Electoral Systems Essay Modern Studies Have Shown That The Law

After winning a majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) sought permission from the UK Government to hold a referendum on whether or not the people of Scotland would like to become independent from the UK.

The UK Parliament consented to allow the referendum and the final decision was made to hold a referendum on Scottish independence on 18th September 2014.

Result of the referendum on independence for Scotland

The people of Scotland were given the opportunity to have their say on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country.

After all the votes were counted from each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities the final result was:

  • No - 2m votes (55 per cent of total vote)
  • Yes - 1.62m votes (45 per cent of total vote)


Turnout was a record-breaking 85 per cent with the majority of people (55 per cent) voting for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The vote was counted by each local authority area. In four of Scotland’s 32 local authorities there was a majority in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, these were - Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.

Government statistics support the view that the ‘Yes’ campaign (more correctly ‘Yes Scotland’) was more successful in the local authority areas where poverty and unemployment was higher. The opposite was true for the ‘No’ campaign (or more correctly ‘Better Together’). The ‘No’ vote was greater in local authority areas where there was less poverty and unemployment.

Exit polls suggest younger voters and those local authorities with higher levels of people born in Scotland were more likely to vote ‘Yes’. The opposite was true for ‘No’ voters. Where local authorities contained higher numbers of voters from outside Scotland, eg English or other Europeans residing in Scotland, or where the population was older, the ‘No’ campaign did better.

Impact of independence referendum

In the months leading up to the independence referendum, most public opinion polls showed the ‘No’ campaign to have a sizeable lead. However, in the last few weeks of the referendum campaign the gap between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns narrowed. One opinion poll even placed ‘Yes’ ahead.

In the days before the referendum, the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats offered a ‘vow’ to the people of Scotland. This vow stated that, in the event of a No vote, the Scottish Parliament could expect to be given further substantial powers over and above those detailed in the Scotland Act 2012.

Scotland Act 2016

The immediate task post-referendum was for all parties to come together to decide which additional powers the Scottish Parliament would be given.

This led to the setting up of the Smith Commission (Report published November 2014) which in turn was used by the UK Parliament as the basis of the Scotland Act 2016.

Reaction to the new powers contained in the Scotland Act 2016 has been mixed. Those continuing to seek Scottish independence feel the extra powers contained within the bill still fall short of what was promised before the referendum. Several SNP and Labour MPs amendments to the bill, which would have given yet more power to the Scottish parliament, have been rejected by MPs in the House of Commons.

The SNP claim, too little time has been spent considering the detail of the bill. However, David Mundell, the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, claimed the bill would make the Scottish Parliament the most powerful devolved assembly in the world and that the UK government had delivered on the promises (the vow) made before the referendum.

Wider consequences of the Scottish independence referendum

Many political commentators regard the Scottish independence referendum as a turning point in the UK’s political history.

Greater devolution for Scotland will impact on decision making for the rest of the UK. As a result, former Conservative Party leader William Hague MP said in September 2014 that he would be prepared to chair a government committee to review the entire UK constitutional situation.

Further devolution timetable according to unionist parties

Future constitutional consequences

Due to so many areas of policy having been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, many MPs representing constituencies in England have called for legislation where only English MPs could vote on English laws (Scottish MPs would be prevented from making decisions which affect only England). This is known as English votes for English laws (EVEL).

The EVEL proposals were controversial because different parties had different views on how much power should be devolved (the Liberal Democrats tend to favour more decentralisation, whereas the Conservatives tend to be opposed to full devolution as they believe the UK is a small country which does not need so many different levels of government).

It has been argued that EVEL would lead to difficulties with regard to what constitutes an ‘English-only’ law. It has also been pointed out that this would lead to the creation of two types of MP, ie those MPs who could vote on all legislation and those MPs who could only vote on agreed UK legislation.

A form of EVEL was introduced in October 2015. Under the new system any law being discussed by the UK Parliament which would affect only England would need to be approved separately by a majority of English MPs, in addition to being passed by the House of Commons as a whole.

The decision making powers held by the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies may also need to be reviewed in light of the new powers granted to Scotland. It would be seen as inconsistent to grant further powers to the Scottish Parliament and not Wales and Northern Ireland.

After effects of the Scottish independence referendum

The Scottish independence referendum had two other important long-term consequences for Scotland and the UK.

First, the levels of public political engagement were unprecedented by modern standards. Of the 4.29 million registered voters, the largest electorate in Scottish voting history, there was a record turnout of 85 per cent. This has translated into an increased turnout at General Elections in Scotland and Scottish Parliament elections. At the 2016 Scottish Parliament election the turnout was over 5% higher than 2011.

Second, in allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum, there is now a growing level of support to lower the voting age across the UK to 16. In June 2015, the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Election (Reduction of Voting Age) Act was passed allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in Scottish Parliament and local council elections.

Electoral systems

There are two main types of electoral systems in the UK:

  • First Past the Post (FPTP)
  • Proportional Representation (PR)

First Past the Post (FPTP)

FPTP is the voting system used for the election of MPs to 'seats' in the UK Parliament. It is a system in which the 'winner takes all' and usually gives a clear majority both at constituency and national level. This means that a candidate in a constituency only needs one more vote than the nearest rival to win the seat. Similarly, political parties only need to win one more seat in the House of Commons to have a majority.

