John Osmond says the arguments are mounting for a move to increase the size of the National Assembly
In a response to my analysis of the referendum result here Jeff Jones, political consultant and former Labour leader of Bridgend Council, took issue with my suggestion that before long the Assembly would have to revisit the Richard Commission’s recommendation that it should have 80 rather than 60 members. “Dream on,” Jeff said. “No one in the political élite is going to argue that there should be another 20 AMs.”
It was a tribute to the speed of political developments to see in yesterday’s Western Mail, that it’s only taken a few days for Jeff to come round to my way of thinking. As he put it:
“One of the problems with our Assembly is that it is actually quite a tiny institution with not much depth of talent. We have 60 AMs with a population of three million, while Estonia has 101 MPs with a population of 1.3 million, and Ireland has 166 TDs with a population of 4.4 million.”
It’s worth reflecting on why we were landed with just 60 AMs in the first place. After all the Assembly proposed in the legislation that led to the 1979 referendum would have had 80 members. What changed in the 1990s was Welsh Labour’s forced conversion to PR. This happened in July 1996, following then Opposition leader Tony Blair’s unilateral decision that before devolution could happen there would have to be a referendum.
Conference – Thursday 24 March 2011
Future Inns, Cardiff Bay
After the Referendum – Prospects for the fourth term
IWA conference organised with the Wales Governance Centre and Public Affairs Cymru
In the wake of the successful referendum on further powers and ahead of the National Assembly elections on 6 May 2011 this conference surveys what kind of National Assembly the political parties are proposing for the next four years. What kind of government will emerge following the election? In the event that none of the parties will win overall control what coalition options they will face? How prepared are they for the negotiations that will follow and what are their policy red lines?
Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director, Wales Governance Centre
Lee Waters – Yes for Wales
Rachel Banner – True Wales
Nick Bourne AM, Welsh Conservatives
Nerys Evans AM, Plaid Cymru
Andrew Davies AM, Welsh Labour
Peter Black AM, Welsh Liberal Democrats
More information and a booking form here.
That decision came about because of Labour’s commitment, made in the Scottish Convention, to allow the proposed Scottish Parliament to vary income tax by 3p in the £ up or down. However, this cut across Blair’s policy in the run up to the forthcoming British general election that he would not be changing the Conservative’s spending plans for the first two years of being in office. By placing the Scottish tax decision directly in the hands of the Scottish election – there were two questions in the Scottish referendum, one on whether they supported the Parliament and the other on tax – Blair effectively removed the issue from the immediate general election debate.
However, these Scottish calculations were made without considering the impact on Wales. Indeed, on the eve of the announcement Ron Davies, then Shadow Secretary of State for Wales was taking part in a BBC Wales television programme and, under persistent questioning, insisted Labour had no plans for a referendum to endorse devolution. A general election mandate would be enough, he said.
Within days Ron Davies was locked in negotiations with Blair on the help he would need if he were to lead Welsh Labour through the general election the following May and then into a referendum. There was one pivotal requirement. Blair would have to lean on the party in Wales to reverse its decision the previous Autumn, in 1995, in favour of first-past the post for the Assembly, and opt instead for some variant of proportional representation.
Davies argued that without PR it would be very difficult to win a referendum in Wales. Certainly, without PR it would be impossible to persuade Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats to campaign for a Yes vote.
Ron Davies won his concession, but the direct result was to reduce the numbers of AMs from 80 to 60. Up to that point the proposal was for 80 first-past the-post members, two for each of the 40 constituencies. However, the number wouldn’t work for the Additional Member PR system that Labour adopted.
For Labour’s compromise solution was to go for a minimalist PR system, that is to say one with as few Additional Members as possible. As Rhodri Morgan put it later, this was to ensure that Labour would achieve a majority of seats in at least three elections out of four. After all, Labour could have opted for 40 first-past-the-post seats and another 40 Additional Members on the List, to reach the 80 members to which they had previously been committed. However, this would have had the result of accentuating the proportionality of the members elected and, as Rhodri Morgan observed, reducing Labour’s chance of winning a majority in most elections.
The outcome can be underlined by comparing the situation in Wales with Scotland and Northern Ireland, as in the following table produced by the Richard Commission:
Size and electoral systems of the UK devolution institutions
As can be seen, Wales compares strikingly and unfavourably with both Scotland and Northern Ireland in the relative proportionality of its electoral system and the ratio of members to population. To put it bluntly, the numbers of our AMs was arrived at during 1996-7 not by any rational calculation, but as a result of a political fix.
The current debate has been sparked by allegations about whether our AMs in the Senedd are “up to the job”, as Jeff Jones put it yesterday. And there is a lot of truth in his suggestion that a chamber of just 60 members is simply too small a gene pool from which to pluck the quality leaders you need to populate the Cabinet, chairs of the many committees, the Presiding and Deputy Presiding Officers, and the rest.
Indeed, this was a point made strongly by an IWA constitutional working group back in 1997, in a report called Making the Assembly Work which was a response to the Labour Government’s devolution White Paper A Voice for Wales. As it recommended:
“The proposed 60 Member Assembly will be too small to staff the range of committees effectively. The membership should be increased to at least 80.”
I recall one of the influential members of that working group, Keith Patchett, Emeritus Professor of Law with the University of Wales, remarking sagely at the time, “In any institution you can think of, those who belong to it can be divided into three: a third who are everyday effective people, a third who are capable of a leadership role, and a third who shouldn’t be there.”
On that calculation, only 20 of our AMs are capable of being in the Cabinet, being deputy Ministers, running the Presiding Office and chairing major committees, and they are more than spoken for. It’s a compelling argument for increasing our AMs in in order to up our game, especially urgent as we now have full primary law making powers.