Welsh Labour has finally made a decision about its response to the changes in parliamentary constituency boundaries which will be introduced for 2015 (BBC report). They consider these changes unfair, which is hardly surprising. As a response – who’d have thought it – they are proposing to make our electoral system less proportional. No – don’t click away now! This matters! Because the best response to a perceived unfairness is, quite obviously, an effort to introduce even more unfairness.
But let’s start from the beginning. The boundary reforms decided by the Coalition in Westminster are supposed to do two things: 1) reduce the number of MPs to 600, and 2) equalise the size of constituencies. This will lead to big changes in Wales, since until now, Welsh constituencies were smaller than the average English constituency (in May 2010, there was on average one English MP for 71858 people eligible to vote, and one Welsh MP for 56628 voters). Thus, Westminster has decreed that the 40 constituencies in Wales will be reduced to 30.
For all parties in Wales this will mean pretty drastic changes: losing a quarter of seats means fewer careers, less patronage, more campaign effort for less return. This won’t worry voters, but it’s clear that Labour at least is determined to make up for the shortfall.
I am less than convinced about the idea to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 members. As far as I can tell, this idea (included in some form in both the LibDem and Tory manifestos) was a knee-jerk reaction to the expenses scandal, and I find it quite plausible when some speculate that the exact extent of the reduction was arrived at with strategic interests in mind. However, I find it perfectly logical to equalise the sizes of constituencies, and it’s hard to defend the smaller constituencies in Wales, now that there is an assembly as well, with 60 AMs (one AM per 37 762 Welsh voters), which means that Wales now has 100 representatives, or one for 22 651 voters.
The problem is that Welsh Assembly constituencies are the same as Westminster constituencies, which seems like a good idea to avoid confusion. Thus, the boundary changes will have an impact on the way in which AMs are elected. At the moment we have 40 constituency AMs and 20 regional AMs who are elected on the basis of those ‘lost’ votes which did not win representation in their respective constituencies (an Additional Member System). This makes the system a bit more proportional than the First-Past-the-Post system we use in general elections.
And what is Labour’s answer to this problem? The Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, until May 2011 a fervent critic of the first-past-the-post system, seems to have convinced First Minister Carwyn Jones that in a Wales of 30 constituencies, each constituency should have two AMs, but selected by first-past-the-post. Just to make this clear: it’s actually hard to find an electoral system which is as likely to be less proportional than the system we use for our one-member Westminster constituencies. But Peter Hain seems to have found it. Hooray! Just what we need! In this system, voters pick two candidates from a long list of two candidates per party and under normal circumstances few voters split their vote between parties. This means that instead of getting one seat on the basis of what is almost always a minority vote, the winning party now gets two, and minorities, often very sizeable ones, too, will almost certainly get an even smaller proportion of representatives for their vote (Alan Renwick explains it a lot better than I can).
Let’s look at the figures for Labour in Wales:
- May 2011 (AMS): 42% of the vote, 50% of the seats (30 of 60)
- Estimate for double FPTP in May 2011: 42% of the vote, 68% of the seats (41 of 60)
Under the new system, the 55% voting for the other three parties in the assembly would be represented by just 19 seats. There are plenty of arguments why this is actually a bad idea for Labour (as the Welsh ERS explains), but if you are willing to be just a little cynical, you can probably see why Peter Hain and Carwyn Jones find this system attractive.
I wonder what all those Labour members who last May argued ‘no to AV, yes to PR‘ will say to that? I, for one, am grateful that (as far as I understand it) changing the electoral system of Wales isn’t actually a devolved issue, and therefore isn’t in the hands of Welsh Labour.
PS: my favourite electoral system for the Welsh Assembly? I’d double up those 30 constituencies and select four members in each by STV. Four-member constituencies are a bit small for STV to work perfectly, but I think it could be a good compromise between getting a proportional system while not letting constituencies in rural Wales get so big that they are completely unmanageable.