Elijah Granet is a writer and LLM candidate at the University of Southern California and the editor of the Legal Style Blog.
Candidate selection is a tricky question for political parties. Labour’s experiment in all-women shortlists has been derailed by legal advice that the practice is unlawful (which conveniently allowed the party to avoid the ongoing row over trans women qualifying for the shortlists).
This leaves Labour, like the Conservatives, with internal debates over how exactly to get the right balance of candidates. This kind of internal rowing is, one would think, part and parcel of the necessary debates in running a political party. The Labour-run Welsh government, however, thinks there is a single right answer for gendered selection, and has a plan to impose their ‘solution’ on every political party in Wales.
As part of their plans for electoral reform, the Welsh government is seeking to introduce gender quotas in candidate selection, which previous government statements have indicated will seek mandatory ‘zipping’, meaning the alternation of male and female candidates on the closed lists.
To accomplish this goal—which almost certainly touches on the reserved matter of equalities legislation—the Welsh government is also proposing to radically rewrite the entire electoral system so that all candidates are elected under lists (and thus that every Senedd member will have been selected off a ‘zipped’ list).
Under Wales’s existing system, a mixed approach is used, meaning that electors have a constituency MS, whom they choose directly, and several list MSs chosen in regional blocs. This system is not the most elegant in its implementation, but it is at least a workable one that retains the constituency relationship that is the bedrock of British democracy.
Under the Government proposals, voters will never vote for an individual candidate. Instead, in 16 seats of six members, parties will put forward slates of candidates, but voters will simply vote for a party, not a person. The link between constituent and member is completely lost.
Why are these electoral reform proposals so bad? One of the cardinal rules in designing an electoral system is it needs to fit the place and political culture. The political culture in Wales, as throughout the wider UK, is grounded in the link between members and constituents.
The various electoral systems of the UK (first past the post, the mixed member system in Scotland & Wales, single transferrable vote in Northern Ireland, and Scottish local elections) have all traditionally emphasised this with a high degree of representation and control. The one exception was the now-gone elections for the European Parliament, although that was deliberately an unrepresentative system to avoid MEPs rivalling MPs.
Voters understand and expect to have a close relationship with their constituency members and to be able to hold them accountable if not. In this new system, voters can merely vote up or down on a party, and have no option to vote based on an individual candidate.
Any member will owe their position not to a personal relationship with voters—who after all will choose only parties—but instead with their party bosses. Consequently, the incentives for good constituency service will rapidly drop. To make it clear, the thrust of this reform is to take power away from the electors and give it to party leaders, who can hand out list places and the order on them like patronage.
What will candidates upset they missed out on the list do? Under the present system, they can (in the constituency seats in Wales) run as an independent. Not under the reform. These changes will make it virtually impossible for independents to stand. In the absence of single member constituencies, a lone independent is now campaigning against six candidates and has to get an enormous slice of the vote across a large agglomerated constituency to be one of the six elected.
Under the present system, an independent can still compete fairly in the constituency seats even if the regional seats are shut out. Now, under the new system, even a slate of six independents would have great difficulty since people are voting on a ballot of party logos as much as for names.
It is also made more difficult for such ad hoc smaller slates by the fact that the reforms propose using the d’Hondt quota rather than the St Lagüe quota, which, without getting too deep into the mathematics, means that it will be noticeably harder for smaller parties (including slates of independents) in any seat to be elected.
Although it’s very difficult even under first past the post for an independent to be elected, the possibility and occasional election of successful independent candidates is a good check on the party system. In Wales, where people have good reason to be disillusioned with all the offerings of the major parties, this is a valuable resource for the people. Depriving them of it benefits only the large incumbent parties.
This will also hurt the quality of governance in Wales. When MSs are so dependent on their party leadership and so unreactive to their constituents, we can expect even less debate and scrutiny of the Welsh government from the Senedd.
Unlike in, say, the Netherlands, there isn’t a second chamber in Wales to review or keep in check the lower house, meaning that we can instead expect a placid and less independently-minded assembly. This is bad for the quality of governance: an aggressive backbench with an independent mandate is as valuable as a strong opposition in ensuring governments are properly scrutinised.
The gender quotas, too, are disturbing, not merely because of the chance they create devolution issues. Greater female representation is certainly a good thing—the Labour Party has yet to have a female national leader, for instance—but hard placement mandates, by which candidate sex swaps every place in the list (so if first on the list is a woman, the second has to be a man, and so on), are a crude way to accomplish this.
Not only do they interfere with the freedom of parties to choose their own candidates (is the Women’s Equality Party expected to require half its candidates to be men?), but they also are worthless in the absence of actual appetite to advance female candidates and remove barriers to their success. Given that the new system makes MSs more dependent than ever on party leadership, which continues to be male, it’s not clear the quotas and mandates will accomplish anything.
These proposals are a truly terrible way to do electoral reform. I support proportional representation and have even done the geeky thing of proposing an electoral system in the past. I say this as a fan of electoral reform: this is worse than doing every seat as first-past-the-post. Opposition parties and ordinary voters in Wales should resist this attempt to radically re-write the system of Welsh democracy.