Does Labour have an overwhelming majority?

As Welsh Labour forms a government John Osmond takes issue with a view that constituency and List members in the Assembly have a different democratic legitimacy

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Alun Michael, the Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth and short-lived first First Minister in the first term of the National Assembly, unwittingly made the case for the Single Transferable Vote electoral system earlier today.  Interviewed by the BBC’s Good Morning Wales he constantly referred to Welsh Labour having the moral authority to govern alone because it has such a large majority of the constituency seats.

As he put it, “Labour has the overwhelming number of directly elected seats.” He went on to infer that, as a result, AMs from the other parties were in the Assembly for a different purpose from Labour, to make the committee system work and to hold the government to account, rather than to govern themselves.

On the other hand, as he put it, “Labour has such an overwhelming number of members that it now has the authority to govern.” However, this ‘overwhelming’ number is just from the constituency seats. And, indeed Labour does have 28 of the 40 constituency first-past-the-post seats – to the Conservative’s six, Plaid’s five, and Liberal Democrats’ one. But overall, of course, Labour has just 30 seats, which is only half of the AMs and far from an ‘overwhelming’ majority.

Like many others in Labour Alun Michael tends to make a distinction between constituency and List AMs, with the latter being regarded as somehow second order representatives without the fuller mandate that should be accorded constituency members. Alun Michael underlined this perspective when he added in this morning’s interview that the Conservative, Plaid and Liberal Democrats in the Assembly:

“…should recognise that they only have the number of seats they have through the top-up system which is meant to improve scrutiny and be a challenge to the largest party.”

Pursuing this point to its logical endpoint would mean that List members should not be part of the government. Which is odd when you take into account that when in the Assembly Alun Michael himself was a List member for Mid and West Wales, albeit for less than a year.

Nonetheless, this attitude to the relative legitimacy of List members is deep seated. It is sometimes reflected in arguments that List members should not have the same allowances and expenses as constituency members because, apparently,  they do not have constituents to look after. It was also reflected in Labour’s legislating in the 2006 Wales Act to ensure that politicians could not stand simultaneously for a constituency and List seat.

The effectiveness of this last piece of tribalist legislation from Labour’s point of view was demonstrated last week when Conservative leader Nick Bourne lost his List seat in Mid and West Wales because of his party’s success in holding on to Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and winning Montgomery.

If this political distinction between constituency and List member is sustained it can only strengthen the case for a change to the way the Assembly is elected. Quite apart from allowing two classes of member to emerge, the Additional Member system also has other disadvantages which were demonstrated last week.

Nick Bourne was not the only example of an egregious outcome resulting from the way the system operates. Take the position in the South Wales Central List region, where Labour won Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats by just 38 votes. This had the consequence of gaining the Liberal Democrats a compensatory List seat at the expense of Plaid Cymru’s sitting List member Chris Franks. Did he deserve to lose his seat because of just a handful of votes in just one constituency in the region?

Or to take another example in South Wales Central. The Conservative’s loss of Cardiff North to Labour meant they were also compensated by winning a seat on the List, again at the expense of Plaid. However, if Jonathan Morgan had hung on to Cardiff North, Labour would have 29 rather than 30 seats and would probably now be in serious coalition talks rather than determining to govern alone, as Carwyn Jones announced this afternoon.

It might be argued that the outcome of many elections are determined in this way, at the margin and around the edges. But the Additional Member system does operate in an especially gratuitous way, as the above examples demonstrate.

Surely the answer is to revisit the recommendation of the cross-party Richard Commission in 2004. This, it will be recalled, recommended that the Assembly should have 80 members elected by the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation. STV would ensure that, contrary to Alun Michael, all AMs were demonstrably equal. It would also ensure that the Assembly was elected by a fully proportional system, and not the current partially proportional Additional Member system which throws up so many anomalies and incongruous outcomes.

Certainly, to use Carwyn Jones words in his statement this afternoon that he would be forming a govermment made up of “solely Welsh Labour ministers”, the workings of the Additional Member system reflects “old style of politics” that “sits uncomfortably with the electorate”.

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