Is there proportional representation in Scotland?

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 5th September 2019

For most of the 20th century, every election in Scotland was conducted under the First Past the Post system, from elections of MPs to local councillors.

Much like in the rest of the UK, this system resulted in little connection between voters and their MPs. Many MPs sat in ‘safe seats’ with little chance of ever being thrown out. Other MPs sat in ‘marginal seats’, where a small sub-section of the electorate could decide whole elections with tiny swings of the vote.

Scotland’s civil society and most of the political parties formed the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989 to work on creating a parliament for a modern democracy, fit for the centuries ahead, not stuck in the past.

The Convention called for an electoral system that could make a break from the stale two-party politics of Westminster. It also helped pave the way for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

When the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, the members were elected through the Additional Member System (often called Mixed Member Proportional abroad). 73 Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected from constituencies (using First Past the Post), and a further 56 are elected from eight regional lists.

Seats are awarded from these party lists in order to ‘top-up’ the constituency seats – i.e. to make the final results more fairly reflect the proportion of votes cast for each party. (That’s because First Past the Post results in hugely disproportionate results on its own – millions of votes go to ‘waste’ if they aren’t cast for the winner or are cast for them after they have enough votes to win).

How proportional is the system in Scotland?

A way of measuring the proportionality of electoral outcomes is via the Deviation from Proportionality (DV) Index. The DV Index is calculated by adding up the difference between each party’s vote share and their seat share in each electoral area and dividing by two, giving a ‘total deviation’ score. The higher the score, the more disproportionate the result.

Westminster election results in recent years were in the 20s (2015: 24, 2010: 22.7, 2005: 20.7), the Scottish parliament has never had a result worse than 12.1.

Scottish Parliament Election DV Scores
2016 8.3
2011 11.8
2007 10.2
2003 12.1
1999 10.3
Average 10.5

In other words, compared to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is very proportional – seats match how people vote. That matters not just for how people feel represented and listened to, but will also make a difference to the diversity and range of issues that get heard.

How it works

In the Parliament’s lifetime, Scotland has elected two coalition governments, a single majority SNP Government and now an SNP minority government. It has been a time of learning – and very few if any Scots would move away from a proportional electoral system now.

The Scottish Parliament in its second term abolished First Past the Post system for Scottish local council elections and replaced it with another proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) – our favourite system at the ERS! – is a form of proportional representation which uses preferential voting (you rank candidates 1,2,3 etc) in constituencies that elect more than one MP.

STV ensures that very few votes are ignored. For example, if your first choice doesn’t secure representation, they use your second choice instead. This is unlike other systems like First Past the Post, where you have only one ‘X’ – and if it ain’t for the one winner, your voice won’t be represented.

Not going back

At the final set of council elections under the old First Past the Post system in 2003, 61 councillors were elected unopposed, without a vote. It was simply not worth standing opposing candidates as the system made it so hard for voters to kick out the incumbents.

But in the first proportional election of 2007 there was not one uncontested seat. This introduction of STV not only meant that all votes were used in deciding who became councillors but that these electoral desserts where no election was held were removed in one stroke.

Only in Westminster elections do the votes cast not directly relate to the seats awarded. In the 2015 Westminster election, the SNP got 56 out of the 59 seats on only half the votes cast. That party itself stated how grossly unfair and damaging to public confidence in the democratic system this was – and they agree with others that it’s time to stop the stitch-up of Westminster’s rotten voting system.

It often comes as a surprise that there are still public elections in Scotland that are run under the First Past the Post system. A system designed for the British Westminster parliament at a time of empire, that systematically limits choice to just a couple of big parties, if voters want their vote to count. This is a historic hangover that seems incongruous in Scotland where all other elections are run under systems that ensure seats equate to votes cast. People want real choice and a proper voice in politics.

There is no doubt if the Scottish Parliament had the power to abolish the antiquated and unfair First Past the Post system from all public elections in Scotland, it would do so without hesitation. Either way, Westminster should follow Scotland’s suit and introduce a fair, genuinely democratic electoral system that puts the voters in charge.

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