Dual candidacy benefits Welsh democracy

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.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA and is currently Chairman of the Welsh National Opera. He was Controller of BBC Wales from 1990-2000.

6 thoughts on “Dual candidacy benefits Welsh democracy

  1. Very good post and good points.

    It seems that a significant section of the Labour party don’t like PR full stop and this has more to do with a hatred of Helen Mary-Jones getting in in 2003 on the list when she lost Llanelli.

    When Labour look back honestly and asses, lets say politely, the lack of progress in Health, Education, Objective One, one has to agree with GTD that what Wales (and Labour in Govt) need is a capable government and strong opposition.

    Labour prefere wasting time and energy on a spiteful law rather than fighting for more powers for Wales (and their own Labour-run assembly) last night. When the Tories win the next UK General Election they’ll regret wasting such time.

    How much time has Labour already wasted on this. Why is this such an issue but Labour were happy enough to vote with the Tories to keep Welsh water under Westminster rather than (Labour) Assembly control? Why do they prefere wasting time on such a petty policy when Carwyn JOnes could be implementing the policies which they advocate on a UK level like against zero-hours or for rate-capping in Wales today?

    Labour fiddles whilst Wales burns.

  2. I agree with Geraint at heart this issue is about Labour’s inability to come to terms with the Additional Members system for the last 15 years, a system which doesn’t give them the historical total dominance of welsh politics they feel is theirs by right.

    But as interesting as this contribution is and its not solely the IWA fault you provide a valuable service on Click on Wales, but boiling down a lengthy debate on the Wales Bill at Westminster yesterday that included devolving borrowing powers and some smaller tax powers to the Welsh Government, whether a referendum needs to be had on Income Tax etc to arguments over electoral systems doesn’t really help the public understanding of the issues or what the Wales Bill’s changes mean for them or the Welsh Government and Assembly.

  3. I’m glad that someone has had not just the courage but the clarity of argument to take on Peter Hain’s rather bizarre position; “thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”.

    I’ve always had the feeling that, although representing the constituency of Neath, Peter Hain has never really got Wales. He seems to offer a politics that is devoid of context. His interest in the Severn Barrage, for example, seems to be more representative of a business and investment opportunity; the benefit to Wales seems to be incidental. At times, he appears positively patrician.

    But Geraint has, once again, put his finger on the key point, namely that the purpose of the AM system is proportionality of outcome.

    This is the point that does not compute with Peter Hain. His basic point of reference is the first-past-the-system on which he got elected. But the flaw in this position is that each electoral system is based on its own principles. Any undergraduate would know that an attempt at studying comparative electoral systems requires an examination of each system based on a comprehensive set of criteria, not just one, by which all can be analysed.

    The logical answer to Peter Hain’s concerns is, of course, the SIngle Transferable Vote System which allows voters to vote not just for the parties but for which individuals they wish to represent those parties But as has already been pointed out, Peter Hain’s point about PR is not based on any real concerns regarding voter choice.

  4. It is inarguable that the equation which was made in banning dual candidacy was to prioritise narrow party advantage ahead of the best interests of Wales as a whole. It pretty obviously benefits Labour if the brightest and best of the opposition groups are forced to choose between list and constituency and run the risk of losing, whilst Labour’s brightest and best can always be found a safe seat simply because they have more safe seats to distribute.

    The net result has been that the Assembly has lost very able and diligent politicians who might otherwise have contributed towards our national political life – I’m thinking of people like Nick Bourne, Helen Mary Jones, Jonathan Morgan. I support none of their parties, but I would still (as a citizen of Wales) want them in the Siambr contributing towards debates about our country’s future than some of the party colleagues who replaced them.

    Dual candidacy is not perfect – but it does mean that in a small country like ours, we can ensure that the best political minds are more likely to make a contribution. They are not certain to do so – their party still has to secure sufficient support in a large electoral region (and as any political grassroots campaigner will know, that’s no straightforward task), but if we want the best Assembly Members we can get, we cannot afford to turn our back on some of them out of narrow party self-interest.

  5. “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.”

    I don’t really think that any more needs to be said on this does it?

    When is a principle of universal application not a principle of universal application? When it is not a principle…

  6. The shameless carpetbagger Peter Hain’s shameless defence of shameless Welsh Labour’s shameless gerrymandering tells you everything you need to know about Welsh politics.

    The most depressing thing is not that such things are said and done in Wales – politics is politics the world over, after all – but that they are done so overtly and, well, shamelessly here, because there is no fear of the political consequences.

    GTD’s very tentative suggestion of open primaries is our only hope. The power of the party system is the greatest obstacle to democracy in this country. If we could just get rid of the placemen, many things might become possible.

    Of course, it is not going to happen.

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