Single Transferable Vote is the shot in the arm Welsh politics needs

Picture by Llinos Dafydd

 

Aled Gwyn Job

The recent report from the Electoral Reform Society was a real wake-up call for Wales.

Their analysis of the recent General Election Results in Wales revealed that nearly 70% of the votes cast here in the election were effectively wasted: a total of 1,063,000 out of the 1,575,814 votes cast.

746,000 of these votes were cast for losing candidates and 317,000 votes were piled up in constituencies where those votes were well in excess of the amount required to win the seat.

Because of this extraordinary display of electoral disenfranchisement, Welsh Labour won 70% of the parliamentary seats in Wales on less than 50% of the vote.

One could easily say, well what do you expect? This system is made in Westminster system after all, an institution which has a profound aversion to any deep and meaningful reform.

They have a vested interest in maintaining the Punch and Judy show of Conservatives versus Labour- a binary choice which forces millions to hold their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils.

‘Only Labour can beat the Tories’ they say, while propping up a system that robs voters of any alternative.

The first past the post system is indicative of a broken system. It just reinforces a general sense of alienation and disengagement from the political process.

Reforming the voting system would be one big step towards addressing this problem and creating a more inclusive and representative democracy on these isles.

It isn’t going to happen, I hear you say. And perhaps you’re right. The Westminster establishment will stretch every sinew to maintain the current state of affairs.

Statis

In Wales, however we have an opportunity to do things differently.

Under the terms of the new Wales Parliamentary Act, our Senedd will now have the right to control its own election process and devise a new electoral system in time for the next round of Welsh elections in 2021.

The electoral system in Wales is slightly better than that at Westminster, because it includes some proportional representation.

However, this mix of first past the post and proportional representation leads to political stasis.

A party that loses a constituency will often be granted a seat on the regional list, and a party that gains a constituency will lose a regional list seat.

It means that any political change is very slow, and it’s almost impossible to get rid of some politicians that are pretty much guaranteed their seats on the list.

This stasis has also been maintained since 1999: The only uncertainty has been whether Labour would go into coalition with the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, or seek to govern alone.

Wales remains one of the poorest, sickest, and most deprived countries in the whole of western Europe.

Yet despite only three in every ten people voting Labour at last year’s Welsh Assembly election, they remain in power as they have been since 1999.

This isn’t an accident: The Welsh Assembly was set up by a Labour UK Government in 1999 precisely to maintain Labour domination in Wales.

It reinforces this pernicious belief that change is simply not possible in Wales. It keeps people stuck both politically and psychologically.

Change

The solution is to scrap the current system and bring in a new Single Transferable Vote system for the next Welsh election.

A working group is currently examining this system and it is believed that they will recommend its adoption as the new electoral model for Wales.

It could see Wales electing 90 Assembly Members (still considerably less than NI’s 108 and Scotland’s 120 members). Wales will lose 10 MPs under the boundary review so would only gain 20 politicians overall.

Under an STV system, every single vote cast in Wales by every adult voter would count.

Rather than voting for one party, voters would list the candidates in preferred order.

So, it the seat is a Labour and Conservative marginal, voters could still choose a third-party candidate while also expression a preference for one of the two frontrunners.

And at the end all the votes cast would be transferred upwards and totted up so that the final three standing are truly representative of what the voters want.

The final 90 members elected to serve our Senedd would all have received well over 50% of the vote in all their respective constituencies, by means of the transferred votes system.

Compare that scenario with the present situation where MP’s/AM’s can be elected with as little as 30% of the vote in their constituencies.

Turbo-charged

But the truly exciting possibility served up by STV is that it could encourage the formation of new parties.

This could be the shot in the arm that Welsh democracy is crying out for.

A party standing for Independence for Wales could perhaps win one of three seats in Gwynedd.

STV would allow voters to support such a party without putting the prospects of a more established party in peril.

For instance, they could place a radical independent supporting party as a first preference and Plaid Cymru as a second.

Other new political groupings of different stripes could also emerge in different parts of Wales, with a range of new and innovative ideas to capture voters’ imaginations.

Changing our voting system could turbo-charge Welsh democracy in a way that has not been seen before.

The final make-up of the new Senedd in 2021 could then be very, very different to what exists today.

It could lead to a coalition of different parties in power with a mandate to serve the whole of Wales.

Shackles

Pigs will likely fly before we see a fairer voting system at Westminster. That game is rigged, and not in Wales’ favour.

But we here in Wales can call time on a system set up to benefit one established party at the expense of all others.

A Single Transferable Vote could release the people of Wales from the shackles of a voting system which has served our country poorly for 20 years.

