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How to become an MSP 

On 6 May 1999 the first elections for the new Scottish parliament were held, electing 129 MSPs. The 1998 Scotland Act created a Scottish Parliament that is able to pass laws affecting Scotland covering a range of issues. The Scottish Parliament is able to pass legislation on devolved issues, such as education, health and justice.

On this page:

What does the role involve?
What will I get out of this?
What will I be expected to give back?
What skills or qualities do I need?
How do I get involved?

What does the role involve?

The role is MSP is very similar to their counterparts in Westminster. Their role consists of a combination of representing and assisting constituents, scrutinising and voting on legislation and creating policy.

Representing and assisting constituents

The main role of an MSP is to represent the people of their constituency or region in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs identify local problems by listening to their constituents, either by:

  • holding advice surgeries in their constituency or region where local people can meet with them in person
  • dealing with questions that they receive by email, post and fax
  • attending meetings and events in their constituency or region where they can discuss issues with local people
  • meeting with other MSPs, the MP and local councillor from the area to discuss areas of mutual concern and possibly pass an enquiry on to the appropriate representative

    If there are issues of particular importance the MSP can raise them in a number of ways:
  • asking a Parliamentary Question
  • initiating a debate
  • moving an amendment to a Bill
  • introducing a Member's Bill
  • writing to the appropriate Minister
  • meeting the appropriate Minister

    Voting on legislation and deciding on policy

    MSPs have the power to shape policy in a number of ways. They can:

  • Vote on legislation - bills are presented before the Scottish Parliament, where MSPs have the opportunity to debate and vote to pass or oppose the legislation
  • Place amendments on bills – MSPs can put forward an amendment on a bill, which can resolve conflict on a particular issue without altering the overall aims of the bill
  • Sit on Parliamentary Committees - MSPs can be members of one or two of the committees of the Parliament. They can scrutinise bills, propose amendments, conduct enquiries into certain issues, produce reports for Parliament to consider and propose bills

    What will I get out of this?

    Many of the ways to be an active citizen involve making your voice heard by others who are in positions of power. Standing for election as an MSP means putting yourself into that position so you can actually pull the levers of power and help to make decisions about the issues that affect both your constituents and society as a whole. If you get inside the system then you have a very good opportunity to effect change.

    As an LGBT MSP, you can play an important role in highlighting the negative effects on society when people, including LGBT people, are marginalised and socially excluded.

    Backbench MSP receive an annual salary of around £49,315 plus an allowance for staff and offices.


    What will I be expected to give back?

    Your time, energy and commitment.


    What skills or qualities do I need?

    You must have:

  • Good local knowledge
    MSPs need to know about the communities that they represent – what kind of people live in their constituency and what they care about

  • Energy
    Being an MSP is time-consuming, they are always in demand, mainly from their constituents. Elections are also extremely hard work. So, make sure you have plenty of energy.

  • Commitment, compassion and determination
    To be an effective MSP you must be committed to representing and assisting the people in your constituency or region. Most MSPs also have a strong desire to change society for the better.

    How do I get involved?

    Almost anyone can become an MSP. If you are a UK, Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland Citizen and are over 21 you can stand for election to the Scottish Parliament.

    You can’t become an MSP if you are:

  • a member of the House of Lords
  • an undischarged bankrupt
  • holding a position that receives wages from the Crown, such as a civil servant, holders or judicial office, the armed forces or the police
  • a prisoner serving a sentence of over one year in prison
  • a person found guilty of certain electoral offences

    Potential MSPs need to be nominated for election by a proposer and a seconder, both of whom must be registered voters in the relevant constituency. The nomination must also be signed by eight other electors and submitted along with a fee (known as a deposit) of £500, which is returned to candidates who get more than 5% of the votes cast.

    Registered political party’s list of candidates to be regional MSPs must be submitted to the Regional Returning Officer. Each regional list submitted must set out the full name and home address of each candidate included in the order in which they will be allocated a regional seat.

    Independent candidates find it difficult to get elected as MSPs. However, in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, 3 Independent candidates were elected – Margo MacDonald (Regional MSP – Lothians), Dr Jean Turner (constituency MSP – Strathkelvin and Bearsden) and Dennis Canavan (constituency MSP – Falkirk West).

    MSPs are elected in a different way to MPs. The voting system used by the Scottish Parliament is known as the Additional Member System (AMS). AMS is a type of proportional representation, which means that each party receives a share of the seats that reflects its level of support amongst voters.

    At a Scottish Parliament election each voter has 2 votes, one is for the constituency MSP and the other is for the regional MSP.

  • Constituency MSP
    With the first vote, voters choose between candidates standing in their constituency. The candidate winning the largest number of votes will gain the seat. There are a total of 73 constituency MSPs.

  • Regional MSP
    The second vote is for a political party, or for a candidate standing as an individual, within a larger electoral area called a Scottish Parliament Region. There are 8 Scottish Parliament Regions. Each region has 7 additional seats in the Parliament. Within each region, parties are allocated additional seats dependent upon the number of constituency seats it won. The members chosen to fill these 56 additional seats are known as “regional members”.

    Each voter will have one constituency MSP and 7 regional MSPs. All MSPs have equal status in the Parliament.

    There are 129 MSPs in total, comprising 73 Constituency MSPs and 56 Regional MSPs.

    Potential MSPs should therefore choose which party they wish to represent in Parliament and then work within the structures of that party to secure selection. The key steps are:

  • join the party that best represents your personal beliefs and values
  • get involved with party activity in the area you wish to represent
  • take up a position of responsibility within the party or the local community, for example as a local councillor or member of the school board, to develop your skills and experience and demonstrate to yourself and others that you have the necessary abilities and interests for a full time political career
  • contact the party headquarters to register your interest in being selected as a candidate and ask for information on the process, deadlines for submitting applications and dates for attending interviews

    Selection procedures for choosing the official party candidate in a constituency depend on which party you wish to represent. It is likely that you will be asked to make a speech to local party members who will then vote to choose between all those who have put themselves up for selection.

    Once selected you need to develop an election strategy and run a campaign to promote yourself to the electorate. Party candidates should be able to rely on help from the local members but this may be thin on the ground, especially where the party has historically gained little support in the area.

    Your campaign needs:

  • funds to produce leaflets, posters, badges and other materials
  • an office or HQ with a telephone line and some basic IT equipment
  • people to deliver leaflets, knock on doors and talk to voters, make phone calls and staff street stalls

    Useful Contacts

    You can find out more about the Scottish Parliament and about the role of MSPs by contact the Scottish Parliament Public Information Service.

    Scottish Parliament Public Information Service
    EH99 1SP

    tel: 0131 348 5000

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