Monday 14 November 2011

Hain slapped down by Labour

There is more than one way of looking at the Labour Party’s statement at the weekend on possible changes to the electoral system for the National Assembly.  Predictably, most people have picked up on the part of the statement which says that if the system is to be changed at all, then it should be changed to a wholly FPTP system, and portrayed that as support for what Peter Hain has been saying for some time.
The ‘if’ is important though; because the first part of the statement says that Labour will oppose any change to the voting system if proposed by the UK Government.  Their default position, therefore, is that the current system should remain unchanged, and that any change which does happen should be decided in Wales rather than in London.  As Glyn Davies points out (“Until today, we thought that all parties supported changing National Assembly electoral arrangements to being based on 30 coterminous constituencies as well”), this is a significant shift away from what Peter Hain has been saying.
Their proposal for what should happen if the system is to be changed at all is rightly ridiculed by all and sundry, but concentrating on that aspect - which they effectively describe as their second choice - is to give inadequate attention to their first choice solution.
It’s not so long ago that Hain was claiming that “Everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales, and maintain the same boundaries for Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies”.  I was not alone in wondering at the time who this ‘everyone’ was and what was the basis for the statement.  This weekend’s announcement puts a significant distance between what the Labour Party thinks and what Hain has been saying.
For all the scorn being poured on Labour, the position taken by them is actually more robust – and, dare I say it, more nationalist – than any other party in Wales.  They’re now the only party rejecting the need for co-terminosity, and the only party arguing that the decision should be made in Wales rather than in London.  It's something of a turn-up.


Anonymous said...

Correct. Plaid should be calling for Assembly electoral arrangements to be devolved, along whth all other 'internal' aspects of the Welsh political institutions (such as membership etc). In effect, demanding that the people of Wales be free to draw up their own constitution.

Anonymous said...

an interesting take as always John but i think your being kind on the nationalist point, most people i have spoken to see this in more black and white terms if Labour gets its way which is likely they get one over on Tories and Lib Dems and further tighten their iron grip on power in Wales.

And besides even if election legislation were devolved to Cardiff Bay given Labour's record as the largest party that they wouldn't look to gerrymander the system for Party advantage, so the point many bloggers have made still stands.

Its strange, who would have thought that the UK government would be more democratic on the issue of elections in this sorry mess than the Welsh Government, Labour is playing with fire and playing into the hands of the Assembly's growing number of critics in Wales but maybe that's the point.

Britnot said...

As always John I have learned a lot from your thoughtful comments. I still think the quicker we repatriate "Hain the vain" to South Africa the better, but perhaps Welsh labour only need a partial vertebra transplant rather than the whole thing.

Thanks for the in depth perspective!

Jeff Jones said...

John,the present system of election to the Assembly is really a dog's breakfast drawn up in the 1990s because Ron Davies knew that the Labour Party would never accept the idea of STV as put forward by the Kilbrandon Commission. It also believed that any Assembly election results woud reflect UK Parliamentary election results post 1983. In other words Labour would always obtain a majority through the FPTP seats and it therefore didn't matter who was elected from the closed list regional seats. Unfortunately for Labour, Welsh voters have not continued to react as they did in the late 1980s. Even last May's result wasn't that brilliant when looked at in the cold light of day. Here is an opportunity with the new UK Parliamentary boundaries to create a voting system for the Assembly which could be more democratic and more accountable. The way in which regional AMs no matter how able they might be are elected to a political institution which now has law making powers is frankly an insult to democracy. With Saturday's decision the Welsh Labour Party Executive has effectively decided to play politics and left the real decision making to others. It could have instead decided to really do something radical and produce an electoral system which would show that Wales was in the forefront when it came to democracy. Those who support the status quo and the odd two member idea should ask themselves why the two independent commissions led by Kilbranon and Richard which had no political axe to grind came up with a much larger Assembly elected by STV. Last May's 35% turnout which has led to a minority government which obtained just 40% of that very small turnout hardly suggests that the majority of the Welsh electorate believes that the present system works.

John Dixon said...


"I think you're being kind on the nationalist point"

Perhaps. But I was trying to challenge the more 'orthodox' response to Labour's statement. Their reasons may be more about their own political advantage than what's best for Wales, but at least they're challenging the right of Westminster to make a change, whereas others seem unwilling to challenge that.


I agree with your comments about the substance of the question. What we have is a dog's breakfast put together in order to paper over the Labour Party's internal differences. And I completely agree with you that an STV system would be better as well as being more proportionate (although I'm not sure that it does anything to guarantee the ability of the AMs elected - that looks like a bit of a red herring to me).

It's a pity that no-one is really pushing the STV option. Of the two parties which one might expect to push it, one is part of the coalition in London, and the other seems to have given up on the idea without a fight, and is supporting a much smaller change to the existing system by simply changing the balance between constituency and list members.

