5 August 2010

Are you on the list, Mr/s MSP? (Redux)

A recent post by Adam Ramsay on the Scottish Green blog, Bright Green Scotland, reminded me that interesting things are afoot which will impact on the shape of Holyrood after the 2011 elections. This week has brought us news of further departures. More interestingly, important choices are being made about who might arrive in the new cohort of tribunes, in particular through determining individuals' rankings on their respective party list. Those near the top may have a good chance - or in some cases an almost unassailable certainty - of taking up seats in the new parliament.

It is my understanding that with the departure of Robin Harper, Lothians Greens have decided that their list will be headed up by a female candidate, no doubt disappointing the ambitions of one or two designing alfalpha males in the party. Adam pens a compelling endorsement of Maggie Chapman for that position, who is currently serving as the City of Edinburgh Councillor for Leith Walk. Nominations are clearly a party matter - and I'm obviously not a Green chap myself - but I'd profoundly echo Adam's warm words about Maggie. She is a virtuous woman. While our views may not be consonant on every matters, parliament could only be improved by her presence and her intellect. The thought reminded me about this post, which I composed last year, on the unsung virtues of the party list system. In the sleepy news days of the Silly Season, a gentle reflective redux on an integral and undervalued feature of contemporary Scottish democracy seems no bad thing.

A while ago, I scribbled something here about how contradictory it seems to me to strive towards proportionality in Holyrood yet instantly spike that proportionality by goading some poor willing gull to take up the presiding officer’s gavel, and sit.

In the second(ish) of an occasional series of mild structural speculations about Scottish democracy, I wanted to discuss an often unsung benefit of the Holyrood list system for selecting regional tribunes. The hostile case is probably more familiar. Souls on the list frequently try their best to coax the public to vote for them in the constituency – and are frequently rebuffed in favour of another candidate. Rejected, even, some might say. Yet, despite the best efforts to keep this would-be cuckoo out of a parliamentary chair, the party can fix up matters slyly behind the painted scenery. If we anticipate some measure of continuity in the electoral fortunes of parties, they can basically appoint one, two or perhaps three MSPs, despite popular loathings and public contempt. Although the positions do not attract a lordly or baronial title, the proposition runs, the principles animating the choices are similar. Thereafter, attention is unlikely to drift to the arcane party internal reasonings and barterings that compose the list as it finally appears. That being so, resort can be made to similar arguments. The list can be a way of briskly elevating the talented and the bright – while crouching toads in constituencies can be more difficult to deflate. Of course, merit is not an innocent calculation and intellect no guarantee of virtue or virtuosity in government. Other criticisms include the alleged non-localism of list members and a vindication of the idea that the representation of geographies – as well as party affiliations and ethical and political commitments – across a country is a valuable thing.

Although I’ve never really argued it fulsomely here, one big problem for me in the Westminster political banner-waving is that everyone is trying to represent too many, internally contradictory views. Broad based, certainly, but supported by two shoogly legs. One of the best arguments, for me, for some form of proportional representation in Westminster is that it could remove the pervasive inauthenticity which UK political parties now resort to. Obviously, electoral progress would mandate appealing to other party’s voters – but the desperate need to form dissembling coalitions within a party would at least find reasons to ease off. There are complex relations between representation and sharing the views of your candidate. Given that voting for anyone except yourself enforces this partial alignment of views and the sorting out of priorities and a hierarchy of political commitments – your parliamentary representative cannot be a mirroring simulacrum of the self.

Some of these complexities recently crept to the surface after a certain young labour student from Strathclyde recently argued that SNP MSPs from Glasgow were failing to represent their city. The point was made that these two strands – representation and the sharing of views – are not reducible to one another. Angela Merkel made the same point when she insisted that she wished to the Chancellor for all Germans, political views despite. Westminster elections conducted on a first past the post basis furnish us with 646 instances of similar problems. How should we conceptualise electors whose representatives voted to invade Iraq but who disagreed with them vehemently? Not in our name, the slogan directly aimed at disrupting the division and insisting that representation and sharing of views cannot neatly be divided. Take another example. Anne Widdecome frequently stodged through parliamentary lobbies based on her personal Catholicism. What of those in her constituency who did not share those views? What options had they? Move, certainly. Continue to vote against her – and insofar as they failed to tip her into the fens – stuck with the majority’s preference for her which obliterated the disagreeing minority’s voices.

Contrast this with the Scottish example – and the constituencies which make up Glasgow. The sea is red. Yet look over the following list of ne’er-do-wells, villains, scoundrels and blaggards:

Bill Aitken (Conservative), Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat), Bob Doris (SNP), Patrick Harvie (Green), Bill Kidd (SNP), Anne McLaughlin (SNP), Sandra White (SNP)

Those with keen eyes for pattern recognition – or an archivist’s memory for detail – will recognise this file of smudged shufflers as Glasgow’s seven “list” MSPs, elected in compensating proportion to their constituency associates. If I have a particular policy bugbear to brutalise my representatives with – I can pester all of these souls and Sturgeon besides. Indeed, in the past I’ve done just that, and the gracious Patrick Harvie responded with admirable briskness and detail to my digital inquisitions. Take any number of issues which might excite disagreement. Doughty old social miserabilists like Baillie Bill Aitken would be apt to give constituents petitioning on particular themes the bum’s rush. Much more liberal representatives like Harvie may take more of an interest and articulate that interest in the public setting. And so, vice versa, if you happened to be a social miserabilist yourself. Perhaps your constituency MP is lazy, a lush, bored, too busy having affairs, too stupid to comprehend the proposition you put to them. A longer list – and more people representing a particular community – can give the campaigner or reformer more ears to bend while first past the post might foist heaven knows what on you, with no recourse elsewhere. In short, as it is meant to, there can be a closer identification between representation and the sharing of views of topics of public discourse. Representation need not be such a dubious conjuring trick, conspiring to ideologically dazzle the public into deferring to whatever odious tribune their fellow citizens inflicted on them.

For me, Yousuf’s error is not the misidentification of representation with the sharing of views, as such – but is instead the misidentification of his views and Labour views with the whole representation of Glasgow. Concealing Glasgow’s Tories, its Greens, its SNP voters is the stuff of the past, thank heavens. Along the lines of my post yesterday, invisibility is not to be encouraged. The list allows those whispering minorities to find more robust voices. So when you are bashing, as one can fairly bash, the problems of party ordained lists of toadies and courtiers – have a care for the voter, lumped with Anne Widdecome for all those years, with nowhere else to turn.

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