For the sake of devolution, Plaid must insist on electoral reform as the price of any post-election deal
Opinion polls for the forthcoming Senedd elections are quite volatile but they again show that, despite looking likely to lose some seats, Labour will again be the largest party without securing an overall majority. This is the same outcome as in all the previous five Senedd elections.
This means that a Labour/Plaid deal is the most likely outcome, with Plaid possibly becoming a junior partner in a coalition. In this article, I explain why I believe that Plaid must insist on electoral reform as the price of any deal.
Our voting system elects 60 Senedd members, 40 of which are elected on a first past the post basis – as is used in the Westminster general elections. The other twenty are elected on a regional list system. Since the Senedd elections began 22 years ago, they have always delivered the same outcome: Labour able to form a government either on their own or able to cobble together a ruling coalition with the support of one other party or a few individual Senedd members.
The Senedd voting system was originally designed with some commendable aims: to include some element of proportionality in the system to prevent one-party attaining dominance. But this has not happened because unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd voting system is still highly weighted towards FPTP.
This FPTP component leaves a large in-built bias towards Labour – even with the list component added. For example, in the last Senedd election, despite winning fewer than 35% of the votes cast, Labour won 29 seats, just two short of a majority. As a result, they were able to form a majority government with the backing of one independent MS – elected originally as a Plaid Cymru representative – and the single Lib Dem.
Given Labour’s historic hold on the constituencies in the south-east valleys, it is almost impossible for other parties, even with a collective higher share of the vote across Wales, to prevent them from becoming the largest party in the Senedd.
Of course, one-party dominance is fine if that is what the people want – but they clearly don’t. In the last Senedd election, only one out of three voters supported Labour. A party securing permanent power on this proportion of votes is not exactly ruling with authority from the voters.
Some may say that there are other arithmetical combinations in the Senedd that enable alternative governments. But they should remember that parties on the progressive left have ruled out working with the Tories – and have done so for many years. For example, both Leanne Wood and Adam Price have ruled out working with the Tories and the Tories have ruled out working with Plaid.
The only election where a non-Labour deal was contemplated was in the 2007 Senedd elections. At the time, Labour won 26 seats – not enough to form a single-party government. After these elections, discussions were held between Plaid, the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats about a ‘Rainbow Coalition’. According to a BBC opinion poll, it was the most popular option at that time. But the idea failed because the party leaders knew that they would not be able to sell the deal to their members.
In theory, yes, a left-wing Welsh nationalist party could do a deal with a right-wing Unionist party to keep Labour out of power. But we’re not dealing with theory, we’re dealing with practice. And in practice, Labour are essentially locked into power.
If this pattern continues for much longer, it is going to discredit Welsh democracy. If governing parties are never changed, why bother to vote? This can lead to apathy and lack of participation. This pattern has made the Senedd vulnerable to attacks from Abolish the Assembly and UKIP who claim that Wales is becoming a one-party state.
Beyond giving Labour an in-built advantage, there are other problems with Wales’ FPTP system that means it should be done away with.
FPTP encourages voters to vote for candidates that they don’t support. This is called tactical voting and it happens when voters live in a constituency where two candidates are in a close contest. A tactical voter may choose to vote for one of these instead of their preferred candidate to prevent another candidate from winning. This is negative voting and has become common in FPTP systems.
Furthermore, in seats where large majorities are stacked up for one party (which make up about half of those in Wales), many voters believe that their votes are meaningless because they know that their vote is unlikely to impact the result. So many voters feel that voting for an alternative party is pointless.
A truly proportional voting system would ensure that every vote counts – irrespective of where a voter lives. This could also lead to a higher turnout, and be good for public engagement with Welsh politics. This is reason enough on its own for Plaid Cymru to back it.
The historical data for the five previous Senedd elections show that these flaws in our system needs urgent reform. There are those who say that voting reform is of minor importance. I disagree. Abolish voices are getting louder, partly because our voting system is not fit for purpose.
No system is perfect but our system must be reformed in a way that gives more proportionality to its outcomes. Otherwise, voter disengagement will continue and voter turnout, already very low, will continue to spiral downwards.
Unfortunately, Labour are likely to resist any voting reform because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and Labour have gained from the existing system by having permanent power. Mark Drakeford has already said in a recent interview, that he does not see a need for reform.
Plaid however must recognise the importance of this and only negotiate a coalition deal with Labour if a fairer and more representative system of electoral reform is on the table.