Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Seizing the opportunity


There is no ‘right’ answer to the question ‘how many members should a parliament have?’ For sure, constitutional experts can pore over comparisons with other countries and earnestly assess workloads and processes, but for all that, it ultimately comes down to a judgement by politicians, often based on a compromise between what they think the answer should be and what they think the populace will accept. For those who oppose the existence of a particular institution (like many Tories in relation to the Senedd), the ‘right’ answer for them is zero, compelling them to oppose any and every suggestion of an increase. Similarly, there is neither a ‘right’ size nor a ‘right’ number of constituencies; for those who want a direct relationship between electors and their representatives, the answer is a large number of small single member constituencies, whereas for those who want the most proportional outcome possible for any election, the answer will be a small number of large multi-member constituencies. For all the attempts to rationalise and justify any particular number, the reality is that it depends on the political viewpoints and priorities of those making the decisions.

The joint declaration by Plaid and Labour yesterday that there should be 96 members elected from 16 six-member constituencies is a statement of their joint judgement on those questions, as is the knee-jerk response from the Tories opposing any increase, under any circumstances, ever. It’s a bold plan, bolder than I was expecting, and in terms of overall numbers of members and constituencies, they’ve come up with a very good answer. There are two little niggles, though.

The first is the way in which the boundaries are to be drawn. Simply using the boundaries of the 32 Westminster constituencies and pairing them up is likely to produce a few odd constituencies which don’t entirely reflect human geography. If it is, as suggested, just a ‘quick and dirty fix’, on a one-off basis to get the changes in place for the 2026 election, then it’s a reasonable way ahead. The problem is that ‘quick fixes’ have a tendency to become established: agreeing changes is always difficult, and by the time they are up for discussion there will be elected members who are invested in those boundaries.

The second is the method of election, using the d’Hondt system, rather than full STV. The method is not without its advantages. Marking just one party with a single cross is similar to the familiar FPTP system, and was used for electing MEPs. It produces a much more proportional result overall (even based, as it effectively is, on counting only first choice votes), and coupled with the proposal that parties will have to ‘zip’ male and female candidates is likely to produce a very gender-balanced Senedd. It abolishes the distinction between ‘constituency’ and ‘list’ members, under which the latter were often perceived (wrongly) to be some sort of second-class members. It also helps to shatter the myth, fundamental to the Westminster system and much beloved by certain egotistical politicians, that the election of individuals is down to their unique talents and abilities and not to the colour of their rosette; that voters elect individuals not parties. (There has been, as far as I can see, no mention of the obvious corollary – any MS elected solely on a party ticket who ‘jumps ship’ should be disqualified and replaced with the next person on the relevant party’s list. That’s a flaw in the current system for list members and could easily be rectified as part of these new proposals.) There are some downsides, though. It is not as fully proportional as a full STV system; so-called ‘closed’ lists leave considerable power to determine which of their candidates get elected in the hands of the parties rather than the electorate; and it takes no account of the second (third, etc.) preferences of those voters whose first choice party doesn’t cross the threshold for representation.

It bears the obvious hallmarks of compromise between two parties seeking out common ground in order to get something in place whilst they have a window of opportunity to do so, but is nevertheless better and more radical than I had expected from such a process. None of us knows when – or even whether – such a window of opportunity will present itself again. We should not delude ourselves about the timescale – or even the possibility – of further change once these changes are in place, but they represent a huge leap forward from where we are today. Grabbing that opportunity whilst the Senedd majority for implementing it exists is more important than any remaining niggles.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

"..constitutional experts can pore over comparisons with other countries .." One doesn't need to 'pore'. It stares you in the face. Wales is unicameral. Most other countries are bi-cameral. Because there are so many advantages to this. If you need more Parliamentarians, but them in a different house, on a different elective term. And maybe a different electoral route. I get it that the existing turkeys don't like contemplating Xmas, as in London. But it doesn't mean the turkeys are right.