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Since its establishment in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has seen a dramatic growth in its powers, moving from being a clearly subordinate chamber to one with significant autonomy over, not just education and healthcare, but soon welfare powers as well. Moreover, there are calls for the transfer of even wider powers still.

Problems with the operation of the parliament have been recognised for some time. Too often a conformity of opinion along party lines has undermined proper scrutiny. Former Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Cameron Buchanan has stated that when the Scottish National Party (SNP) had a parliamentary majority, “’most of us felt we were becoming a one-party state’”. 

In 2016 a Parliamentary Commission on Reforms was established to consider what areas required change, and then submitted 70 recommendations for change, some of which were then acted upon. The recommendations, however, do not go far enough to change the incentives of politicians away from conformity, and that a more radical step is needed to encourage greater dissent. 

The Additional Member System (AMS) entails voters crossing two boxes, one for a candidate to be their constituency representative and the other for a political party at a regional level, called the regional list vote. In this regional list vote, if enough people support a party, then that party qualifies for one or more list MSPs, who are chosen from a ranked list submitted by a party. 

When the AMS was first introduced it was seen as a positive innovation which would improve debate by allowing a greater spectrum of parties to be heard. That hope has not panned out, however, because of the way the system shapes incentives for individual politicians. 

At present, whilst you do need obviously for a certain number of voters to support your party, what you more importantly need is for your party to place you at the top of the list because, in the case of most parties in Holyrood, this guarantees you a seat in parliament. 

This understanding of the incentives has already been recognised. Lord McConnell, the former First Minister of Scotland, highlighted that with the AMS, “the balance between MSPs representing their constituents and their parties slip too far in favour of the latter” and that a culture of “jobs for life” for list members has developed. What then is needed is a shock to the system, an element of randomness that would shift the incentives of list members.  

In practice, this would entail that when parties submit a list of candidates for a region it is unranked and instead after the votes are counted and the regional list seats divided among parties, a computer or a process (drawing lots, names out of a hat etc) randomises which candidates from each party are successful. 

This may seem like a spurious suggestion, but it should be treated seriously as an attempt to mitigate conformity. Obviously, a party would still be able to provide a list of politicians who have been previously loyal but the element of randomness in the election of those who are successful would allow for some measure of dissent and diversity to sneak through. It would mean that for a successful list candidate, your success in being elected would rest less on party patronage, and conforming to the party’s will would not guarantee re-election. 

This then would change the incentives of politicians’ away from keeping their heads down, to trying to make an impact now as there’s no guarantee you’ll be back for another term. Finally, and perhaps crucially, voters would gain in this scenario because their list vote would be of greater importance and because they would benefit from the greater scrutiny attached to legislation.

This proposal is not however a silver bullet. It is not designed to improve legislation or even necessarily improve the quality of parliamentarians. What it does do though is slightly change the incentive structures at play in Scottish politics and potentially allow for more honesty of opinion and the challenging of questionable arguments or evidence. Too often now it is easier to agree than dissent because it requires less effort and you will be personally rewarded for it. 

That incentive structure is not healthy for politics and that needs to change. If it doesn’t, then then over the coming years the Scottish Parliament will have more powers but worse politics.     

Alex is a researcher at Bright Blue. [Image: Colin]