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Opinion

Is there any point in having more Senedd Members if we’re lumbered with the Closed List voting system?

26 Nov 2023 7 minute read
Senedd Chamber Picture by the Welsh Government.

Martin Shipton

Members of the Senedd have a great opportunity to perform a service to Wales: by rejecting the iniquitous Closed List electoral system that risks undermining our national democracy.

In what many Labour Party members themselves see as an act of extreme control freakery, the Welsh Government seems determined to foist this dangerous arrangement on us.

It’s dangerous because rather than encouraging more people to vote in Senedd elections and participate in our political life, it is likely to increase the sense of alienation that many already feel.

If the plan goes ahead, people will not have the freedom to vote for individual candidates at future Senedd elections. Instead their single vote will have to be cast for a list of party candidates ranked in order according to the whims of those involved in the selection process.

Internal party democracy

Despite any claims party officials may make about internal party democracy, there is plenty of evidence to show that, especially in the Labour Party, when it comes to the selection of candidates, party officials will manipulate processes so they get their own way.

To take just one recent example, the other day the Labour Party announced all four of its Police and Crime Commissioner candidates in Wales. In none of the four force areas did local party members have a say in the selection. Officially they were the only candidates who applied. No doubt that’s what they say in North Korea.

Welsh democracy desperately needs to be shaken up by a new generation of MSs who are capable of independent thought. Too many of the current batch are tribal loyalists content to push the electronic voting button as instructed by their party whip.

It’s possible to be broadly loyal to the party under whose colours you stood for election, while also on occasion acting like a maverick when the cause is right and in line with your conscience. Who wants to be represented by a nodding dog, like the annoying toy in the rear window of my parents’ car when I was a boy? That’s what we can expect if the Closed List plan goes through.

In my view too much attention has been given to the proposal to increase the number of Senedd Members from 60 to 96. The fact of the matter is that the Senedd has been too small from the outset.

The Scottish Parliament has 129 MSPs and the Northern Ireland Assembly 90 MLAs. Despite the constant populist whingeing from the Tories, the institution needs more members so it can function better, with the hope of better scrutiny.

But that is dependent on the quality of the extra members and the imposition of the Closed List system puts that in jeopardy.

Mounting opposition

I’m pleased to say that opposition to Closed Lists is mounting. The other day I attended Professor Laura McAllister’s Welsh Political Archive Annual Lecture at Cardiff University. She’s a crucial figure in moves to reform the Senedd. More than a decade ago she sat on the Silk Commission, which recommended that the then National Assembly should be granted primary law making powers.

That came to pass. Then six years ago she chaired an expert panel that recommended an increase in the number of Senedd Members and a change to the Senedd’s electoral system.

But as she made clear in her lecture the other evening, she is no fan of Closed Lists. She said: “I recently gave evidence to the Committee that’s examining the new Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. There’s plenty to applaud in the Bill, but some elements that need serious challenge.

Our Expert Panel rejected the Closed List PR system at the first stage of evaluation, for two simple reasons: it reduces voter choice and creates no direct lines of accountability with electors; and secondly, it encourages the over-dominance of the party machine. Closed Lists put more power into the hands of party bosses, risking rewarding loyalty and longevity, rather than calibre and contribution. Closed Lists promote conservatism and conformism, risking a race to the bottom.”

Like most academics, Prof McAllister tends to be measured in her criticisms, but on this occasion her passionate – and in my view legitimate – opposition to Closed Lists shone through. She deserves to be listened to.

Plaid Cymru

One factor that has puzzled many is the way that Plaid Cymru seemed to roll over and accept the Closed List as part of the Cooperation Agreement with Labour following the 2021 Senedd election. Because of the way the relevant piece of legislation was framed, the proposed Senedd reform changes need a two thirds majority. Plaid provides the numbers required for Labour’s plan to become law.

Despite Plaid as a party being a longstanding supporter of the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation (STV, which gives voters the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference), there was no public row and the Closed List was acceded to.

Former Plaid leader Adam Price told me later that Mark Drakeford had made it clear to him that there could be no compromise on the Closed List. It was seen by Labour as an essential part of the reform package, which was offered to Plaid on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Without the Closed List, the Senedd would not be expanded.

Yet there is strong support for STV both within and outside Labour. In 2017 Prof McAllister’s expert panel backed STV for the Senedd, stating in their report that STV “maximises [the] power of voters to express nuanced preferences for individual candidates (including independent candidates) rather than parties”.

Then during the last Senedd term a Committee on Senedd Reform chaired by Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney MS Dawn Bowden carried out a public consultation exercise and produced a report which recommended STV as the proposed voting system.

