although Scots identify with and value the Scottish Parliament, fewer of us vote in the Scottish Parliament elections than in Westminster elections, and the gap is widening. Joan McAlpine MSP (SNP, South Scotland) asked if this was perhaps because there was a lower level of media coverage for Scottish Parliament elections, to which Professor Curtice responded that it would be hard to say whether low media coverage led to low turnout or whether the level of media coverage reflected voter apathy. He conceded that newspaper readership was in decline and fewer people are passionate about any one party, but argued there is no reduction in the general interest in politics.

Secondly, Curtice went on to consider the fact that smaller parties appear to be concentrating their resources on the list vote. This means that whilst AMS may well have ensured that voters were presented with a wide choice on the party list vote, it has reduced the amount of choice they have on the constituency vote. In many constituencies, voters could only vote for one of the four largest parties and across Scotland as a whole only 30 candidates from other parties stood on the constituency ballot. This lack of choice throws up some interesting behaviour on the part of voters. If the choice they wish to express only appears on the list ballot paper, they are often only interested in completing that ballot, leading to a much higher level of spoilt or blank constituency ballots. This was notably the case in areas with a high Green vote (including Edinburgh Central, Edinburgh Southern and Glasgow Kelvin).

The third issue Curtice raised is there is a discrepancy in how the parties treat the system. Not only is the fate of an individual candidate decided by their party rather than the voters, but in the instance of the Labour party the list is viewed as a second place for “winning losers”, depriving the party and the Parliament of some of their most senior talent.

Regardless of the implications for the Labour party, it should be asked if this loss of experience from any party is in the best interests of the Parliament and the country. This loss of experience from the opposition benches is in contrast to the Government benches where many of the constituency winners were previously regional list MSPs.

And finally, analysis shows that the system is not as proportional as it is thought to be. Professor Curtice illustrated the number of seats which would have been secured under National Proportional Representation (PR) and also using the Sainte-Laguë method (which is similar to but delivers more proportional results than, the d’Hondt method). This showed that under PR the SNP would still have had a large majority, and Labour would still have been the largest opposition party, but the Greens and ‘Others’ would have seen a fairer share of seats. Essentially, compared to the 2011 results, the Sainte-Laguë system would have delivered 5 fewer seats for the SNP, 3 fewer for Labour, kept the Conservatives as they are, and given 2 more seats to the Liberal Democrats, 5 more to the Greens and 1 more to ‘others’ (which would probably have been George Galloway in this instance).

Professor Curtice also touched on the gender composition of the Parliament and noted that it is the constituency vote that is impeding the gender balance, in contrast to earlier sessions when women were standing and winning in constituencies. It is disappointing that the 51% high of women MSPs in 2003 has not been repeated, and it will be an important issue for ERS Scotland as we continue our work with the Counting Women In campaign.

Some interesting questions were posed from the floor. Marco Biagi (SNP, Edinburgh Central) asked what difference landslide victories made when comparing AMS to FPTP and Professor Curtice noted that proportional representation doesn’t exaggerate swings, but landslides do. He pointed out that whilst inexperienced landslide Governments are common, it is unusual to have an inexperienced opposition. Kezia Dugdale (Labour, Lothians) remarked that even successful incumbents do not always encourage party loyalty in the list vote in their constituency.

The event also saw a lively debate about the question of mandate given low turnout and majority Governments having less than 50% of the vote. Professor Curtice warned that domination in the parliamentary chamber does not necessarily equate to voter participation or widespread support for the party in question in the non-voting public.

It was suggested that we were only having this discussion now because of the SNP majority win being so unexpected. Professor Curtice admitted this particular discussion was stimulated by the surprising win, but that academics have been discussing the results of elections for some time.


There was also a discussion about representation, with Derek MacKay (SNP, Renfrewshire North and West) pointing out that Holyrood is in general a lot more representative than Westminster and suggesting that it isn’t just smaller parties that lend diversity to the Parliament.


There has been a strong level of interest in the report both from MSPs and in the media; the findings were front page news in the Scotsman the day following the event and ERS Scotland’s Director; Willie Sullivan, was interviewed on the afternoon news show Politics Scotland. This is a dramatic contrast to the complacency of Westminster where the out-dated First Past the Post system continues to ostracise and disenfranchise voters UK-wide. What matters now is that we capitalise on this interest in the health of Scottish democracy and work to iron out the remaining wrinkles in the system.

Download Scottish Election Report or find out more about the work of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

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