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Monday, November 21, 2005

Nasty, parochial and partisan

A leading devolution expert has joined in the debate on reforms to the Assembly's voting system with a devastating attack on the motives of the Wales Labour Party in promoting change.

In the annual Institute of Welsh Politics Lecture, Professor Robert Hazell argues that banning Assembly candidates from standing in constituencies and on the PR regional lists - as proposed by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain - will run into trouble in the House of Lords.

Prof Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit within University College London, will also tell the audience at Aberystwyth University that Mr Hain's view that no more devolution legislation will be necessary after the forthcoming Government of Wales Bill is "wishful thinking".

And there is also a warning that the so-called "Brown boom" in generous funding settlements for the Assembly and the Scottish Parliament is coming to an end.

Prof Hazell will say, "The Lords are likely to be critical of the proposed change to the electoral system in Wales. This is nasty, parochial and seemingly driven by partisan motives. Labour want to prevent Assembly candidates from standing in a constituency as well as on a party's regional list.

The Electoral Commission has been particularly damning about the lack of evidence in the government's proposals, saying that concerns about dual candidacy did not emerge in any of their research about voting in the Welsh Assembly election.

"The Electoral Commission also reminds us that the same electoral arrangements apply in Scotland. Here they are being examined by the Arbuthnott Inquiry, primarily appointed to look at electoral boundaries, but also looking at electoral systems. It has shown little interest in a ban on dual candidacy."

There is little in this analysis that I disagree with. The Assembly's electoral system was designed by Labour to provide an element of proportionality whilst retaining an in-built bias in their favour. When they saw that it was becoming a threat to their hegemony in Wales they decided to castrate it further. The only motive behind this change is self-interest. If they had wanted to produce a more equitable system in which all AMs were elected on a comparable basis then they would have opted for the single transferable vote system based on multi-member constituencies.

The one point of contention is how much resistance will be put up in the House of Lords to this "nasty, parochial and partisan" change. There are some very big issues in the White paper that may well merit more attention from their lordships. And let us face it you can only sustain a position in defence of the 'human rights' of politicians for so long. The voting change is a Labour manifesto commitment and the Secretary of State for Wales has said that it is non-negotiable. That is a great shame as it indicates a lack of imagination as well as a degree of vindictiveness. However, the odds are that on this matter the Government's view will prevail.

The other interesting point thrown up in Professor Hazell's lecture is the inter-relationship between Scotland and Wales as different ends of the same devolution settlement. It is an important point and one that does not often receive much attention:

Prof Hazell will also underline the curious lack of affinity between the Scottish Parliament and the Assembly, saying, "Scotland has shown little support or solidarity with Wales."

He will ask, "Will Scotland support stronger powers for Wales, and support a confident and generous settlement based on the model of the Scotland Act: or is the dynamic of devolution a jealous dynamic, a game of leapfrog in which the Scots seek permanently to keep one step ahead?"

What happens with regards to Wales does have huge implications for Scotland especially with regards to funding. Any reform of the Barnett formula could well see generously-funded Scotland losing out for example, whilst Wales would gain. Scotland themselves want changes to their settlement so as to clarify a number of their powers. There does not appear to be much sign of that happening at the moment.

I do not believe that the Scots will seek to check Wales' laborious march towards the status of a full Parliament, but I do think that there are anti-devolutionists there who will not want to see the new Parliament of Wales Bill become the precursor of more Scottish legislation taking them in the direction of greater independence.
Actually, the Labour manifesto says:

In Wales we will develop democratic devolution by creating a stronger Assembly with enhanced legislative powers and a reformed structure and electoral system to make the exercise of Assembly responsibilities clearer and more accountable to the public.

You could argue - quite strongly I'd say - that STV would be more accountable and clearer to the public than what Hain is proposing. The Salisbury Convention wouldn't be a problem so long as the Lords are proposing an alternative rather than simply blocking.
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