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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Poor maligned Mary Stuart

Somebody commented the other day that there is only three weeks left before the Assembly breaks up for summer recess. If that is the case then we need to relish the finer moments of Plenary sessions whilst we can, after all the next lot will not be held until September.

Plenary can be raucous too, of course. Today was a good example of that and I plead guilty in provoking half an hour of heated and angry exchanges on the subject of variable top-up fees with a throwaway remark that was in retrospect out-of-order, though a jolly good debating point at the time. We will have to wait for the record of proceedings to see how that moment has been inscribed for posterity.

Yesterday was a bit quieter but there were still a number of off-record remarks made from a sedentary position otherwise known as heckling. This prompted the Presiding Officer to rule that "The First Minister need take no notice of interruptions from Alun Cairns." Alas, the record was much kinder to my fellow South Wales West regional member, transcribing it as "The First Minister need take no notice of interruptions, even when they are made by Alun Cairns."

As usual we had to rely on Tory AM, David Melding to inject a bit of cultural gravitas into the proceedings:

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Assembly, and I congratulate him on breaking the world record for mentioning John Redwood the most times in our proceedings. John Redwood seems to play the same role in the Assembly’s history as Mary Stuart does in the history of England. Like that Queen, he is rather misunderstood. [Laughter.] However, that is not a theme that I could profitably develop today.

The theme was the Queen's speech and most of the debate centred on the Government's White paper proposing greater powers for the Assembly. The idea is that any final transfer will not take place until there has been a referendum, but that vote can only be triggered by a resolution of the Assembly supported by two thirds of the members and by a simple majority in the House of Parliament. David Melding thought that the delay was absurd and made it clear where he stood within his own party:

On the points that have caused sharp division, I will start, naturally, with the referendum. Why not call a referendum now? Why are we afraid of the people? I was distraught to hear the Secretary of State say that he thinks that we would fail to win a referendum. That is an awful judgment on his party’s Assembly Government, and it is not satisfactory to say that, some time between 2011 and 2015, we may be in a position where we are mature enough to ask the people of Wales whether we can pass our own laws such as Alderney, Jersey, Guernsey or some other continental colossus.

Leighton Andrews: At the last election, the Conservatives proposed a multiple-choice preferendum on the Assembly’s future. Are you now adding a new choice to that, based on the views expressed by the new Conservative Member of Parliament for Monmouth that certain powers should be repatriated back from the Assembly to Westminster?

David Melding: I only wish that I could give you an audio tape of some of the private discussions that we had in our group meetings, but, alas, that is not possible. However, I do not hold very similar views.

Devolution as it currently stands in Wales is a halfway house. The White Paper puts new windows into the halfway house, but it does not change its structure. In the light of experience, we can now make a judgment on whether the structure is robust, and we ought to get on with that work. We know why the question will not be put to the people of Wales: it is because they will say ‘yes’ to primary powers and there will be a consequential cut in the number of Members of Parliament. That would badly affect the Labour Party, which suffered badly in the general election, and did not secure a majority of votes in England. It is an ominous warning that itself will have consequences for devolution.

On the issue of the Assembly's electoral system David was quite clear about the absurdity of the Government's proposals:

The situation with regional Members is simply disgraceful in terms of the Labour Party’s proposals. If the Assembly’s system needs radical reform, why not in London? Why not in Scotland? Indeed, why not in the Federal Republic of Germany? Under this system, Herr Kohl would never have been allowed to stand in his Rhineland home town, where he often lost, and then get elected on the list. What a meagre, pathetic vision, to chase down this road and condemn the system that you introduced, instead of adopting a more reasonable response by, perhaps, negotiating a protocol, which would have been fair. There are some difficulties with the present system—[Interruption.]

I have quoted this speech extensively as it addresses many of the issues the opposition have with the Government's White Paper. The way it deals with the voting system is its worst feature. The proposals to prevent people from standing both on the list and in a constituency is shot through with self-interest. It is tinkering with the system, when a move to election by the single transferable vote system would solve all the problems that have been raised whilst retaining the important constituency link.

Is is not the case that STV would maximise your party's representation? I can see why you support it.

While the proposed changes to the list would deny you your seat? I can see why you oppose it!
Actually, STV would only increase my party's representation if we increased our vote as we are fairly close in percentage terms to the number of seats we should have for the number of votes cast for us 10% of seats compared to 13% of votes. If anything it would make my position less secure as people would be voting for me rather than a list determined by my party.

I cannot see how changes to the list system would deny me a seat unless we won some constituencies in my region. The proposals just seem to be tinkering with a flawed system without any real idea as to the role of regional members.
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