In recent weeks, there has been much talk about the boundary changes that will reduce the number of Welsh constituencies at Westminster from 40 to 32.
The number of MPs in Wales will be reduced by eight under changes to Westminster’s electoral boundaries and that has nothing to do with fairness. However, if it is to happen then the Welsh Government and Westminster Labour party should use it as an opportunity to move for a fairer representation in the Senedd. There is a very strong case, supported by extensive evidence, for more representation in the Senedd as its responsibilities increase.
Since the birth of the what used to be called the Assembly in 1999, the number of AMs has been 60. This has, for a long time, been considered insufficient. In 2004, the Richard Commission looked at expanding its powers and recommended 80. Those recommendations were ignored.
As the institution’s powers have grown, the calls to increase the number of has grown along with it. For example, a report published in 2013 stated that it had less representation compared to similar law-making bodies around the world. In the UK, the Scottish Parliament has 129 members, and Northern Ireland’s Assembly has 108 – both significantly more members than Wales per population size.
In 2017, an expert panel produced another report calling for an extra 20 to 30 elected members to cope with the growing workload. This panel was chaired by Professor Laura McAllister at Cardiff University who said: “Calling for more politicians is unpopular, but we have to report as we see the evidence. As its powers increase, the Assembly cannot continue as it is without risking its ability to deliver effectively for the people of Wales.”
However, those plans were again shelved because of insufficient support. The report estimated that it would cost approximately £2.4 million for 20 additional members and £3.3 million for an additional 30 members a year.
A few months ago, a Senedd committee looking into Senedd Electoral Reform also concluded that there was clear and compelling evidence that the Senedd representation is too small. The committee recommended between 80 and 90 members with effect from the 2026 election. However, this could again be shelved because of economic pressures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The case for increasing members has not only grown because of increased law-making powers but also because of the increased workloads on members post-Brexit. The Electoral Reform Society Wales recently launched a democracy manifesto for the forthcoming 2021 Senedd elections and has more recently made a call for a stronger Senedd that enables proper scrutiny saying that the number of members should be increased to 90 elected by the Single Transferrable Voting (STV) system.
The boundary commission for Wales is planning to redraw the geographical boundaries of constituencies based on population size so that the average number of constituents in Wales matches the average for the UK. According to their remit, all constituencies should have an electorate within 5 per cent of the UK average or quota which is approximately 74,000. This means a reduction from 40 to 32.
Welsh MPs have fiercely resisted these proposals. Whilst this is understandable, they have been almost silent about increasing the number of Senedd members since the birth of the Welsh Assembly in 1999. The danger with saying little is that the “Abolish the Assembly” movement can make exaggerated claims without being challenged.
This includes the claim that it should be abolished because of the expense of the extra layer of politicians. Those supporting this movement have shouted the loudest when the proposals for increasing the number of elected representatives in the Senedd were debated. Yet, the cost to the taxpayer, according to the Taxpayers Alliance even in 2008 for an MP was about £567,000. That means that losing 8 MPs in Wales would save the UK government over £4 million. This is much more than the cost of increasing the number of what are now called Members of the Senedd by between 20 and 30.
Perhaps accepting a reduction in Welsh Labour MPs in exchange for an increase in MSs might be the best way to protect the long term future existence of the Senedd because that will then help silence the Abolish movement. In doing so, it would strengthen the future of the Welsh Parliament. In the Scotland, there was a reduction in the number of MPs from 72 to 59 following boundary changes in 2005 and no abolish movement exists there.
Welsh Labour MPs need to talk about how Wales gets the right balance between Westminster representation and the Senedd. More importantly, all politicians who believe, as I do, that the Senedd is the best way to serve the Welsh electorate needs to be talking about this matter, otherwise, the Abolish party will be allowed to dominate the conversation.
Polling shows that they have very little support at present, but as Brexit has shown, unexpected political events can happen in our volatile age. Let’s not forget that Labour’s catastrophic loss in 2019 emanated from Corbyn’s ambivalence as well as his refusal to talk and give his opinion on Brexit during the election campaign.
The same could happen to our Senedd if our defenders fail to show the same commitment as the abolitionists.