The Senedd in Wales recently voted to support plans to increase its membership, following the report of a special committee, which endorsed proposals put forward by Labour and Plaid Cymru. Laura McAllister argues that the need to enlarge the Senedd is clear, but that proposed changes to the voting system are flawed and could undermine public support for reform.
That the Senedd marked its twenty-first ‘coming of age’ birthday by seeking to recast itself with a fundamentally altered institutional shape should surprise few familiar with devolved politics. Wales is often referred to as the land of commissions and inquiries. Each of these inquiries into the most ‘unsettled’ devolution settlement has recommended that the Senedd should increase from its current 60 Members (MSs) to a figure between 80 and 100. The story of these inquiries can be found on the Senedd website.
I chaired the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform in 2017, which was charged with looking at the size of the Senedd, its electoral system and extending the franchise to younger voters. Our Panel’s recommendations were that:
- The number of members should be increased from 60 to at least 80, and preferably closer to 90. We concluded that this was needed because the Assembly (its name was changed to ‘Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament’ in 2020) had acquired a much greater role than the one it had in 1999, and also that its powers were expected to expand further. We concluded that the Senedd could not be expected to continue functioning optimally and delivering for the people of Wales if it remained at its current size.
- That a new electoral system should be introduced to accommodate this increased size and to make the relationship between votes cast and seats won more proportional. Our favoured system was Single Transferable Vote (STV) accompanied by prescriptive, legislative gender quotas, though the Panel also regarded a Flexible List system of proportional representation (PR) as a viable alternative.
- That the minimum voting age in Senedd elections should be reduced to 16 as a means of boosting democratic participation. We regarded it as essential that the lowering of the voting age should be accompanied by high-quality education about politics in schools and other places of learning. This last recommendation was enacted through the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 and came into force for the 2021 Senedd elections.
There was deemed insufficient political consensus to advance our first two recommendations around size and electoral system change in time for the 2021 election, despite a report from the Senedd Committee on Electoral Reform chaired by Labour MS Dawn Bowden, which almost exactly replicated our report’s recommendations. This committee did acknowledge that time had effectively run out and instead called for legislation early in the Sixth Senedd to increase its size to between 80 and 90 Members from the 2026 election, with all MSs elected by STV.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapid and remarkable elevation in the profile of First Minister Mark Drakeford, Welsh Labour did better than even the party itself expected in the 2021 election, winning exactly half of the 60 Senedd seats. A Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform was set up, charged with developing proposals that might feature in a new Welsh government Senedd reform bill. The committee structured its work around three areas:
- Identifying common ground between the policy positions of political parties on Senedd reform, or the potential to establish common ground;
- Gathering further information as necessary in relation to those areas of common ground to assist the Committee develop policy instructions;
- Developing recommendations for policy instructions.
In November 2021, a Cooperation Agreement was signed between Labour and Plaid Cymru which included a commitment to enlarge the Senedd to between 80 and 100 members and to use an electoral system at least as proportional as the current Additional Member System (AMS). It also specified a timetable: that a Bill should be introduced to give effect to this by November 2023.
Somewhat surprisingly, as the SP committee’s work was still underway, a letter was sent to the committee’s chair from First Minister Drakeford and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price on 10 May. This set out an agreement that had been reached between the two parties for a 96-seat Senedd, to be elected through closed party lists with legislative gender quotas built in. This intervention was surprising given the timing (the committee was due to publish its report by the end of May). Conservative MS and committee member Darren Millar resigned from the committee in protest, complaining that the parties had shown a lack of respect for the ongoing work of the committee. The committee’s report was published on 30 May and, rather predictably, followed almost to the letter the proposals from the two party leaders.
What was set out in the letter and the subsequent committee report? First, an increase to 96 MSs. This is towards the top end of what can be argued evidentially beyond simply suggesting this ‘future proofs’ the Senedd. It represents a hefty 60% increase, after all. At the same time, the arguments for retaining just 60 MSs and enduring a clearly underresourced parliament are thin – if they exist at all. In the work of our Expert Panel, it was notoriously hard to elicit evidence from those supporting the status quo, effectively defending – by any international standards – an underpowered national parliament that has been forced to compromise on discharging many of its core duties. Indeed, research will reveal little evidence for the case against enlarging the Senedd in any of multiple calls for public evidence.
