STV could be the radical change Welsh democracy needs

The Senedd. Picture: Smoobs (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

It’s the recommendation that the Welsh Assembly needs 20 to 40 new members to scrutinise legislation which will grab the headlines today.

But what caught my eye in the expert panel report requested by the Assembly Commission was that the legislature should move to a STV voting system.

It’s generally accepted by most AMs that our parliament requires more lawmakers to scrutinise its legislation, although there will be some resistance by unionists who do not wish to see devolution strengthened further.

The move from Proportional Representation to Single Transferable Vote is likely to be more controversial, however.

Under STV, rather than choosing one party to represent them, voters list candidates in order of preference.

So, for instance, you could vote for Joe Bloggs of Labour and put Jane Doe of the Liberal Democrats as a second preference should Joe Bloggs not get in.

STV is a more democratic voting system, and does a good job of ensuring that the number of elected members aligns closely with the percentage of votes.

It also allows much more opportunity for independent, local candidates who want to campaign on issues that are outside of the mainstream.

For instance, a ‘Voice of Gwynedd’ candidate getting elected as an AM would have been pretty much impossible under PR when he or she would have needed votes from across the north of Wales.

Under STV, however, such a candidate could easily be voted in as a third or fourth choice in a multi-member ward covering the Gwynedd council area.

STV would also allow, for instance, a voter to choose a radical pro-independence candidate but to place Plaid Cymru as the second choice on the ballot paper.

If the radical pro-independence candidate failed to win a seat, that vote would then safely pass to Plaid Cymru. Under PR this couldn’t be done without splitting the vote.

As a result, STV could allow new, radical voices to be heard that would introduce some unpredictability into Welsh politics.

It would be a big improvement on the current arrangement, which is mainly FPTP with a sprinkling of proportional representation thrown in to elect 20 of the 60 AMs.

The adoption of STV could be a new milestone in the development of a Welsh parliament, and break the country out of the undemocratic two-party system which is locked into place at Westminster.

Unsure

The big question of course is ‘will these changes happen?’ They need a two thirds majority in the Assembly so the Labour party has a big say in whether to introduce or discard them.

The current electoral system was designed to get both Labour and nationalist politicians on board with devolution.

It essentially ensures that Labour get very close to a majority of AMs while ensuring that smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru aren’t squeezed out as they are at Westminster.

Labour seem unsure about the changes. They’ve already announced that they won’t be considered until 2019. So, if they go through, it could be the 2026 election before they’re implemented!

However, I think Labour have little to fear from STV. At worst, it may make coalitions a little more likely, but it won’t threaten Labour’s overall dominance should they maintain support at present levels.

Labour is very much the vanilla option in Wales and they could well find themselves picking up second preference votes from both Plaid Cymru’s socialists as well as Tory-supporting unionists in rural areas.

The other big winner from STV could be the Lib Dems. Although not currently relevant enough to Wales’ politics to be many people’s first choice, they are inoffensive and centralist enough to be chosen as a second or third option by many voters.

Plaid Cymru could struggle in seats where there’s a strong anti-nationalist coalition which tends to coalesce around a unionist alternative, such as in Ceredigion.

However, it is worth noting that their two Police and Crime Commissioners were chosen under a similar system to STV, where voters could express a second preference.

Who would lose out most from STV? Personally, I think it could be the Conservatives, and perhaps (if they still exist) UKIP.

While they have a strong core vote there are many in Wales who would not vote for them under any circumstances, so they are perhaps less likely to benefit from second or third preferences.

Of course, with UK politics in such flux, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen this week let alone in 2026. We could be looking at a completely different political landscape by then.

But whichever parties are in the running and whatever their condition, we should ensure now that the system in place for electing them is as fair as possible.

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