Podium: A revolution derailed by devolution

From a lecture by the deputy director of the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends at University College, London
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THE FIRST election to the Scottish parliament on 6 May was a milestone for constitutional reformers. But there is a danger that devolution will fail to fulfil their dreams.

Many a reformer has a vision of devolution as an everlasting policy experiment. Scotland may try a new way of delivering a good health service, a new transport policy. A thousand policy flowers would bloom, with the brightest copied around the country.

But this vision assumes that elections focus on what the state should do and not on what form that should take. And it might well have been fulfilled if Scottish elections had been old-style contests between Labour and the Conservatives.

But the mould of British politics has been broken north of the Border. The Conservatives' place as the main opposition to Labour has been taken by the SNP. As a result Scotland's first election was not just about policies. It was also about the merits of devolution and independence.

If the reformers' dream is to come true, devolution needs to generate bodies that can stand up to Westminster. Holding elections provides no guarantee of this. Local councils have long been elected. But a combination of low turnouts and a tendency for voters to vote on the basis of what is going on at Westminster rather than locally means local elections do little to help local government claim a strong mandate, separate from Westminster.

Even after years of public debate about the new parliament, 13 per cent fewer Scots turned out for Edinburgh than two years ago for Westminster. What chance, then, that English regional assemblies would excite much interest?

The first Scottish election was held under a system of proportional representation. It will thus provide vital evidence for the debate about PR for the House of Commons.

Alas for the reformers, the experience could rob them of some of their best tunes. Consider two of the pro-PR lobby's battle cries. First, the virtue of PR is that every vote counts. And, second, no government should be elected that wins less than half the vote.

The PR element of the Scottish election was secured by a second vote for a party list. And Scots certainly seem to have thought it counted in a way that their first-past-the-post vote did not. On the second vote, voters systematically switched to parties that had no chance of winning locally in the first-past-the-post contest, including over one in 10 who backed one of the "other" parties.

But many a second vote did not count for anything. Labour did so well in the constituency contests that it was entitled to top-up seats only in the Highlands & Islands. That large vote for others yielded just two seats. More than a million second votes - no less than 44 per cent - failed to contribute to the election of anyone.

Meanwhile, even though the outcome resulted in a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, it still failed to produce a government that was clearly backed by a majority of voters. Just over 46 per cent voted for either of the two coalition partners on the second party list vote, hardly any more than voted for New Labour in Scotland two years ago. Labour alone won 43 per cent of the seats on just 34 per cent of the second vote.

Both wasted votes and governments backed by less than half the vote are even more likely under the proposals for the Commons drawn up by Lord Jenkins. But perhaps the biggest concern among reformers is what lessons may be drawn from mainland Britain's post-war experience of coalition government.

Reformers need to persuade voters that coalition means partnership, consensus and listening government. They need to avoid it being tarred with the brush of dirty deals, disunity and instability.

Yet so far it is the latter that surround media reporting of the Scottish coalition. The Scottish Liberal Democrats appear divided among themselves about the merits of the deal they have made. Meanwhile, their opponents accuse them of having traded their opposition to university tuition fees for a ministerial Mondeo.

But, most seriously of all, Labour and the Liberal Democrat MSPs appear to have different ideas of what they have agreed. Labour believes that the Liberal Democrats are committed to backing whatever decision on tuition fees the Scottish government eventually makes. Many a Liberal Democrat MSP appears to believe he or she will have the right to a free vote.

Arcane as the argument may appear to English eyes, tuition fees could yet be a rock upon which the new coalition founders. And nothing could do more to shatter reformers' dreams than a collapsed coalition.