It is with regard to the proposed new electoral system to elect the larger Senedd where criticisms have been largely directed and most of these are entirely fair. A closed proportional list system was rejected by our expert panel as it failed to meet several of our criteria for a strong electoral system, most notably voter choice and accountability. It is a strange choice, as there are a host of problems with closed list PR systems, most notably over promoting party control over voter choice. Under closed lists, voters have no influence on the hierarchy in which candidates are elected – this being pre-selected by the party, locally or nationally. Furthermore, in this specific case, candidates will be ordered not only by party preferences but also by gender, which gives even less independent choice for voters. As Hugh Rawlings rightly said in a briefing note for the Constitution Society, this will ‘limit voters’ options to selection of a preferred party’.
In terms of the new electoral map, 16 new Senedd constituencies are proposed. The Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales will be asked to ‘pair’ the new 32 UK Parliamentary constituencies that will come into effect next year. The system proposed alongside the new Senedd constituencies – with a district magnitude of six MSs using the D’Hondt system as its counting method – is likely to produce only marginally more proportional outcomes than the much maligned AMS. It also favours the parties already represented in the parliament, larger ones especially. The obvious attraction to Labour needs little explanation in this instance. The Special Purposes Committee offered a weak justification of this, claiming that ‘Members would still be accountable to the electorate, because their performance as individual Members will have a bearing upon the votes cast for their parties, which in turn will determine their likelihood of election’. As Rawlings says, ‘Such indirect accountability would represent a disappointing and significant weakening of Welsh democracy…’.
Then there is the matter of legislative gender quotas, again a core recommendation of our expert panel report in 2017. The candidate lists compiled by the parties will be subject to ‘integrated statutory gender quotas and mandatory zipping’. There have long been questions as to the devolved legislative competence for this proposal, given key equality issues are reserved to Westminster under the current devolution settlement. To date, the debate has centred on avoiding the derailment of the enlargement timetable by a Supreme Court challenge, which hints that there might need to be two (detachable) pieces of legislation to protect the size and system changes.
Whilst it is only gender quotas that are proposed in the first instance, the special purposes committee did call for a relevant committee to consider ‘how further work can best be undertaken on examining the merits and implications of legislative diversity quotas for characteristics other than gender’.
On 8 June, there was a Senedd plenary debate on the special purposes committee’s report. The Welsh Conservatives argued against change. The party was already publicly opposed to reform (despite many Conservative MSs privately in agreement that more members were necessary), but they were stung by the handling of the issue (by the dominant cooperation partners in particular). Led by Darren Millar, the party took up a new position that a referendum was needed for any change. The motion to draft legislation based on the committee recommendations was passed by 40-14, underlying that the so-called supermajority (two-thirds of the total number of MSs) was relatively easy to engineer following the signing of the cooperation agreement.
Overall, this was the ultimate manifestation of political pragmatism. For Plaid Cymru, it had accepted a major compromise around its preferred electoral system (STV) but clearly saw Senedd enlargement as the critical win, especially as a fit for purpose parliament is seen as a fundamental block in the next stage of nation building. Plaid would also be happy with a clearly defined timeline for legislating. Some have argued (rather unconvincingly) that there will be changes to the closed list system down the line; that the biggest and most critical change was abandoning First Past the Post for a PR system.
For Welsh Labour, it has gained a hugely beneficial compromise on the system used to elect a bigger Senedd, along with the security of support from its cooperation partner and the built-in two-thirds supermajority needed to drive the legislation. There remain some hurdles for Labour; its proposals need to pass an internal recall conference in early July and there have already been some internal rumblings from Constituency Labour Parties unhappy with the Senedd reform agenda
The proposals that were supported in the recent plenary debate ‘merit two cheers, but no more’, says my colleague, Hugh Rawlings. I tend to agree. The proposals represent a classic political compromise based on party and electoral advantage between two parties locked into a cooperation agreement with plenty of common ground, but some significant differences, especially around electoral systems. Yet, it would be naïve not to have expected significant compromises and some watering down of various recommendations for Senedd reform. Calls for more politicians are never popular of course, but the proposal for 96 MSs poses fewer risks than a real danger of undermining a fragile public good will towards wider reform by the strange decision to pursue closed lists.
About the author
Laura McAllister is co-chair of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales and previously chaired the Assembly Expert Panel on Electoral Reform. The views expressed above are personal views and do not represent the views of the Independent Commission.
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