Wales’s oddest political row

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?

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7 Comments

Filed under Elections, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Media issues, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

7 responses to “Wales’s oddest political row

  1. card

    Agreed – this is a totally bizarre set of exchanges. That hasn’t stopped Welsh Labour from using the opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot with both barrels. Their intemperate and utterly hypocritical criticism of the Electoral Reform Society this morning exposes the degree to which they are rattled, and retreating into a partisan siege mentality. Do they fear the same fate as their Scottish colleagues?

  2. Adam Higgitt

    A very good analysis. I agree with you that there is something faintly theological about the row, given that reform of the status quo is unlikely. I suspect that you are right in suggesting a certain amount of neuralgia from Labour now that it no longer controls things. And I agree that the effect of the spat will be to insert yet greater distance between the political class (in this case, the Labour political class) and the electorate.

    But I think you are wrong to condemn Labour’s ban on dual candidature as “blatantly partisan manipulation”. The old system allowed defeated constituency candidates to become Assembly Members: clearly an odious outcome, if only for the minority of people who take an interest in such things. There is also another reason to ban it, in that it has the potential to stifle competition at the constituency level.

    I know, of course, that some people will always regard this ban as motivated by partisan interests (although since its effect has been to increase the turnover of opposition politicians, I think there is at least a plausible argument that it helps Labour’s opponents by giving a greater number of candidates a shot at a winnable seat) but as someone who worked for the Welsh Labour Party for at least part of the period in which this was debated internally I can attest that the main objection was seeing losers triumph, the fear that this would alienate voters.

    • Whatever were the motives in introducing the ban on dual candidacy, its effect is to decapitate parties. This year, it hit both Plaid and the Conservatives in Wales. In Scotland, where Labour imposed a similar ban on itself, it did for several front-bench MSPs, including at least two who would have been very credible leadership candidates if they’d still been in the Parliament. In both cases, the effect has been to weaken the legislature by depriving it of strong would-be members, and so to give the executive a much easier ride.

      For my part, I doubt that voters see unsuccessful candidates as ‘losers’, and I recall how little evidence could be adduced about that when the ban was under consideration in 2005-6. The odium Adam identifies is largely or wholly that of political rivals. Because the ban is so widely seen as partisan, it invites other parties to respond in a similar way when they can – a natural result of an uninclusive approach to constitution-making.

      • Adam Higgitt

        On decapitation, I suppose it depends on whether you think one of the functions of the electoral system is to give leaders and would-be leaders safe passage past the whims of the electorate. I don’t.

        As I recall, the Electoral Commission made a rather sniffy remark in one if its reports about a lack of evidence of public disquiet (obviously not the same as evidence of absence). But anyone who worries about the distance between voters and politicians must have concerns that a system that lets losers win probably isn’t healthy.

  3. David Rees

    Of course, Labour in Wales can do whatever they like because nobody reads the limited and poor quality Welsh media. Labour would surely not behave in this way if it were in Scotland that these events were happening – the media would jump on it and the electorate would be informed.

    I hate this country. I hate my uninterested compatriots. I hate the Labour party.

    • Carnabwth

      “I hate this country (sometimes) . I hate my uninterested compatriots. I hate the Labour party.”

      I almost totally agree with you David Rees. Depressing.

  4. Pingback: If Welsh Labour wants a two-member-constituency voting system, this is the one they should adopt « A National Conversation For England

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