Working with the Tories may be worth it to reform the Assembly’s unfair voting system

Welsh Tory leader Paul Davies. Picture by the National Assembly (CC. 2.0)

Keith Darlington

“Politics is broken”, according to the recently formed Independent Group in Westminster.

If public engagement is anything to go by (only 45.3% voted in the last Assembly elections) then the same can be said of Welsh politics.

In this article, I argue that we need a new way of doing politics in Wales. We should begin by changing our quasi-FPTP voting system.

This is largely to blame for disengagement because it has helped to create single-party hegemony in Wales without ever having majority support of the voters.

Labour have been the largest party in all five Assembly elections, winning between 26 and 30 seats out of 60.

But this absolute dominance hasn’t been reflected in their vote share. In the last Assembly elections of 2016, they won 48% of the seats with only 33% of the votes.

This happens because they benefit from a non-even distribution of votes in Wales.  Most of their votes are cast in the valleys where they stack up big majorities – and therefore win plenty of seats.

Other parties may do well in other parts of Wales but may not be rewarded with seats because their voters are more widely distributed throughout Wales.

However, unlike Westminster, our system is not purely First Past the Post (FPTP). Before setting up the Assembly in the late 1990’s, it was acknowledged that pure FPTP would result in single-party hegemony.

Thus, a proportional element was introduced that would redress the balance – called the regional list system.  This means that the Assembly has 60 AMs, 40 of which are voted in by FPTP and the other 20 by List.

However, this is still only 33% of the total and therefore the anomalies of FPTP are not fully eliminated – only scaled down.

Crucially, it has not prevented one-party dominance on minority vote shares.

Welsh political culture

It doesn’t have to be this way. There have been opportunities to form alternative governments.

For example, in the 2007 Assembly elections, Labour won 26 seats – not enough to form a government. Behind the scenes there were discussions between Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats about a “Rainbow Coalition” and this was the most popular option with the public according to a BBC opinion poll at the time.

But the discussions collapsed because of the reluctance of parties on the left to work with the Tories – and thus become a tainted brand.


Leanne Wood, when leader of Plaid Cymru, said that she would never, under any circumstances, work with the Tories. At the start of this year’s Plaid Cymru Spring conference, Adam Price said the same thing.

The aversion to working with the Tories in Wales is deeply rooted in the damage that they did to Wales during the last century.

Whilst these sentiments are understandable, it does mean that no other party can win control of the Assembly other than Labour. And Labour are very unlikely to support electoral reform because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

This means that if any change is going to happen then  Adam Price has to be prepared to do the unthinkable and work with the Tories to get a more proportional system.

Opportunities

The current opinion polls show little enthusiasm for our new First Minister Mark Drakeford.

This could be good news for Plaid Cymru who are predicted to increase their representation and possibly determine who rules in Cardiff Bay.

If this happens, I believe that Adam Price should avoid the mistake of his predecessors in ruling out working with particular parties because the present system almost guarantees permanent Labour power.

Labour will resist any move to a more proportional system because they are the beneficiaries of the current system.

Adam Price has said that he believes in reforming the Welsh Assembly voting system. He must seize any opportunities that may come his way to implement electoral reform and that may include contemplating the unthinkable.

Conclusions

Without reform of our voting system, it is hard to see how Welsh politics can avoid its present trajectory of continuous one party rule. This cannot be good for public engagement, for democracy, or even, the Labour Party in Wales.

All political parties benefit from renewal which works well during periods of opposition. 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 and some would say, pointless.


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