Effects of the electoral system

Parties and government

The Scottish Parliament has to some extent inherited a party system developed since the 18th century. However, unlike the Westminster model, the electoral system has allowed different practices to emerge. The proportional system has meant that there are a number of parties with a significant chance of forming a government (as part of a coalition) unlike at Westminster which has predominantly had a two party-system since the 19th century.

Scottish Government

After an election the MSPs elect one Member to be First Minister. This is usually the leader of the biggest party in the Parliament. The First Minister requires an overall majority of votes so in practice coalition partners will agree on one leader – probably from the biggest party in the coalition – to become First Minister.

The First Minister then selects the Cabinet Secretaries, ministers and deputy ministers who make up the Scottish Government. There are usually around 20 Ministers. In a coalition, the number of positions allocated to each party will depend on a negotiated agreement between the parties.

The Scottish Government is the government in Scotland for all devolved matters and is responsible for initiating policy on all of these. Each cabinet secretary or minister is responsible for particular departments and will indicate to the Parliament what actions it intends to take and what legislation (laws) it wants the Parliament to agree to. The Parliament is responsible for making the Government accountable for its actions.

Scottish Government Cabinet & Ministers

Effects of coalition governments

After both the 1999 and 2003 elections the Labour Party won most seats but did not get an overall majority. They negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to reach an agreement for government. The result was the formation of a Labour/Lib Dem government – the Scottish Government.

In what way has coalition government been different to a majority government gained by ‘First Past the Post’?

There have been a number of issues that may not have been addressed if Labour had formed a majority government.

After the 1999 and 2003 elections the Liberal Democrats agreed to support Labour’s programmes provided they included some key Lib Dem goals. For example:

Education (Graduate Endowment & Student Support)(Scotland) Act 2001

The Liberal Democrats had campaigned in the 1999 election to abolish student tuition fees. The result of the negotiated agreement with Labour was the introduction of this bill so that students would not have to pay fees before they graduated or started earning above a certain amount.

Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004

In the 2003 election the Liberal Democrats campaigned to introduce Proportional Representation to local council elections. After the election they reached an agreement with Labour to introduce this. The Local Governance Act includes introducing a Single Transferable Vote system of PR for local council elections.

Partnership agreement

The agreement meant that the Liberal Democrats would vote with the Labour Party on a Government programme set out after the election. This meant that the Government were unlikely to be defeated provided they kept to the agreed programme.

Details of the 2003 agreement 

Minority Government

After the 2007 election, the SNP won the most seats, but did not have an overall majority. They chose not to enter into a coalition with another party to give them an overall majority. Instead they formed a minority government. This meant that the other parties in the Parliament have more seats altogether than the SNP, and can vote against the government.

What have been some of the effects of a minority government?

The government is more likely to have to give concessions in order to pass their main policies – for example, in the 2009 budget the SNP conceded funding for town regeneration projects in return for the support of the Conservative Party MSPs.

  • Smaller parties can have more influence over decisions – in the 2009 budget bill the Independent MSP, Margo MacDonald, won extra funding for Edinburgh because of its capital city status in return for her support of the SNP bill. In contrast, the two Green MSPs caused the same budget bill to fall as they voted against it because they felt the funding allocated for a home insulation project was not sufficient.
  • People also argue that it means a watered down manifesto as the party in the government can’t get through its policies – for example, the SNP 2007 election manifesto promised a change to council tax by introducing a local income tax scheme. However, this was not taken up as John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, said there was no parliamentary majority on the issue. (Official Report 11/02/2009)