Scottish independence campaigner Isobel Lindsay seeks to set the record straight on the origins of the Scottish Parliament’s AMS voting system
‘THE voting system for the Scottish Parliament was designed to stop any party (but principally the SNP) from getting an overall majority.’
This has become oft-repeated – see David Carr in CommonSpace on 15 January . It is now taken for granted as a true account, but it isn’t true.
Of course, any proportional system is less likely to produce an overall majority than first-past-the-post (FPTP) but just as FPTP has produced minority governments so proportional systems can produce majority governments.
Those promoting a case for a proportional system did so on grounds of fairness and it was not an easy battle.
Those promoting a case for a proportional system did so on grounds of fairness and it was not an easy battle. In one sense this doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect contemporary policy or behaviour. History, however, can remind us of how we got here and of the complexities of former struggles.
It can remind us not to expect present battles to proceed along a straight trajectory. Ironically, the electoral system which was chosen was the one that had been approved as SNP policy in the 1970s.
The initial political situation in the Constitutional Convention in 1989 was that the Labour party was firmly opposed to PR for the obvious reason that it was the big electoral gainer from the existing system.
Some Labour activists, particularly in the Scottish Labour Action pressure group, were in favour of PR but this was not reflected among Scottish MPs or most local councillors. But the Lib Dems, the Greens and all the civic groups in the Convention were in favour of a much more proportionate system.
The Lib Dems made it clear that they would not continue in the Convention unless there was eventually real movement towards proportionality. The Labour leadership had invested substantial political capital in the convention and if it were to disintegrate, it would have been disastrous for Donald Dewar and John Smith who had also been very supportive.
Dewar and Murray Elder, the Scottish party secretary, knew that getting such a major policy change would be very difficult, but so would failure to get that change. Opposition did not just come from existing and aspiring elected members, it also came from some sections of the left who thought it would be harder to get the policies they wanted through a Scottish Parliament (this was a plus, not a negative factor for Dewar), and from some left feminists, like Johann Lamont, who also thought it would make it more difficult to get a 50/50 gender requirement.
Ironically, the electoral system which was chosen was the one that had been approved as SNP policy in the 1970s.
The resolution which was put to the Scottish Labour Conference did not define any particular PR system but just ruled out FPTP. The trade union votes were vital to get this through and Campbell Christie, STUC secretary, and his deputy, Bill Speirs, played a crucial role in ensuring that the unions gave their support to change.
They were personally in favour on democratic grounds but the key argument was to ensure that there would be a deal on the parliament scheme after a decade of Thatcher and the knowledge that there were still plenty of Labour devolution sceptics in the Westminster parliamentary party who would not be unhappy if there was no agreement. The resolution got through but the choice of an electoral system was still wide open.
The Campaign for a Scottish Parliament, the Greens and Scottish Labour Action initiated discussions on proportionate systems and a version of the German system emerged as the preferred choice.
This had also been the conclusion of an SNP constitutional policy committee chaired by Professor Neil McCormick in the 1970s. The party’s research officer prepared a report on all the options and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) did not come out well. It was unsuited to Scotland’s geography and could produce outcomes which were quite short on proportionality.
The Additional Member System (AMS) became SNP policy although it was combined with the Alternative Vote at constituency level. The Labour leadership went along with AMS partly because it kept the individual member/constituency link and that was more reassuring to its activists, but also because only the Lib Dems supported STV.
The Labour leadership went along with AMS partly because it kept the individual member/constituency link and that was more reassuring to its activists, but also because only the Lib Dems supported STV.
Donald Dewar had to sell the policy change to his Scottish MPs and no doubt one of the arguments he may have used was that while a PR system would make it difficult for them to get a majority in the Scottish Parliament, it would also prevent the SNP from doing so.
Others responded to the attack on PR for producing weak coalitions with the argument that this could produce more consensual government.
But what really drove the decision was a combination of genuine concerns about fairness with the threat by one of the participants to walk away from the table if it didn’t happen.
Picture courtesy of Keith Ivey