Making Wales a bit less like Ukraine

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 8th May 2013

Some more good news from today’s Queen’s Speech. And this time it’s for something that’s actually in it.

The Coalition Government is now pledged to bring forward draft legislation to reform elections in Wales.

The current way Wales elects its AMs, a hybrid system known as the ‘Mixed Member System’ (40 via First Past The Post constituencies and 20 Regional List members) is far from perfect. The ban on dual candidacy applies to candidates wanting to stand in both a constituency seat and on a regional list, and has been in force since the 2007 elections.

It’s a ban that should never have been introduced in the first place. It was a measure which was imposed against the wishes of the National Assembly by the then UK Labour government. When a similar measure was considered in Scotland, the cross-party Arthbuthnot Commission firmly rejected a ban. Yet the last Labour Government pressed ahead.

The result? According to Cardiff University Wales Governance Centre, Wales is the only nation in the world – other than the Ukraine to impose such a ban.

Opponents of dual candidacy cling to the ‘Clwyd West’ problem – the situation when in 2003 the defeated Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat candidates all gained election to the National Assembly – via the North Wales regional list. But the ‘problem’ appears to occupy the minds of those in the political bubble much more than voters – as Arthbuthnot discovered.

Former German chancellor and architect of re-unification Helmut Kohl was himself a List Member of the Bundestag between 1982 and 1990 when he lost out in his constituency. No one questioned his mandate and it’s hard to see why dual candidacy appears to be much more of an issue in Clwyd West than it was in West Germany.

We’ve been leading the call for change. The ban on dual candidacy means that across Wales, for the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats – and to a certain extent Labour outside of its heartlands, candidates have to play a game of Russian Roulette at each election. If a party does well and increases its share of the vote, like the Conservatives did in the 2011 Assembly elections, it’s likely that additional First Past The Post constituency seats will be won at the expense of list seats. The case of Nick Bourne – then Welsh Conservative leader and Mid & West Wales AM being knocked out by a Tory victory in the Montgomeryshire constituency is one such example.

Surely that’s democracy – some people win, some people lose? In an institution as small as the National Assembly, this unpredictable churn inevitably impacts on the scrutiny of the government. Regardless of one’s political view, the National Assembly is a poorer place without Conservatives like Nick Bourne and Jonathan Morgan, and others such as Helen Mary Jones. Reversing the ban would be good for democracy and bring Wales into line with most other democracies.

The longer-term solution of course, would be to elect all Assembly Members using the same system. An Electoral Reform Society report outlined why a shift to the exclusive use of First Past The Post would damage devolution: giving one party, Labour, a supermajority of 70% of seats on just 40% of the vote.

While the Wales Office should press ahead on reversing the ban, the Wales Office needs to tread carefully on double jobbing. The UK Government is right to look at restricting this practice but maintaining flexibility is key. The Secretary of State for Wales is himself a former AM, the National Assembly is a richer place for having former Members of Parliament sat on its benches; and the same is true of the Commons. A blanket ban on ddouble-jobbing would be counterproductive and the Wales Office must explore more flexible restrictions, such as allowing up to 12 months’ overlap after parliamentary and assembly elections.

Lastly, as all parties in the Senedd agree – the power over the National Assembly’s electoral arrangements should be devolved. It’s a decision that only affects the people of Wales: and it’s a decision that should be taken in Wales. To prevent a party or coalition of parties in the Senedd with a simple majority from changing the voting system to suit their own ends, a two-thirds rule of voting AMs should apply to any changes. A referendum could be used as a final mechanism in the event of the National Assembly being unable to agree changes.

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