Neat and tidy Peter Hain

John Osmond admires the breath-taking chutzpah of the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, but disagrees

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Welsh Labour’s Peter Hain made a breath-taking effort today to persuade us that proportional representation should be abandoned for elections to the National Assembly in favour of electing all 60 AMs by first past the post.

This is surprising on several scores. From his earliest political days as a Liberal Party activist, Peter Hain, has been in favour of one form or another of electoral reform. In more recent years he has been a passionate advocate of the Alternative Vote. However, today he seemed to base his case, during an interview on Radio Wales’ Good Morning Wales, on the fact of the decisive vote against AV for House of Commons elections in May’s referendum. The assumption was that this could be translated automatically into support for first past the post for elections to the National Assembly.

That is highly questionable. In the case of AV a hastily arranged and flawed reform proposal, about which even its proponents had doubts, was put to the people in a campaign that was notable for the disingenuous nature of many of the arguments. In the case of the National Assembly, its electoral system has been a key factor in establishing its wider legitimacy. Without that it is doubtful whether the referendum on law-making powers in March would have been won so decisively.

But, said Peter Hain, first past the post for the Assembly would be so “neat and tidy”.

He pointed out that the Assembly’s current partial Additional Member proportional electoral system had thrown up gratuitous anomalies, such as Conservative leader Nick Bourne losing his Mid and West Wales seat because his party had done so well in winning an extra first past the post seat in the region.

The chutzpah of the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales takes some beating.

He failed to point out that he, personally, when he was Secretary of State for Wales, had been instrumental in changing the rules in a way that ensured that this could happen. In a reform that many saw as tribal gerrymandering, his 2006 Wales Act prevented candidates standing in both first past the post seats and on the List. If that change hadn’t happened Bourne could have stood in winnable Montgomery as well as heading the List in Mid and West Wales, in which case he would still be the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly.

All this has come about because the number of Welsh MPs at Westminster are due to be cut by a quarter at the next election, with their numbers reduced from 40 to 30. This means that the Westminster constituencies will then be out of kilter with the 40 first past the post Assembly constituencies. There is an emerging consensus within the parties, that from the point of view of party organization it would be desirable (“neat and tidy”) to ensure that the constituencies for the Assembly and Westminster are coterminous – though this is not the case in Scotland where, incidentally, there is no ban on aspirant MSPs standing on both the List and in a constituency either.

So what to do? Hain’s intervention is undoubtedly a response to a suggestion from Plaid Cymru’s MP for Carmarthen East Jonathan Edwards, that the solution would be simply to have 30 first past the post seats in the Assembly and 30 on the List. This, he has pointed out, would have the additional advantage of making elections to the Assembly more fully proportional in their outcome.

All the parties have benefited from the additional member electoral system that was introduced when the Assembly was set up in 1999, especially the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. This is despite the fact that the system is still far from being strictly proportional. The Conservatives have built their electoral recovery in Wales since the 1997 Westminster election, when they failed to win a seat in Wales, on this modest degree of proportionality in the system. As for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, if it had not been for the additional member system they would have only won one seat in the Assembly in May this year instead of five.

Even Labour has benefited, though to a lesser extent. Alun Michael won a List seat in Mid and West Wales in 1999 enabling him to become First Secretary, and Labour won List seats there in both the 2007 and 2011 elections. Without these List seats Labour would not have reached the 30 it currently enjoys and would not be in government on its own.

Peter Hain has noted that the present Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, has responded positively to Jonathan Edwards’ suggestion, as an idea that should be seriously examined. On the radio this morning he said he wasn’t coming to this from any tribal perspective – just responding to what the electorate so clearly told us in the AV referendum, that they favoured first past the post.

But, Peter, as you well know, the Alternative Vote is not a proportional system. Its effect can be, as has been shown to be the case in Australia since the 1920s, to entrench two-party politics and close down plurality in politics. Which is why I, as a life-long supporter of electoral reform, voted against AV in the May referendum. I certainly don’t support first past the post. Peter, come on, you can do better than this.

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