Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Back-door, pretend Assembly Members?

Interviewed on BBC-Wales TV's "Dragon's Eye" , Lord Elis-Thomas recommended the House of Lords not to vote against the Government of Wales Bill even though it contained objectionable restrictions on the way candidates are to be nominated for future Welsh Assembly elections. Labour wants to prevent people standing for the Assembly both for a constituency and on a regional list.

(It should be pointed out that only one other nation, among the many which use top-up lists as a method of proportional election, has this restriction, so far as we know. That nation is an ex-Iron Curtain country.)

Nor does the Scottish Parliament, elected by exactly the same method as the Welsh Assembly, see dual candidature as a wrong to be righted. This could be because some Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected from regional lists.

My own view (writes Frank Little, chairman of Neath and Aberavon LibDems) is that separation of candidates is an act of spite by Labour, an inconvenience to opposition party campaign managers, but irrelevant to the democratic process. It would be good to have the offending clause removed from the Bill, but not at the expense of losing the new legislation altogether. I agree with the Presiding Officer that, though it doesn't go far enough, the Bill does provide for increased Welsh self-government.

Lord Elis-Thomas's remarks were immediately taken by Peter Hain, MP for Neath, Secretary of State for Wales (and a few other jobs besides) as an acceptance of his argument that the lists are a back-door method of entry to parliament, are not democratic, and that AMs elected thus are "pretend" members.

Mr Hain should be aware, firstly, that an abstention is not a positive vote and, secondly, that a predecessor as Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, agreed to the system which had first been proposed by Labour in Scotland.

Those who characterise the beneficiaries of a proportional voting system as "pretend" members should look at local politics. Two-member (or even three-member) wards give local voters the chance to elect councillors of different political persuasion. Does New Labour believe that the Labour councillor who regularly finishes second to John Warman in the Cimla to be a second-class, or even a pretend, councillor? No, he has the same rights and responsibilities as any other member of Neath Port Talbot council.

The same is true of Assembly members voted from the regional list.

Nobody would describe Peter Black as an inferior Assembly Member. Indeed, he is more active in some of the constituencies in the South Wales West region than the nominal constituency representative.

The other claim against list members is that they are not democratically elected. Well, in our party, the names on the list are voted on by a one-person, one-vote, fair, secret ballot after an open election process. We should not be judged by the standards of New Labour, which tends to impose candidates on regions and constituencies.

Their names are also published prior to the election, so that the savvy voter knows the names of the people at the top of each list. In case there is any doubt, let's make it clear here: top of the Liberal Democrat list in South Wales West for next year's Assembly elections are PETER BLACK and JACKIE RADFORD.

Yes, the regional list system is imperfect. It dissipates the constituency link for some AMs. As implemented in Wales, it doesn't even guarantee full proportionality; the arithmetic here is such that it favours the majority party. But it does mean that non-Labour views are represented in the Senedd - sorry, Welsh Assembly - in something like a relation to that of the population as a whole.

Of course, if Labour were truly concerned about democracy, while maintaining a constituency link, the government would be pressing for a fair voting system which did just that. The STV system is good enough for the Irish, and local council voters in Scotland, so why not in Wales?

- Frank Little, 2006-6-28
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