Unintended consequences at the Assembly

Reducing the number of Welsh MPs will have profound implications for the political parties in Cardiff Bay

In politics unintended consequences often turn out to be more far reaching than the intended ones. This may well prove to be the case with the Westminster Government’s intention, confirmed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg this week, to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600. The intentions are to reduce costs (it would save £12m in pay, pensions and allowances) and make the redrawn constituencies more equal in terms of their electorate – all will have about 75,000 voters .

As has already been noted, this will have a disproportionate impact on Wales. The accompanying table gives the number of electors for each of the 40 Welsh Parliamentary constituencies. None reach anywhere near 75,000. They range from just 42,998 in Arfon to 68,229 in the Vale of Glamorgan. The average size is 55,960. It has been calculated that if this figure moves to 75,000 then Wales would lose ten seats, or a quarter of its representation at Westminster.

It is argued that this major loss in representation will be compensated by the presence of the 60 elected members in the National Assembly, especially if Wales gets further legislative powers following the referendum next March. Scotland provides a precedent, it is said. Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament Scottish MPs at Westminster were reduced from 72 to 58. This was a partial acknowledgement of the thorny ‘West Lothian’ question – the devolution anomaly whereby Scottish MPs can vote at Westminster on English domestic matters, but English MPs cannot do the same on Scottish domestic matters.

Now here come the unintended consequences. When the Welsh Parliamentary constituencies are redrawn and cut to 30 that will have an immediate impact on the number of first-past-the-post members in the Assembly. They will also fall from 40 to 30. Unless nothing is done that will bring the number of Assembly members down to 50, when there are already complaints that their numbers are too small. The Richard Commission recommended that they should actually be increased, to 80.

So it was revealing that at his weekly Press briefing this week Nick Bourne, the Conservative leader in the Assembly, confided that he had had a conversation with the Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, about this and won an assurance that the present number of AMs would not be allowed to fall.

So how would they be sustained? Here comes a second unintended consequence.  The obvious way would be to follow Scotland and retain the present 40 constituency boundaries for Assembly elections, thereby making separate constituencies for AMs and MPs. However, Nick Bourne said he was very much against this. It would create confusion in the minds of the electorate and be a nightmare for party workers who would have to create separate organisations in the same area to fight the various elections. No, he was committed – indeed, adamant – to have the same first-past-the post constituencies for both Westminster and Assembly elections. It follows from this that the only way to retain the 60 members will be to have an extra ten elected on the List, two more for each of the five regional lists.

A third unintended consequence then kicks in. Increasing the number of List members makes the Assembly’s representation more proportionate, and as a result benefits the smaller parties and will hurt Labour. Its difficult to calculate by how much, but it is likely that all three smaller parties – Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Plaid – would benefit.  Labour might lose between three and five seats, and – fourth unintended consequence – coalition government would become a permanent fixture in Cardiff Bay.

When you set out all these ‘unintended’ consequences in this way, it does leave you wondering how unintended they really are.

What is the answer for Labour? None, but to abandon the List system, and opt for the Single Transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, again as recommended by the Richard Commission. That way the vote would be completely proportional and all parties would get their just deserts. It was interesting on this front that, at his Press conference Nick Bourne let slip that he was in favour of devolving responsibility for elections and the electoral system from the Home Office to the National Assembly.

