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