Electoral reform: consultation analysis

Analysis of Electoral Reform consultation.

3. Electoral terms (Q1 and Q2)

3.1 Chapter 1 of the consultation paper covered the frequency of elections. It outlined the legislative rules determining the length of electoral terms for both local councils and the Scottish Parliament, and the UK Parliament, and the arrangements for avoiding electoral clashes (i.e. more than one election taking place on the same day, or close together).

3.2 In brief, elections for local councils in Scotland and for the Scottish Parliament usually take place every four years as determined by the Scotland Act 1998 and the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, while the UK Parliament operates on a five-year cycle under the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, although the possibility of an early election being called remains. The different electoral cycles in Scotland and the UK mean that electoral clashes are inevitable, and the Scottish Parliament has previously legislated to extend Scottish electoral terms to avoid this.

3.3 The consultation paper discussed the option of introducing a five-year electoral cycle in Scotland as a way of avoiding or minimising future electoral clashes. However, it also acknowledged that there was a wider debate about appropriate term lengths, and the factors that might be taken into account in reaching a decision on this issue. Thus, the consultation paper briefly outlined the arguments in support of both four- and five-year electoral terms, the two most common term lengths in democratic countries around the world.

3.4 The consultation paper included two questions on term lengths. Question 1 was a tick-box question asking respondents how long they thought electoral terms should be, while Question 2 asked for any other comments on term lengths:

Question 1: Do you think the term length for the Scottish Parliament and local government should be: [4 years / 5 years / Other length? (please specify)]

Question 2: Do you have any other comments or suggestions on term lengths?

3.5 Altogether 743 respondents answered Question 1. Table 3.1 shows that half of all respondents (50%) favoured a five-year electoral term, while 44% favoured a four-year term. Six percent of respondents selected ‘other length’.

Table 3.1: Q1 – Do you think the term length for the Scottish Parliament and local government should be: 4 years / 5 years / Other length?

Respondent type 4 years 5 years Other Total
n % n % n % n %
Organisations 8 38% 11 52% 2 10% 21 100%
Individuals 322 45% 357 49% 43 6% 722 100%
Total 330 44% 368 50% 45 6% 743 100%

3.6 A total of 320 respondents – 38 organisations and 282 individuals – made additional comments on term lengths at Question 1 and / or Question 2. The remainder of this chapter discusses those comments. It looks in turn at views on different term lengths (four years, five years, and other term lengths); views on avoiding electoral clashes; and views on fixed electoral terms. A final section discusses other comments made by respondents.

3.7 Although some respondents who ticked ‘other length’ went on to indicate a specific preferred term length, most provided more general comments regarding alternative lengths, and these types of responses are covered in the qualitative analysis presented below.

Views on different term lengths

3.8 As shown in Table 3.1, respondents were split in their preference for four-year and five-year terms, with just a small proportion favouring other term lengths. It should be noted that respondents often made similar points in arguing for different term lengths, and some indicated that they did not feel there were strong arguments either way for four or five years.

Five-year terms

3.9 Most commonly, respondents who favoured five-year terms said they did so because this time period supported effective government. Respondents argued that five years:

  • Gave new governments the time to settle in and learn the job, as well as time to carry out their electoral mandate
  • Supported long-term strategic policy development and allowed projects and programmes to be implemented, monitored and evaluated
  • Created the right conditions for consultation, engagement and collaborative working with partners across different sectors
  • Provided stability and continuity in terms of planning and budgeting both within and outwith government.

3.10 These advantages were, for some respondents, seen as particularly important for parliamentary terms as opposed to council terms.

3.11 Some argued that a five-year term was long enough to support stable and effective government while also being short enough to ensure democratic accountability.

3.12 It was also common for respondents to support five-year terms because they agreed with the principle of avoiding electoral clashes. They thought that bringing Scottish electoral terms into line with electoral terms for the UK Parliament maximised the chance of achieving this. In addition, respondents argued that a five-year term length would meet the needs of the electorate by limiting the number of elections and reducing voter fatigue. (See also paragraphs 3.24–3.30 for further discussion of views on avoiding electoral clashes.)

