Easier Said than Done

Roger Scully looks at how we could increase the size of the Assembly.

My previous Blog Post discussed the recent constitutional debate in the National Assembly, in which there appeared to be a cross-party consensus that competence over the electoral system for devolved elections in Wales should be invested in the Assembly.

That debate also included some discussion about the size of the Assembly. Julie Morgan, Labour AM for Cardiff North, argued that “There is an absolute case for there being more Members”. This is a matter about which a consensus also appears to be emerging. A need for more AMs was a conclusion shared by the Richard and Silk Commissions, and has been advocated by the UK Changing Union project and the Electoral Reform Society. Much of the Labour party, including the First Minister, now seem to support this; Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have long done so. And although the Conservatives do not yet seem convinced, nor have they closed the door on the idea.

However, these two matters on which the parties in the Assembly now mostly seem to agree – control over the electoral system, and the need for more AMs – could well come into conflict. The former could well obstruct the latter.

A brief reminder: we currently have 60 AMs, with 40 elected in single-member constituencies by First Past the Post and 20 elected from across five regions. The regional members are allocated in a manner which takes account of which parties won the constituency seats. However, with only one-third of the seats elected via the list, the system is only semi-proportional.

The easiest and most obvious way to expand the Assembly would be simply to increase the number of regional list members. We currently elect four members from each region. To expand the NAW from 60 to 80 members (the most commonly-mentioned number for a larger Assembly), we could just double the number of list members in each region from 4 to 8. Simples.

Or not so simple. Such a change would not just increase the size of the Assembly. It would also increase the proportionality of the system significantly. If you favour a broadly proportional electoral system, as I personally do, then that is unproblematic. But we can hardly expect Wales’ largest party to look at such a change sympathetically. Because Labour have always won the majority of the constituencies in Assembly elections, the greater the proportional element of the voting system the less favourable it is to them. It is thus wholly unsurprising, if still unfortunate, that some in the Labour party appear to resent even the modest degree of proportionality within the current system.

Giving the Assembly competence over its own electoral system, with a two-thirds threshold to approve any change, would prevent any single party imposing change – except in the unlikely scenario in which a single party actually won two-thirds of the Assembly seats under the current electoral system. It is a very positive sign for pluralism in Welsh politics that the major parties all seem to recognise that electoral system change should have cross-party support. A two-thirds threshold would effectively give Labour a veto over electoral system change. It would also mean that at least one of the Conservatives or Plaid Cymru would need to agree with Labour on a change from the status quo.

However, this may render it very difficult to effect a move from a 60-seat to an 80-seat Assembly. Given that Labour’s self-interest would clearly be in making the system less proportional, while its opponents would prefer a more proportional system, there is the potential for stalemate. Thus, something that most of the parties agreed – a larger Assembly – upon might be stymied by something else that the parties also agreed upon – the two-thirds threshold.

How might stalemate be avoided?

A classic negotiating tactic, when an impasse is threatened, is to craft some sort of ‘package deal’: ensuring that those who lose out on one matter gain compensation elsewhere. But the electoral system is something of such fundamental self-interest to political parties that it would be difficult to craft a package deal around this. What could Labour offer to one of the opposition parties that would be of such immense value that it would be worth tolerating an electoral system change that could lock in even greater Labour dominance of the Assembly for decades? Or, alternatively, why would Labour AMs agree to a change that would disadvantage their party – what could the other parties conceivably offer them to do this?

The only basis for an agreement that seems to me to be plausible is some revised system that maintains broadly the current level of proportionality. As I’ve discussed before, there seem two ways of achieving that. The first would be some version of the Single Transferrable Vote system. The second would be a re-worked version of the current system, in which the proportion of constituency and list seats remained the same: in other words, there would be an increase in the number of both constituency and list AMs. Neither change would be that simple. STV requires adopting, and adapting to, a completely new form of voting (and, indeed, counting votes). Increasing the number of constituency and list AMs would mean breaking the link between Westminster and Assembly constituency boundaries (losing ‘co-terminosity’, in the technical lingo), and at least a moderately complex process of boundary revisions. And there would always be the potential for one party or another to baulk at change if they felt that the details were being established in a way that might work to their disadvantage.

I personally approve of the National Assembly acquiring competence over its own electoral system. I also strongly welcome the broad consensus that has emerged around a super-majority threshold, and what this means for electoral system change being a matter of cross-party consensus. And I support an increase in the size of the Assembly. But politics is often about managing the tensions between different things that we support or desire to see. Electoral system reform in Wales may offer the world yet another example of such tensions.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

12 thoughts on “Easier Said than Done

  1. Wales can’t broaden the franchise with PR because it would mean more people like me who want to see an end to the whole shooting match in the Bay would get elected and we would make a legislature which is currently just broken unworkable. So the current anti-democratic 4-party stitch-up will continue for as long as the incumbent snouts in trough can get away with it. Which may only be until 2016 if the expected UKIP AMs function according to their party constitution…

    At least in Stormont they are honest about running the place with an anti-democratic coalition but that place is barely functional these days and the progress that was made in N.I. while it was under Westminster administration has now stalled and may even be going into reverse. Wales, since devolution, has only really seen reverse. At some point the people are going to put the blame where it belongs, with the unnecessary layer of governance, and they will demand an end to it. So the fewer snouts in the trough we have to pension off the better!

