28 December 2013

Musical Chairs

Tricia Marwick is a lady with a plan

The Scottish Parliament's presiding officer knows the institution like the back of her hand. And all is not, in her view, as it should be. In the New Year, she will put proposals to MSPs, providing that the chairs of Holyrood's committees should not be promoted and executed according to the whims of party whips, but should instead be selected (a) to reflect the parties' balance of representation in the chamber and (b) elected by secret ballot of the whole chamber.  

The idea is to give committee chairs an independent dignity in their roles. Rather than being the preserve of party placemen and women, reliant on the favour and whim of party leaders, the hope is that direct election will stiffen MSPs' sinews, encouraging a more critical, less cravenly partisan approach to the deliberation and work of Holyrood's committees. Or as Marwick told the Herald this week:

"I believe the responsibility of conveners of the parliament should be first and foremost to the parliament. How do you enshrine that? The only way to do that is to get the whole ­parliament to elect the conveners so they derive their authority and mandate from the parliament itself and not through the parties. The very act of being elected by the whole parliament gives a message to the conveners and everybody else that the conveners are there primarily to act in the interests of the parliament and not their own ­political party."

Marwick takes her inspiration from 2010 reforms introduced at Westminster, which saw MPs casting ballots for their preferred select committee chairs, with the seat allocated according to the Additional Vote system (ironically, you might well think).  The division of booty is secured by allocating chairs to particular parties, and only permitting candidates from that party to stand.  In 2010, this meant that Liberal Democrats were in contention for two chairs, Labour nine, with the Tories snaffling the remaining twelve. Eight chairs were uncontested, the rest being determined by run-offs between two and six candidates (with competition fiercest for the Labour-controlled Public Accounts Committee. Ex-minister Margaret Hodge won out over Hugh Bayley in the fifth round by just six votes).  No North Korean style elections these: the outcomes can be close-run things.

Marwick's proposals seem sensible and modest, but a few obvious questions suggest themselves. One: isn't there a risk that these reforms will transform an explicitly leadership-controlled appointments process into one where parties can still work their will behind the scenes? Tricia has not yet published full details of her proposals, but in Westminster, would-be candidates must be nominated by 15 MPs or 10% of their parliamentary party, whichever figure is lower, nor can MPs nominate more than one candidate for the same chair.  

In a smaller, proportional chamber like Holyrood, there are far fewer votes going begging, and far fewer candidates, having stripped out ministers and their shadows from consideration. Never underestimate the power of a quiet word in the ear.  You know the sort of thing: "Please don't stand, John. For the good of the party." "Johann would really appreciate it if you gave Jackie a clear run at this one." "If you nominate that berk, Willie will take his mellon-baller to your kidneys."  

We might hope that our parliamentarians will put aside such calculations, and support the most able candidate for the role. But if Holyrood adopts strict threshold requirements for nominations, it seems likely that these informal mechanisms will allow party leaderships to continue to influence the choices put before parliament. Only the very naive would assume that politicians - a noteably scheming, climbing band of folk - could resist the temptation to meddle. 

Two: I wonder to what extent is the partisanship of Holyrood's committees is caused by the lack of independence of their chairs? And three: to what extent is that lack of independence really attributable to the process of their appointment? MSPs are generally, of their natures, partisan creatures. Unlike the serried, gossipy, idling ranks of Westminster MPs, the party caucuses in Holyrood are pretty cosy affairs. Propotionality also seems to encourage party discipline, in government and in opposition. 

Between 2007 and 2011, when the minority administration faced knife-edged votes, a stray vote here or there could prompt high drama. The SNP majority has shrunk back since 2011, no doubt focussing minds on the government benches on the unaffordable luxury of dissent. The independence referendum imposes its own overriding demands of unity. On the Labour side, ranks depleted to thirty-seven members of which fourteen serve in party leadership roles (38%), observing the line-to-take and abominating Salmond and all of his works remains a unremitting duty. There just aren't enough Greens or Liberal Democrats to form a decent internal schism.

Moreover, Holyrood still lacks any real discourse of the backbench parliamentarian, ploughing an independent-minded, dissenting  furrow. I can't think of the last time, in the justice brief, when the majority on the Justice Committee sounded any meaningfully critical note concerning a flagship government policy. While the idea briefly flared into a sort of life when the committee considered the Scottish Government's Football Bill, in the event, all five of the SNP's MSPs yielded up their votes, despite the fact that their investigations into the legislation had blown a series of holes in the government's case. It'll be interesting to see what Christine Grahame and her colleagues make of the corroboration debate.  Though some of the parliamentary scrutiny is woeful, it is not as if our MSPs don't have it in them.

But none of these are really reasons to be skeptical about Marwick's proposals. If anything, they all point to the importance of cultural factors. Structural changes may not be sufficient, in and of themselves, to transform the parliament's approach. But they can underscore and help foster important aspirations about how committees can and should conduct themselves - and start to challenge the excesses of unthinking partisan loyalty, whichever side of the chamber you sit on.  


  1. "......."If you nominate that berk, Willie will take his mellon-baller to your kidneys."......"

    I received a melon-baller for christmas! Coincidence? I think not!
    I also received a fancy grapefruit knife which incorporates a double-sided curved blade on one end - to separate the flesh from the rind - and parallel twin blades on the other - to separate the sides of each section from the diving membrane.
    Fortunately, as I look under 18 years of age, this 'knife' was sold to me as a 'gadget' rather than a 'knife' so I might escape the confines of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.