3.13 Some respondents explained why they did not favour five-year terms. They thought this time period:

  • Was too long to be democratically accountable, and led to governments becoming complacent – respondents argued that it was important that a democratic mandate was ‘refreshed’ on a regular basis
  • Was too long for voters to wait to give their views on government performance – some highlighted the implications for those reaching voting age shortly after an election who would have to wait a further five years before casting their first vote
  • Did not provide the flexibility needed to operate in fast moving political contexts (both globally and domestically).

3.14 Some were particularly opposed to five-year terms if these were to be fixed term lengths operating on the basis that the elected government would remain in power for the full period.

Four-year terms

3.15 Those who favoured four-year terms tended to emphasise benefits associated with accountability and democracy. They thought that this time period:

  • Supported scrutiny and accountability and represented an appropriate interval for renewing a government’s mandate
  • Kept the electorate engaged in the democratic process on an ongoing basis
  • Was appropriate given the increasingly dynamic nature of the political environment, and the need to promote fresh thinking
  • Encouraged participation in electoral office, and was conducive to elected representatives completing their terms of office
  • Ensured a greater turnover in representatives, with potential benefits for diversity and under-represented groups.

3.16 It was also common for respondents to argue that four-year terms represented (i) a reasonable balance between allowing sufficient time for a government to implement its policy programmes and allowing the public to pass judgement on their performance, or (ii) a reasonable compromise for those arguing for longer and shorter term lengths.

3.17 Other respondents, however, simply felt that four-year electoral terms ‘seemed to work’ or represented an ‘optimum’ length, or said that they were in favour of ‘maintaining the status quo unless there is overwhelming need to change it’. Some also stated that four-year terms were in line with systems used in other countries, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Some suggested that the UK Parliament should also use four-year terms.

3.18 Conversely, those who did not favour four-year terms said that this period (i) did not allow sufficient time for governments to bed in and govern away from the pressure of electioneering; (ii) did not support stability; and (iii) was costly to the public purse and to political parties (especially smaller parties) because of the increased frequency of elections.

Other options for electoral term lengths

3.19 Those putting forward other options proposed term lengths ranging from one year to ten years. Specific suggestions included one, two, three, six, seven and ten years. There was one suggestion for four-and-a-half year terms – this proposal (which was presented as a compromise giving sufficient time for a government to get into the job, and sufficient basis for the electorate to give feedback) would make use of spring and autumn dates to avoid electoral clashes. Other respondents, however, indicated preferred minimum or maximum terms (e.g. a minimum of three years; a maximum of four years), or indicated an acceptable range (e.g. six or seven years).

3.20 Those arguing for term lengths of more than five years echoed the points made by those supportive of five-year terms. Some, however, noted that their support for longer terms was conditional upon effective proportional representation being in place.

3.21 Those arguing for term lengths of less than four years echoed the points made by those who favoured four-year terms. In particular, they thought this would give the opportunity for an unpopular or poorly performing government to be voted out of office at an early stage.

3.22 Some respondents also suggested systems based on different term lengths for national and local government, an option not offered in the consultation questionnaire. Most often, this involved longer parliamentary term lengths and shorter council term lengths. As well as being seen as a useful distinction in itself, respondents thought this was appropriate given parliament’s strategic role in contrast to the service delivery role of local councils.

Other comments on term lengths

3.23 Other more general points about term lengths, included the following (each raised by a small number of respondents only):

  • Any change in electoral term lengths might have implications for the work programme of the Local Government Boundary Commission.
  • Regular consultation should be carried out on how long electoral terms should be. In particular, Scottish independence and / or withdrawal from the EU would affect the electoral landscape and might justify revisiting the issue.

Electoral clashes

3.24 Respondents often commented on the advantages and disadvantages of avoiding electoral clashes. It should be noted that there were different interpretations of the concept of electoral clashes – with some people discussing clashes in terms of elections on the same day whilst others discussed elections taking place within a short timeframe.

3.25 Respondents who thought there were merits in avoiding clashes thought this (i) helped reduce voter confusion (for the general public and for those with particular needs (e.g. those with learning disabilities or visual impairments)), and (ii) helped keep different elections distinct from each other, thus ensuring that different tiers of government received appropriate campaign coverage and public attention. Some respondents referred to the case for decoupling elections put forward in the Gould report.[3] There was also a wider view that a well-planned and spaced out schedule, which took account of all elections, would provide helpful continuity and clarity for policy planning and development purposes.

