Iona Macbeth from Grayling Scotland’s public affairs team looks at the role of the Presiding Officer and some runners and riders for the post in session five.
What does the Presiding Officer do?
The Presiding Officer is the speaker of the Scottish Parliament and is one of the most high profile positions in Scottish politics. It is a role that is partly practical and partly ceremonial. On the one hand the PO has responsibility for chairing the meetings of the Scottish Parliament and selecting questions and amendments for the debates in chamber. On the other hand the role also encompasses ceremonial duties, acting as a figurehead for the Scottish Parliament at home and abroad. This can include attending Royal functions and welcoming foreign delegations.
In many ways the Presiding Officer is the most important person representing the Scottish Parliament. The PO is meant to be a non-partisan figure in Parliament. As a result they must resign the party whip and give up their voting rights in Chamber. The only time the PO votes is to break ties. Part of their role is to ensure that the Parliament has adequate means of holding the Scottish Government to account. As a result it will be crucial that the appointed PO is someone who is seen to be capable of putting the greater interests of the parliament above party interests.
Does this rule out an SNP candidate? Will any of the other parties be willing to sacrifice a voting member?
How is the Presiding Officer selected?
The Presiding Officer is chosen by MSPs through a process of nominations followed by a secret ballot. According to the rules, the new Presiding Officer must be selected within 14 days of the election result at the first meeting of the Parliament.
The outgoing Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, will take the chair for the last time to announce the nominations and then members will cast their ballots in the chamber.
If one candidate wins an absolute majority then that candidate is immediately declared the new Presiding Officer. If this does not happen in the first round, then there are subsequent rounds of voting with the candidate with the least votes being eliminated until there is only one candidate remaining or one wins an absolute majority.
Two Deputy Presiding Officers are also elected, to support the Presiding Officer in their duties. There is an informal convention that the Presiding Officer and two Deputies all come from different political parties.
Once elected the Presiding Officer holds the post for the length of the Parliamentary session unless they resign or otherwise cease to be a member of the Parliament.
Previous Presiding Officers have been David Steel (Liberal Democrats), George Reid (SNP), Alex Fergusson (Conservative) and the current Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick (SNP). Labour have therefore never held the position and they may feel that it is their turn.
On the other hand, the first past the post nature of the ballot and the almost foregone conclusion of a large SNP majority all bets are on for another SNP member to win the contest.
Bruce is a clear front runner for the job. One of the original crop of MSPs, he is an experienced parliamentarian and well respected across the chamber, particularly for his work leading the Scotland Bill Committee and now the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee.
Before he became an MSP Bruce had served as both a civil servant in the Scotland Office and later was Leader of Perth and Kinross Council. Formerly the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy, he has a CV suited to the job.
At 61, Bruce is one of the most senior members of the current parliament. In 2012, he stepped down from his Ministerial role seeking a “less arduous life”. Rumours that Bruce intended to stand down in 2016 make suggestions that he will get the SNP nomination for job all the more believable.
Another SNP candidate could be Christine Grahame. Christine previously ran for the position of Presiding Officer in 2011 against Tricia Marwick and Hugh Henry and may run again this time around. Like our other contenders Christine is another of the diminishing group of MSPs who have been around since the start of the Scottish Parliament.
Christine has served as Convenor of the Justice Committee in this session and has previously also served as Convenor on Health. She showed her ability to think and act independently of the Party in these posts, winning some trust from other parties, but probably not enough to secure the role of Presiding Officer. Before her election as an MSP Christine worked as both a teacher and a solicitor.
However, given that Nicola Sturgeon is keen to avoid her party facing criticism for overly dominating the parliament and imposing a ‘one-party’ state, it could be that the SNP rally around an opposition candidate, which would leave room for…
If Labour makes a move for the PO spot our suggestions for nominees would be David Stewart or Lewis Macdonald, but as former party leader, Johann Lamont – another of the class of 1999 MSPs – would also make for an interesting PO with presence and authority.
In her role as Labour leader Johann was well regarded for her ability to stand up to Alex Salmond in parliamentary debates and her background as teacher would certainly stand her in good stead in the chair.
As party leader Johann was determined to give Scottish Labour its own identity and distance it from the image as a branch office of the Westminster party. When she eventually stood down as leader she claimed that it was a result of senior Labour figures resisting her attempts to reform the workings of the Scottish party.
In the role of PO Johann could be the reformer that the Scottish Parliament needs, and make long-called for changes to the Committee system.