A couple of Sunday Herald news stories over the past couple of weeks may have passed by even the most dedicated of Scottish Politics sports fans out there, but their future impact on Holyrood should not be underestimated.
The first story reported that Labour would allow Scottish Parliament candidates to stand on both the constituency and the list ballots with the second reporting that existing regional Labour MSPs would not be guaranteed a space at the top of the party lists at the next election.
This didn’t make much of a splash given we’re still a full 3.5 years shy of the next Holyrood contest but this latest show of strength from Labour leader Johann Lamont could be tantamount to handing out P45s to the majority of Labour MSPs at the Parliament.
For example, had Labour stalwarts Ewan Aitken and Lesley Hinds been at the top of the Lothians list as well as standing in Edinburgh Eastern and North West respectively, that would have meant no MSP jobs for bright young things Kezia Dugdale and Neil Findlay. Former councillors such as Anne McTaggart and Hanzala Malik wouldn’t have tripled their salaries overnight had grizzled former constituency MSPs Charlie Gordon and Pauline McNeill been included on the party lists. Similar remarks can be made across all the regions of Scotland, where constituency MSPs were caught blind sided and battered by an SNP tidal wave. These same individuals are no doubt chomping at the bit to get involved again. The challenge for the current list Labour MSPs is to stay high up on their regional lists and try to win the candidacy for a winnable constituency. That’ll be no easy feat for most of them and creates the risk of Labour jostling for position amongst themselves rather than fighting together to beat Yes Scotland in the run up to the 2014 referendum.
This could all be read as a damning assessment of the current crop of Labour MSPs, but more likely it is an overdue correction of the party’s ill-considered approach to Holyrood elections that has given their rival parties an unnecessary advantage in avoiding scalps. Too many researchers and councillors were promoted before their time, perhaps best symbolised by Anne ‘public speaking for dummies’ McTaggart reportedly hiring Stephen Purcell to act as a quasi-MSP on her behalf.
It didn’t need to be this way.
Had Nicola Sturgeon lost Glasgow Govan for the third time in four attempts it’d have been no problem as she’d have been guaranteed the SNP’s first regional list in Glasgow. Had Iain Gray lost East Lothian (as was so very nearly the case), Labour would have suffered the ultimate humiliation of losing their party leader. And yet, placing their leader so perilously close to the edge of the electoral cliff was not a risk worth taking.
The SNP has in the past made similar mistakes, less so out of poor strategy and seemingly due to a calculated resentful envy, effectively deselecting impressive individuals from being MSPs by holding them far down the list and/or banishing them to Labour heartlands to fight for their political future. Furthermore, they clearly also didn’t see the 2011 result coming given Alex Salmond joked that he barely knew who some of the new crop of MSPs were, a comment that lost its funny side when we all learned that the SNP had carelessly let an alleged wife-beater into Parliament alongside them.
This casual approach to the list system, all quite distinct and distant from the voting public, was furthered in this parliamentary term. John Finnie and Jean Urquhart leaving their party is one example. Being voted into the Scottish Parliament strictly as an SNP MSP only to leave that party over an issue that the Scottish Parliament has no control over takes a certain type of stubbornness. Another example is today’s news, John Park stepping down as an MSP to join Community, allowing the next person on the 2011 ballot list (Jayne Baxter) to join the Parliament.
Let’s be clear, the good people of FIfe didn’t vote for Jayne Baxter. They didn’t vote for John Park either of course, they voted for Labour bums to boost the number of Labour seats. Button pushers basically, and the same can be said for all parties as this is a Holyrood issue rather than one for a specific party. I’m sure a lot of good work gets done at the committee stage by all politicians but, at the end of the day, they are there to represent their constituents and how many Scots could name their regional MSPs?
Johann Lamont’s move is also an example of how little power the public has over which individuals will be in place at their Parliament and also the extent to which Holyrood operates a two-tier system of MSPs.
It is perhaps telling that the most recognisable regional MSP at Holyrood is Margo MacDonald, the only MSP that didn’t have the luxury of party coat tails to glide her into power. The same could be said of the Greens, who I would argue are the next most recognisable list MSPs. This is all save for the party leaders lacking constituencies, of course.
Don’t get me wrong, Johann Lamont has made the correct decision here. Too many of her colleagues have left the chamber and one has to wonder if the lack of talent on the Labour benches has had a hand in the estimable John Park’s decision here. Would the Parliament still enjoy the skills and personalities of Andrew Wilson, Susan Deacon, Duncan Hamilton, Derek Brownlee et al if the voting system better reflected public regard for our MSPs rather than the invisible hand of party favour? We can only guess.
There is no clear solution here, and indeed the current d’hondt system may yet be the least worst option. We could have open party lists but then the voting would be skewed in favour of those with surnames higher up the alphabet, an arguably inferior method of selecting list MSPs than letting party’s sort it out internally, with cloaks on and daggers drawn.
STV is an attractive option though and change is surely inevitable given the various cracks in the d’hondt system just waiting to be exposed or taken advantage of. Opening Holyrood up to the public rather than allowing parties to close ranks behind an arcance voting system has to be a priority.
For me, the main result from Johann Lamont’s decision is that it reinforces the philosophy that to get ahead in politics you need only impress your party and not necessarily the public. The Denis Canavan’s and Margo MacDonald’s are a rare sight these days, truly independent backbenchers with something fresh and original to say. John Park was amongst the closest Holyrood had on the party benches to something similar, but alas he has understandably handed in his badge in and opted for a different challenge.
Who’d be an MSP these days? It’s a question with a depressingly narrow (and narrowing) band of answers, and that should concern us all.