Yesterday, I referred to the log-jam in Welsh politics, which is partly a result of an electoral system which, because of the way support for different parties spreads geographically in Wales, favours Labour over other parties. However, complaining about the system – however valid that complaint might be – doesn’t alter the facts that (a) the results we get are the result of the way people choose to cast their votes, and (b) the system isn’t going to change any time soon.
But if there is no chance of a change to the voting system freeing us from Labour hegemony in Wales, how might that otherwise be achieved? About the one thing that can be said with some certainty is that carrying on doing the same thing won’t bring about that result. The main opposition to Labour is divided fairly evenly between Plaid and the Tories, as it has been for the last four Assembly elections (with the benefit of hindsight, the first election in 1999 looks more like an outlier than the dawn of a new age). There is no sign of that changing. And if I can (unfairly, I know) distil the strategy of both of those parties down to a single sentence, they look remarkably similar: “We are the only party that can defeat Labour and we can run things better than they can; if we take our target seats from Labour we can win more seats than they do and we can then form or lead a minority government”.
Although not directly stated, it’s a strategy which effectively depends on persuading the non-Labour voters in any given constituency to vote for whichever of the two parties stands the best chance of defeating Labour – the sort of implicit alliance-which-can-never-speak-its-name which a first past the post system encourages parties to pursue. And certainly it is true that there are some seats which could be won by Plaid if the opposition to Labour was not split, and others which could be won by the Tories if the opposition to Labour weren’t split.
But even if the implicit appeal for unity behind the strongest non-Labour candidate were to be formalised and effective, the idea that either of those parties can emerge as a clear winner based on such an approach seems fanciful to me. There is a hard-core Tory vote and a hard-core nationalist vote; I doubt that either could be persuaded to vote for the other, even if there were to be an electoral alliance between the two. Even if such a strategy were to be successful for either or both in the constituency part of the election, the likely result is that Labour would then start to win seats on the lists – in terms of an end to Labour hegemony, the best that looks achievable to me is three roughly equal groups in the Assembly. The only non-Labour route forward from there is precisely the sort of coalition which Plaid has definitively ruled out.
There are two other aspects to the strategy being pursued by both the main opposition parties at present as well. The first is that it is, in essence, a negative approach, characterised more by being not-Labour than by anything else. The second is that the default position of both seems to be “one more heave”; the new dawn is always going break at the ‘next’ election, which justifies continuing along the same path. I’ve been there; I know how easy it is to fall into that way of thinking.
Whilst it’s easy to blame the voting system or a split opposition (both of them important factors), we must be careful not to lose sight of the real reason for Labour’s continued hegemony in elections in Wales – at its simplest: more people vote for them than vote for any other party. And given the unlikelihood, as discussed yesterday, of any change to the electoral system, then for as long as people continue to vote as they do, Labour hegemony will continue. An occasional breakthrough here or there won’t change that, and may even be counter-productive if it serves to encourage the continuation of current strategies.
There can, of course, be no certainty that any alternative strategy would produce a significantly different result; but that’s not much of a reason for carrying on as at present. As Einstein never actually said, continuing to do the same thing in expectation of a different outcome is a form of madness.
What is the alternative? Offering a different future rather than simply a better-managed future; offering a positive reason to support that alternative rather than just a clichéd critique of the status quo; inspiring Wales to be what it can be rather than what it is – I believe all of these to be at least a part of the answer, but any such project has to be seen as the long term project as which it used to be seen rather than simply an electoral tactic over a single five year term.But as things currently stand the question remains - why would anyone expect the voters to be motivated to make a change of seismic proportions by the prospect of a mere change of management?