Could Labour win a Senedd majority for the first time with new voting system?
The arrival of a new polling company in Wales which promises monthly voting intention updates has created some excitement among those who follow election trends.
More specifically it has opened up fresh debate about the implications of the new electoral system being introduced for Senedd elections.
In recent years YouGov has carried out regular polling in partnership with Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, but other firms have been reluctant to make a similar commitment.
For reasons known only to itself, one polling company actually lumps in Wales with the English Midlands when providing UK regional breakdowns of voting intentions, creating statistics that are totally useless in a Welsh – or for that matter Midlands – context.
Now, however, we can look forward to more Wales-specific polls thanks to the decision of Redfield and Wilton Strategies to cross the border from England.
Their first poll for a Senedd election was released a few days ago. It was based on the existing voting system, under which 40 Members of the Senedd are elected in constituencies using the first-past-the-post electoral system, with a further 20 MSs elected by a form of proportional representation (PR) in five regions.
The regional seats are sometimes referred to as “top-up” seats because they are won by parties that poll reasonably well but miss out on constituency seats and thus are under-represented in terms of the level of support they have obtained.
Under this two-tier system, voters can support one party in their constituency and a different one in their region.
Redfield and Wilton’s poll showed that in the constituency section Labour would lead across Wales with 41% of votes. The Conservatives were on 21%, Plaid Cymru 20%, Reform UK on 8% and the Liberal Democrats on 5%.
In the regional section, Labour would get 32% of the vote, Plaid Cymru 23%, the Conservatives 22%, the Liberal Democrats 8% and Reform UK 7%.
Interesting as these results may be in themselves, they are of very limited value in explaining what may happen at the next Senedd election in 2026.
By then, the number of seats will go up from 60 to 96 and a new voting system will be in place. The current two-tier system will be scrapped and in future all MSs will be elected by a form of PR. Voters will choose the single party they wish to support and seats will, in theory, be allocated to parties in line with the level of support they receive.
Some people are unhappy that parties will choose the order in which their candidates will be elected, with no opportunity for voters to make a choice of their own, as in other PR systems like STV. Plaid Cymru agreed to back Labour’s take-it-or-leave-it offer of what is known as the “closed list” system because otherwise the increase in the number of MSs – seen as necessary given the increase in the Senedd’s powers and the need for better scrutiny – would not have gone ahead.
With the backing of Plaid, Labour will have the two thirds majority it needs to pass the required legislation.
It’s common for analysts to make projections from polling data about the number of seats each party would be likely to win. Until now, such projections have been based on the existing two-tier voting system.
But with the new voting arrangement coming in, it now makes sense for seat projections to be based on the closed list system – and that’s exactly what the public affairs company Camlas did with the results of the first Redfield and Wilton poll.
The results are fascinating and illustrate the new factors that will be in play for party strategists to be aware of.
Camlas did two separate projections for the “closed list” Senedd – one based on the constituency results and the other based on the party votes in regions.
If parties win the proportion of votes they are expected to get in the constituency section of the ballot, Labour would win 51 of the 96 seats, Plaid Cymru 22, the Conservatives 20, Reform UK 2 and the Liberal Democrats 1. Such results would give Labour its first ever overall majority since the first devolved election in 1999.
The results are, however, quite different when projections are made from the current regional polling figures, with Labour winning 40 seats, the Conservatives 26, Plaid Cymru 25, the Liberal Democrats 4 and Reform UK 1.
There are a number of variables that explain the discrepancy between the two projections.
Under the current system, voters can make choices that won’t be available to them in future – most obviously their ability to split their votes between two parties.
Some voters have a more sophisticated understanding of the way the two-tier system works than others. A Labour voter living in Cardiff West, for example, may have chosen to vote for Mark Drakeford in the constituency, but realising that Labour was unlikely to win a “top-up” seat in South Wales Central, gave their regional vote to Plaid Cymru, in the hope that would give another left-leaning party an advantage over the Conservatives.
Equally a Plaid Cymru supporter may give their constituency vote to Labour in a Labour-Tory marginal seat that the Conservatives could win, while voting for Plaid in the region.
Many other permutations based on tactical voting are possible.
Another quirk of the current system is that some party supporters are so tribal in their approach that they will not contemplate voting for another party in any circumstances. Thus, for example, at every election there are many thousands of wasted Labour votes in the South Wales West regional section of the ballot. Labour has consistently won all seven constituency seats in the region and therefore has no hope of winning a regional top-up seat. Yet at the last Senedd election in 2021, 78,318 Labour supporters in the region wasted their votes by voting for the party.
It’s difficult to predict at this stage how voters will adapt to the closed list system.
Will the voter who normally backs Labour in Cardiff West and Plaid in the region give their single vote to Labour or could they be tempted to transfer their allegiance to Plaid Cymru?
Most will decide based on their feelings about the parties at the time although a minority may make their choice based on whether they like or dislike particular candidates who are in with a chance of winning.
Another factor will be the eventual configuration of the new super-constituencies that will be set up. With the hope of having a gender-balanced Senedd, all seats will be twinned with a neighbour and the results will be influenced by decisions about which seats will partner each other.
Once such decisions are made, future seat projections will be easier to calculate.
However, they will never be foolproof. Projections are based on the assumption of uniform Wales-wide voting patterns, and we all know there are local variations.
But one prediction can be made with certainty. The dream for some of a Tory-free Wales following an electoral wipeout isn’t a runner.
Wipe-outs of that kind are only possible for the Conservative Party in Wales in the context of an election fought using first-past-the-post. With around 25% of Welsh voters committed to voting Tory, Andrew RT Davies and his successors will be a feature of Welsh political life for the foreseeable future.
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