What’s frustrating is that there is no candour from Labour about why the Closed List is now favoured. When in September last year I sought an explanation from Labour MS Huw Irranca-Davies, who had chaired yet another committee on Senedd reform, as to why he was now backing the Closed List rather than STV, a system he had previously supported, I got a statement that consisted of five sentences of waffle and no explanation.

It’s been suggested to me by one Labour Party member that the Closed List is being introduced to buy off some sitting MSs who wanted guarantees that they would be in electable list positions at the next election – something that couldn’t be assured under STV.

Stitch up

If that’s the reason for Closed Lists, our democracy is being subverted and Senedd reform is no more than a stitch-up designed to help a small number of Labour mediocrities continue their undistinguished careers for another term.

There’s an important date coming up: on December 13 the Counsel General and Minister for Constitutional Affairs Mick Antoniw will be questioned by members of the small committee examining the Bill for the second time.

On October 5, when he first appeared before the committee, Mr Antoniw was questioned about the reasons for insisting on the Closed List system by Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds, her party’s sole MS. The answer was a political one rather than a substantive one – that the proposal would be able to secure the support of two-thirds of the Senedd.

When Mr Antoniw makes his second and final appearance at the committee, he must be pressed for a proper answer to the question.

This crucial decision which has a great bearing on the future of our democracy must not be reduced to a game of mathematical one upmanship. It must be debated with all the relevant pieces of information in the public domain.

Labour’s lack of candour is further evidence of a stitch-up and risks pushing those who back in principle an expanded Senedd to a point where they conclude it’s not worth having if it means accepting the Closed List as well.


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KC Gordon
KC Gordon
6 months ago

…and what goes around …! Older Labour Party members will remember the stitch up of the very first Assembly election, for both the Labour Leader and the additional members lists. Has Cathedral Road learnt nothing?

Ianto
Ianto
6 months ago

Quite agree with Martin. This is a Putinesque bit of gerrymandering. For example, the dozen or so Tories likely to be represented will have effectively been “elected” by a handful of increasingly extreme right wingers who can be bothered to pay their membership fees.

Llyn
Llyn
6 months ago
Reply to  Ianto

Calling it “Putinesque” is rather ridiculous.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
6 months ago
Reply to  Llyn

Putinesque might be a somewhat extreme way of describing it, but it is nonetheless on a similar trajectory and would make our political system more susceptible to being taken over by authoritarian interests. Don’t forget who is leading the UK Labour Party… The increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian Keir Starmer.

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
6 months ago
Reply to  Llyn

No, in the context it was used in relation to gerrymandering – loading the lists with ideological allies, unpalatable to decent people, but who always vote “my party right or wrong” – Putinesque is VERY apt. Nobody is comparing the Tories with a regime like Putins that has rigged the system to stay in power, no longer bothers worrying about things like elections, demonises foreigners and LGBT folks, steals billions in public money, longs for its faded days of Empire and wishes to eradicate a sovereign nation to its West and steal all its resources for themselves. ….. Oh wait… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by Sarah Good
Paul ap Gareth
Paul ap Gareth
6 months ago
Reply to  Ianto

So it is Putinesque to have a Senedd that mirrors the democratic vote that is cast by the electorate?

Annibendod
Annibendod
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul ap Gareth

The problem is not the arithmetic – it’s the inability of the electorate to remove candidates by virtue of their vote. See Andrew RT Davies – would never win a constituency seat in his own right. Only gets in on the list.

Llyn
Llyn
6 months ago

I don’t agree with the closed list system. However, I am not convinced that leaving all selection decisions up to constituency parties makes for great candidates. This appears to lead to just those from a constituency being selected, which means that great party candidates from outside a party’s stronghold will be overlooked for lesser candidates from within those stronghold constituencies. Also, candidates completely in hoc to a constituency party appears to lead to pock barrel politics and politicians being obsessed with a policy/law’s impact on that constituency and not having any wider (Wales/UK wide) considerations.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
6 months ago
Reply to  Llyn

Being selected by a constituency party is a darned sight more democratic than a selection handed down from on high by a party leadership or politburo edict. There is no perfect system, and no human system will ever be, so we need the fairest systems available. Personally I see locally chosen candidates, no matter whether they are selected by local party constituencies or independent electors committees as a far more democratic option, and I see no reason why those who propose themselves, subject to the support of a given number of local electors, cannot appear on ballots. For sure, any… Read more »

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
6 months ago
Reply to  Llyn

And yet this is the core of democracy. If you deny the people the right to select their candidates because they are not qualified to do so, then you are not operating a democracy, but an autocracy masquerading as a democracy. Don’t get me wrong, I think we have been an autocracy from the beginning. Democracy is a myth. A scam we have been sold by the snake oil salesmen we have been convinced are better than us and have all the answers. Truth be told even if we had a real democracy ever , it has never been about… Read more »

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
6 months ago
Reply to  Llyn

I dont think parachuting a candidate into a constituency is a good way forward. Surely democracy is ‘… of the people, for the people, by the people’ .

