Pluralism versus sectarianism in Welsh Labour

Annabelle Harle questions the wisdom of Peter Hain seeking First Past the Post for Assembly elections

Welsh Labour Party members have a lot on their minds just now. First, like most people in the country, they are wondering how they are going to pay for Christmas, how they are going to pay their winter fuel bills and whether they will have a job in a couple of months’ time. Secondly, they are planning their involvement in the N30 protest and hoping the Party leadership will stand alongside them. Thirdly, and quite fortuitously, the Assembly voting system has been dragged into the political ring for an out-of-season bout built on a series of false premises.

There was a referendum in May on whether the Alternative Vote system, which is, as readers will know, not a proportional system, should be adopted for Westminster elections. The result was a No. Westminster elections will therefore continue to be run on the First Past the Post system. What no-one foresaw was that, quite out of the blue, our Shadow Secretary of State would declare that this was a vote in favour of changing the Assembly voting system to First Past the Post and that Welsh Labour wanted to:

a)   Change the Assembly constituency boundaries to match the new Westminster ones – when we know what they are.

b)   Revert to the pre-Government of Wales Act 1998 proposal of two-member constituencies each electing one male and one female AM by First Past The Post, albeit with 30 rather than 40 constituencies.

Why would Peter Hain propose these changes? Is it that this is such a ridiculous idea that it may put the Conservatives off any attempt to meddle with the Assembly at all – presaged, perhaps, by their willingness to remove the Assembly from the boundary changes as part of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act?

Or is it to endear himself to Welsh Labour members? It has to be said that many Labour members prefer FPTP. However, the electoral system adopted for the Welsh Assembly was designed to offer hope to other parties, and render the devolution settlement more attractive to them containing as it did a sniff of a possibility of power. And so it proved. Indeed, other Labour shenanigans proffered more than a sniff more quickly than might have been expected.

Alternatively, is Hain going for broke, in the hope that what does come out of the fire will be something he can handle? Is this a sensible move?

Someone who works at the highest level of politics and government as well as in the constituency office, who was a UK Cabinet member for much of the Blair/Brown years – someone who participated in that “very good morning in Wales” in September 1997, linked arms with the leaders of three parties to move forward together in that new dawn – might be expected to take a dispassionate overview of the Welsh political scene. He might be expected to appreciate the benefits of pluralism, which surely contributed to the warm acceptance of the Assembly amongst Welsh civil society, and which have given Wales several years of stable government in which we have grown immeasurably in confidence and in stature on the national and the world stage. Such a person might conclude that we are a country of many strands, and that to enable every strand to flourish is probably the best way to ensure a strong future for Wales. The resounding Yes vote in the Assembly powers referendum of 3 March this year is surely an endorsement of that sentiment.

I am at a loss to know why such a person would seek to return to the dark pre-devolution days when a permanent and impregnable Labour hegemony seemed desirable. It is one thing to win fair and square; it is another to skew the system so that your opponent can never win.

The Assembly has shown its strength in co-operation, in the Committees, in coalition even. The different strands come together to make a united Welsh whole.  The election slogan, Standing up for Wales – Sefyll Cornel Cymru – helped Labour win the vote that gave us the only Labour government in the UK – which is of course why the Conservatives are so keen to do it down. They must be delighted.

In a rear guard action subsequent to Mr Hain’s random pronouncement, the Welsh Labour Executive consulted within the party as to whether the Assembly voting system should be changed, and, if so, should it be changed to the 30 x 2 model. The answer was that the system should very definitely not be changed. Of those who addressed the second question, the majority did indeed prefer the 30 x 2 solution. There was a debate and vote in the Executive. Although not so overwhelming as was reported on Twitter, the vote in favour of 30 x 2 was fairly strong. So Peter Hain can argue that there was method in his madness.

The ensuing argument is whether the benefits of going all-out in this way outweigh the evident disadvantages of offending the opposition, and the electorate, in such a mammoth manner. After this year’s election, our First Minister evinced the intention of being humble in government – as a minority government one might have thought he had little choice – but this move is not a humble one and is not playing as one.

Annabelle Harle is a member of the Welsh Labour Executive.

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