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Could Labour win a Senedd majority for the first time with new voting system?

26 Apr 2023 7 minute read
Polling station. Picture by the Welsh Government

Martin Shipton

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.

Regional seats

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.

Unhappy

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.

Variables

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.

Tactical voting

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.

Local variations

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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Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago

This is a terrible voting system for all sorts of reasons. The entrenchment of a semi-permanent Labour majority is one of them but probably not the worst. Plaid Cymru in particular may wish to bear in mind the adage ‘careful what you wish for’!

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen George

For a number of reasons the new voting system will more accurately reflect the views of the electorate. That could only be described as a “terrible voting system” if accurately reflecting the views of the electorate is deemed something to avoid.

Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago
Reply to  CapM

But it doesn’t accurately reflect the views of the electorate. What is proposed is 16, 6 member constituencies elected using the d’Hondt method. So take current voting intentions of around Labour 42%, Plaid and Tories 20%, Libs 5% and others about 13%. If applied consistently across the constituencies it would result in the following seat distribution: Labour 64 Tory 16 Plaid 16 Others 0 So on just over 40% of the vote, Labour could end up with a whopping 67% of the seats. Plaid and the Tories with 20% vote share would have only 16% of the seats each and… Read more »

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen George

Hi Stephen, may I ask where you got those figures from? Its not that I’m disputing them or disagreeing with you, I’m just curious as to how Labour would get 67% of the seats on 40% of the vote. Would that be down to the 10% threshold rule?
There is an interesting analysis here..
https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/news/2022/5/11/how-might-the-2021-senedd-election-have-looked-under-the-proposed-new-system

Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

I’ll confess this is a much more sophisticated analysis than mine. Mine is a simple extrapolation of a uniform vote across each constituency in Wales. This won’t happen in practice but swings and roundabouts mean that it is not unfeasible that a national vote share of 42: 20: 20: 5: 13 (where 13 is the aggregate of a number of parties and candidates) could produce a deeply disproportionate result. Basically that vote share would produce a 4:1:1 split based on the (not unrealistic) vote share I suggested in a six member constituency. I used the calculator here to work it… Read more »

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen George

“But it[the new system] doesn’t accurately reflect the views of the electorate.”
I said “more accurately” and I said so because whatever the current %s used to generate future results these %s do not take into account that under the new system tactical voting will be no where near as tempting or necessary and voters who now don’t bother because they live in safe seats of one party or another will have an incentive to vote.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

Although I am happy that they are getting rid of First Past the Post (inexcusable to retain such an outdated system in the 21st century), I would rather see STV instead, and ditch the idea of gender quotas. They should be selected on the ability to do the job not whether or not they are a man or woman. Also bear in mind that Labour are probably (although not certain) going to win the next UK election & therefore the 2026 election would be almost 2 years into a Starmer Premiership. As in most “midterms” people vote against the government,… Read more »

notimejeff
notimejeff
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

completely agree. If you want to vote for women you can do so under STV using your preferences. Labour want gender quotas. Instead of getting rid of safe seats they want safe seats for women. I won’t vote under this system.

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  notimejeff

My view is that voting, and that includes going to the effort of spoiling your ballot paper, entitles you to complain about the governance that you are then subject to for the next term
If you don’t vote you’ve no justification for complaining.

Paul
Paul
1 month ago

Martin you are a respected journalist. Your dig at a polling company lumping Wales in with the Midlands is a cheap jibe. The company you’re referring to I believe is/was YouGov, they certainly used to, they don’t any more, see this data table for example: https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/lbb9lcvy66/TheTimes_VI_230308_W.pdf (Warning though, this is a sub sample for Wales (and Scotland etc) not a full poll). The reason (YouGov) used to lump Wales in with the Midlands (East and West) was to ensure a geographic spread across GB with GB split up into chunks that are roughly the same size Their regions are: SCOTLAND… Read more »

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

“The reason (YouGov) used to lump Wales in with the Midlands (East and West) was” because they refused to recognise and perhaps even realise that Cymru was not just a part of greater England.


Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  CapM

Oh do shut up.

