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Opinion

Scrap the Closed List voting system – or risk the end of devolution

21 Jan 2024 7 minute read
The Siambr. Picture by Julian Nitzsche. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Martin Shipton

If Labour and Plaid Cymru take scrutiny as seriously as their MSs claim, there’s no longer any excuse for keeping the proposed Closed List voting system for future Senedd elections.

This undemocratic and disempowering proposal could mark the beginning of the end for devolution – it’s that serious.

The main justification for increasing the number of Senedd Members from 60 to 96 is that there’s the need for more scrutiny of Welsh Government policies and decisions. Particularly important is the scrutiny of proposed legislation: the last thing Wales needs is bad lawmaking.

On the issue of Senedd reform, the committee scrutinising the Welsh Government’s Bill on the issue has now published a 226-page report that examines the proposals in great detail and with exemplary thoroughness. It’s no surprise to me that the committee has given Closed List an emphatic thumb’s down.

The committee took evidence from a large number of individuals and organisations and concluded that the Closed List system should not be proceeded with and that two alternative voting systems – Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Flexible List – should be considered instead.

Increasing the number of MSs means having multi-member constituencies. The proposal is to create 16 six-member seats covering the whole of Wales. Under Closed List, people would vote for parties rather than individuals, although it would be possible to vote for individuals standing as Independents.

By contrast, the STV proportional representation system, which is widely used in many countries, makes it possible for voters to choose the individual candidates they want to support. Instead, under Closed List, political parties will decide how to rank their list of candidates.

Evidence

The committee’s report devotes 28 pages to considering the advantages and disadvantages of Closed List and related matters, concluding: (The) evidence we have received suggests [Closed List] would reduce voter choice, prioritise the influence and wishes of political parties over those of voters, erode Members’ links and accountability to their constituents, and introduce an effective electoral threshold of around 12% at a constituency level, with potential implications for the electoral chances of individuals and smaller parties.

“Getting the electoral system right is fundamental to the health of democracy in Wales. Having considered the evidence carefully, and notwithstanding the potential increase in proportionality that a closed list system could deliver, we have significant reservations about whether a Bill that implements closed lists necessarily represents a positive step forward for democracy in Wales.”

The committee goes on to recommend that “(the) Member in charge [Counsel General Mick Antoniw] should work with all political parties represented in the Senedd to reach agreement on how the Bill could be amended … to ensure the electoral system provides greater voter choice and improved accountability for future Members to their electorates”.

One of the specialists in the field of elections who gave evidence to the committee, Jess Blair, the director of Electoral Reform Society Cymru, welcomed the publication of the Reform Bill Committee’s report on its scrutiny to date, saying: “This is a really vital piece of legislation in strengthening our Welsh Parliament and it’s vital that Members work to make this the best that it can be.

“In terms of the committee’s recommendations we agree with the committee’s concerns around the proposed Closed List voting system. This is a system that will remove voter choice, weakens accountability and will leave voters feeling that their voices cannot be properly heard. We endorse the committee’s suggestion that this is amended as the Bill progresses to ensure a system that delivers accountability for voters and remains proportional is delivered.”

In the evidence she gave to the committee, Ms Blair rejected the idea that Closed List should be used for the next Senedd election in 2026, but reviewed afterwards and replaced by a system that gives individual voters more power at the subsequent election in 2030. Quite rightly, in my view, she suggests that many voters will be so alienated by the initial change that they won’t come back for more.

To use a fanciful horse racing metaphor, Closed List is like a donkey that has been injected with a performance enhancing drug and goes on to win the Derby. Nobody advocated it in public before it was announced as a deal cooked up between Mark Drakeford and Adam Price, when the latter was the leader of Plaid Cymru. It seemed to come from nowhere.

Short shrift

The Expert Panel chaired by Professor Laura McAllister that made recommendations about Senedd reform gave it short shrift more than six years ago and the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales that Prof McAllister jointly chaired with Dr Rowan Williams rubbished it in the report it has just published.

Those in Labour and Plaid who signed off on the Closed List proposal haven’t explained satisfactorily how it came to be the favoured option. Mr Price once told me rather sheepishly that it had been put forward on a “take it or leave it” basis by Mr Drakeford. It’s difficult to find anyone who is openly enthusiastic about it.

Mick Antoniw, the Counsel General and Constitutional Affairs Minister whose task it is to see the reform package through the Senedd, usually speaks with passion about a proposal he believes in, but on this he has appeared to be going through the motions. Various explanations have been made to me about why we’ve been landed with Closed List.

