Thursday, 11 January 2018

Deciding on the numbers

There was a report in yesterday’s Western Mail about the evidence given by Professor Roger Scully to the committee of MPs looking at proposals for a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies.  In his comments, Prof Scully was quoted as saying “Last year we actually elected slightly more councillors than Scotland did for no particularly obvious reason”.  It’s a statement of fact, of course, but I could equally turn it on its head and say that “Last year Scotland actually elected slightly fewer councillors than Wales did for no particularly obvious reason”.  The second is as true as the first, but the word order of the first implies that the problem is in Wales, whilst the word order of the second suggests that the problem is in Scotland.  My point is simply this – the difference in numbers in itself tells us nothing about what the ‘right’ number is in either case, merely that two different jurisdictions have come to two different conclusions.  The word order which we use to express that difference owes more to our own preconceptions about whether the ‘right’ number should be higher or lower than the current number than it does to any assessment of the ‘right’ number.
It’s a point which is relevant to the discussion about an increase in the number of members of the National Assembly, where I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the conclusion that there should be more whilst being highly sceptical about all the arguments being put forward to justify that increase.  The underlying problem is that there is simply no objective basis on which to assess how many are needed, and whilst there is some clarity around some of the main responsibilities, the job itself is open to as many different definitions as there are AMs.  Comparisons with the number of members of other legislatures form a part of the argument being put forward, but who is to say – and on what basis – that those other legislatures have got their numbers right in the first place?
My own starting point is this: I’m a long-time supporter of STV as a method of electing representatives, but I acknowledge that constituencies electing 3 or 4 members under STV will inevitably cover greater geographical areas than single member constituencies electing the same total number of members.  Retaining smaller geographical units with more direct and local connections with electors is possible, under STV, only by increasing the total number of members.  So, rather than replacing 40 single member constituencies and five regions with 15 four-member constituencies, I’d prefer something more like 25-30 four member constituencies, and a consequent increase in the total number from 60 to 100-120.
But, in truth, there is no more solid, sound, or objective basis for choosing 25-30 than for the current number of 40 – or for any other number.  I entirely accept that it’s based on a compromise between my own preconceptions about the use of STV, the ‘right’ size for a constituency, and the ‘right’ total number of AMs – just as I believe that much of the debate about the whole issue is based on the preconceptions of others, backed up by an attempt at retrospective rationalisation of the conclusions to which they’ve already come.  They’re just less willing to own up to the fact.
That in turn goes to the heart of the problem in taking the proposals forward.  The lack of any consensus about the ‘right’ numbers, coupled with the politicians’ natural fear about public reaction to an increase in numbers and an unwillingness to argue that proper democracy doesn’t come free (to say nothing of Labour's instinctive aversion to more proportional representation) means that it currently seems unlikely to me that the latest proposals will do much more than join those of previous reports on a dusty shelf somewhere in Cardiff.  Still, we can always have yet another commission in ten years’ time…


Anonymous said...

No-one cares how many AM's we have, how many councillors we have or whatever else. Democracy is a human right. It has no cost.

And yet all we ever get told is that 'democracy costs and more democracy costs even more'.

Who's pulling who's plonker?

John Dixon said...

I'm not quite sure why you think democracy has no cost. Having a parliament with 60 members will cost more than having a dictator, for instance, but the cheapest solution isn't always the best. And having 100 will cost more than having 60.

Jonathan said...

As a Welsh patriot who wants the best possible Parliament for Wales I am against expanding this Assembly at this point. The problem is its Westminster-down legal structure and funding. If I ask for an upgrade for this Assembly I risk spending political capital pouring good money after bad. Because if we need improvements we should get a brand new Mark II and not titivate the Mark I version. From the grass-roots up, like most democracies outside the British Commonealth ones. Here's how.
Mark I present Assembly passes an electoral law providing for direct elections to a Wales Constitutional Convention. (Never mind if Westminster says we can't. We can just do it.)
Directly elected Convention gets draft Constitution from Legal Wales ( a group which has this sort of thing lying around, easily available, and represents pretty well all thinking Welsh lawyers).
The Convention then works up this draft and approves its own version (which says what happens about tax, police, law and justice, health, education, the Monarchy, Westminster etc etc)
We the (Welsh) People then approve it in a Referendum (how the rest of the world does these things.
We the People then elect our new Assembly/Parliament. (Westminster will tag along).
The Welsh Constitution will advance from the UK/Medieval/Monarchical model to at least the 18th Century, or even the 20th or 21st! And remain in our English-speaking Common Law idiom, albeit with a slight American or German accent.
Separation of powers ie: bicameral legislature (obviously) to pass laws and set a Budget raised from Welsh taxes, directly elected Governor to run the Executive and spend the Budget (like 50 efficient US States, naturally) and an insulated/protected Judiciary from a Wales Supreme Court down.
And join the civilised bit of the human race.
Easy - take the North Carolina pattern. Read a version road-tested for 250 years? Read here (and tweak to Cymricise, obviously)

