Geraint Talfan Davies examines the debate on dual candidacy in Assembly elections.
There are times when tribal political loyalties are so deeply internalised that it is easy for the committed to mistake the tendentious for the objective. This clearly bedevils the case for maintaining a ban on ‘dual candidacy’ in National Assembly elections, as outlined by Peter Hain MP in the Western Mail.
Followers of electoral studies – one of life’s smaller minorities – will remember that the National Assembly is composed of 40 constituency members and 20 regional list members. At the outset candidates were allowed to be nominated for individual constituencies and, simultaneously, to have their names on the regional party lists – i.e. dual candidacy. However, after much contrived indignation – following the 2003 elections – that this allowed candidates defeated in the constituency poll to be elected through the regional lists, dual candidacy was banned when the Labour Government enacted the Government of Wales Act 2006.
The same government did not seek to ban the practice in Scotland or for elections to the Greater London Assembly, creating the perception that this had more do with Welsh electoral arithmetic than any issue of principle.
The present UK Government is now proposing to get rid of the ban and permit dual candidacy again through a clause in its current Wales Bill. Hence, the renewed partisan kerfuffle.
By far the most thorough analysis of this issue was the evidence presented to the Welsh Affairs Committee by Roger Scully of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. He pointed out a number of very salient facts:
- that in the first Assembly elections in 1999 Rhodri Morgan, who eventually became First Minister, and Sue Essex, who held successive Cabinet portfolios, were both dual candidates.
- that in the 2003 election all of Labour’s constituency candidates were also named on the regional lists.
- that no substantial independent evidence of public concern was presented when the Government of Wales Act 2006 was being enacted.
- That of all those countries around the world that use the same electoral system –the Additional Member System – Wales is the only one that bans dual candidacy. It is true that dual candidacy is banned in some countries that use a variant of the Welsh system. They are South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Ukraine. Scully added: “These are, we might wish to note, not all places that are exactly exemplars of good democratic practice.”
Peter Hain, as might be expected, states his case for maintaining the ban robustly. He says: “The ban simply puts the voters in charge by ensuring that if they defeat a candidate in the constituency vote, that candidate does not get elected [via the list] in defiance of their popular will…..The government simply will not acknowledge the fundamental democratic abuse of dual candidacy which is that losers become winners, that voters are second guessed and contradicted by the system, their choices denied.”
But Peter Hain’s argument denies the whole purpose of the Additional Member System, namely proportionality of outcome – i.e. to recognise the preferences of all voters, rather than simply those who backed the winner. To argue that a failure to top the poll is evidence of such an unequivocal ad hominem rejection of a candidate as to put him or her beyond the democratic pale, seems to deny everything we know about the party basis of electoral politics in this country.
Most students of politics would argue that the personal vote is rarely decisive in British elections. And it is common knowledge that most party activists regard independents with scorn. It is also worth remembering that the electorate for the regional list is much wider than individual constituencies. The legitimacy of the regional list members has to be measured across that wider area, not against the vote in one part of the region.
Those who support the ban argue that the system had been abused, but it is not clear what the nature of the abuse was, other than producing the ‘wrong’ result.
The other objection made is that Assembly Members elected on the regional list system somehow provide illegitimate competition for constituency members in serving the public with an area. But why shouldn’t there be competition? Why shouldn’t voters be able to choose which Assembly Members to go to in their hour of need? After all, multi-member constituencies are commonplace in local government.
I confess to being quite attracted, as was the Richard Commission, to the Single Transferable Vote system in multi-member constituencies. I would even like to see open primaries being used to select candidates for Westminster rather than narrow votes by tiny party cliques. The Additional Member System is not one that most advocates of electoral reform would opt for, but the argument that dual candidacy renders it undemocratic does not bear examination.
The biggest single public concern about the operation of the Assembly is a concern about the calibre and life experience of Assembly Members. Dual candidacy does at least help all parties to secure the election of their best people.