It’s been suggested that it’s been designed to placate sitting MSs for whom an open list would increase their vulnerability. It’s also been said that it was a secret deal to keep Welsh MPs on board. Whatever the reason,it is deeply disturbing that there’s been a total lack of candour about what’s gone on behind the scenes. This is the very opposite of what we need.

Docility

We can also do without a Senedd where candidates have been given prime spots on their party lists on the basis of their docility and willingness to toe the party line. We desperately need independent thinkers who can defeat the control freakery of apparatchiks who want to shut down mavericks.

We all know that engagement with the Senedd as an institution is a problem. Although polling shows there is support for devolution, there is also evidence that many still don’t understand where power lies over particular policy areas, 25 years after what began life as the National Assembly for Wales came into being. Indeed, recent polling undertaken for the Commission that has just reported confirmed there had been no advance in public understanding in this area over the past decade, despite expanding Senedd legislation and the heightened visibility of the Welsh Government during the Covid pandemic.

Wales needs more people to be engaged with the politics of Wales, not less. To contemplate taking power away from people as they vote rather than enhancing their ability to choose who represents them would be an appalling mistake and turn many off.

The committee report, to which cross-party representatives have signed up, the significant disquiet about Closed List outside the Senedd and the election of a new Welsh Labour leader and First Minister provide between them a perfect opportunity for a re-think on this issue. It must be grasped. If it isn’t, I genuinely fear for the future of devolution.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago

If Plaid go with closed lists they won’t get my vote again…

What happened to the Falklands and Argentina item?

Last edited 4 months ago by Mab Meirion
James E
James E
4 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Ok well let’s just go back to First Past The Post, elect 72 MSs, two for each UK constituency (no lists), and Labour can win every election with a easy majority with only 36% of the vote and VG can be First Minister unchallenged for the next ten years. No Green MSs, no wildcard Lib Dems, Plaid can represented in Welsh speaking areas only only and we can all just give up on gradual progress altogether.

aw savill
aw savill
4 months ago

Well argued article

Layton Percy Jones
Layton Percy Jones
4 months ago

I’m a strong believer in devolution and independence, but the closed list system is an afront to our democracy.

James E
James E
4 months ago

Trust me, it’s not. First Past The Post has ruined the UK more than you know.

Richard E
Richard E
4 months ago

A well constructed and thoughtful
contribution of course but just WHO is behind this closed party hack proposal ?

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
4 months ago

Absolutely agree with Martin’s call for closed lists to be dropped, and with his suggestion that the fairer and more democratic Single Transferable Vote be adopted for future elections to what will be a expanded Senedd. Those of us who struggled to convince a somewhat sceptical welsh public of the case for devolution for wales over a quarter of a century ago didnt do so to put alot of the power over who gets to sit in Wales’ parliament in the hands of party hacks (which is what the closed list system sadly does to a large extent) But let’s… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by Leigh Richards
Rob
Rob
4 months ago

It will be even more noticeable in rural areas where constituencies are going to be much larger. Is an individual standing on a platform to save Withybush Hospital for example going to have to campaign on the streets of Aberystwyth to get themselves elected? What happens if all elected members happen to come from one single area? At least in Westminster you’re guaranteed at least one representative for your constituency, and can be recalled by petition if necessary. This is definitely going to play into the hands of not just the anti-devolutionists, but also those who want to maintain first… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
4 months ago

STV please. The closed list systrm is awful. It favours Tories in two contradictory ways. First, it returns members such as Andrew RT Davies who would not be likely to win a constituency election. Secondly, they will, without any sense of shame or irony use it to drag the Senedd into disrepute. They are a clear danger to our parliament. Sadly, on this matter, they will have a legitimate point. Closed lists gives power to parties. It is wholly unacceptable and it will bring the Senedd into disrepute. It must be stopped.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
4 months ago

I agree with those concerned. We want to engage voters not alienate them. If there are serious flaws with the Closed List voting system should be either re-evaluated , changed, or dropped entirely. Today we had Anglophile Robert Buckland react to the likelihood of Policing & Criminal Justice being devolved to Wales. His hostility was evident. He ranted, and I quote. “Devolving Justice powers to Wales would be a calamitous mistake”. And he said, “the England & Wales jurisdiction was a good thing”. The England & Wales jurisdiction a good thing, Robert? What, Wales being regarded as an appendage of… Read more »

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
4 months ago

Excellent article. Closed lists are an attack on the democratic right of people to choose our representatives and the proposal should be dropped. Why on earth did anybody think this would be an acceptable idea?

Every voter has the right to know who we are voting for, otherwise our Senedd would just become an elected dictatorship!