  2. A very good idea,but why stop at 80,as surely with the growth of responsibilities,and the undoubted success of welsh devolution a round figure of 100 would be more appropriate. Once up to a 100 we would need a ‘second chamber’ to review the whole set up,and once that’s in place our OWN Head of State to reflect our national aspirations. Meanwhile back at the ranch the a)general condition of Wales is deteriorating,b)the ‘quango’ state is expanding at a rate of knots,c)a useless and biased media cannot monitor 60,let alone more of the same!!. More MADNESS as what is needed is proper management of existing resources and ruthless changes to public services and the ‘quangocracy’and all based on open access to public funding!!.

  3. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that setting up the Assembly and increasing the number of politicians running Wales by a factor of 20 has resulted in improved public services in Wales.

    On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the opposite may be true, especially in health, education, and economic development. Everyone, even the politicians themselves, admit that the current system is not working and that there has to be change.

    Yet is comes as no surprise that the change proposed by the politicians themselves is yet more politicians!

    As for granting the Assembly control of its own electoral arrangements, given current Welsh political culture, it would be granting a licence to gerrymander. Any non-Labour politician supporting it is a turkey voting for Christmas.

  4. Excellent piece, again, by Roger Scully. Naturally, when the issue of re-shaping democratic structures is highlighted, the UKIP trollers have gone apoplectic (though their public enragment is often faux).

  5. I would argue that the most effective ‘oversight’ for the Assembly should not be a second chamber or more AMs, but rather greater scrutiny by the public. Therefore they should be thinking of ways in which they could make Welsh politics more interesting to the electorate. I’m not sure an even more complicated electoral system would achieve that – although it is fairer, it also means that Welsh politics lacks much of the drama of a first past the post system. I would suggest an elected ‘governor’ for the Welsh government, in the same vein as in the US states.Having a Mayor for the London Assembly has given the institution a much higher profile and has made the elections there much more news-worthy than if they were simply voting for local representatives. A ‘presidential election’ of this kind is exciting, not because of the power he or she wields, but because it means that it gives the elections faces and personalities. This is just what a PR system lacks – most people have no idea what single individual they’re voting for on the list. Greater public interest in Welsh politics would allow the media to cover it in more detail (though I accept there’s an element of chicken and egg there), and would lead to greater scrutiny of what goes on at the Senedd.

  6. John R Walker – I was under the impression that UKIP had now decided it wanted to keep devolution in Wales? Nathan Gill said in an interview shortly after the EU elections that UKIP has now accepted the devolution settlement as it currently is. Or was he lying?

  7. Forty new members of the Senedd in Cardiff will cost much less than sending forty MPs to Westminster. Sending forty MPs to Westminster serves no useful purpose. Enlarging the size of the Senedd makes it much more able to manage all internal and external affairs of the Welsh State. Plus the saving of getting rid of any members of the House of Lords sent from Wales. Clearly independence for Wales is a win win all round.

  8. Everywhere that STV has been introduced the public has come to love it and the politicians to hate it – because it forces competition between politicians in the same party, bringing factions out of the closet into the open and allowing the public to express preferences. In Ireland the politicians have staged more than one referendum to abolish STV – and lost them all. Counting votes is complicated but voting is not. You just mark candidates in your order of preference by putting 1,2,3…. on the ballot paper. And you put down as many numbers, or as few, as you want. When Welsh seats at Westminster are reduced to 30 as they should be, we should make the same constituencies multi-member with three AMs each, for a 90 seat Assembly.

  9. 40 constituency members out of 60 (the present settlement) is a 2/3 ratio. This ratio cannot be exactly maintained in an 80 seat Assembly by virtue of simple mathematics. Therefore it would seem that to satisfy your analysis of Labour preferences some degree of compromise would be necessary. You raise the question of coterminosity with Westminster constituencies, but you do not acknowledge the pressure (which admittedly comes and goes) to reduce the number of Westminster seats. This would change the maths substantially. One possible scenario (which would produce a ratio of 62.5% rather than the current 66%) would be to reduce the number of Westminster seats to 25 and use those boundaries to elect 2 members per constituency i.e. 50 constituency members to 30 list members. The regional boundaries would have to be redrawn to accommodate this, but they are pretty meaningless anyway and have no historical basis other than having once been the boundaries of now defunct European constituencies. 6 regions of 5 members, or 5 regions of 6 members would make more sense. So this is a possible mathematical solution, but would require the parallel Westminster model to be redrawn. I hasten to add that I do not favour this solution, being very much of the opinion that it is the Westminster Parliament that is the superfluous layer of government, but merely offer it as an alternative analysis of possibilities.

  10. I think it is still likely that at some point in the future, Wales will be reduced to 30 MPs, as its population suggests. In fact, this would probably be the part of the grand bargain for increasing the number of AMs, I’m personally extremely comfortable with this as it will be part of shifting powers and scrutiny to the Assembly.

    If that’s the case, then 90 AMs would be the obvious way to go.

    My prefered option would be 30 constituencies electing 3 members by STV. This would allow a proportional and balanced assembly and place power in the hands of the voters.

    But a less radical compromise might be 30 two-member consituencies and 30 regional members. An alternative would be that each Westminster constituency was divided in to two smaller halves and that there were 60 constituency members and 30 regional members. These last two options keep the 2:1 ratio which Labour appears to cherish.

  11. Let us look at this mathematically…

    How many Welsh politicians does it take to change a light bulb?


    This is an exact calculation based on the 1997 principle: first take the number traditionally required to do the job – one in the case of the light bulb, three in the case of governing Wales – and add 57 for no apparent reason.

    Apply this principle to any given task and you can find lucrative employment for as many politicians as you want.

  12. Of course the most economical solution is to have no politicians at all and just to select a gauleiter to run Wales. I would be happy with that solution on one condition – I was the gauleiter. I certainly wouldn’t trust anyone else. Unfortunately other people take a similar view so perhaps we are stuck with politics.

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