John Dixon said...


There is much in that comment with which I entirely agree, but I do see one or two little problemettes.

Firstly, I don't share your view that "Westminster will tag along", nice though that would be. You are, after all, suggesting ignoring the whole underlying basis of the (unwritten) UK constitution and mounting a direct challenge to the powers that be. Nothing wrong with that at all, I just don't think that they'd be terribly relaxed about it.

But my bigger reservation is that it depends on having an Assembly majority with sufficient cojones to even think about such a process let alone implement it. Such a majority not only does not exist currently, but I can see no possible majority arising from any party, or any combination of parties, currently represented there which would be willing to countenance such a proposal.

Sadly, that leaves us where we've been for decades - timidly considering minor changes for many years before hesitantly implementing watered-down versions of them.

Jonathan said...

Sadly indeed.
So we need to break out somehow, to do something different.
The ability and willingness break the mould is an interesting thing to contemplate. You mention cojones ie you invoke a masculine principle. Bit like the Trump phenomenon in the US, who so offends against the feminine principle of risk-aversion in his efforts to break the American constraints/mould, a fascinating and rough American process.
But how to apply this in Wales?
I will go out on a limb. I am not averse to the risk of being wrong or sounding risible.
1. Neil McEvoy AM kickstarts Plaid to get well above its contemptible poll ratings.(McEvoy does have cojones, which is why he gets the Welsh version of the Hillary treatment.)
2. Plaid campaigns up and down Wales to educate We the Welsh People on elementary civics, ie the value of a Convention, and Constitution. Laws on sugar-free drinks and wellness and smacking take a back seat for a while. Over time this works and the Assembly (maybe cross-party) legislates for a Convention.
The Assembly may well not have this power in law, though it may. But does it matter? If Wales has had the cojones to legislate for a Convention - a real test I grant you - then I really can't see all that a violent reaction from Westminster. Particularly if the Convention is aimed not at total independence but Dominion Status aka Statehood a la US, an enormous advance.
I think I am right in saying that your lifetime spans the time when we had no Welsh Language Act, no S4C and of course no Assembly. Wales needed at least some cojones to get these at the time. I must believe we have the wherewithal now.

John Dixon said...


Firstly, a point of agreement. I entirely agree that it is unrealistic to expect people in Wales to see and understand the benefits of taking control of our own future unless there is a strong and active campaign to promote those benefits; the default position adopted by many of not beginning the campaign until people have already been persuaded is an example of what might be called cart and horse disorder syndrome. Sadly it is a syndrome suffered by far too many.

You seem to be suggesting that achieving the necessary change of order is a question, in the first place, of changing the driver. I'm not convinced (neither am I convinced that you have alighted on the right alternative driver, but I'm not going to go into that issue here). Changing the driver is based on an assumption that the vehicle itself either is - or can be made - fit for purpose. If you believe that, then of course there is always the possibility of a change of direction, with or without a change of driver. But what if the vehicle is so badly corroded that it's simply incapable of going any further? The question that then arises is whether to spend time and effort trying to keep it on the road, or whether we need to find a new vehicle.

Another point of agreement is that "Dominion Status aka Statehood a la US" would be an enormous advance. I'm still not convinced that Werstminster would be as relaxed about that as you seem to believe. Such a change doesn't only change the status of Wales, it also requires significant change to the structures of the UK, and if they were seriously willing to do that, they'd have done it by now and quite probably killed - or seriously damaged - the independence movements in both Wales and Scotland.