There are good things in the Senedd reform package revealed this week following negotiations between First Minister Mark Drakeford and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price.
It’s right that the number of Senedd Members should increase from the current wholly inadequate number of 60 to 96.
Such a figure has been recommended by international governance experts as an appropriate number of parliamentarians for a law-making body serving a country of Wales’ size.
It is also appropriate to bear in mind that the Scottish Parliament has 127 members and the Northern Ireland Assembly 90.
A powerful case was made by the expert panel chaired by Professor Laura McAllister that the current number of MSs was simply too small to ensure that the government is scrutinised to the extent it should be. No one has come up with a coherent argument against this.
Sadly, the official line of the Welsh Conservatives has been to trot out the simplistic and uninformed view that Wales doesn’t need any more politicians. In doing so, Andrew RT Davies and his colleagues have failed to go beyond pure assertion and argue the practicalities of their case.
Another point to welcome from the Labour-Plaid announcement is that the increase in Senedd Members is scheduled to take effect from the next election in 2026 – a timescale that had appeared to be increasingly in doubt.
Equally, I support the move to make gender balance a statutory feature of any new arrangements. There is clear evidence on an international basis that important issues like child care, women’s working rights and violence against women are more likely to get attention when there is fair gender representation. That, however, is where the package’s positives end.
My objections all relate to the new electoral system that has been proposed. If the plan goes through, the 96 Senedd Members will be elected by the least sympathetic version of proportional representation. The number of Westminster seats in Wales is due to be reduced from 40 to 32.
Under the Drakeford-Price plan, each of the new seats would have three MSs. They would then be twinned with another seat, so that each super-constituency would have six MSs – three male and three female.
The seats would be allocated in line with the D’Hondt system, under which the first seat goes to the party with most votes, whose total is then halved. The second seat goes to the party which is then in the lead, with such a process continuing until all six seats have been allocated.
There are several objectionable facets to this proposal. When it comes to an election, people will not have the opportunity to vote for individuals – their single vote will have to be cast for a party.
They won’t even be able to choose between candidates in the same party, as they are currently able to do in “first past the post” council elections in multi-member wards.
While parties would like people to vote for all their candidates in, for example, a three-member ward, many choose to split their votes between different parties or between party-affiliated and Independent candidates.
The recent local government elections in Wales threw up many examples where voters decided to cross party lines in multi-member wards. As a result, many people are represented by councillors from different parties.
Those who were elected succeeded because individual voters chose to back them in greater numbers than other candidates. Sometimes they chose not to follow the party line, but to vote for a candidate from another party or an Independent. In such circumstances it’s the individual voters, not the parties, who are in charge.
There are also many in local politics across Wales who have fallen out with the party they initially represented but held their seat at subsequent elections by standing as Independents. It’s more difficult to thrive outside a party at the Senedd, but there have been rare examples of Independents winning seats in unusual circumstances. That will become even less likely in the future if the current proposals are adopted.
Party apparatchiks may not like them because they can’t be controlled, but politics is enriched by variety and such individuals should be given a fair chance of success.
But that’s not the case with the Drakeford-Price plan: Independents and candidates from smaller parties will find it even more difficult to get elected than under the current system.
To have a chance of winning election in one of the new super-constituencies, parties would have to get around 17% of the total votes cast. That’s a big ask from a smaller party or an Independent whose appeal is likely to be local.
Unless voting patterns change significantly, the likelihood is that the only parties likely to fare well under the proposed arrangements are Welsh Labour, the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats may have a chance of getting a candidate elected in one of the new super-constituencies, but others like the Green Party would find the threshold for election too high.
Insisting on closed party lists rather than open ones where voters can choose between candidates from the same party robs them of the opportunity to vote for individuals that appeal to them. All the power lies with the parties who decide not only who is selected as candidates but also the order in which they can be elected. Voters have no flexibility.
At a time when such a major change in our democracy is being proposed, it is vital that ordinary citizens believe they have a genuine stake in choosing how they are governed. The current plan looks like a stitch-up.
There’s a tried and tested electoral system that gives voters much more power: the Single Transferable Vote (STV) version of proportional representation. It allows people to place the candidates on the ballot paper in their own order of preference. They can cross party boundaries if they wish.
Unfortunately, it seems that Mark Drakeford has come to the conclusion that his party wouldn’t back STV. Plaid Cymru, while preferring STV, is being pragmatic and settling for what they see as achievable.
There’s a final huge irony in this situation. As stated earlier, the case for increasing the number of MSs is based on the view that more scrutiny is needed at the Senedd. Yet before announcing the details of the Drakeford-Price proposals on Tuesday, there was no detailed discussion of them even within the parties, let alone as one of several options put into the public domain.
Plaid Cymru MSs, for example, were emailed the proposals over the weekend. Such a plan itself deserves much greater scrutiny than it has had so far – and its merits should be compared in detail with those of STV. This is no way to proceed with Senedd reform. The debate must be reopened.