Friday, May 04, 2007

Scottish elections/ Does the UK need a "genuine" constitution?

The actual results for the Scottish election are as follows: the Scottish Nationalists won 20 seats to take their total to 47, and to become, for the first time ever, the largest party in scotland, ending 50 years of Labour domination; Labour lost 4 seats, moving down to 46; the Tories and Lib Dems lost one each, to move down to 17 and 16 respectively; and, in many ways the biggest losers of the night, "others" (such as Greens and Socialists) lost 14 seats - only two greens and one independent remain. There is already a lengthy wikipedia page on the results.

Not huge losses for Labour, then, but significant enough to see them lose the symbolic status of largest party in Scotland, and, more importantly, to make it likely that SNP leader Alec Salmond will be the next First Minister. There was a significant swing from Labour to SNP; this was bolstered significantly, however, by the fact that most of the supporters of the Scottish Socialist Party seem to have opted to vote for the Nationalists after the fairly spectacular, if grindingly inevitable, implosion of their first-choice party; and it is this that largely accounts for the fact that labour are only 4 MSPs down, despite the Nats gaining 20.

We are, it seems, set for some interesting times in Scotland; and this, at least, is to be welcomed. Indeed, it may be that the devolution arrangements, so clearly designed with Labour governments both sides of the border in mind, will be tested in the next few years by an SNP-led executive in Edinburgh dealing with the Tories in Westminster. The inevitably messy politics of coalition are also playing out in Scotland now, with minority government a real possibility as the Liberal Democrats have stated fairly publicly and clearly that the largest party has the "moral authority" to govern, and that a unionist coalition to stop a nationalist government was thus not on the cards (although it remains to be seen whether they will hold firm to this, or perform a laughable u-turn to match that of their 1999 "pledge" on university tuition fees - the jury is out on this one).

The biggest issue, however, has, as one commentator put it fairly early on last night, is "not the count but rather the counting". Lorenzo is correct to note, in his post immediately below, that the Scottish elections turned out to be a shambolic, shameful embarrassment in many ways: hundreds of postal votes not issued in time through nothing other than ineptitude; numerous counts postponed until the next day through teething problems with the new computer systems; and, most importantly, over one hundred thousand spoilt or rejected ballot papers. To try to put that last figure in perspective: let's assume a possible electorate of something like 4 million voters, and a turnout of around the 50% mark (unfortunately, I haven't been able to find accurate figures for these; any info on this would be welcome). That gives us around 2 million people actually casting their votes, of whom 100,000 - or a massive 5% - have been effectively disenfranchised (excepting, of course, the few that will have spoilt their papers on purpose). The reason for this seems clear enough - the decision to switch to a single transferable vote system in the local elections which took place at the same time, and which, for the first time, required not simply putting a cross beside a candidate's name, but providing a set of numbered preferences. There seems to have been clear confusion over which ballot paper requried which marks, with one election officer suggesting that around 60% of those voting were less than sure of exactly how to do so when entering the polling stations.

This much is clear. What is significantly less clear, however, is the extent to which this in any way reflects on the absence of what Lorenzo refers to as a "genuine" constitution - by which, I suppose he means a clear, written document, laying out systematically the "nature of devolution, the place of the House of Lords, and the status of the Human Rights Act". Firstly, it seems clear that none of the difficulties encountered last night would have been in any way reduced by such a move. We do not have to look to ancient history to find that serious electoral difficulties have arisen in states that have provided models for the whole world as to what a "genuine constitution" looks like; and attempts to introduce the constitutional question in these terms and at this time begins to look a little like disingenuous back-door constitutionalism.

Secondly, and at a more general level, it is far from clear that the heirarchy and pre-commitment involved in constitutional entrenchment of the sort that Lorenzo envisages is always entirely desirable; that very often, the attempt to formalise and systematise everything leaves no space for the common sense that has long been a part of the British, and particularly the Scottish, political, social and philosophical mindset (indeed, this is one of the source of one of the most commonly criticised caricatures of the EU in the UK).

Put simply, there is, in the UK, a genuine sense that we don't need a "genuine" constitution; that, for all of their formal imperfections and lack of clear conceptual divisions, the UK political institutions generally function in a largely satisfactory manner. And, in defence of such a viewpoint - which, I think, is the unspoken - perhaps even unconscious - starting position of many of my compatriots - we have in the UK a history of functional political stability, and liberal democratic credentials, that stand up to comparison with even the most heavily constitutionalised of European or American states.

Considerations such as these are not, of course, conclusive one way or the other; they do, however, call for serious engagment from those for whom the UK's lack of a written, or "genuine", constitution is major ethico-political issue. Perhaps we must, in exploring these issues, revisit the classical debate on the French Revolution between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine; in any event, I hope it is a call that Lorenzo will take up in more detail here...


Edinburgh said...

The unusually high number of spoilt papers had very little to do with "the decision to switch to a single transferable vote system in the local elections which took place at the same time, and which, for the first time, required not simply putting a cross beside a candidate's name, but providing a set of numbered preferences."

The problems were mainly with the Scottish Parliament ballot papers. For example, in the Lothians Electoral region, 3.1% of the regional votes were spoilt and 5.1% of the constituency votes were spoilt. Over the six Edinburgh constituencies, the spoilt constituency votes ranged from 4.1% up to 7.8%.

In contrast, for the City Council STV elections (based on 13 wards), 1.3% of the papers were spoilt. For these 13 wards, the spoilt papers ranged from 0.6% to 2.3%.

Euan MacDonald said...

Thanks for the comment; it is good to have some detailed statistics on the matter. I'm not entirely convinced, however, that they demonstrate what you suggest they do; even if, as you say, the STV elections encountered much lower levels of spoilt papers, this does not necessarily exclude the possibility that the change in system in one, but not both, of the elections introduced a high level of confusion, leading to misplaced marks and rejected papers.

Further - and I must confess to be a little ignorant here - if not the change to STV, then what? The Scottish Parliament ballot papers were largely the same, as far as I can see, to those that have been used for the past two elections, without leading to anything like this level of rejected votes. Given that the change to STV was the only significant change from previous years, and given the huge jump in rejected papers, it seems reasonable (but not, of course, unquestionable) to conclude that the two are directly linked, regardless of whether people managed to fill in the STV papers more successfully.

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Anonymous said...

The shambles of the non-functioning machines and lack of administrative organization is shameful. However I'm not sure the hight numbers of spoiled papers is a bad thing.

I personally think anyone unable to follow a set of voting instructions deserves to be disenfranchised.

I think we should go further, and use the proportional system to have a tranche of MSPs voted for by people with Highers (or equivalent).

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