Unless we change Wales’ voting system public engagement will continue to spiral downwards

Picture by Illustrade

Keith Darlington

The result of the Welsh Labour leadership election is due to be announced on December 6th. As yet, it has hardly attracted any interest from the public – or even from Labour members in Wales.

As Prof. Roger Scully shows, there is very little interest in this contest and the polls make grim reading for the future of Welsh politics.

Of course, the dearth of media interest in Welsh politics is partly to blame. But we should also be concerned about our voting system, which has given us one-party dominance of power on a vote share of barely more than 1 in 3 of those who cast their votes at the last election.

This has become a regular pattern.  As a strong supporter of the Assembly, I care about its future survival.

In this article, I make the case for a change to our voting system to a more proportional representation system where vote share more closely reflects the number of seats a party wins.

The Assembly voting system

The Assembly has a different voting system to the First Past the Post (FPTP) system used for general elections to the Westminster Parliament.

The system is known as the additional member system because as well as a vote for a FPTP candidate, to elect 40 constituency AMs, they get to vote for additional members by having another ballot paper to vote for another four AMs from each of the five electoral regions. This is known as a list system.

These 20 additional members are supposed to make sure that representation for each region matches the share of the votes cast for each party as closely as possible.

Whilst this part is more proportional, the remaining 40 seats are FPTP. Yet, the proportion of list seats are lower in Wales than Scotland making it less proportional.

And whilst the FPTP component is not enough to give Labour big majorities, it is always enough to ensure that Labour is the largest party in the Welsh Assembly.

No change

To be fair to Labour, they did consult with the other parties before setting up the Assembly.

However, according to Prof Scully: “Labour offered the minimum proportional element necessary to win Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat support for its devolution proposals in the 1990s.

“Many within Labour, though, appear to resent even this modest concession to proportionality: Labour have dominated the majority of constituency seats at every Assembly election and without the list element would therefore have won clear majorities every time”.

This is exactly what has happened in each of the five Assembly elections fought since 1999. Thus, Labour has always been the largest party by virtue of the FPTP element, winning almost all the seats in the Valleys where they pick up 20+ seats.

The number of seats that Labour have won since 1999, have varied between 26 and 30, and this very narrow range means that the political colours on this map have hardly changed since 1999.

The alternative

As a result, Labour has always been able to form a government with, or without, the support of the other parties.

This is also partly due to the reluctance of some of the other parties to support the Tories. For example, when Leanne Wood was Plaid Cymru leader, she ruled out going into any deal with the Tories.

Yet the arithmetical calculations for the last two decades show that a deal with the Tories is the only way to ensure that an alternative government comes to power in Wales.

For example, in the 2007 Assembly elections, Labour won 26 seats and there was talk about a Rainbow” Coalition between Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats.

However, the talks broke down in part because both Plaid and the Lib Democrats were concerned that their brand would be tainted if they did a deal with the Tories in Wales.

This means it is inconceivable that Labour will ever be out of power in Wales. Yet, their vote share was less than 35% in the last election!

Diminishing engagement

This should be of concern to all parties – including the Labour party. For in a recent poll of Labour leadership candidates, Eluned Morgan claimed 15% of the vote. Vaughan Gething and Mark Drakeford both polled 9%, with “None of the above” polling 10%.

The number of undecided was 58%. This means that the three candidates combined polled less than one-third of the total.

This is hardly a good reflection of the state of Welsh politics. If democracy is to flourish, it must be seen to be fair and have a capacity to change governing parties – otherwise, its purpose becomes undermined.

According to Paul Chaney, one party hegemony has been show to distort civil society policy engagement. He also says that over time, diminished civil society engagement will strengthen the dominant party and thus perpetuate a downward spiral such that a change of governing party is even less likely.

Leadership

Another consequence of Labour hegemony is that any elected leader is almost certain to stay in the post until they choose to retire.

Both Carwyn Jones, and before him Rhodri Morgan, were beneficiaries of this legacy. But they were quite well known and both had high approval ratings from voters. They were also both good at selling Wales to the world.

But the current front-runner for the post of First Minister, Mark Drakeford, by his own admission, does not like doing interviews nor does he look forward to First Minister questions.

He may be a competent finance minister, but that hardly implies he can fulfil the figurehead role that a First Minister should play in helping Wales to get its share of inward investment, and so on.

If an incumbent fails to perform this role, how could they ever be removed other than by Labour losing an Assembly election? Which, as I have already stated, is extremely unlikely under the current electoral system.

Change the electoral system

In a report on the Welsh Assembly constitution published in December 2017, there were calls for an increase in the number of AMs from 60 to 90 and a reduction in the voting age.

However, little was said about the need for reform to our voting system in this report.

Electoral reform has been discussed in Westminster for many years. The Liberal Democrats have been the main exponents of electoral reform but it has had some support from across the political spectrum.

FPTP has been seen as unfair and leads to disinterest in many seats where a party is sitting on a large majority.

Yet, these flaws are even more pronounced in the Welsh system than Westminster, where there is a balance between the two main parties and governments change at least every decade or so.

We need a more proportional electoral system in Wales if democracy is to mean what it should.

Otherwise, I fear that if we get the same outcomes in Assembly elections for the next 20 years, public engagement with the institution will continue to diminish.

And UKIP, a party now committed to abolishing the Welsh Parliament, might get its way one day.

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