The story about Labour concerns about changes to the electoral system for the National Assembly (which I was on BBC Radio Wales to discuss on Sunday morning) continues to run. Today’s Western Mail describes Carwyn Jones as appealing directly to David Cameron over Cheryl Gillan’s head to deal with an ‘explosive row’. There’s also coverage from BBC News here.
This is a completely bizarre row. For one thing, there’s no reason that it’s an issue now. Section 13 of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011 decoupled National Assembly constituency boundaries from those for Westminster. This was readily offered by the UK Government when the reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies was first mooted, and avoided the size of the National Assembly being reduced to around 45 as a result of the proposed new Westminster arrangements. The loss of ‘co-terminosity’ (the fact that Westminster and Cardiff Bay boundaries will no longer coincide) causes significant problems for political parties, and is widely disliked by the parties in Scotland, where this has already happened. But to ordinary voters it makes little noticeable difference. That it’s a matter of such anxiety to politicians but no-one else illustrates, I’m sorry to say, the gulf between them and their voters.
For a second, this issue is on no-one’s official agenda. The remit of the Silk Commission is carefully framed to avoid electoral issues, when the Commission starts to look at electoral matters in 2012-13. The only reason to believe this is under consideration is an exchange at Welsh Questions in May 2011 and when the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in July. The Secretary of State said that there would be a ‘long, long consultation’ before anything was decided then. At that time, it was quite possible that this would form part of the work of what became the Silk Commission. Debates about the terms of reference and composition of the commission were still underway, but nothing had been decided and there was a good deal of jockeying for position about it. As matters have turned out, it was excluded, seemingly at the behest of the Welsh Government. In the absence of work on this by the Silk Commission, there’s no reason for this issue to be under any sort of active consideration.
Even if a decision about a new decision were to be taken soon, it’s hard to see when a legislative slot would be found for it. From a Whitehall point of view, the issue is done and dusted; the Secretary of State would be hard pressed to persuade her colleagues that this was a priority matter needing urgent attention. Without a strong endorsement from the Silk Commission, it’s hard to see how any change could be introduced into this parliament. In any event, nothing could happen before the next Assembly election, currently due in 2020.
Even then, the Sewel convention would probably apply. Certainly it should, as a matter of principle. If it does, that would mean that the Assembly’s consent would be needed to such a change.
Third, while Labour wish to ensure that there are no changes to the electoral system and have already won the most urgent battle to secure that, they are in the presence of a whole coop of roosting chickens. There’s the fact that Labour have emphasised for some years that such decisions are matters for Westminster not Cardiff Bay. As they’re now out of office in London, this leaves them in weak position. Then there’s the fact that, having revised the electoral system for the National Assembly once (to ban ‘dual candidacy’ – candidates running for both a constituency and list seat), Labour can hardly claim such changes are unprecedented. Indeed, as the ban on dual candidacy was a pretty blatantly partisan manipulation of the electoral system, they may be well aware of the danger of the same happening to them. Moreover, the conferral of primary legislative powers on the National Assembly re-opens the question of whether it is in fact large enough to discharge its current responsibilities (see HERE for my recent talk raising this issue). Any increase in the size of the Assembly would require some change to the electoral system – you could use the additional member system, with the 40 current seats plus more list ones, move to a form of the single transferable vote (whether using the new or the old constituency boundaries), or even a single national list. Labour’s strength in National Assembly elections depends on the system being not very proportional, however. All these systems would be more proportional, and so weaken Labour’s electoral prospects. At bottom, that appears to be what worries Welsh Labour.
What this amounts to is that Labour realises that it has largely lost control of the agenda when it comes to the Assembly’s electoral system, and doesn’t like where this might lead. At present, though, all their concerns are no more than fevered speculation. Given its practical irrelevance, one has to wonder how effective a use of Wales’s limited political capital with the Prime Minister this is. There are other issues that the Welsh Government says are its top intergovernmental priorities, notably ‘fair funding’. What in fact is its priority?