A furious row has erupted between Welsh Labour and the Electoral Reform Society, the latest in a series of disagreements over possible changes to the way Assembly Members are elected.
The ERS says changes backed by Labour would ‘rob thousands of voters of a choice and vote’ and be ‘damaging for democracy and damaging for devolution.’
Labour meanwhile accuses the ERS of peddling ‘anti-Labour propaganda’ with no more than ‘guess-work.’ One Labour source says the Society has
allowed itself to be led by the nose by the Tory/Plaid/Lib Dem trinity of vested interests.
Strong words, but what’s behind them?
It all follows the publication of the Electoral Reform Society’s report on this year’s Welsh Election, written by Professor Roger Scully from Aberystwyth’s Institute of Welsh Politics and the Society’s Research Officer Dr. Owain ap Gareth. There’s a PDF of the report here.
Most of the report is a look at how the parties performed back in May, voter turnout, how much the final result affected the representation of women and ethnic minorities and how proportional or otherwise the result was.
It also looks at the likely impact of alternative voting systems which could be used in future Welsh elections if, as the UK Government has hinted, there are to be changes to Assembly boundaries following next year’s shake-up of Westminster boundaries. *
In the report, the ERS warns against moving towards using First Past the Post alone and says that if Assembly constituencies are to be changed, it would recommend that half were chosen by the Additional Member System currently used to elect 20 of the 60 members.
And this is where it is at odds with Welsh Labour which has officially taken the view that there should be no change, but if there is to be change, the 60 AMs should be chosen from 30 constituencies electing two members by first past the post.
The main proponent of this view is Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain who’s been accused of trying to turn the clock back to make Welsh elections more favourable to Labour and of hypocrisy for arguing for First Past the Post just months after campaigning to drop it in the AV referendum.
You may remember that some Welsh Labour AMs had been against the Hain view and thought their party should take no position at all.
In the end they reached a compromise, with a meeting of the party’s Welsh Executive backing Peter Hain’s position, albeit with the strong caveat that there should be no change without a manifesto pledge. You can read about that here.
All of this means that the Electoral Reform Society would have expected opposition to its conclusions from Labour anyway.
But that opposition has been heightened by its accompanying press release which includes the following comments by Steve Brooks the Wales Director of the ERS:
Our research shows that Labour would have won nearly 70% of the seats in the National Assembly, had the last election been fought using Two Member First Past the Post. This is despite the fact that Labour secured around 40% of the vote.
While this may be good news for aspiring Labour candidates, its bad news for Welsh voters. Two Member First Past The Post would rob thousands of voters of a choice and voice.
Over half of Welsh voters chose the Tories, Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats in May this year, yet under Two Member First Past The Post, those parties would be left with less than a third of the seats in the Assembly. That would be damaging for democracy and damaging for devolution.
The official response from Labour is this:
The claims made by the Electoral Reform Society are factually inaccurate on almost every level, and grossly misrepresent Welsh Labour’s position on this issue. And our position is crystal clear – the Tories in Westminster have no mandate for changing the electoral system in Wales. That is our ‘preferred option’. It is a great shame that instead of supporting calls for Welsh people to be asked beforehand on any change to their voting system, the ERS have instead decided to issue a bizarre statement that is patently untrue and disturbingly skewed.
In private the response has been even stronger. One senior Welsh Labour source said,
This is pretty grubby stuff. In allowing themselves to be led by the nose by the Tory/Plaid/Lib Dem trinity of vested interests, the ERS have whistled away any credibility they have on the issue.
At the very time that Wales needs a strong champion against Tory attempts to gerrymander elections in Wales, the ERS seems more concerned with pushing an overtly political agenda and picking a fight with the only party to have guaranteed Welsh voters a say in how they elect their representatives.
And this from another senior Labour source was equally damning:
This ‘research’ by a Plaid Cymru-supporting academic is nothing more than guess work and was commissioned with the sole intention of undermining Labour’s democratically-agreed position.
Two member first two past the post has never been used for Assembly or Westminster elections before so it is impossible to predict how the people of Wales would choose to cast their votes under such a system.
Multiple-member first past the post is currently used only for local government elections in Wales where there is little evidence to suggest that Labour gains any particular advantage, this is because when given the option of putting more than one cross in a box, people often choose to “split” their votes between candidates of different parties.
It’s important to see this report for what it is: anti-Labour propaganda. It was commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society specifically to further their agenda for proportional representation.
We simply want a voting system that best serves the people of Wales.
Steve Brooks will give his reaction later. For now he’s described Labour’s response as ‘disappointing.’
Expect further skirmishes over this – the latest abstract row to have a very concrete impact on Welsh politics.
* For the latest thinking on the parliamentary shake-up which has sparked this debate, it’s worth reading Nick Powell’s recent blog post here.
UPDATE 0905 As promised, here’s the response from Stephen Brooks, Wales Director of the Electoral Reform Society:
The reaction of some is bewildering. The Electoral Reform Society is an independent organisation: we’re not aligned to any political party. We’ve been working for over 100 years to push for a fair voting system so it’s nonsense to suggest we’re being led by others.
I would urge Labour to look again at what we’ve said. We agree with Labour: we don’t think there is a mandate for change. We do think the people of Wales must first be asked their view before change is introduced. And as a matter for Wales, this should be decided in the National Assembly, not at Westminster. We disagree with Labour on First Past The Post. It’s our view that it would be bad for Welsh democracy.