I said it wasn’t going to be popular on this site and I’ve just been proved right. You’ll hopefully see though (although I doubt you read it) that YouGov do now how national sub samples for Wales (just as Scotland), click on the link in my original comment for proof.

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

Both your comment and my reply to it refer to the situation as it “used” to be. We both gave a reason why we think YouGov “used” to lump results for Cymru with the English Midlands. You said “The reason (YouGov) used to lump Wales in with the Midlands (East and West) was to ensure a geographic spread across GB with GB split up into chunks that are roughly the same size” “geographic spread” has nothing to do with chunks of the same size. Either the poll covers all of Britain or it does not. In any case the chunks… Read more »

Keith Parry
Keith Parry
1 month ago

This is a carve up and is totally undemocratic. It gives total control to party leadership and will fill the Senedd with Yesmen..Plaid Cymru have sold their soul to the Devil once again in supporting this stich up
. How does an independent candidate stand? What of people of honesty and integrity who want nothing to do with party machines?
This should be put before the Supreme Court so it can be thrown out as undemocratic.It is worthy of the politics of the German Democratic Republic.

hdavies15
hdavies15
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith Parry

The good old GDR ! Superimpose mug shots of Drakeford, Price et al and they’d look quite at home on any old GDR paperwork. Our current generation of useless politics just love the elitist lifestyle favoured by the old Stasi top cats.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
1 month ago
Reply to  hdavies15

This is a reply to both Keith Parry and HDavies 15. You are both absolutely correct. The new “fair” system simply means that the party faithful will be chosen as candidates (I’m too polite to say party hacks) able to present their (lack of) ability behind the smoke screen of party labels.
I am appalled that Plaid Cymeu (er sorry..Welsh labour two) has agreed to a closed list, thus confirming the ability to choose candidates that suit the party and not the electorate.
Nice little arrangement will continue. Labour First Minister and Adam Price Deputy.
Wales deserves better.

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith Parry

“How does an independent candidate stand?”
They stand as a candidate and given that the system will not be FPTP they have a far greater chance of being elected.

If you want a “better” system such as STV then progressing towards it is less difficult to do from the new system than the old one. So thinking strategically and pragmatically those wishing for STV should, if not welcoming, be at least encouraged by the change.

Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago
Reply to  CapM

Given that independents have tended to be elected on quite local issues in the past, I would suggest that in 6 member constituencies, independents have next to zero chance of being elected. An independent would need to get around 20% of the vote across 6 grouped constituencies. Fat chance!

Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen George

*2 grouped constituencies not 6.

Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

Sorry, I meant a six member constituency. This would essentially be the size of around 2.5 current constituencies.

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen George

An independent would therefore need to get above 10.7% of the vote to get elected in a new constituency (around 2.5 current constituencies) according to the analysis in the link provided by Rob.
I’d say that was far from having “next to zero chance of being elected.” 

notimejeff
notimejeff
1 month ago
Reply to  CapM

STV is available and in use in NI and Scotland. There’s no justification for progressing towards it, it’s already there. They are afraid of it.

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  notimejeff

I understand that Plaid Cymru were in favour of STV however Labour were not.
An example of the rate of progress being set by the less progressive.
In this case the least progressive (reactionary) are the Tories.
At least some progress has been made.

notimejeff
notimejeff
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith Parry

I think the idea is to fill it with YesWomen.

Layton
Layton
1 month ago

In the shorter term this system will win the early elections. But plaid could play the longer game

Edward Hitchcock
1 month ago

Proportional representation is normally taken to mean that seats in the Assembly are assigned in proportion to party votes received by each party. The new Wales system does that and in a simple way. In each district parties will put up lists of potential members. People will vote for their preferred party and the number of seats for each will be in proportion to the number of votes received. This might be improved by using larger regions for calculating proportionality, as in MMP. The old AMS system differed significantly from MMP because it gave primacy to old FPTP seats, so… Read more »

Gruff Williams
Gruff Williams
1 month ago

How does this work in the actual voting. Does each voter just vote once for their preferred party?

Stephen George
Stephen George
1 month ago
Reply to  Gruff Williams

Yes.

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