We can do better with list ballots

The announcement of the list ballot will be received by most Labour Party members with a sigh of relief this weekend. In boxes will no longer groan with the weight of emails from the candidates and they can answer the phone again safely.

Congratulations to those candidates who did well in the rankings. The media headlines focused on the lack of new faces, but if you look carefully at the results, members did take a view about those MSPs who frankly have not shone in the role.

The scripted media comments from political opponents are beyond irony. Anyone who spends any time watching debates in the Scottish Parliament knows, that beyond a few competent performers, the majority of SNP backbenchers are simply lobby fodder. They read out, often badly, scripted speeches and lines handed down from central command. Thinking for yourself is not in the job description.

So, the cadre of candidates is in the main a strong team to take Scottish Labour into the election campaign. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a look at the system for the future. Indeed, the SEC has agreed to conduct such a review.

It is a fair comment that the system didn’t deliver many new faces. There are reasons for that which need to be considered by the review.

  • First and foremost the selectorate was limited to those who had six months membership. This is normally a reasonable rule, but these are not normal times. As a number of SEC members argued, the decision to exclude the large number of new members recruited during the UK leadership campaign, not only marginalised them, but also ensured that those candidates with well established party networks benefited the most.
  • The top down transferable vote system adopted, rather than the eliminating system, also favoured incumbents. It was their second votes rather than other first preferences that count for more in this system. While either system can work for selecting a group of candidates, it is largely untried as a method of ranking those who exceed the quota.
  • The SEC did adopt rules that applied some limitations to the resources candidates were able to deploy. However, it simply isn’t possible to regulate resources like time and expertise. This means that full time politicians will always have a built in advantage.
  • In anticipation of a large number of candidates, the SEC did agree to have a short listing process for the first time. However, instead of the normal approach of presenting members with a manageable number, it was limited to delivering a gender balance. This meant that members in the central list area had 20 candidates. In a system that puts a premium on first preferences, this is not a viable way of proceeding.

So, yes we have a strong team of candidates and it did weed out a number of weak performers. However, if we want to attract more new faces and address the bias in favour of incumbents, then the system needs to be changed.

Having said that, we don’t need to take lectures from other parties whose own selection systems have delivered very poor results. We can do much better.