Monday, 16 September 2013

Linking Lists And Uniting Unionism

In the United Kingdom, we have grown used to the d'Hondt system being part of the electoral process. Within Great Britain, this will be used for next May's elections to the European Parliament - the fourth using this system.

D'Hondt uses a formula to allocate list seats. In each electoral area, you divide the number of votes a party got with one more than the number of seats it already has (so if a party has one seat, the vote is halved; if it has two seats, the vote is divided by three etc.), and then allocate the next list seat to the party with the highest value of this.

One of the beauties of d'Hondt is that you don't need to start it from zero seats. In elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly (which all use the Additional Members System), then there are already constituency members elected, and so we just start the d'Hondt process from that - so if a party has 3 constituencies in the region under consideration, then we divide the number of regional votes by 4 and begin from there.

Sometimes, parties might want to form pacts, and under list systems there are three ways this can be done.

The first method involves a simple division of resources. If we look at the May 2003 election to the Scottish Parliament, then we see this with the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party running regional lists in Glasgow, Scotland Central (where they won their sole seat) and Scotland South, while the Pensioners' Party ran regional lists in Lothians, Scotland Mid & Fife, Scotland North East and Scotland South (neither party contested Highlands & Islands).

The second method is to run a combined list - the Electoral Administration Act 2006 changed the law so that two or more parties could use a joint name and symnol (this is not the same as allowing two symbols representing different parties). The most obvious example of this is the Christian Party and the Christian People's Alliance at the June 2009 elections to the European Parliament.

There is a third method. In March 1981, several Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party, which entered an electoral pact with the Liberals - culminating in the bulk of the Liberals and Social Democrats uniting in March 1988 to form a single party, the Liberal Democrats. But if they had not merged, then AMS allows one form of electoral pact, where in each region one party contests the constituencies and the other runs a party list.

If we look at the real 2003 result, we have:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 18 27
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 4 17
Greens 0 7 7
Scottish Socialist Party 0 6 6
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

Now consider the situation where the Liberals and Social Democrats had not merged but had an electoral pact as above. So, suppose that the Social Democrats contested the constituencies in Highlands & Islands, and the Liberals ran a regional list there. In reality the Liberal Democrats won 5 constituencies there - Argyll & Bute; Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross; Ross, Skye & Inverness West; Orkney and Shetland - so when the d'Hondt process is triggered to allocate the number of regional seats, the Liberal Democrat vote (31,655) is divided by 6 (one more than the number of constituencies).

If the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance had still existed, then the calculation would begin with the Social Democrats having 5 constituencies in Highlands & Islands, and the Liberals having 31,655 votes and no constituencies.

This would give a different result:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 2 48
Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance 13 12 25
Scottish National Party 9 15 24
Conservatives 3 15 18
Greens 0 6 6
Scottish Socialist Party 0 4 4
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

The number of constituency MSPs for each party has not changed, but the number of regional ones has, as the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance picks up regional seats which went elsewhere:

  • Highlands & Islands - 1 from each of Labour and the Scottish National Party
  • Lothians - 1 from the Scottish Socialist Party
  • Scotland Mid & Fife - 1 from the Scottish National Party
  • Scotland North East - 1 from each of Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Greens
  • Scotland South - 1 from the Scottish Socialist Party

Of course, other parties could do something similar - for example, Labour could do a similar deal with the Co-operative Party. Or a party could run some of its constituency candidates in safe seats as Independents.

The Jenkins Commission, when suggesting an alternative voting system for the House of Commons, makes the recommendation that:

The Commission recommends that the right to put forward candidates for Top-up member seats should be limited to those parties which have candidates standing for election in at least half of the constituencies within the the Top-up area.

So, in our scenario, with Highlands & Islands having 8 constituencies (the others were Inverness East, Nairn & Lochaber; Moray and Western Isles), then if the Jenkins proposals had applied to the Scottish Parliament, then the Liberals would have needed to contest 4 constituencies (including one of those won by the Social Democrats) to run a regional list there.

With the three legitimate methods of two parties having an election deal covered, there is a way that is not allowed here - but is valid in many European countries, which are more experienced with things like proportional representation and hung parliaments than we are, and take it all in their stride.

And this method is that of linking lists, which allows two (or more) parties to co-operate, while (and this is the important thing), remaining totally distinct. In the second method, the parties would set up a joint list, and you could vote for that or not, with the order determined by negotiation between the parties.

With linking lists, the parties run separate lists, and you can vote for one of these (or none if you want to vote for another party) and the votes for these are added together, and treated as a single list for allocation of seats, and then separately when it comes to which members are elected.

If we go back to the 2003 Scottish election, and assume that before the election, the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party had decided to link lists. The result is:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 16 25
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 3 16
Greens/Scottish Socialist Party 0 16 16
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

This is, of course, what the result would have been if the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party had run a joint list. It would have seen the Scottish National Party lose 2 regional seats (in Highlands & Islands and in Scotland Mid & Fife) and the Liberal Democrats 1 (in Scotland Central).