Annibendod
Annibendod
6 months ago

Absolutely agree. I question why Drakeford has insisted on this and disappointed in Plaid for not fighting harder for STV. The Welsh Gov needs to be challenged and dissuaded from its present position. One only needs to look at one such beneficiary of the list system, namely Andrew RT Davies, to understand why it is such a dreadful choice for our democracy.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
6 months ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Whilst I agree with you about how utterly awful ARTD is, he does stand as a constant reminder as to why no-one in their right mind should vote Tory. Much as I’d love to see a complete wipeout of the Tories, or, at the very least, them reduced to the level of representation currently enjoyed by the FibDems, we do need one or two just to remind ourselves how bad they are.

Shifter
Shifter
6 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

I would rather see a wipeout of the liebour dictatorship party been in power for 26 years and bankrupted Wales and assisted with the useless plaid a who’s wasted vote and give the Welsh tories a chance and see what they can do for Wales if it doesn’t work out people can vote them out in five years simple.

Steve George
Steve George
6 months ago

Hear, hear! Excellent article.

David Smith
David Smith
6 months ago

Appears horse trading occurred to get the co-operation agreement over the line by those who feared the consequences of STV. However without strong local challenge those elected will be unable to provide quality scrutiny and prioritisation required with a contracting budget arising from UK Labour’s future five year spending plans.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
6 months ago

If we retain the status quo and keep the Senedd members to just 60 rather than the proposed 96 will just perpetuate the problem rather than solve it The problem is Welsh Labour and the closed system not the amount of additional members . It will still be an issue whether there’s 60 Senedd members so questioning “why bother” is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Our voice at Westminster is minimal at best, and seeing the Conservatives are cutting Wales MPs to 32 from 40, those Wales London MPs largely represent England not Wales need to amplify… Read more »

Bethan
Bethan
6 months ago

‘Control freakery’ ha! Yes that’s what it sounds like. How dare they. I know the power has gone to leaders heads in recent times but perhaps they need a refresher course in the purpose of the electoral process and their roles in that. They are not royalty. I know the setup of UK government blurs the lines on that, but why even have elections if candidates don’t properly represent local constituents choices? Bottom-up Senedd. Bottom-up.

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
6 months ago

Absolutely correct, Martin! The imposition of closed lists is so happily consonant with Starmer authoritarianism – sheer coincidence of course. More power to those Labour MSs with sufficient integrity and those of other parties who stand up against this shameless lurch into old-fashioned self-serving politics. It portrays Drakeford and the Welsh Labour Party in a very poor light. No doubt the Tories agree with them. In one of the few one-party states in the world, it is time for a voter rebellion while our votes can still have impact. Labour hegemony in Cymru and Tory/Labour hegemony at Westminster have not… Read more »

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
6 months ago

Maybe Martin Shipton could write an article describing how an open list system could work, with examples from around the world where it could be said to have made a difference.

Paul ap Gareth
Paul ap Gareth
6 months ago

All elections in Wales, Senedd run and British run, currently use a closed list system.
FPTP, used for Westminster, Senedd constituencies, PCC, councils etc…are closed list – a closed list of one candidate.
Additional Member, Senedd regions, is a closed list system also.

So why is it suddenly viewed as critical to have open lists? The move to entirely PR elections is good.

Annibendod
Annibendod
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul ap Gareth

The only virtue of FPTP is that I can vote for a different candidate if I so choose. The proposed system enormously dilutes the influence of my vote. I think you are deliberately ignoring this fatal flaw.

Dai Rob
Dai Rob
6 months ago

And in reality, most people couldn’t care less. The average man in the street probably couldnt name their AS….they vote for the party, not the canidate.

Elaine
Elaine
6 months ago

A closed list would allow the party the opportunity to exclude too many pro Indy ASs (from the leadership’s pov) from being elected as well.

Sikejsudjek
Sikejsudjek
6 months ago

If you believe in democracy you must allow the public the right to choose who is elected.

PeterC
PeterC
6 months ago

A closed list system has a number of fatal flaws, many detailed in this article. But the things that come to my mind are:
Straight forward bribery and fraud either of or by party bosses.
Complete disconnection from the voters.

Any system adopted must be transparent and easy to understand. It should ideally be explainable travelling in a lift between the ground and 10th floor (assuming you could ever get a politician to be so brief).

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