A reasonable test for a properly functioning democracy might be whether its electoral system and political parties are capable both of delivering a government with a working majority and of creating the possibility of different parties forming that government.
The belief by many in the Labour party that they should only form a coalition if absolutely necessary means that Wales has only had majority government for seven of the twelve years since the Assembly was established.
As soon as Labour gets to thirty seats, their coalition partners –the Lib Dems in 2003 and Plaid Cymru in 2011- are ditched.
The Assembly doesn’t do very well under the second half of the test either, as the collapse of the attempt at a ‘rainbow’ coalition in 2007 demonstrated.
But the whole issue of how the Assembly is elected has been thrown open as a result of the cut in the number of Westminster constituencies.
Under the current rules the Assembly has one AM for each of the 40 Westminster constituencies and 20 regional list members to provide the ‘element of proportionality’ promised in the devolution proposals on which the 1997 referendum was held.
The two-to-one ratio was fixed by law but the legislation which led to the forthcoming cut in Welsh Westminster constituencies from 40 to 30 ‘decoupled’ the Assembly constituencies to stop the number of AMs falling from 60 to 45. The UK government has said it will consult on what should happen next. The word is that we should expect it to consult widely with ‘all stakeholders’; it certainly won’t be a case of simply asking the Welsh Government and AMs for their views.
This reflects the fact that Welsh MPs are taking a close interest. The Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, spoke for may of them when he claimed that the decision to let the Scottish Parliament have different constituency boundaries to Westminster is “widely accepted to have been a disastrous decision”.
Mr. Hain points out that some Scottish parliamentary seats are straddled across three or more UK parliamentary seats and vice-versa. He says that this leads to ‘confusion for voters, and organizational chaos for political parties and their representatives’. He claims that “everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales, and maintain the same boundaries for Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies”.
Everyone at Westminster that is. The provisional proposals for the new Westminster constituencies are due out in September but it’s inevitable that the cut in numbers and the requirement for them to have similar-sized electorates will lead to much more crossing of county and county borough boundaries than at present. Assembly members could take one look and decide not to wish such ‘unnatural’ constituencies on themselves.
MPs are more likely to fear the possibility that Assembly and local government boundaries will become the main basis of party organisation, leaving Westminster as the odd one out.
The bigger question is how any change would affect that ‘element of proportionality’ in how the Assembly is elected.
The Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards got the ball rolling with a suggestion that the Assembly switches to 30 constituency members and 30 list members, though he has since said that he and his party would really like multi-member single transferable vote constituencies, also favoured by the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives are quite keen on the 30-30 idea.
A source close to the First Minister says the Labour party has no official policy at present but that Carwyn Jones thinks that a system based on proportional representation would be difficult to support, given the rejection of the Alternative Vote in the referendum on how MPs should be elected.
It seems that the First Minister believes that 60 AMs, elected by first-past-the-post, is the best option for the future.
That is what Peter Hain proposed last week, arguing that the 30 constituencies should each have two AMs. He flatly denied that such a change would virtually guarantee Labour a permanent majority in Cardiff Bay.
He pointed to how local government wards in his own constituency sometimes elect councillors from more than one party, though he neglected to add that Neath Port Talbot is the only one of the 22 counties and county boroughs to have always returned a Labour majority since local government was last reorganised.
Mr Hain is a long-standing supporter of the Alternative Vote, the system rejected for Westminster in May. If the referendum had backed the idea, he would probably have revived a proposal that the Labour party looked at a few years ago –two member Assembly constituencies where the voter numbers the candidates in order of preference.
The likely result would have been much the same as the present system but without the mix of constituency and regional AMs. The suggestion was rejected for a reason that its supporters thought was an advantage, it would have made Labour campaign hard in nearly every constituency.
Any thought that the Labour party would automatically unite behind Peter Hain’s proposal has been ended by Mick Antoniw, the AM for Pontypridd.
In a letter to the Western Mail he argues that Peter Hain is missing the point. (He gives himself some political cover by also strongly condemning the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies for supporting 30-30). Mr Antoniw bluntly states that the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs at Westminster does not mean that there is any need to change the Assembly’s electoral system:
“Any changes to the Welsh constitutional system of government should only take place with the consent of the Assembly. Neither [Peter Hain nor Ron Davies] has approached the Welsh Government or the Assembly for their views. It is almost as though the wishes of the Assembly are considered irrelevant and that Wales is to be treated as little more than a political football,
“The real starting point in all this is that no party has a mandate for any change to the Welsh electoral system. It did not appear in any party manifesto.
“Such a major change in Wales must require at the very least a referendum and probably an election manifesto commitment.
At the end of the day, the voting system in Wales for the Assembly belongs to the people of Wales and it would seriously undermine the devolution settlement and constitutional relations between Wales and Westminster to attempt to do anything without the consent of the people of Wales”
Ron Davies of course is responsible for the present method of electing the Assembly. Labour ditched first-past-the-post after Tony Blair decided that there would have to be a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum before devolution could go ahead. Mr Davies said they could hardly expect the cross-party support needed to win the referendum if the other parties couldn’t expect to win a reasonable share of the seats.
Even so, the Lib Dems nearly withdrew their backing when it was announced that two-thirds of the seats would be elected by first past the post. That led to some shuttle diplomacy between the Welsh Labour and Lib Dem conferences just before the 1997 General Election. (They conveniently took place on the same weekend in the neighbouring towns of Llandudno and Conwy).
Ron Davies and the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Carlile, reached the ‘Davies-Carlile Agreement’ under which the two men agreed that if the Assembly elections did not produce a roughly proportional result, the two men, or their successors, would meet again to discuss how to make the system more proportional.
The system that Ron Davies is now proposing is almost certainly more proportional. In May, Labour won half the seats with less than half the vote. Depending on how the new boundaries were drawn under 30-30, the party would have won perhaps seven fewer constituencies but probably only four extra regional list seats. (Though in a system where the list seats in every region were crucial to Labour’s chances of a majority, the party might have got more of its supporters to turn out and vote).
If there had been 30 ‘first-two-past-the-post’ constituencies in May, Labour would probably have got at least one AM elected in no fewer than 21 of them. Even if vote-splitting in a third of those constituencies had cost Labour the second seat, the party would still have ended up with 35 of the 60 AMs.
A small concession might be to have each of the 30 Westminster constituencies split into two single member Assembly constituencies.
That would probably create a couple more seats winnable by non-Labour candidates.