Why the 2021 Senedd elections prove electoral reform is essential
Dr Keith Darlington
The 2021 Senedd elections results show that little has changed – despite some hailing this a success for Labour.
These elections delivered a similar outcome to the five previous elections with Labour becoming the largest party choosing to govern with or without support from minor parties.
Close analysis shows that very little has changed apart from the demise of UKIP. Labour did no better than the Tories in increasing their vote share. Moreover, the final tally of seats show that Labour increased their number of seats by one – still short of an overall majority.
As I show in this article, these results show that it was more a case of the Abolish parties were the losers. Whilst this means that the future of the Senedd is safe, the case for Senedd electoral reform is stronger than ever.
Labour did increase their vote share increased by 5% but the Tories also increased their vote share by the same amount. Both party gains were at the expense of UKIP who lost all their gains in the 2016 elections.
In terms of seats, Labour gained just 1 seat overall, but so did Plaid Cymru, who were perceived to have done poorly in this election. The Tories actually came out of this election best by gaining 5 seats overall.
Very few constituency seats changed hands apart from Labour re-taking the Rhondda seat from Plaid, and the Tories taking the Vale of Clwyd from Labour, and Brecon and Radnor from the Liberal Democrats.
The two abolish parties were the big losers in this election. They both failed to win a single seat, despite getting much exposure from BBC Wales.
UKIP, who made an impact in the 2016 Senedd elections with Brexit voters, won 7 seats through the list component of the voting system. But with Brexit done, UKIP needed a new message to sell to the electorate. UKIPs Welsh leader, Neil Hamilton, who doesn’t even live in Wales, failed to make any impression in the TV debates.
His message was unconvincing according to opinion poll viewers. As Professor Richard Wyn Jones, of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, said on BBC Politics Wales they had fulltime members of staff working in the Senedd, yet they still got absolutely annihilated.
The Abolish the Assembly party had an even greater advantage because the BBC invited Richard Suchorzewski, their party leader, to appear alongside the four main parties in Wales – whilst leaving the Green party to appear in a minor debate.
Yet, the final counting shows that the Greens had a higher vote share than Abolish the Assembly. What might the Greens have achieved with fairer representation in the media?
Now that the movement for destroying the Senedd has been, according to Professor Richard Wyn Jones, fatally undermined, it may be tempting to feel that the future of the Senedd is safe for some time to come. However, these results show that the Senedd may be safe, but electoral reform is still essential.
I have long-believed that that the Senedd is badly in need to of electoral reform, and results of this election have vindicated that. For once again, this election has returned a very similar outcome to what has happened in all five previous elections.
Labour will again govern with or without other party support, on a vote share of less than 40%.
One party permanent dominance on such a low vote share will lead to voter apathy and demean our democratic system if this continues. After all, if nothing ever changes why bother to vote when only a minority supports the government in permanent power?
However, many politicians are going to resist change to a system that they have a vested interest in preserving – and even if they do accept a need for change, they may be inclined to opt to tinker with the existing system or recommend changes to preserve party interest as best they can. That is why reform must be led by the people not politicians.
Compass, a progressive left think tank, has just launched a petition calling for Westminster party leaders to, as they say “kick start an independent, open, inclusive Citizens’ Convention, free from party political interest, to breathe new life into our democracy”. This is also needed in Wales, as well as the UK.
Mark Drakeford has pointed out in the past that it was Labour who introduced the voting system in Welsh Assembly elections.
It was an improvement on pure FPTP in Westminster in that it has prevented permanent majority single-party dominance. However, it has instead delivered single-party minority government, because it still contains a very high FPTP weighting.
This means that for the sixth time, Labour are returned to power on a vote share that has never exceeded 42%, and even fallen below 35% in 2016. This is a flaw in our system that has to be put right. A Citizens Convention might be one way to do this.
Whatever method is considered it cannot be left to political parties to deciding on alternative systems because the parties holding the dominant power will always attempt to choose systems from which they benefit.