Baroness Jenny Randerson served as a Welsh Liberal Democrat member in the very first Welsh Assembly (Senedd) and as Deputy First Minister in 2001-2002. She also later served as a minister in the UK Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, giving her a unique perspective on power sharing at Wales and UK levels.
Speaking to her over Zoom, we discussed the Senedd’s early years, the effects of a proportional representation system on Welsh democracy – a year after Welsh councils won the power to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – and the need for UK-wide electoral reform, two decades on from the referendum that paved the way for devolution.
The interview coincides with the ERS’ new report celebrating two decades of proportional representation in devolved government across Britain. This piece was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
Josiah Mortimer: Tell me about the early days of setting up the Welsh Assembly.
Baroness Randerson: It was so exciting. It’s something no one can ever take away from me. What was so exciting was putting together our contrasting experiences—there was a very strong feeling that we didn’t want to reproduce the House of Commons in any way.
Another thing that made it very significant was all the women—half of us were women.
One of the things that any list system gives you is that the individual political parties feel obliged, when they stand back, to make their lists more balanced.
In the early months there was endless speculation about a coalition and it came to nothing. Long after they stopped doing media reports about a coalition, that it wasn’t going to happen, we started talking [Baroness Randerson and then-whip Andrew Davies AM]. And we did it in a fairly relaxed manner over the summer 2000.
And suddenly there we were, I think it was October. And it was a mastermind we’d organised, we’d got a whole great big document with a fully worked out coalition program—which by the way, was drawn on by the coalition not in terms of content, but in terms of process.
You do your policy commitments and agreements first—and only then do you discuss seats around the cabinet table, ministerial posts and so on. And once you can agree on that, then the people slot in.
You said you wanted the Assembly to work differently to Westminster. In what ways did that happen?
BR: One thing is that if you have things in a semicircle, it’s much more difficult to shout at people.
In terms of proportional representation, I did a lot of work with [former Conservative Member of the Senedd] David Melding because he represented the region that my constituency was part of. So, we saw each at events, in meetings, in the community. We worried about the same issues.
You do develop rivalries, but you also develop liaisons in terms of campaigning. But you’re also always looking over your shoulder and that’s the hard reality of why a form of proportionality works.
There are no safe seats in a properly proportional system.
Now, we’ve got the constituency seats [in Wales, under the Additional Member System]. Of course, you have safe Labour constituency seats. But they’re not as comfortable as they are in England, because if you represent a Valleys’ seat with a majority of 20,000, there is always someone else working on your patch [from the regional list seats].
There are a couple of good examples of Plaid taking seats in this way. Leanne Wood was an example of a Plaid AM who took a Labour seat as a result of really working hard in it, and working legitimately as a list member.
If you’re an ordinary MP for England and someone from another political party starts working in your constituency, you know they’ve got their eye on it. But they’re doing it from the outside.
If you’re a list MS and you’re working with a view to take over someone’s constituency seat, you have the right to all the same letters from ministers, all the same briefings from officials. If the residents call a meeting, you have a right to be there, and to meet residents if they come to the Senedd. You have a right to talk to them in the same way. So you are of equal stature officially. It puts you in a stronger position to campaign.
As a politician in a Proportional Representation (PR) system, you are always looking over your shoulder – because there’s other people picking up your caseload, picking up campaigns and so on. You have to try harder to be successful.
How do voters react to using PR?
BR: I think voters like choice, and they are well informed enough to use it. And there is a very strong tendency for people to automatically go to that constituency member. But if you don’t do well, they’ll go to a list member.
You’ve touched on something really interesting, which is the whole idea that people feel quite taken for granted under First Past the Post in Westminster.
BR: It is the being taken for granted that they don’t like. I think you might get it in some Valley seats, but that’s the constituency level not the list.
You’ve been in coalition and in Westminster as well as Cardiff Bay. It was a coalition under quite different circumstances, and also under a different electoral system. But did it feel similar in terms of process and of how it was perceived?
BR: I knew a great deal of thought was being put into how to make sure it lasted. And that was the same thing that we did with the coalition in Wales. So, when the media kept saying it [the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition] would be over by Christmas we kept saying, no. Those of us from Wales and Scotland said: “No it won’t.” It was stable.
We had the same cynicism in Wales, where they thought it wouldn’t last. In Westminster, it worked out perfectly well. Except that the Lib Dems lost lots of seats. And I always say that I don’t believe it was inevitable because we were in coalition in Wales in 2000 and 2003. In 2003, our vote went up as a party in Wales.
We still had six AMs, and my majority doubled. I was deputy first minister for a year. I’d been a minister for three years. People didn’t punish me for it at all. So I don’t think that coalition was the great bête noire we’ve turned into in the UK.
What do you feel are the biggest changes that need to be made in Westminster to give it a much stronger sense of democracy and fairness? What are the things you’ve learned from how the Welsh Assembly was set up that you’d do differently in Westminster?
BR: I’d change the voting system for a start! I wouldn’t give it two different systems in one, I would do a proper regionally based system – Single Transferable Vote (STV).
As time goes on, I’ve become more and more alarmed by the anachronism of our whole system, in all sorts of ways. The voting system, the subsequent antagonistic basis for politics, the House of Lords which I think needs radical change.
I want federalism and one of my main roles in the Lords is trying to defend devolution.
The government is taking little bites, little chunks out of the powers of the devolved parliaments. And it’s the UK government trying to re-centralise.
There is an assumption all the time that it is an antagonistic relationship. And I think it’s time we look at our politics and said: this isn’t working for the people of Britain. It’s not properly representative, it’s aggressive, it’s confrontational. And if we’re not careful, it’s going to lead to the breakup of Britain.
I think that if you had a decent PR system, you would take the heat out of it. It would undoubtedly be part of a recasting of the British constitution, with a proper federal structure.
I tell you what really annoys me. When you talk to people about proportional representation, it comes down to, ‘oh, it’s complicated and people find it difficult’. That’s a load of rubbish. They do PR for all sorts of organizations. If they live in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, they do PR for their elections.
In Cardiff, on the local council, we’ve got mainly multi-member ward. Lots of people act like there’s PR there – they put 1, 2, 3. And it’s so common, there’s an acceptance that this isn’t a spoilt ballot, but it’s someone who was refining their choice.
People manage their constituency vote, they manage their regional vote and very few of them get it wrong – so they’d manage STV fine.
I think Labour needs to see the writing on the wall. We need the leadership to have a conversation. And then we really we’d really be talking business.
Some questions and answers have been trimmed for brevity.