Now, under a joint list system, all that would happen in Highlands & Islands is that the top two candidates on the Green/Scottish Socialist Party list would find themselves elected to Holyrood - and these two parties would have sorted out the order of the list beforehand.

Under a linked list system, something different happens. In Highlands & Islands, the Greens got 13,935 votes and the Scottish Socialist Party 9,000. The combined 22,935 votes entitles them to two MSPs between them. Once that is determined, the Returning Officer will look at the number of votes they got separately, and decide that they are each entitled to one MSP.

What we find then is that the Scottish Socialist Party would pick up an extra seat in Highlands & Islands and in Scotland Mid & Fife, while the Greens would pick up an extra seat in Scotland Central:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 16 25
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 3 16
Greens 0 8 8
Scottish Socialist Party 0 8 8
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

There is one area where d'Hondt is used - and that is in Northern Ireland. Now, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote, but there is a later stage where d'Hondt comes into play, and that is in the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive, which works on a "mandatory coalition" principle.

There are 13 members of the Executive. The senior are the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and their method of appointment is currently as per the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.

One principle of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is of consensus, with the Standing Orders of the Asssmbly allowing Members of the Legislative Assembly to designate as "Unionist", "Nationalist" or "Other".

The current rules for choosing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister seem simple at first. It seems that the largest party of the largest designation gets the First Minister, e.g. at the moment there are more Unionist MLAs than Nationalist MLAs, and the largest Unionist party, in terms of MLAs (which is all that matters here) is the Democratic Unionist Party - hence on these rules it appears that as long an election returned more Unionist MLAs than Nationalist, then there would be a Unionist First Minister.

The rules then go on to say that the Deputy First Minister would be appointed from the largest party of the second-largest designation - in this case Sinn Féin, the largest Nationalist party.

Now, there is one thing to note here. The 2006 Act actually only mentions the Nominating Officers of the relevant parties, and the only restriction placed on them is that they have to choose an MLA for the relevant post. So, technically, the DUP Nominating Officer could appoint any MLA - whether from the DUP or not - as First Minister, and the Sinn Féin Nominating Officer could do the same for the role of Deputy First Minister.

There is also a little caveat hidden away, which is that the situation could arise where the largest party is actually the largest party of the second-largest designation. In which case it's this party which appoints the First Minister and the largest party of the largest designation which appoints the Deputy First Minister.

Before the 2011 election, the DUP were raising the prospect that votes for other Unionist parties could create the situation where the Unionists were divided enough that Sinn Féin could slip through and end up the largest party, and hence there would be a Sinn Féin First Minister and a DUP Deputy First Minister.

It is true that Unionism has got divided, which Nationalism/Republicanism is quite united, with the only Nationalist MLAs from Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic & Labour Party. It might seem odd at first that the traditional big Dublin-based parties - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - don't put their views on Irish unity into practic by contesting Assembly elections. After all, Nationalist/Republican voters could be attracted by the idea of voting for a Dublin-based party. I wonder whether the mandatory coalition rules put them off. After all, it might seem good for Fine Gael to have their ministers in both the Irish Cabinet and the Northern Ireland Executive, but it means dealing with all other large enough parties. To have to work with Belfast-based DUP ministers is one thing, but to have to work with Belfast-based Fianna Fáil ministers....

What is interesting in the rules is that when it comes to party size for allocating the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and 10 of the other Ministers (I'll come onto that in a bit), all that matters is the number of MLAs a party has the day that the Assembly meets after the election.

If you follow European Parliament politics, you will be aware that the groups in the European Parliament can be different from the relevant European political party, as Members of the European Parliament from more than one European political party unite to form a single group, or MEPs who are not from a European political party attach themselves to a group rather than sit as a non-iscrit.

What is there to prevent the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party doing the same? Announce before an election that although they will contest as two distinct parties, when the Assembly meets they will form a single grouping. Then the scenario of a Sinn Féin First Minister taking office due to a split in unionism doesn't happen.

I haven't mentioned d'Hondt yet - this comes into play for appointing these 10 Ministers (the Minister for Justice is elected by a cross-community vote under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2009).

And here, as a single Assembly grouping, the DUP and UUP can effectively link lists. The current Executive has 4 DUP ministers (excluding the First Minister Peter Robinson, MLA for Belfast East), Sinn Féin has 3 (excluding the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, MLA for Ulster Mid), the UUP has 1, the SDLP has 1, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has 1 (excluding the Minister for Justice, its leader David Ford, MLA for Antrim South).

However, if the DUP and UUP chose to form a single group on the day the Assembly first met, then between them they would have 6 ministers (excluding Robinson), by taking the APNI's post.

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