If I was being too kind to Labour, perhaps you are being too harsh in saying that they are leaving the real decision-making to others. If STV isn't on the agenda (and neither Labour nor the Tories were ever going to put it on the agenda), then we might indeed be better off making no change at all, which is what their starting position seems to be. If taking that position also helps them to give at least an impression of unity, I can't blame them for using that opportunity.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, the voting system we are left with will be the decision of the Tory junta - or perhaps that should be 'fortunately' as Gillan appears to be in favour of the 30/30 option, which is much better than Hain's ridiculous proposal.

It is time that democracy was devolved to Wales - Along with everything else!


Anonymous said...

Slightly on a tangent, this really was a silly piece of politicking by Labour.

There's a budget vote tomorrow, or the beginning of the budget process. Labour have made it more probable that the three opposition parties will vote and work together. Not to do so would be weak on behalf of the 3 parties.

They're also making themselves look very petty. There are plenty of Labour supporters who really don't want to be associated with a such tribal set-up. In any case, FPTP wasn't so good for Labour in 1951 nor 1970 when they won more votes than any other party but didn't form a Westminster Govt.

This pettiness, Carwyn Jones opposing .cymru, and other decisions seem made to make it difficult for anyone other than Labour to work with Labour. Why?

Carwyn Jones needs a majority. With 42% of the vote, he still got 50% of the seats, but he still 'only' got 42% of the vote. Get over it, start talking to people or it's going to be 5 waster years.


Jeff Jones said...

But everyone knows that privately most Labour members know that the two member option will never get off the ground. This begs the question then of what is the point of putting it forward as an option? The status quo does mean tha there is a break with Wesminster but in an age of declining party membership it will make party organisation that much harder. Not an issue for three of the Welsh parties whose membership in some areas coul meet in a telephone box. But it is an issue for the Labour Party which has some sort of presence in all existig 40 constituencies. In the event of change ,for example, does Labour follow the Scottish example and decide that the Assembly FPTP seat should be the basis for pary organisation? The status quo option still doesn't resolve the issue of the closed list which really is fundmentally undemocratic in my opinion.There is also the argument of should the top up members be elected on an all Wales list or should we continue with the former Euro constituecies which aagin makes no sense whatsoever.

John Dixon said...


The 30-30 option may well appear to many of us to be 'better' than the ridiculous Hain option, but it compounds the perceived problem of list members. Jeff isn't the only person who has concerns about the way list members are elected. The whole concept of list members is, at heart, a compromise between the drive to keep clear links between members and their consituencies and the drive to have at least a degree of proportionality. STV solves both of those, but neither Labour nor the Conservatives will countenance it.

If we are to have list members at all, I would prefer to have a single national list; it maximises the element of proportionality which one can get from a given number of top-up members, and also does more to distance those elected from the idea that they are just constituency AMs serving a bigger constituency. As Jeff points out, basing the regions on the defunct Euro constituencies is a nonsense; and I'd add that having one region stretching from the South coast to the North is another nonsense.


I don't see the link between a 'silly piece of politicking by Labour' over electoral arrangements and the opposition parties working together on the budget. If those involved make a link, then they probably need to get out more. But I agree that Labour need to start talking seriously to others, on a proposal by proposal basis, if they want to do anything more than simply 'manage' Wales for five years. Perhaps, though, they aspire to nothing more than that.


I agree that the two-member option will never get off the ground. That's why I didn't pay too much attention to it in the original post. The points you make about co-terminosity are good ones, although I think you may be over-emphasising - or even imagining - the numerical superiority of the Labour Party on the ground in Wales.

It raises a number of questions though. Is what's good for party organisation (any party) necessarily good for the government of Wales? Keeping it simple helps parties, certainly; but is it right for the electors?

If the two sets of seats are decoupled, it certainly does challenge parties to decide whether they organise primarily around Assembly constituencies, or primarliy around Westminster constituencies. In either event, it leaves parties with trying to put some sort of ad-hoc arrangement in place for the 'other' elections. I suspect that the success of the SNP earlier this year was due, at least in part, to the fact that the SNP would have had no difficulty in deciding which elections should get the primacy.

Anonymous said...

"Carwyn Jones needs a majority. With 42% of the vote, he still got 50% of the seats, but he still 'only' got 42% of the vote. Get over it, start talking to people or it's going to be 5 waster years."

This is an issue you can see popping up in Welsh Labour's thinking since the elections. In the British system, it is completely normal for a party to win 42% of the vote and sweep the board. In proportional systems, that isn't the case, and coalitions are far more regular. Labour has the British mentality and believes that such a victory should guarantee them uninterrupted governance for the next Assembly term. If you took on a more European viewpoint, you would conclude that actually Labour did secure a victory, but didn't sweep the board.

This is why Labour politicians keep arguing "the people of Wales voted for our manifesto so let us govern". This is potentially a really big issue and shows the need for a written constitution in Wales.