Constituency sizes and Members

Constituency Electorate MP Party
Aberavon 50,422 Dr Hywel Francis Lab
Aberconwy 43,976 Guto Bebb Con
Alyn & Deeside 60,331 Mark Tami Lab
Arfon / Caernarfon 42,998 Hywel Williams Plaid Cymru
Blaenau Gwent 53,120 Nick Smith Lab
Brecon & Radnorshire 53,497 Roger Williams Lib Dem
Bridgend 57,046 Madeleine Moon Lab
Caerphilly 64,120 Wayne David Lab
Cardiff Central 60,864 Jenny Willott Lib Dem
Cardiff North 63,615 Jonathan Evans Con
Cardiff South & Penarth 67,855 Alun Michael Lab
Cardiff West 64,587 Kevin Brennan Lab
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr 52,741 Jonathan Edwards Plaid
Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire 57,143 Simon Hart Con
Ceredigion 52,514 Mark Williams Lib Dem
Clwyd South 51,201 Susan Elan Jones Lab
Clwyd West 55,381 David Jones Con
Cynon Valley 48,272 Ann Clwyd Lab
Delyn 54,277 David Hanson Lab
Dwyfor Meirionedd 48,823 Elfyn Llywd Plaid
Gower 60,535 Martin Caton Lab
Islwyn 56,225 Christopher Evans Lab
Llanelli 57,409 Nia Griffith Lab
Merthyr Tydfil 55,476 Dai Havard Lab
Monmouth 62,423 David Davies Con
Montgomeryshire 46,655 Glyn Davies Con
Neath 58,982 Peter Hain Lab
Newport East 56,355 Jessica Morden Lab
Newport West 60,882 Paul Flynn Lab
Ogmore 53,842 Huw Irranca-Davies Lab
Pontypridd 54,122 Owen Smith Lab
Preseli Pembrokeshire 56,001 Stephen Crabb Con
Rhondda 50,389 Chris Bryant Lab
Swansea East 57,226 Sian James Lab
Swansea West 58,336 Geraint Davies Lab
Torfaen 61,371 Phil Murphy Lab
Vale of Clwyd 49,637 Chris Ruane Lab
Vale of Glamorgan 68,229 Alun Cairns Con
Wrexham 50,890 Ian Lucas Lab
Ynys Mon 49,831 Albert Owen Lab
TOTAL 2,227,599
Average 55,690

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

6 thoughts on “Unintended consequences at the Assembly

  1. Good article. One small point, though – under the rules in Section 9 to Schedule 1 of the GOWA 2006, a reduction in the number of constituencies also causes a reduction in the number of list seats, since the number of those is set at half the number of constituencies. Thus, without a change in the primary legislation (GOWA), a reduction to 30 constituencies will reduce the number of AMs to 45…

    I think they will have to make a change in the primary legislation. My guess is that they just haven’t understood the issue yet.

  2. John – it is clear that there will need to be a new Government of Wales Act to ensure that the same number of AMs are retained.

    I wrote about this back in November…

    http://dylanje.blogspot.com/2009/11/peter-and-rhodris-red-herring.html

    However, I wonder whether certain prominent members of the Labour Party, such as the current Shadow Secretary of State, who have expressed their preference for PR at a Westminster level, will lend their support for further PR in Assembly elections?

  3. The present system of election to the Assembly with members on the closed list system being effectively elected not by the electorate but by a small number of party activists is fundamentally undemocratic and long over due for reform. It was cobbled together before 1997 without much thought, on the assumption that Labour would always have a majority of the FPTP seats and it didn’t really make much difference who made up the regional seats. It is farcical ,for example, that if a regional member resigns there is no by election unlike would be the case with a FPTP seat. In the Irish Republic where TDs are elected by STV there is always a byelection to the Dail when a member resigns or dies. The by election is conducted using AV instead of STV. The law of unintended consequences might actually see an improvement in the democratic process in Wales. I’ve never used my second vote because Labour will never win a regional seat in my artificial former European Parliament region I live in given that the party always wins all of the FPTP seats.

  4. Is this all being done to save money, make democracy simpler, or to break Labour dominance in Wales? This is a spot on John Osmond piece of journalism once again.

  5. Very good article – excellent through thinking. The constitutional reform package has been developed so quickly at UK level that there will certainly be unintended consequences like this (unless they really are intended, of course…)

  6. … and what a surprise! The Bill to equalise constituencies didn’t reduce the number of Assembly constituencies!

    As expected, the Bill came with a minor clause to break the link. It is standard practice to amend other pieces of legislation when passing an Act of Parliament.

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