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

After a quarter century of one party we must think of a new term, whoever replaces MD must be absolutely transparent no more Mr Shifties, which excludes both contenders in my opinion…

This is not the way forward unless less scrutiny is the order of the day because politicians of all stripes simply cannot be trusted. If we have learnt anything since Maggie, Blair, Cameron. Fat Shanks and the latest spouter of lying drivel it is that we are seen as dim-witted fools to be taken advantage of.

Bryn
Bryn
4 months ago

Could not agree more.
STV is the better option by far.

James E
James E
4 months ago
Reply to  Bryn

It’s decent for local democracy because it enables localist parties or individuals in a community who aren’t attached to a party to get elected. But it’s not brilliant for parliamentary politics. It can lead to somewhat weak and disjointed parliaments in Ireland where there are lots of independents with unclear party affiliations, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fiall being stronger because of it.

HarrisR
HarrisR
4 months ago

There is a classic 2013 book by the late political scientist Peter Mair, called “Ruling the Void”, the hollowing out of EU and UK politics to another level and to the point of popular disaffection and elite rule. That’s precisely what has happened and has given us Brexit and every other manifestation of recent years. At a time when politicians (all parties) are regarded as something you scrape of your shoes and virtually every Welsh institution is now in crisis, the very LAST thing we need is another brick through the window of electoral engagement and GENUINE ACCOUNTABILITY We really… Read more »

Neil McEvoy
Neil McEvoy
4 months ago

Compliance & uniformity of thinking is the biggest feature of Cardiff Bay politics. The corruption of Welsh politics is greater than that of Westminster, but there is barely any scrutiny, so people do not know. I was expelled from the Bay for asking questions of lobbyists, when told not to do so by all major Plaid players. With hindsight, that was the main issue: hence closed lists & control.

Richard E
Richard E
4 months ago
Reply to  Neil McEvoy

Neil.

Speaking out is never popular with the “ cardiff bay luvies “ and their lobby chums – but we need everyone on board to push a simple Cymru First agenda.

Division in the wider nationalist family only benefits ARTD and gang or those in Labour who let us down at every turn.

All of us need to put our personal antagonisms – however justified behind us for the sake of our nation without loosing ability to speak out on issues such as this party hacks proposal

hdavies15
hdavies15
4 months ago
Reply to  Richard E

Telling a victim to know his place is not a good look. Address your criticisms to those who engaged in corrupt and deviant behaviours.

Erisian
Erisian
4 months ago

It would be worse than an eternal three-line whip. There is huge difference between unity and group-think.

Oh and please, get the writer a copy of Fowler … “should not be proceeded with” !!??
What’s wrong with “Should not go ahead” ?

Gwyn Hopkins
Gwyn Hopkins
4 months ago

If asked, I believe most people in Wales would support Senedd elections being conducted using the most democratic procedure available, i.e., the Single Transferable Voting system. The only reason that the lesser democratic Closed List system is to be foisted on us is because Welsh Labour has a vested interest in it. This is because it is very likely to, unfairly, give them a considerably higher percentage of Senedd Members than their overall percentage vote merits. Moreover, this system is almost certain to reduce voter turnout from already low levels (considerably less than 50%).          
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                                                                                                                             

hdavies15
hdavies15
4 months ago

” Deal cooked up between…..” sums up the integrity of this Closed List scam. To ensure some quality of democratic process the electorate should be able to vote for as many candidates as needed to make up the representation at Y Senedd. To give the new structure some semblance of realism let’s have 32 x 3 members or even 48 x 2, but 16 x 6 with Closed Lists sounds like a totalitarian gathering.

Ianto
Ianto
4 months ago

This proposal, if enacted, would mean the likely leader of the opposition – yes, I mean the Tory leader – would effectively be elected by a mere handful of elderly extremists who can be bothered to stump up for party membership. Just as our next FM is being decided upon by however many members Welsh Labour has. Democracy Kremlin-style.

James E
James E
4 months ago

Martin, I believe this article has many points, but I think it lacks a modern understanding of how the tussle and compromise of voting systems in a democracy works and is at times misleading. We already use the closed list system to elect 33% of our MSs (20), and that iin itself hasn’t posed a risk to devolution. The other 40 out of 60 MSs are elected by First Past The Post, which as shown by every UK general election in the last years, is even worse at getting the people (especially the parties) we want elected. In many instances,… Read more »

James E
James E
4 months ago

I fee like if PC somehow had anything approaching a majority, local elections would be STV, and Welsh elections would be STV or open list PR by now. Labour are more inviting to lobbyists I’d say from what I’ve heard. Closed-list PR is pretty common around Europe and better than first past the post at least.

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