Labour’s dominance in Wales – how helpful is the electoral system?

Mike Hedges crunches the numbers

Labour has dominated Welsh politics since 1922. When the Welsh assembly was set up it was expected that Labour would dominate, and the proposal was for an eighty member Welsh assembly with two members for each parliamentary constituency ensuring that Labour would have gender balance in its Assembly members.

This was overturned and we had a more proportional electoral system with the forty first past the post seats and twenty regional seats, fourelected in each of the five regions via the D’Hondt system producing a result closer to the support for each party in the region. While at every election Labour has won the majority of constituency seats elected via first past the post, the maximum number of regional members elected has been the three which occurred at the last election.

While Labour has been in government since 1999, they have never had a majority. In 1999 Labour won 28 seats and after a short time formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. In the 2003 election Labour won exactly thirty of the sixty seats. In 2007 Labour won 26 seats, with a former Labour member winning one as an Independent. This was followed by an attempt at creating a rainbow coalition of Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats but with the Liberal Democrats refusing to join the coalition plan failed and Plaid Cymru joined with Labour to form the one-Wales government. In 2011 Labour again won thirty seats. In 2016 Labour won 29 seats which was followed by the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and UKIP supporting the Leader of Plaid Cymru to be First Minister, but the sole Liberal Democrat did not and thus the leader of Plaid Cymru was not elected First Minister. In the 2021 election Labour again gained thirty seats and formed the Government.

So, while Labour has been in government for 23 years, it has never had a majority. The combined Plaid Cymru and Conservative votes in the Senedd have not exceeded Labour’s and they have needed the support of the Liberal Democrat’s to remove Labour from office which they have not had.

At the last election Labour had 39.9% in the constituencies and 36.2% in the regions. The Conservatives had 26.1% in the constituencies and   25.1% in the regions. Plaid Cymru had 20.3% in the constituencies and 20.7% in the regions.

The results in North Wales and Mid and West Wales were approximately proportional but the results in the three south Wales seats saw Labour win twenty-two out of twenty-three first past the post seats and twenty-two out of the thirty-five seats in total with less than half the total vote.

Many people, including me have talked up the 2021 result as a great victory but in reality, Labour won half the seats, one more than the combined total of the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru with substantially fewer than half the seats.

Any electoral system that is more proportional than the current system will inevitably mean Labour will win fewer seats than the combined Conservative and Plaid Cymru seats. While up until 2011 we had a four-party Senedd, since 2016 we have had three parties and one Liberal Democrat. It is impossible to predict how the parties will do on the proposed six members per double Westminster constituency because we do not know what the Westminster constituencies will be, how they will be joined, and we have no electoral data for them.

Producing results based on the forty current Senedd seats and electing six members per constituency, then Labour does worse than it did in the 2021 election and importantly has fewer than the combined Conservative and Plaid Cymru seats.

There are those who say this does not matter as Plaid Cymru could not form a coalition with the Conservatives even though they agreed to in 2007. If the Conservatives supported the Plaid Cymru leader to be First Minister then they would win, just as they nearly did in 2016. Does anyone think that the Plaid Cymru leader would refuse to become First Minister?

There are those who support proportional representation who will say that this is the will of the electorate, and we must campaign to elect more Labour members. Those of us who want a Labour Government elected do not want to change to a system that makes it more difficult than it is now.

Mike Hedges is the member of the Welsh Senedd for Swansea East.

Image: Mike Hedges. Author: Steve Cushen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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