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.

8 thoughts on “Ballot box politics

  1. I suspect that Labour are smarting from having been in power with Wales very own “Nasty Party”; Plaid Cymru.
    What is wrong with having an electoral system that often demands coalition is that the minor party has disproportionate bargaining power. Plaid used its position to gain on its “Core Objectives”, in fact you could almost say that they delivered as much as a minority partner as they would have done had they been the majority.
    Carwyn may have been sanguine about Plaid claiming credit for all its “triumphs” and taking responsibility for nothing but that wasn’t true for Labour supporters across Wales. At the last Assembly election only Dafydd El. maintained a stance that was conducive to any further coalition between Plaid and Labour. What is his reward for behaving rationally and with a degree of honour? To be rubbished by Plaid Groupies everywhere.
    There is no problem in having an electoral system that Labour dominates there is only a problem with how they use that domination. To look at the present voting system and count proportion of votes and proportion of seats is somewhat misleading….a particular voting system produces a particular voting pattern; people vote for the least worse candidate likely to win in many circumstances.

  2. Surely Labour have no problem with Plaid ‘core objectives’ such as creating thousands of new affordable homes or switching the transport budget to be more sustainable? I would be interested to see if the ‘nasty’ label is one which Labour intend to use against Plaid from now on, as when it comes to treating their staff with utter contempt, Labour Councils in Wales are at the top of the tree. Just ask the Unions, as they will confirm this.

    To say that “there is no problem with an electoral system that Labour dominates” is pure tribalism. How can any democrat defend a proposal that gives an increased built-in bias to any party? It is also hypocrisy from Labour, as they were the first to moan about the Tories reducing the number of Welsh MPs, claiming that it was biased against them. Labour have openly admitted that the first Assembly voting system was designed to give them a majority on less than a majority of votes. When they saw dual candidacy as better for their opponents than them, they also changed that to suit themselves-ensuring that for instance the last Tory Assembly leader lost his seat, even though they were successful. Is this fair democracy?

    I like to think that there are enough progressive Labour members around to block fiddling the system further to suit Labour. At the end of the day, how would such a cynical move fit in with Carwyn’s promise to avoid Tribalism?

  3. Plaid’s core objectives were greater devolution through a referendum before 2011 and a new Welsh Language act. Labour dominate in Wales because so many people VOTE Labour, when that changes then you can bleat about an unfair democratic system.

  4. In relation to Gareth’s proposals, I welcome his thoughts and althouth my personal preference would be STV, I suspect that 30 + 30 will be the model that the Tories choose. It’s be no means perfect but better than first past the post.

  5. So Labour wants to fiddle the electoral system, again? Bears, Popes, etc come to mind. I know of countless contests in the six councils I was elected to where the whiff of corruption filled the air. Decent staff warned of on-going fiddles all the time. One returning officer told me how it’s done; that person subsequently became a Labour councillor in suspicious circumstances. In another election, the Plaid candidate’s ballot papers reduced with every recount. It turned out that the person doing the counting was the daughter of the Labour agent! QED.

  6. STV is the only system that can be embraced by genuine democrats, as it gives the most proportional results of all the systems, and preserves the link between representative and constituents. But as it requires a commitment to bow to the will of the people, we are unlikely to see either Labour nor the Conservatives advocating it any time soon.

    The 30/30 solution has the advantage of being only a small incremental step from the system we have now, so is easily understood and would be very easy to implement. It would be improved, however, if the ban on allowing constituency candidates from appearing on the party lists were lifted – Nick Bourne was a great loss to the Assembly.

    Hain’s persistent advocacy or the worst of all worlds in FPTP is bizarre, and he appears to have become isolated even within his own party. I think this has more to do with a personal crisis on his part – desperately seeking a role – than any realistic attempt to influence the future of Welsh democracy.

  7. Peter Hain has a good track record when it comes to cheerfully opportunistic remarks when the press is hungry for a quick headline. It is not a real story as it is up to Cardiff Bay and HMG to take these decisions rather than an opposition MP, so it would be for the best to regard all this as just some political banter.

  8. Peter Hain’s proposal has a lot of support from core Labour party members and it is being pushed through motions by both Labour CLP’s and union branches across Wales, for their next respective conferences. They genuinely believe that it is unfair for Labour to have 40% of the vote, yet only 50% of the seats. I would argue that in this instance, Hain has the membership on his side. What Labour should be asking themselves, is how the electorate will react to such obvious electoral bias. I know how I would spin it if I was an opponent.

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