Voters would finally be able to vote for whoever they want to rather than just the devil they know best – a truly revolutionary step!

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6 Comments

  1. Northern Ireland has 90 MLAs, not the 108 as stated in this article.

    I don’t like the assumption that votes are wasted. Labour won a comfortable majority in Rhondda and Plaid in Meirionnydd. Were the votes in those seats above what was (retrospectively) needed to win really wasted?

    What about people in the Cynon for example who voted Lib Dem or Tory – did they waste their votes? No those people voted for who they wanted to represent them/which party they wanted to govern.

    I’m all for voting reform but please don’t cheapen the arguments.

  2. But what about the Duopoly? If FPTP is done away with, Westminster would be open to any Tom Dick and Harry, and where would that leave the Labour Party? JC might get the ordinary party supporter enthused, but the arithmetic will only support the return to polarisation and the Great Imperial Edifice will steam on regardless – safe in the knowledge that Labour might rearrange a few deck chairs, but won’t rock the boat.

    In Wales, of course, STV would make a great deal of difference, with party politics finally unhitched from their Westminster masters. That’s why independence is not a party political matter (in fact Labour would gain the most, unshackled from Head Office).

  3. Capitalist and Welshnash

    The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party got %4.4 of the vote.

    Less direct forms of democracy restrain the forces of darkness. Be careful what you wish for.

  4. I agree with Gareth. The only wasted vote is not voting. “Spoiled ballots” are probably the most important. Politicians keep a careful eye on them. A “spoiled ballot” is the same as ticking ‘none of the above’, an option that should be on every ballot.

    The problem with Welsh democracy is the same problem with democracy as it is practised in most places. Called ‘representative democracy’ it is neither very representative nor democratic. New laws and measures are continually imposed on us that would never stand up to public scrutiny.

    If you want to “turbo charge” democracy, the way we elect our ‘representatives’ is just scratching the surface. We need to do democracy differently. Genuine democracy involves the demos (people) in making decisions that affect us. Sometimes called direct democracy, sometimes participatory democracy (or ‘mob rule’ by our elite masters), an open transparent government that involves the people in decision making process is real democracy.

    Having said all that, I do think the STV method outlined above is preferable to our current system 🙂

  5. Tame Frontiersman

    Malta and the Irish Republic have had STV parliamentary elections since the 1920s and so there’s considerable discussion of their experience of nearly a century.

    Prof Michael Gallager-Head of Department of Political Science, Trinity College, University of Dublin. Dublin concludes “The impact of electoral systems on many aspects of politics in any given country is less strong than is sometimes assumed. While electoral systems do have an impact on, for example, the proportionality of electoral outcomes, and to a lesser degree on the shape of party systems, it is not realistic to expect a change in the electoral system to transform the style of politics in a country”

    Taking on board the Silk Commission’s recommendations for a larger Assembly and the reduction of the number of Welsh Constituencies at Westminster from 40 to 29, Profs Rogers Scully of Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University et al has proposed the same 29 Westminster constituencies for the Assembly, each returning 3 AMs- a total of 87 (see” Reshaping the Senate” Nov 2016)
    .
    Wales’ present D’Hondt system gives the Labour party proportionally more seats that the number of votes cast. The 2nd 3rd and 4th parties get seats more or less in line with the number of votes cast in Wales as a whole the 5th party –in the last election the Liberal Democrats – less

    This bias against the 5th and lower ranked parties is a mathematical outcome of there being 4 AMs elected for each of the 5 regions.

    Under STV in Malta and Northern Ireland 5 representatives are elected per constituency in The Irish Republic the number is between 3 and 5. The larger the number of representatives returned per constituency the more representative the seats won are of the number of votes cast

    The result of adopting STV with 3 members elected per constituency would likely be a Labour-Plaid Cymru Coalition and Conservative opposition with other parties ranked 4th or 5th or lower by popular vote being under represented or not represented at all. Though of course under STV, or even under First Past the Post system, a strong local or independent candidate can still break through.

    Malta has considered moving from STV to the D’Hondt and other models.

    If Prof Scully’s or similar models of STV were put before the Welsh people, I fear that through the filter of the media, complex arguments for and against might reduce in many people’s mind to whether or not Wales needs more politicians.

  6. “Single Transferable Vote is the shot in the arm Welsh politics needs” – and that, unfortunately, is why it will never happen.

    Labour councilors nor AMs will never vote for it. It’s a dead duck. Could only happen as part of a coaltion deal and then with no referendum to confirm it. That’s what happened in Scotland and it’s for the better there. But it’ll never happen in Wales.

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