Advantages of FPTP

There is very little chance of extremist parties being elected to Parliament under FPTP because they are unlikely to gain enough votes in any one constituency.

Generally the results of elections using FPTP can be calculated quickly. When necessary, this makes the transfer of power from one party to another much easier.

Disadvantages of FPTP

The main criticism of FPTP is that the number of votes cast for a party in general elections is not accurately reflected in the number of seats won. An example of this was the 1997 election when the Conservatives gained 18% of the vote in Scotland but not one seat. This is mirrored at constituency level, where the winning candidate may have received only one third of the votes cast. Indeed, a government may be elected on a minority vote, as happened in 1974 when Labour won the general election on the number of seats gained but the Conservatives had a larger share of the vote across the country.

Smaller parties are not fairly treated under FPTP. Although they may have a sizeable national support across the country, they do not get a proportional number of MPs because there are not enough votes concentrated in constituencies to let them win seats.

FPTP also encourages tactical voting. This means voting for a party, other than your preferred party, to prevent another party from being elected. An example of this would be when a Labour supporter in a marginal Liberal/ Conservative seat votes Liberal Democrat in order to keep the Conservatives from winning.

Another disadvantage of FPTP can occur in marginal constituencies, where voters tend to change their party loyalty from election to election, and among 'floating' or 'swing' voters, who have no firm party loyalty. The outcome of an election can be decided on the voting patterns in these situations, even although the constituents may number only a tiny proportion of the electorate.

A mark on one bit of paper matters - make your vote count

Proportional Representation (PR)

There are a number of systems that use PR such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the Regional/National Lists. Some hybrid systems combine FPTP and a form of PR such as the Additional Member System (AMS). The AMS system is used in elections for the Scottish Parliament, where voters can vote for single candidates in their constituencies but also for candidates from regional 'lists' put forward by each party. If there is a discrepancy between the percentage of seats the party has won and the percentage of votes cast, the seats are 'topped up' from the regional list.

Advantages of PR

In PR systems there are no wasted votes in elections. As a result, there is a far greater degree of proportionality; the number of seats more accurately reflects the number of votes cast for each party.

In the 2003 Scottish Parliament results Labour did better than the other parties, with 50 of the 129 seats and just over 33% of the constituency vote and 29.3% of the regional list vote. The SNP got 27 seats and over 20% of the vote, the Conservatives got 18 seats with just over 15% of the vote, the Greens won 7 seats and the Scottish Socialists won 6 seats. The Liberal Democrats came fourth with 17 seats but remained part of the government in coalition with Labour.

The number of seats won under the Additional Member System in Scotland in 2007 were:

PartyConstituency SeatsRegional or 'List' seatsTotal
Liberal Democrat11516

The SNP had the largest number of seats but were a minority government, meaning they id not have a majority over the other parties combined.

PR encourages coalition or minority governments. This encourages a less confrontational form of politics because of the need for parties to co-operate, also known as consensus politics. This also means that there are fewer dramatic changes in policies as the parties tend to keep a balanced 'middle way'.

Under AMS in Scotland, constituencies are multi-party. This means that several different parties can be represented which gives voters a choice of MSPs to consult. List systems can also increase the numbers of women, ethnic minority and disabled representatives in a parliament, if the party leaders choose to put them near the top of the List.

However, there are no guarantees that the AMS will lead to a minority government - and the 2011 results deonstrate this as the SNP did win enough seats to form a majority government. The number of seats won under AMS in Scotland in 2011 were:

PartyConstituency SeatsRegional or 'List' seatsTotal
Liberal Democrat235

Disadvantages of PR

A criticism of PR is that, in elections, voters do not vote for coalition governments. The compromises that are made between politicians from different parties in coalition can sometimes be without public backing. Small parties in coalition without a majority vote from the electorate can become 'king-makers'. This means that small parties can have unfair power over the larger parties by threatening to withdraw from coalitions.

In the regional or national list systems, party leaders may draw up lists of only like-minded candidates which may disadvantage minority groups within a party. Although there is a larger than average number of women in the Scottish Parliament, there are few representatives from other groups such as ethnic minorities or the disabled. This is not desirable for effective democracy.

Local Council Elections in Scotland

2007 marked the first time the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system was used to elect Local Councillors in Scotland. This followed criticisms that some councils in Scotland were dominated by a single party. Using a form of PR, not FPTP, it would be fairer and all parties would be better represented. It is hoped that more people will turn out to vote however, it will lead to coalitions running many Scottish councils.

STV uses multi-member constituencies of 3 or 4 councillors per ward. Each party selects a number of candidates to be elected. Voters rank their preferred candidate(s) in order of preference. To be elected a candidate needs to reach a set number of votes also known as a quota. The candidate with the least votes drops out and their votes are reallocated to the voters’ second choices until the required number of candidates (3 or 4) have reached the quota and are elected. Using STV ensures there are far fewer wasted votes.

Only five councils in Scotland are now controlled by one party and 27 councils have no one party in control. Many councils have formed coalitions or partnership agreements. This will no doubt make it difficult to get things passed if there is not agreement among the parties.

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