Wales Home Article – Voting Reform

TODAY’S second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill provides the real starting point of what could be the most important legislation of this Con-Dem Government.

The Bill contains two major parts – one the holding of a referendum on the alternative vote, the other the reduction of MPs from 650 to 600, and both have caused ire in their own way.

The most prominent complaint has been the decision, announced by central government without prior consultation, to hold the referendum on the same date as elections to the Parliament and Assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as the English council elections.

This goes against independent reports into the holding of different elections on the same day by Gould and Arbuthnott, the former taking place after the problems held in Scottish elections in 2007.

Cost, not democracy, is the over-arching consideration for the UK Government, meaning that we in Wales are left hanging over whether we will go to the polls once, twice or even three times in a number of months. That is to say nothing about the huge administration pressures for under-staffed electoral services departments or the ordering in which ballots will be counted. The Vale of Glamorgan finished counting at 10:30am in 2007 with just the Assembly ballot papers.

There is, of course, no reason why we need to hold the referendum on an alternative vote with quite such indecent haste. The Con-Dem government want to introduce a five-year, fixed-term parliament, meaning that the next Westminster elections will be in 2015. The administrative work to host the referendum would far outweigh the effort of changing the ballot papers over four years.

Others have pointed to the irony of pointing to the cost-savings of holding ballots on the same day as other elections while at the same time proposing the introduction of an extra set of elections for police commissioners.

After all that, of course, the referendum will be on the alternative vote, rather than a more proportional system such as the single transferable vote, the system backed by Plaid Cymru and, previously, by the Liberal Democrats.

If we were discussing STV then the debate could be presented in terms of proportional and fair votes reflecting real choice, with multi-member constituencies and the end of safe seats. Yes, the Liberal Democrats would probably be the main winners, but they could argue this from behind the screen of fairness. Instead this will largely be seen as a seat-grab by the Liberal Democrats, and part of a grubby deal to get them more influence.

This failure to discuss a genuinely proportional system also impacts upon the second part of the Bill – the reduction in size of the House of Commons. Nick Clegg wants all votes to be equal in weight, and so intends to equalise the size of constituencies as well as having fewer MPs.

The effect of this on Wales will be significant – around a quarter of our seats at Westminster will disappear at the next election – our voice reduced by 25%.

But equality of vote is itself an interesting concept. By basing the constituencies on electoral registration, then there is likely to be a bias against areas with high levels of poverty and low socio-economic background where electoral registration take-up is lower than in wealthier areas.

Then there is the deeper meaning of ‘equality’ of voting. Think-tank Demos last year published a ‘power map’ of the UK, noting the areas where electors had greater ‘power’ in a swathe of political fields and where your vote was relatively meaningless.

By sticking to a first-past-the-post system we will maintain the present situation in which only a handful of swing constituencies are of importance – the Labour voter in Kent and the Tory voter in Blaenau Gwent will not be empowered by these changes. Nick Clegg’s rather glib responses fail to scratch the surface of these considerations.

In terms of seat reductions, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats went into the election with the aim of cutting the number of MPs – by 10% to 585 in the Tory case and to 500 in the case of the Lib Dems. The advantages of this, other than relatively minor cost savings, have not been well articulated. It certainly isn’t so that everyone can get a seat on those green benches.

Some people have tried to link greater powers for Wales in the Part 4 referendum with the cuts to Welsh seats, and suggested that Plaid Cymru shouldn’t be fighting against these cuts to Welsh constituencies. My response to that is that there is certainly a place for that debate and it is one that should be held, but that is not the argument being made by the UK government in London and that debate has not yet been held or given the real scrutiny that it should have.

In short, the reduction of seats comes from the introduction of a UK-wide principle and it perhaps says more for how the Con-Dem UK Government perceives Wales that it hasn’t even considered this issue. While London holds the purse strings and makes major international decisions such as going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need a strong representation from Wales there to voice our issues and concerns.

Of course, while I’m sure that Labour are genuine in their concern for this loss of voice, they are nevertheless making many of these arguments from a position as much out of self-interest as anything else. It is Labour who will inevitably lose more seats than anyone else when this boundary changes take place – boundary changes that will ignore traditional geographical and historical considerations in place of getting the numbers right.

But it was this self-interest that saw Labour put up a bizarre straw man argument that the cuts in these seats couldn’t take place because of a clause in the 2006 Government of Wales Act which linked Westminster and Assembly seat boundaries.

This Bill will instead de-couple those boundaries – meaning that if the fixed term parliament bill goes through then we will be voting in 2015 for three different electoral areas (Assembly seat, Assembly regional list and Westminster) with three ballot papers in two different administrations and possibly three different voting systems.

However, this does open up the possibility of other debate surrounding possible changes to the Government of Wales Act, the most obvious being the ending of the restrictive candidacy rules that prevent candidates from standing for both constituency and regional list and allowing the Assembly itself rather than the Secretary of State the power to change or vary election dates.

There is no good reason why the Bill links the alternative vote referendum and the reduction in seats, and Labour have used this argument as a reason to go back on their manifesto pledge to support an AV referendum. The Lib Dems, of course, will support the Bill and in Wales hope that hosting the referendum at the same time as Assembly elections will give them a bounce, while the Conservatives seem relatively quiet on the issue, watching largely from the sidelines.

While economic issues and the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will rightly dominate much of the discussion, the impact of this Bill upon Wales in 2011 and 2015 cannot be under-estimated

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