Ballot box politics

Gareth Hughes says Peter Hain’s call for Assembly elections to use First Past The Post would be good for Labour, but not for democracy

Let’s face it party conferences are tribal affairs. It’s almost obligatory for party bosses to throw a bit of meat to the rank and file. In that respect Peter Hain is no exception, how he just loves putting the boot in.

So his latest wheeze, the opportunity offered him at conference to write a piece for a Labour conference briefing paper as to “Why Labour needs First-Past-the Post in Wales”.

This is an old chestnut, but as they say, some of the old ones are the best.

It was with their hands very much holding their collective nose that Welsh Labour endorsed an element of proportionality for the Assembly elections.

Labour’s Welsh Office team at the time, which included a certain Comrade Hain, had a real hard sell to get the Welsh Party to accept this small element of PR. It was sold on the basis they needed both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats on board to campaign in favour of Labour’s devolution proposals.

The narrowness of the result shows how right they were to entice the other two parties on board for the campaign.

But Mr. Hain now sees it as a massive mistake.

What has changed? The other two parties are past their sell by date. Labour don’t need to cwtch up to the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru for the devolution project anymore.

As far as Labour’s concerned the process has come to an end. The referendum has been won; Labour’s in the driving seat and looks likely to be there for a while yet. One party rule is alive and well in Wales, OK.

Why then has Mr. Hain reopened the debate about the election process now? A new opportunity presents itself to show he’s keeping the socialist flame alive by attempting to elbow out or seriously weaken the other parties’ representation in the Assembly.

The pending changes to Parliamentary boundaries give him the ideal excuse to peddle his partisan proposals. At the next Westminster elections MPs will be elected in new constituencies with new boundaries. Why? Mr. Cameron is reducing the number of Welsh Members of Parliament from the current 40 to 30.  So we’ll be voting in new seats at the next general election.

Now there is no need to change the Assembly seats as their numbers are not changing. The Assembly could continue with the existing boundaries, Mr. Hain thinks that having two different constituencies for the Assembly and Westminster would be far too confusing.

As he says “Everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales, and maintain the same boundaries for Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies.”

Although how he quite knows that “everyone agrees” is a bit of a mystery, most ordinary voters have never been asked.

His argument against decoupling is that it caused problems in Scotland. It “lead to confusion for voters, and organisational chaos for political parties.”

Oh, there we have it, we mustn’t inconvenience our political parties. Our democracy has to reflect what they want, not what the voters want.

So the answer, don’t decouple, have the same constituencies for both Parliamentary and Assembly elections. Simple. But here’s the rub, he would see the regional list scrapped. Instead his proposals would see two Assembly members elected for each constituency. An idea that’s been floating around Labour circles since devolution came back on the agenda.

And how would they be elected? By introducing the first-past-the-post election system.  It’s simple, easy to arrange and surprise, surprise, guarantees an Assembly packed to the brim with Labour Members.

Even under the current system Labour has a distinct advantage. At the last election they got 41.87 per cent of the votes cast but the system gives Labour fifty per cent of the seats. If their vote was to be fairly represented in seats they should have twenty-five, five less than the thirty they now hold.

But that’s not good enough for Mr. Hain, he wants even more.

Not only would his proposals guarantee perpetual Labour rule with a large majority, a bit like the old USSR but it would seriously reduce representation by the opposition parties. There would be few around to question the ruling clique.

Yes, reducing the representation of the smaller parties would seriously weaken the capacity for opposition and challenge. Perhaps that’s what Labour want, but is it wise?

Unlike Westminster where first-past-the post can not only deliver a government but also sufficient numbers to form an effective opposition, this would not be the case in the Assembly. The combination of FPTP and a sixty member Assembly would almost certainly reduce opposition members to a rump. Good for Labour, but bad for democracy.

So what’s to be done? Well, the decision is that of the Westminster government and rests with Cheryl Gillan the Secretary of State. For Wales.

Peter Hain’s intervention has almost certainly guaranteed that dear Cheryl will simply increase the regional list from the current twenty to thirty. But that would be a mistake.

The clever political thing to do would be to devolve responsibility to the National Assembly to decide on its own election system. However in so doing she would need to ensure that no one party could impose a system that advantages them.  So the Secretary of State would need to ensure that no change could happen, without a consensus. No new system without at least a two-thirds majority being in favour of the change.

Hopefully that will concentrate the minds of the parties to revisit the conclusion of Labour Peer Lord Richard’s Commission which concluded that much the best system for the Assembly was the single transferrable vote in multi member constituencies based on the boundaries of our local councils.

Yes, decouple from Westminster Peter, and couple up with our local communities.

Gareth Hughes is a political commentator and a freelance journalist who publishes his own blog here.

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