We haven’t had a high-profile defection in Welsh politics for a while, so it’s unsurprising that the hearts of some were set aflutter when the former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, Amy Kitcher, was reported as saying that she intended to ‘lend’ her vote to Plaid Cymru in this month’s European elections.
Amy’s position is yet another example of how our current voting system robs people of a choice at the ballot box.
Amy’s political allegiance hasn’t changed; rather she feels the need to vote tactically. In her view, a vote for Plaid Cymru is the best way of blocking UKIP. Her quandary is one I’ve heard other Welsh Liberal Democrats echo. Whether Amy is right or wrong is not for me to say – I’ll let the political parties fight that one out – but it’s saddening that in the 21st century, voters still feel the need to vote tactically.
Electoral Reform Society research shows three out of five people (59%) believe the European Parliament does not represent their views, and 35% say it’s not worth voting for, which makes Amy’s predicament all the more depressing.
Don’t get me wrong: the way we elect our MEPs now is much better than the system in place before 1999. Back then, we used the old First Past The Post method, but the European Parliamentary Elections Act modernised our elections (much to the annoyance of the unelected House of Lords) and introduced Closed Party Lists for Great Britain, and the Single Transferable Vote for Northern Ireland.
Party Lists come in two forms: ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ (there are variations, but that’s for another day). The good thing about Party Lists, and why they’ve been so important in the National Assembly, is that they deliver proportionality. It stops unfair, lop-sided results, where a party can win a super-sized portion of seats on a slim-line share of the vote. The problem with using the Closed rather than Open Party Lists, which we do for the National Assembly and the European Parliament, is that it takes power out of the hands of voters at large.
Here’s how it works. Imagine, for a terrifying moment, that One Direction was a political party standing in the European elections. I’m not a hard-core fan, so have never really felt the need to join the fan club and become a ‘Directioner’, but having forgiven them for butchering ‘Teenage Kicks’, I do want to support them at this election. As much as I like One Direction overall, I’m not overly keen on Harry Styles, and in fact I would rather see Zayn, or Niall at a push, win the day. But it’s not up to me, because Directioners – that small group of hardcore fan club members, have already decreed that it is Harry who will be the lead candidate. So, if I vote One Direction and they get enough votes, it’s Harry who’ll get elected, regardless of whether Zayn, or indeed Niall or Liam, is in fact more popular amongst the electorate at large. That’s pretty much how the Closed List system works for us in Wales.
There is a better way, and that is to let voters decide themselves which individual candidates they want to vote for. If we moved to Open Lists, I could vote for Zahn or Niall individually. One Direction’s entitlement of seats wouldn’t change – but what might change is which One Direction member actually got elected, better reflecting the will of the people.
Moving from Closed to Open Lists in the National Assembly has been proposed by some Labour MPs in Parliament during the recent debate on the Wales Bill. It’s certainly something that should be looked at. It resolves a major factor that worries opponents of dual candidacy, as regional AMs would have a stronger personal mandate. In the last Assembly election, the names of the regional list candidates didn’t even appear on the ballot paper, which is just plain wrong.
But whilst Open Lists would be an improvement on Closed Lists, it doesn’t really help Amy or other Welsh Liberal Democrats scratching their heads and wondering whether they too should ‘lend’ their vote to Plaid Cymru. This isn’t just a problem for Liberal Democrats, it affects supporters of all parties across Wales. My friends Clare and Mark in Newtown, lifelong Labour supporters, habitually vote Liberal Democrat to stop the Tories in Montgomeryshire.
The only way to end tactical voting, and allow people to vote for candidates they actually like (rather than the one best placed to defeat the candidate they least like) is to adopt the Northern Irish system – the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
STV isn’t going to magically give Welsh Liberal Democrats representation in the European Parliament, nor will it have the masses flooding to the polling station on election day; but it would allow Amy to cast her first preference for a Liberal Democrat candidate. She could then second preference the Plaid Cymru candidate. If the Liberal Democrats don’t get enough votes to qualify for a seat, their votes are re-allocated: in this case, Amy’s vote would transfer to Plaid Cymru. Under STV, Amy comes closest to getting what she wants. No need for her to be up all night before polling day, wondering what the rest of the electorate might do and whether her vote would be wasted.
One way or another, it’s the little things like changing the voting system and making voter registration easier that will revive our flagging democracy. And with faith in European democracy at an all-time low, we must make every effort to reconnect the voter with their elected representatives.