Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence from the Electoral Reform Society


  1.  Although the Electoral Reform Society has an interest in all aspects of governance, its expertise is in the field of elections and our comments are therefore confined to Chapter 4 of the White Paper which is concerned with Electoral Issues.

  2.  The Additional Member System is undoubtedly a better system than First Past the Post and the use of AMS for the elections to the National Assembly has given Wales an Assembly which is much more representative, and more legitimate as a voice for Wales, than would have been the case if the Assembly had been elected by the First-Past-the-Post system.

  3.  Nevertheless, AMS is far from a perfect electoral system. In our submission to the Richard Commission (copy attached) we listed our concerns over the disadvantages of AMS. Many of these concerns were noted by the Richard Commission in its Report (chapter 12, section 18). We are disappointed that the White Paper ignores the findings and recommendations of the Richard Commission and instead focuses on a relatively minor issue—whether constituency candidates should be able to be included in party lists.

4.  Should constituency candidates be allowed to be included on party lists?

  4.1  In our submission to the Richard Commission we drew attention to the situation whereby AMS allows candidates defeated in constituency contests to win seats as list members. Although we expressed concern that the electorate might find "winning losers" difficult to understand, we stated that this situation is "quite justifiable in terms of the system" and at no time have we suggested that AMS could be improved by requiring candidates to contest constituency seats or list seats but not both. Under AMS list Members are no less legitimate than constituency Members, irrespective of whether they stood and were defeated in constituency contests.

  4.2  We support the Richard Commission's view that:

    "the proposal to prevent candidates from standing in both ballots is based on the premise that a candidate defeated in the constituency ballot has been rejected by the electorate—this is not necessarily the case, particularly where candidates come a close second; another view is that the winning candidate was simply preferred."

  The White Paper notes the Government's view that the election of list Members who were defeated in constituency contests:

    —  "devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public": in our view, if some who do not fully understand the system find it odd, a programme of voter education would be a better remedy than tinkering with the electoral rules; and

    —  "acts as a disincentive to vote in constituency elections": we are not aware of any hard evidence that supports this view.

  4.3  Rather than preventing list candidates from standing in constituencies, a case can be made for requiring list members to stand in constituencies. A criticism of AMS is that constituency candidates must face the electorate and be judged on their merits by the electorate, but list members owe their positions more to their party selectorates. It can be argued that all candidates should be required to face the voters in constituency campaigns, whether or not they are also on their party lists.

  4.4  We do not, however, advocate requiring all candidates to stand in constituencies any more than we support the proposal of the White Paper. The problem arises from AMS's creation of two categories of members and is best overcome by changing the system—a point to which we will return below.

  4.5  We are nevertheless deeply concerned that the proposal of the White Paper is one that will do little if anything to improve the electoral system, is one that will have little impact on the Labour Party in Wales, but is one that will be of great disadvantage to the opposition parties in Wales which fight constituency seats but generally rely on list seats for their representation. Some might surmise that, given the very flimsy democratic reasons for the White Paper's proposals, the real intention is to put obstacles in the way of the Government's opponents. We would hope that any Government would be extremely cautious in proposing changes which are likely to be to its electoral advantage, but where the Government holds a majority on only 35% of the vote (and only 42.7% of the vote in Wales) we would be opposed to any change on which there was not a broad consensus.

  5.  Our main criticism of AMS is that it creates two categories of representative (constituency and list Assembly Members), a view shared by the Richard Commission which highlighted this problem in its summarised findings on the electoral system (chapter 12 of its Report). The Richard Commission, like the Electoral Reform Society, felt the problem should be overcome by a change to STV, a system under which all Assembly Members would be elected with the same democratic mandate and the "problem" of "winning losers" would not arise. (Although the Commission felt the change would only be justified if there were to be a change in the number of Assembly Members, we have argued that the change should be made regardless of the number of seats in the Assembly.)

  6.  The White Paper asserts that:

    "The electoral system in the UK has historically attached great importance to the relationship between Members . . . and their constituents" (paragraph 1.28).

  7.  We believe in the importance of the relationship between Members and their constituents. That is why we are unhappy with an electoral system that leaves one third of Assembly Members without any effective constituency link—a situation which will not be changed by the proposals of the White Paper.

  8.  The further assertion that:

    "It . . . causes considerable confusion among the electorate that list members can set up constituency offices and seek to deal with constituency casework as a `local member' in competition with the constituency member" (para 1.29)

  could result in some questioning whether the authors of the White Paper fully understand the nature of the present system. Members who are elected through party lists are Members for all of the constituencies in their electoral regions and there is no reason why they should not set up offices and deal with casework that arises in any of their region's constituencies. The Member elected in a constituency does not have a monopoly of representation in that constituency and, should the Member find him- or herself exposed to "competition", then that might well be in the interests of the electorate. However, we accept that there is legitimate concern over whether the competition is in all respects fair given the different mandates of constituency and list Members—which is a principal reason for us recommending a change to STV which would put all Members on the same footing.

  9.  We do, however, welcome the proposals (paragraph 4.8) to give the Assembly powers to promote participation in Assembly elections. We do not believe that the lack of public information is the only, or indeed the major, cause of low turnout, but surveys indicate that it is nevertheless a contributory factor.

  10.  Finally, we are disappointed that the White Paper dismisses the detailed analysis and argument of the Richard Commission on electoral arrangements (16 pages in its report) by simply saying "The Government does not believe that this would be the right way forward".

12 October 2005

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