Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Incumbency, Casework, Electronic Voting, and a Failed Expedition: What Scotland Can Teach us about Political Science

The Scottish Parliament and Scottish politics have been the focus of our visits both yesterday and today. We toured the Scottish Parliament this morning, sat in on a committee meeting, and met with Susan Deacon, a former member of the Scottish Government and Member of the Scottish National Parliament for eight years.Yesterday, we took a tour of the Scottish National Museum focused on Parliament and had a lively discussion with Dr. Nicola McEwen, an expert on territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.
MSU Brit Politics Rocking the Debating Chamber at the Scottish Parliament

I have three roughly formed insights about what I've observed/learned, and some questions I'll probably try to answer in some future blogs.

1. Incumbency and Pork

It has been noted by Gary Jacobson that the incumbency advantage, particularly in the United States Senate, has been eroding for quite some time. Essentially, as the parties have become more polarized, it is ever-harder for centrists members who have developed strong constituency service reputations and an ability to bring pork back to the district/state to attract cross-partisan support. Add to that the difficulty pork barrel Republicans have faced recently with the rise of the Tea Party, and it has become less clear that bringing goodies from Washington back home has quite the political punch it once did. So it was with Labour and Liberal Democrats in Scotland. One of our commentators remarked that Labour thrived in Scotland, in part, because they could go to Westminster and bring back a bunch of goodies. It appears, however, that with the movement of Labour to the right under Tony Blair, the repeated successes of the Tories, and a belief among many that Labour no longer represents the interests of Scotland, here, too, it appears that a pork barrel reputation is less useful than it once was.

2. Constituency and Casework

In Scotland, every individual in a given region is represented by eight members of parliament: one is elected to a particular constituency in a plurality election, the other seven represent the region and are distributed based upon a complicated single transferable vote system. Essentially, Scots cast two votes: one for a member to represent the constituency, and then another for the party. These second votes are then roughly distributed--taking into account the plurality election results--to yield a party distribution roughly proportionate to the votes cast by party. In short, this allows Scots to vote both for a person and a party--and avoids the nettlesome issue of wasting votes for minor parties.

There's a bunch to unpack there, but the observation I found interesting was made by our tour guide, Elizabeth. Constituents can approach any of their members of parliament in their region for assistance with casework concerns and matters, but generally speaking, members selected specifically to represent a geographic constituency in the plurality elections tend to get the bulk of the constituency service casework. Regional representatives, who are placed on lists by parties and are selected if their parties perform well on the second ballot, receive far less constituency service work. The interesting effect of this seems to be that even though there is a unicameral Scottish legislature, some members "behave" more like House members in the US context while regional members behave a bit more like senators (i.e, focus on policy more broadly than casework concerns). I thought this was utterly fascinating, and drove home the point that people are more likely to approach a member of a legislative body for help untangling bureaucracy if a) they have a clear geographic link to them and b) that member was physically listed on a ballot rather than a party list. Member selection, then, has a causal effect on the representational styles members can adopt.

3. Party Unity

In the UK Parliament, MPs do not vote electronically. Rather they gather must pass into the "yes" or "no" lobby and have their votes recorded there. As they pass into the lobbies, they must physically go by party whips who watch them as they vote. In the United States House and Senate, voting is electronic--members must put their card into the appropriate slot in order to cast their vote. But, those members must still go to one of the voting machines located throughout the floor to cast their votes where they can be buttonholed by party whips--and as votes often take some time, these members can be persuaded to change their vote. In the Scottish Parliament, all voting takes place within thirty seconds and is done at the member's desk. One wonders what effect these different voting mechanisms have on the propensity to toe the party line.
This chest once held something like 20 percent of the Scottish National Wealth
Final interesting observation of the day: The Act of Union in 1707, which unified Scotland and England, came about in large part because of--a failed colony in Panama. That's right. Scotland tried to establish its own colony in Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, and the promoters raised a tremendous sum of Scotland's wealth to pull the trick off. It failed miserably, and many of Scotland's political and economic elite were ruined. England was willing to pay off the debts incurred of Scotland's elite, but the price would be political union. It found it fitting that Queensberry' House was physically incorporated into Scottish Parliament building. The Duke of Queensberry was one of the individuals who had lost his shirt in Darien and was one of the chief advocates and eventual signatory to the Act of Union that extinguished Scottish independence and its parliament until 1999. It is an early example, too, of the influence of big money in politics.

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