Building a stronger National Assembly (“We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat…”)

Owain ap Gareth explores the options to bolster the National Assembly for Wales.

“Reshaping the Senedd: How to elect a more effective National Assembly” is a joint report by Electoral Reform Society Cymru and Wales Governance written by Professor Roger Scully and Dr Owain ap Gareth. You can find the full report here: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/publication/Reshaping-the-Senedd.pdf

Given the tidal waves that have rocked our politics this year, it may seem an unusual time to be discussing the need for more Assembly Members. In a year of populist shocks and rhetoric, the call for more AMs is difficult, and to many, treacherous waters indeed.

But it is also necessary. The political weather has changed, making the challenge of ensuring the Assembly can navigate the new seas we find ourselves in more acute. With the likely transfer of substantial EU powers and responsibilities over a whole myriad of issues, such as agriculture, energy or fisheries, the argument for a larger and more effective Assembly has only become more compelling.

The argument also held true three years ago, when we released our comprehensive study of how the Assembly is small in comparison to similar bodies – and how having too few members makes for huge difficulties in developing adequate scrutiny of Ministers and legislation, with AMs being squeezed across several different committees.

But now with Brexit, as well as new tax powers, we don’t just need all hands on deck – we need a bigger crew to deal with the new policy-making opportunities that such seismic changes herald.

To do so will require a reliable compass. Reshaping the Senedd, produced jointly between Electoral Reform Society Cymru and the Wales Governance Centre, provides a way forward.

New tax powers, and the prospect of additional powers from Europe, make the case for a larger, fairly-elected Assembly, stronger than ever. And given that many now recognise the need for a more effective and accountable Assembly, ‘Reshaping the Senedd’ moves from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’: practical ways to achieve a larger, more democratic Assembly.  

Through the Wales Bill, the Assembly is set to be given the power to change its size and voting system – but only with two-thirds of AMs voting in favour.

That means cross-party agreement is needed. So consensus is not just desirable but essential for change to happen. That, of course, is how it should be: changes to the rules of the game require a different kind of debate that goes beyond partisan politics.

This report gives people the key principles and practical tools to have a clear-headed and positive debate about how we make a bolstered Assembly work better for voters and Welsh politics as a whole.

We identify the key principles to a good electoral system as follows:

  1. Proportionality: A new electoral system should be likely to produce outcomes no less proportional than those produced by the present system, and ideally more proportional than the current system.
  2. Simplicity and Coterminosity: Electoral boundaries for the National Assembly should, as far as possible, be coterminous with others (such as mirroring Westminster boundaries). This makes things simpler for both voters and parties.
  3. Sustainability and Stability: Any reformed electoral system should be sustainable. It should not need to change again fundamentally in the near future. This may require that it is also flexible and adaptable to minor changes as necessary.
  4. Broad-based consensus: Decisions on the electoral ‘rules of the game’ should always be based on as broad a consensus as possible; there should be checks against individual parties being able to change electoral systems for partisan gain.
  5. Strong and Equal Mandates: All Assembly Members should have clear and equal mandates; if mandates are different there should be no sense of some representatives being ‘second-class’ AMs.
  6. Representativeness: Insofar as possible, the electoral system should produce a body of representatives who reflect the electorate, in terms of race, gender, disability, religion, age, social class and diversity of opinions.
  7. Substantial support: Election to the National Assembly should require a substantial level of public support; the effective threshold for election should reflect this.

Since there’s no perfect system that fully satisfies every principle, this is about finding the right balance across these different imperatives. We know that parties will approach this from different standpoints, so Reshaping the Senedd can be used as a serious basis for building the common ground needed to take Welsh democracy forward.

Nevertheless, the report finds several systems unsuitable for serious consideration, either due to substantial issues with the key principles, or the fact that they are unlikely to reach the necessary level of consensus. These include a Westminster-style First Past the Post system, the Alternative Vote, a Mixed Member Majoritarian system, and variants of the current AMS system such as using a National List. None of these meet the criteria a larger Assembly needs to function effectively and democratically.    

Our preferred options are as follows:

  • Single Transferable Vote (STV) –  87 members elected in 29, 3-member constituencies
  • Open List – 87 members elected in 29, 3-member constituencies

Adapting the current Additional Member System (AMS) is also a plausible, although unwieldy, option.

Balancing the different principles is precisely that – a matter of balance. Different groups will have different interpretations and will weigh the issues differently. However, some area of common ground on which discussions take place is vital to allow space for discussion of the ‘rules of the game’ to take place and to go beyond – or at least mitigate against – partisan self-interest.

This framework gives parties of all stripes the necessary tools to go forward on the basis of a rational discussion that puts the interests of Welsh democracy first – both in terms of a fair voting system, and in ensuring the Assembly has the necessary tools to hold the Welsh Government properly to account in the decisions that lie ahead.

The political tide is changing. Whether you take the view that it provides new opportunities for the Assembly to chart its own course, or take the view that we’re entering dangerous waters, one thing is clear. As Roy Schneider said it in his famous line in Jaws: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

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