It seems all but inevitable that UKIP will have a significant foothold in the National Assembly by the end of next week. I’d prefer that it didn’t happen, but appealing to Labour voters to vote Lib Dem in order to prevent it, as the Lib Dems have done this week, seems to me to be avoiding the real issue rather then confronting it. The stated objective – of keeping UKIP out – is a worthy one, although whether the call is a truly honest one or just a sly means of maintaining a Lib Dem presence is a rather different question.
But the real issue that it avoids is the simple fact that a sizable number of Welsh voters seem set to vote for UKIP in constituencies across Wales. The original purpose of the additional members in the regions was to rebalance the total membership of the Assembly to take account of the lack of proportionality in the first-past-the-post part of the election, which is exactly why UKIP are likely to win seats. The Lib Dems seem to want to use the regional list system as some sort of separate election which can be used tactically to deny representation to a party whose support will be hopelessly under-represented in the constituency part of the vote. It’s a strange position for a party which claims to believe in proportional representation to take.
I’d prefer a single class of Assembly members elected by Single Transferable Vote from multi-member constituencies (which is coincidentally, as I understand it, the formal policy of the Lib Dems), but if we are going to have a system of additional members as a second-best option, then I’d prefer to see that part of the election used as intended, to ensure proportionality (even if that helps parties that I don’t like) rather than see parties trying to game the system. Such a system would probably work better if there was only one election – in the constituencies – and the proportion of votes in that election was then applied to national party lists to select the additional members.
Whatever, the real problem – which the Lib Dems seem not to want to face up to directly (although, in fairness, they’re not the only ones) - is that so many people in Wales intend to vote for UKIP in the constituency ballot. This isn’t limited to in-migrants to Wales; many of the constituencies where UKIP have previously attracted – and are likely to attract again – their strongest votes are also the constituencies with the highest proportion of Welsh-born voters.It’s too easy to dismiss this as a protest vote or an anti-politics vote, but I suspect that it is an expression of an underlying current of opinion which is far more common that I’d like to believe. Perhaps UKIP simply will disappear after the EU referendum on 23rd June. That would be too late to stop them making progress in the Assembly elections, but it might justify treating them as a one-off aberration for this particular election. But even if that turns out to be true, a disappearing party is not the same as a disappearing opinion, and there’s a lot more than antipathy to ‘Europe’ behind the rise in the UKIP vote. The problem seems to be that other parties are too afraid of losing support from electors who sympathise with much of what UKIP says (but don’t intend actually to vote for UKIP) to directly deal with the prejudices and half-truths underlying the rise of UKIP. Treating it as a question of tactical voting simply isn’t good enough.