3.26 Therefore, in most cases, respondents thought it was right that steps were taken to avoid electoral clashes. Some who held this view saw moving to a five-year electoral cycle as helpful in this respect, arguing that it maximised the chances of avoiding electoral clashes, while others thought that the current option of legislating to avoid clashes offered the required flexibility to deal with the situation. However, a small group of respondents argued that there was limited value in trying to plan to avoid clashes with UK elections, given the possibility of ‘snap’ elections, and that efforts should instead focus on ensuring a robust system for scheduling elections in Scotland, with some advocating ‘offset’ four-year national and local government terms. This arrangement would result in local and Scottish Parliament elections taking place at two-yearly intervals, on an alternating basis.[4]

3.27 Respondents did not necessarily think that elections should be shifted by a whole year to avoid clashes – a common suggestion was that Scottish elections should be shifted to September rather than May in a year in which both UK and Scottish elections were due to take place. Indeed, some favoured a permanent shift to September elections (with the advantage of avoiding May bank holidays being noted). Another option proposed was to legislate for Scottish elections to take place a set period in advance of a UK election.

3.28 There was, however, an alternative view expressed by some respondents: that electoral clashes did not matter or did not represent a good enough reason to change electoral terms, and, indeed, could be helpful. These respondents argued that holding multiple elections on the same day could cut costs, while also reducing voter fatigue and increasing turnout. They also pointed out that other countries hold multiple elections on the same day, and that issues of voter confusion could / should be addressed via other means apart from decoupling elections.

3.29 Some respondents noted other factors which they felt should be taken into account in rescheduling elections to avoid clashes:

  • The process and time implications of forming an administration and setting a budget within local councils for the next financial year (elections close to the end of the financial year could cause difficulties with this)
  • The potential implications for campaign rules of holding two elections in quick succession
  • The benefits of holding elections in months likely to benefit from good weather
  • The need for reasonable intervals between elections to avoid electoral / campaigner fatigue, to increase participation, and to avoid constant ‘purdah’ (i.e. periods in the run up to elections in which government activity and announcements are limited).

3.30 These points were made in the context of avoiding electoral clashes, but are also relevant to the scheduling of elections more generally.

Fixed terms

3.31 Respondents also commented on the general principle of fixed electoral terms. Most commonly, they expressed support for fixed terms, arguing that this (i) prevented governments from manipulating the timing of elections to their advantage; (ii) aided continuity and clarity, and reduced confusion for the wider public; and (iii) helped with the planning of elections, and the alignment of different electoral cycles.

3.32 There were, nevertheless, a range of views about how firmly fixed terms should be adhered to. Some respondents argued that election dates should be ‘set in stone’, and that parliaments / councils should complete the full fixed term other than in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (which did not include avoiding electoral clashes). More commonly, however, respondents took a pragmatic view and outlined circumstances in which they thought early elections could (or should) take place. These included rescheduling to avoid electoral clashes as well as holding early elections in response to votes of no confidence.

3.33 Less frequently, respondents expressed opposition to fixed electoral terms. In such cases, respondents thought that there needed to be flexibility to call elections in response to events and circumstances, or that elections should be held ‘as and when required’.

3.34 While some respondents commented directly on the advantages and disadvantages of fixed electoral terms, others discussed the need for mechanisms to ‘force’ an early election, usually within the context of national rather than local elections. There were two main suggestions: first, there should be a mechanism allowing opposition parties (not the governing party) to call for an election, either by a vote of no confidence, or in response to a trigger such as a government being unable to pass a budget; second, there should be a mechanism for the public to indicate their wish for an election because of poor government performance, or a wider ‘change in mood’ in the country. A third suggestion was for some form of interim monitoring of government performance which would determine whether an electoral term should be allowed to continue. These respondents did not generally discuss their views in the context of fixed terms, and the arguments they put forward would be relevant regardless of whether a fixed-term system was in place.

Other comments on the scheduling of elections

3.35 Respondents also made a range of other suggestions regarding the scheduling of elections. These were all made by relatively few respondents and concerned various forms of offset or mid-term elections to allow more frequent voting, and encourage a more responsive political environment. Suggestions included:

  • A proportion of MSPs / councillors being elected at yearly or two-yearly intervals
  • Staggered elections across different regions to encourage politicians to focus on non-central belt areas
  • Mid-term elections for regional ‘list’ MSPs[5]
  • Introducing a second chamber to the Scottish Parliament, which could operate on an offset electoral cycle.



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