Interests aside – what’s right for Wales?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 22nd November 2011

The Electoral Reform Society Wales launched our new report today analysing the results of the Welsh Assembly Elections in May 2011. The report shows what the results could have looked like had they been conducted under different voting systems, taking into account the impact of Westminster’s potential boundary changes.

This analysis is particularly relevant as the Secretary of State for Wales has recently indicated she may change how AMs are elected.  Welsh Labour has responded by arguing that the UK Government has no mandate for change, but that if changes were proposed they would call for Assembly elections to be conducted solely under First Past the Post.

The report, written by Professor Roger Scully from Aberystwyth’s Institute of Welsh Politics and myself, has stirred up considerable controversy as it shows the extent to which Welsh Labour could disproportionately benefit if First Past the Post was exclusively adopted.

The report finds that 30 constituencies with two Assembly Members elected in each under First Past the Post could have resulted in Labour electing 41 AMs, or winning 68.3% of the vote on 39.6% of the vote. The three other main parties would have gained only 19 seats between them despite gaining 55% of the vote.

2-Member First Past the Post

The report shows that the results for an Additional Member System (AMS), similar to the current one used for Assembly elections but with 30 constituency AMs and 30 regional AMs, could have been a more proportional result than the current system, with the number of seats a party wins a better reflection of their share of the vote:

AMS with 30 Constituency Seats and 30 Regional Seats

The issue of the Assembly’s voting system has been raised again due to the Westminster Coalition’s policy of cutting the number of Welsh MPs to 30. The report recommends that “any proposed change to the voting system would also need to take into account whether it is necessary or desirable to link the National Assembly for Wales’s constituencies to Westminster constituencies”.

Any change must also take into account the impact on the core issues of democracy such as proportionality; types of Assembly Members (AM) elected and their role; the reflection of communities and identities; and accountability of AMs to voters.

The advantages and disadvantages of linking the Assembly and Westminster’s boundaries would be:

Advantages Disadvantages
Less confusion for voters in not having different boundaries for the two tiers of elections. The new Westminster boundaries would require more frequent boundary changes, which might also confuse voters.
AMs and MPs’ geographical areas of responsibility would be the same. The new Westminster boundaries would have a detrimental effect on voter representation and would make accurate representation of community identities more difficult. If adopted for the Assembly, these problems would also occur for new Assembly constituencies.
Easier party organisation where the geographical areas are similarly drawn. The new Westminster boundaries’ quota for equal numbers of voters in each constituency is based on registration, and some groups are less likely to be registered. For example, Black Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, highly mobile groups (such as students), and tenants who do not own property are less likely to be registered. If adopted for the Assembly, these problems would also occur for new Assembly constituencies.
The possibility of reforming the Additional Member System (AMS) to be 30 constituency seats to 30 list seats, in line with other legislatures. Increasing the capacity of the Assembly to 80 members – in line with the Richard Commission recommendations – would be more difficult.

If the Assembly constituencies were to be coupled with those of Westminster, the report would recommend a change to 30/30 AMS. If it were decided to keep the Assembly boundaries separate, the Electoral Reform Society Wales follows the Richard Commission in recommending an 80 seat Assembly elected by the Single Transferable Vote. By pairing the current seats into 20 constituencies and electing four AMs from each via STV, the projected result in 2011 could have been:

80 Member STV

Given that this was recommended by an independent commission, and that these results are broadly similar to the partisan complexion at present, this option cannot be accused of bias or being endorsed for partisan gain.

It is vital now, at this important juncture for Welsh devolution, that the discussions about how the Assembly is elected are not marred by partisan interests. How we choose our politicians is fundamental to how our democracy works. Any change to the voting system should be carefully considered, above day-to-day party politics.

There needs to be a genuine cross-party dialogue with the people of Wales and any change should be made in line with the devolved body’s commitment to inclusion, equality and plurality. We believe that a move to First Past the Post would fatally undermine this commitment.

Download full report or find out more about the work of the Electoral Reform Society Wales.

* Votes used are an amalgamation of Constituency and List Votes

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