So-called proportional system creating weird phenomenon in Wales

Later this year, there will be general elections for the three devolved legislatures in the UK (the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly). All three of these bodies are, at least in theory, elected using proportional representation: Scotland and Wales use an additional member system, whereas Northern Ireland uses a single transferable vote.

The Welsh Assembly is made up of 60 Assembly Members (AMs). 40 of these AMs represent the 40 constituencies throughout Wales, elected using first-past-the-post. The remaining 20 AMs represent one of the five regions of the country, with the intention being that the 12 (average) seats in each region will approximately represent the vote share within that region.

I’ve only recently gotten around to looking at the Welsh situation (it’s not really been in the news), and I was initially quite puzzled when this image popped up on my screen:

Seat projection based on YouGov poll (the only organisation doing public polling for the Welsh Assembly)

There were two things that got me particularly puzzled. The first is that Labour is managing to get half of the seats in the assembly, despite only getting a third of the vote, which is something that proportional representation is supposed to prevent from happening. But even more puzzling is that there is a swing from Labour to the Conservatives compared with 2011, and while Labour is staying flat in terms of seats, the Conservatives are actually down a couple of seats. This shouldn’t be happening in any electoral system, proportional or otherwise.

Constituency Seats or List Seats?

Projections for Welsh Constituencies based on YouGov poll
Swingometer for Welsh Assembly Constituencies

To explain this, we need to look at where the seats for each party are coming from. The 34% of the vote forecast for Labour would, under a purely proportional system, would only get them 21 out of 60 seats. Under proportional by region, this would be 24 seats. However, Labour is winning in 28 constituencies, which guarantees that the party will be over-represented in the Senedd. Only three Labour constituencies are in marginal territory (only one of which, Cardiff North, to the Tories), with the rest all quite safe on the kind of swing we’re seeing.

What’s Happening in the Regions?

Vote share projected for Mid and West Wales

This means we now have to look at the list seats. Labour only got list seats in Mid and West Wales, where they finished in third place behind the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Only Plaid and the Liberal Democrats are down enough in this region to merit the loss of list seats, down 5 and 7 pp (percentage points), respectively. Labour’s drop of under 2 pp here is not enough for them to lose list seats, and it also happens to be the smallest vote drop for them across the five regions.

Vote share projected for South Wales West

As for the Conservatives, they are losing list seats in two regions: South Wales East and South Wales West. In South Wales West, we see the Conservatives down around 4 pp, which is enough for them to lose a list seat (in this case, to UKIP).

Vote share projected for South Wales East

In South Wales East, on the other hand, we see the Conservatives actually up around 2½ pp, which should, if anything, mean the Conservatives should pick up a seat. However, we need to remember that Labour, which is down 10 pp, has no list seats here (nor do the “Others”, who are down 8 pp), and all of Labour’s constituencies in this region are as safe as houses. This means we need to look at the Conservative vote as a share of those parties who can get list seats, where they go from 45% of this vote to 35%. A 10 pp drop like this is definitely enough for them to lose a seat (again, to UKIP).

How do we achieve proportionality?

I can understand the desire to keep the 40 constituencies for the Welsh Assembly to match those used for Westminster, with it cutting the administrative burden for the local councils in the country. So the way to make this mixed-member system actually become proportional is to send more list AMs to Cardiff Bay. But how many more do we need?

In Germany, which uses a similar system to Wales, a state can get additional list seats in the Bundestag if a party gets more constituency seats than their list vote would otherwise allow. If we exercise a similar system in Wales, we would need to more than double the number of list AMs, bringing the total number of seats in the Senedd to 89.

How many additional seats would be needed in each region to achieve proportionality?

Tony Blair had initially wanted to use first-past-the-post to elect the Welsh Assembly, only switching to the additional member system in an effort to gain support from Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Considering that we’ve seen this overhang phenomenon for Labour in all Welsh Assembly elections since its creation in 1999, it leaves me to wonder if proportionality was ever the government’s aim.

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