What’s the deal for the LibDems?
With four weeks having passed since the Scottish Elections which slashed LibDem representation from sixteen MSPs to five, and with the Committees having now been established, this looks like a good moment to see how the party is faring with its new found status – and how this compares to other groupings of a similar size in Chambers past.
The new Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, has determined a formula by which the Labour Group Leader always gets Question 1, the Tory Leader gets Question 2 and is followed by an urgent constituency question, and a contrived process for Question 3 whereby Willie Rennie will ask it two weeks out of every three, and the third week will be given to what the PO judges to be the ‘best question’. I might have to start looking into how that works, but is this a good deal for Rennie?
On the face of it, no. The LibDems are a recognised group so Rennie is a recognised party leader – surely he should get a pop every week, as his predecessor did? John Swinney went from 33 SNP MSPs before dissolution in 2003 to 26 when the first FMQs after that election took place and saw no change in status; that had become a group of 25 by the 2007 dissolution but when Jack McConnell became Leader of the Opposition with 46 MSPs, he got the same deal, and Iain Gray gets the same deal again having gone into the election leading that group of 46 and now only leading a group of 37. Is it more about position than population?
Not quite. That 2003 Election, from which six recognised groupings and no fewer than four clear opposition parties emerged did have authorities wondering how to handle the Greens, with their seven MSPs, and the SSP, with their six. In the end, they alternated: the Greens would ask Question 3 one week; the SSP the next. Then the Independents formed a group and joined that rotation; following its implosion, the SSP ceased to be recognised as a group and lost its place. So at the point when there were only two parties in the pattern – one group of seven and one of six – the most frequent shot they managed was once a fortnight – 50% of the time. In a six-week cycle, these groups – both larger than the current LibDem group – would get three questions. Willie Rennie, with only five MSPs, gets four in that same cycle. Tricia Marwick has gone against the precedent and that’s worked in Rennie’s favour.
Verdict: Good deal
Well, the Standing Orders have not been kind to the LibDems! Parliament has agreed the Committees and the LibDems go home empty handed, with no Convenerships and no Deputy Convenerships. Now, again, we go to our 2003 precedent, when the Greens and the SSP were given a shot at a Deputy Convenership. The Greens got Environment, and gleefully took it, with Eleanor Scott, then Mark Ruskell, then Eleanor Scott again taking the post. The SSP were allocated Subordinate Legislation, and refused to nominate anyone, so the post reverted to Labour. And that’s the key: in a gesture of magnanimity (well, dumping SubLeg on the SSP isn’t really a magnanimous act, but there you go), the Labour party gave away a couple of its Deputy slots. There was no entitlement, just an attempt by Labour to recognise the new reality. Then again, in 2007, the Greens got a whole Convenership with just two MSPs: they clearly broke the mechanism, but the reason is well known: they got one of the SNP’s Convenerships, and in exchange, voted for Alex Salmond for First Minister and his preferred Cabinet.
So the mechanism was bypassed on two occasions: once out of – and I choose this word for want of a better one – charity, and once from a deal. Now, there was no deal worth doing with the LibDems this time – they weren’t needed, and had nothing to offer in exchange for a Chair. Similarly, the difference between the 2003 results for the Greens and SSP was that theirs were breakthroughs – going from one to seven and one to six respectively. They had, for the first time, won their place, and were the next big thing. Conversely, the LibDems went from sixteen to five: not a breakthrough, but a breakdown. They were the big losers, yesterday’s people. Why show them anything, when they used to have it by right?
So you could say that the LibDems, while unlucky, got precisely what was coming to them, which is absolutely nothing, and it was sheer good fortune that gave the Greens their positions and would have given them to the SSP as well had they bothered to take it up.
But it might not be that simple. The SNP have eight Deputy Convenerships to Labour’s five, and one Tory completes the line-up. Had a clear proportional system been used, the Convenership allocations would be the same – nine SNP, four Labour, one Tory – but there would be only seven SNP and four Labour Deputies, with the Tories having two and one LibDem completing the line-up.
But that’s not what happened: the most authoritative ruling I can find on the matter is Rule 12.1.5 in the standing orders, which states that in proposing the Conveners and Deputies, “the Parliamentary Bureau shall have regard to the balance of political parties in the Parliament“. What does that even mean?!
It seems like the rules are sufficiently vague that they have enabled the shafting of the LibDems (and, indeed, the Tories): a Deputy Convenership might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it would be something to put under LibDem belts and they probably deserve one. But they haven’t got it, despite a vague Standing Order maybe saying that they ought to, and previous deals in the past serving as a precedent, and it’s a testament to both parties that they opted not to kick up a fuss in the Chamber. I’d be curious to know what went on in this week’s Bureau meeting to deliver this outcome, but no Minutes for Session 4 are up yet.
Verdict: Awful deal
The Corporate Body
This is the last of the key indicators, I suppose: it comes with some prestige and has enough importance that its Membership is one of the first things determined by the Parliament. And the LibDems do have one member, with their five MSPs; the SNP have one member, with their 68. It seems strange that when we talk about balance, a group with less than four per cent of the seats in the Chamber should take 25% of the posts on the Corporation, and that a party with more than half of all MSPs should also take only a quarter of the vacant slots.
But then, the SPCB has always been something of a cartel between the Big 4: every time, each party has nominated one – and only one candidate for the positions, and the only time there was a competitive vote was when Margo MacDonald attempted to break the consensus with the backing of the Greens, SSP and other Independents in 2003. Needless to say, she wasn’t successful. The parties opted to stick with the status quo, and this has worked in the LibDems’ favour. By a proportional mechanism, the SNP would have at least two members – three if d’Hondt had been used – Labour would have one under any calulation and the Tories would get one if someone did a straight calculation of dividing the strength of each group by 128 and multiplying by four, but nothing under d’Hondt. Whichever way you look at it, the refusal to abide by mathematics may have deprived the LibDems of a Deputy Committee Convener, but it’s the reason they’re still on the SPCB.
Verdict: Good deal
So all in all, the LibDems haven’t done too badly: the election result meant they just hung onto Bureau representation; they kept their place on the Corporation and they managed to secure a better FMQs deal than leaders of larger groups got in the past. It’s only on the Committees that they’ve been shafted, and even then, what they’ve lost out on isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things. Things could be a lot better for them, but then, they haven’t been left behind completely, so they could be far, far worse as well.