Contrary to what Dugdale’s defenders would have us believe, list MSPs do important work

THERE’S been one big question on the lips of every dedicated observer of Scottish politics this week. One burning enquiry that’s kept Twitter abuzz and panel discussions lively. It is, of course, “What exactly do list MSPs do, anyway?”

To hear some spout forth on the subject, you’d imagine they didn’t do very much at all.

It’s been pointed out that voters in the region represented by Kezia Dugdale have six other list MSPs they can call on for assistance over the next few weeks, along with their constituency MSPs, MPs and local councillors. But to be clear, no-one who’s been criticising the former Labour leader is trying to suggest she’s Batman, and that Lothian is danger of being seized by garish super-villains as a direct consequence of her absence. They’re surely just suggesting she might have, you know, a real job?

No-one who’s been criticising the former Labour leader is trying to suggest she’s Batman

Yes, she has colleagues who can hold the fort, but there’s a big problem with the implication that her office wouldn’t be anyone’s first port of call anyway. It serves to perpetuate the notion that list MSPs, regardless of their personal profiles, play only supporting roles, acting as understudies to the leading ladies and gentlemen who won their constituencies fair and square rather than sneaking in through a side entrance. All of which represents a big backwards step in terms of how Scots view and understand our parliamentary system – which was, let’s not forget, specifically designed to be fairer and more proportional than that of rotten old Westminster.

The idea of list MSPs as “second-class” is certainly nothing new – what’s new is that suddenly the voices shouting most loudly about how indispensable this bunch are belong to members of the Labour party. Writing about “a failure of the new politics” in 2012, Glasgow University politics lecturer Thomas Lundberg highlighted the negative and at times downright hostile attitudes of Labour constituency MSPs towards list-elected members. He quotes Cathie Craigie’s claim in 2008 that in her turf of Central Scotland, “the electorate rejected five SNP MSPs, yet they are here in the parliament.” Ouch. Ms Craigie has long since been rejected herself and replaced by a member of the SNP (former list MSP Jamie Hepburn), and it’s worth noting that in 2016 Richard Leonard didn’t even stand in a Central Scotland constituency, yet here he is leading his party.

But the shift towards respecting election via the list should be welcomed regardless

A dreadfully cynical soul might wonder whether the party’s change in attitude has something to do with its increasing reliance on the list to get bums on Holyrood chamber seats. Or, perish the thought, some kind of personal animosity towards one list MSP in particular. But the shift towards respecting election via the list should be welcomed regardless, as it’s been a long time coming.

While all MSPs are supposed to be created equal, in reality Labour and their LibDem colleagues set about putting the list ones in their place almost as soon as the parliament was up and running by introducing a system of office-cost allowances that discriminated against them. In 2008 a Labour MSP tried to widen the gulf even further by introducing blanket caps on spending (£62,000 for constituency MSPs vs £45,000 for regional ones), based on decidedly flimsy evidence that the former had bigger caseloads than the latter and therefore required more staff. Fortunately, sense prevailed and the principle of equality was reinforced.

The vast majority of voters will never go to an MSP’s surgery or make any sort of personal contact with an MSP’s office

The size of constituency workloads is in any case a woefully inadequate measure of an MSP’s overall contribution to making the world a better place, and tedious boasts of “mine’s bigger than yours” should probably be considered a potential red flag for inadequacies in other areas. The vast majority of voters will never go to an MSP’s surgery or make any sort of personal contact with an MSP’s office, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be affected by votes cast, campaigns backed and private member’s bills introduced.

Take this week as an example. The diary of Labour’s Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) included researching and writing a speech to support her bill calling for improved care for thyroid patients, meeting campaign groups in parliament and attending a three-hour meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee, of which she is deputy convenor. Emma Harper of the SNP (South Scotland) visited the SSPCA to talk about illegal puppy trafficking, made her debut at the Health and Sport Committee and attended the AGM of the Cross Party Group on Lung Health – all in the space of two days. This is not a part-time job.

Some MSPs might prioritise being visible in their constituencies and getting their pictures in the paper – especially if they’re eyeing constituency seats at future elections – but when it comes to actually making an impact the behind-the-scenes work may be more important, influential and far-reaching. No-one’s going to set the heather alight by tweeting “Busy afternoon reading written evidence on Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill!”, but this kind of work matters. And in the long-term it probably matters to a greater number of people than responding to the latest complaint from Mrs McNimby or deleting the latest deluge of spam emails.

Dugdale is neither a superhero nor a villain, but she does have responsibilities. If others start following her lead by swanning off to audition for more exciting roles, it might be time to start asking whether additional members are subtracting seriousness from Scottish politics.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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