Opinion

Whoever wins on Thursday, the big loser should be the Senedd’s flawed voting system

03 May 2021 4 minutes Read
A polling station in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Picture by Catrin Davies

Ifan Morgan Jones

Whoever wins the election on Thursday, the big loser of the last five years of the Senedd is the current electoral system which has proven itself well past its sell-by-date.

While the proportional element ensures that the voting system is superior to Westminster’s unrepresentative First Past the Post, it also has a number of fundamental weaknesses that individuals and parties have now begun to understand and exploit.

Most obvious among its weaknesses in a Welsh context is that individuals elected to represent a party – and not as candidates in their own right – can hop from one party to another with no consequence.

Just in the last five years, we have seen one Senedd Member elected to represent UKIP jump to being an independent, a Conservatives, the Brexit Party and Abolish. He wasn’t elected to represent any of these parties.

Eight of the list MS, almost half of the total, have at some point in the last five years represented parties that didn’t even exist when they were elected.

A combination of a list system and a general democratic deficit means that Wales has become a magnet for low quality, populist politicians who want to be elected without the bulk of voters ever knowing who they are, then use that flimsy mandate as a blank cheque to push whatever agenda they want for five years, or just put their feet up and do nothing at all.

But the final death knell for the Senedd’s electoral system has sounded not in Wales but in Scotland.

There, in the Scottish Parliament elections, Alex Salmond’s Alba party have essentially set out to deliberately game the system.

By creating a facsimile party of the SNP the former First Minister is attempting to engineer a supermajority of pro-independence parties by asking voters to split their votes between the SNP on the constituency and his new Alba party on the list.

Opportunity

Whatever the result of this attempt to exploit a loophole in the rules – and the margin between it working and falling completely flat is very tight – it could set a dangerous precedent.

For example, Labour in Wales win almost no seats on the list in Wales because they dominate the constituencies. What if, say, Labour’s sister Co-operative party stood as a separate entity, hoovering up list seats across the board?

What if YesCymru stood on the list seats, winning seats that would have been denied to Plaid Cymru in north Wales and mid and west Wales?

Added to all of these flaws is the fact that the current electoral system is just needlessly complex in and of itself. The number of people in Wales who understand how it works could probably fit in the Senedd chamber.

I’ve reported on the Senedd since 2006 and I still have to look up the exact mathematical permutations to make sure I have them right when I write anything about the election.

But worse still, the list system working essentially depends on people not understanding the rules, because if people started voting tactically en masse it would lead to completely unintended outcomes. This is what we’re now seeing in Scotland.

But the main argument for getting rid of the additional member system is that a far superior system already exists – Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies.

This system is more proportional, ensures that candidates are tied to a specific constituency, and allows voters to elect candidates in order of preference.

Voters don’t have to worry about vote splitting or tactical voting – they just list the individual, named candidates in order and a fair representation is elected across the board. It is already used in national and council elections all over the world, including in Ireland for 100 years.

With the number of Westminster constituencies in Wales being reduced from 40 to 32, Wales now has a golden opportunity to break the link with the electoral borders used in General Elections and rethink the electoral system used in the Senedd altogether.

It’s hard to find anyone who thinks the present system is fit for purpose. The only barrier to getting rid of it is that, as everywhere else, parties that do well under the current arrangements have an ‘if it works for us, don’t fix it’ approach.

Hopefully, if parties are truly ambitious to make Wales the best country it can possibly be, that will include getting rid of a flawed electoral system, too.

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Hogyn y Gogledd
Hogyn y Gogledd
7 months ago

STV is NOT proportional. A much simpler and easily understandable proportional system is that used in Germany. Using it in a Wales with an 80-member senedd, each elector in each of forty constituencies would vote, as now for a constituency member and, on the list, for the party they most want to see form a government. The 40 constituency winners are in, as of right. Now total the list votes and calculate the share each party has won. That share of 80 seats is what they will have in the senedd. So, if they get 30% of the list votes,… Read more »

Steve George
Steve George
7 months ago

All electoral systems are flawed. What you describe above is not that different to our current system and, if one party won all the constituency seats on a 40% vote (quite possible), it would mean that the other parties would get at most 50% of the seats with a 60% vote share. The STV system is gamed in Ireland and results in pork barrel politics and almost permanent dynasties of political families in many areas. A purely proportional list system would break the link with constituencies and result in a cadre of un-sackable politicians. The biggest flaw with our current… Read more »

Hogyn y Gogledd
Hogyn y Gogledd
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve George

The final number of seats is proportional to the number of votes on the list, reagrdless of the constituency votes.

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
7 months ago

The German system does not return a fixed number of MPs but is elastic depending on how many are needed to maintain strict proportionality of outcome. Such a system would not be suitable for a Senedd meeting in a chamber of limited size.

Hogyn y Gogledd
Hogyn y Gogledd
7 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Meagher

There is, certanily, a little bit of flexibility to help ensure proportionality. But it is tiny compared to the total numbers.

But if we are talking of a Senedd of 80 seats, we shall have to redesign the chamber anyway.

Lyn Thomas
7 months ago

STV gives the electorate the greatest degree of control, which is why it should be used.

Cllr Pete Roberts
Cllr Pete Roberts
7 months ago
Reply to  Lyn Thomas

And not just between parties but within them too.

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
7 months ago

It is true that voters don’t have to worry about vote splitting under STV-that headache is transferred to the parties who must decide how many candidates to run in each multi-member constituency, a task Sinn Féin got spectacularly wrong in the 2020 RoI general election.

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