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. 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. (For a more detailed discussion, see here).
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 merely increase the size of the Assembly. It would also enhance 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 a large 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 have an equally clear interest in 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 (as recommended by the Richard Commission.) The second would be a re-worked version of the current system, in which the relative 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 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 might always be the potential for one party or another to baulk at change if they felt that the details were working out 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 dealing with 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.