Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Two big questions (Part 1)

As events in Welsh politics move slowly, almost painfully so, towards a denouement of some sort, Plaid AM's and Plaid's NEC will soon find that they have no further opportunity to avoid making their tough decision.

There are lots of things that they will be considering, of course; but I think there are two really big ones. The first is this – what do the voters want?

From the outset, people have been interpreting the election results to suit their own view of events, but what can we really say, in terms of hard facts? Although everyone knew that coalition was a probable outcome, there was no way of expressing that on the ballot paper, so all we have to go on is the hard numbers of the election results and a few pre-election opinion polls.

The first point to make is that more people voted for the Labour Party than voted for any other party. I wasn't in that number, as it happens, and I don't understand why so many people did vote for them; but I cannot ignore the fact that they did. In voting the way they did, more people said that they trusted Labour to lead a government than trusted any other single party to lead a government. That is surely irrefutable.

Proponents of the Rainbow have argued that more people voted against Labour than voted for them, showing that Labour were unpopular, and therefore justifying the Rainbow. Sure there were more votes against Labour than for them – that's an unarguable fact. But taken individually, more people voted against Plaid, the Tories or the Lib Dems than voted against Labour. All that really tells us is that Labour may indeed have been unpopular; but they were still less unpopular than anyone else.

And to argue that the 70% who voted against Labour therefore all voted for the Rainbow is stretching credibility beyond breaking point. Was every Tory supporter really saying that he or she would prefer a Plaid government over a Labour one? Or was every Plaid voter expressing a preference for the Tories over Labour?

I don't see how anyone can draw such a conclusion from the election results. I suppose it's possible; it just doesn't seem terribly likely to me. Assuming that everyone who didn't vote Labour would therefore express a second choice for another non-Labour party is a complete non-sequitur; many Plaid, Lib Dem and even some Tory voters would have, if they had had the chance, made Labour their second choice. Of that I am certain.

No, I'm afraid that whether we armchair anoraks and bloggers like it or not, Labour emerged with more votes and more seats than any other party – a clear lead of 11 seats over their nearest opponents. And since every elector could vote only for his or her first choice party, the only thing we can say for certain on any coalition is that no-one actually voted for it.

For a party which won so many more votes and seats than any of its opponents to be unseated by an alliance for which no-one actually voted, and for which there is no proven public support at the ballot box, looks to me more like a coup d'├ętat than democracy.

PS - I see that Ordovicius argues that to avoid taking so long over this in future, all the parties should simply delegate all power to their leaders to form whatever arrangements they like once elected. I think this is completely the wrong thing to do. If coalitions are to be the norm, we actually need politicians to have less say in the conclusion and give the power back to us as electors. A more open system of proportional representation would be a good start; so that we can see for real what people's second choice party actually is.


Ordovicius said...

No, I'm afraid that whether we armchair anoraks and bloggers like it or not, Labour emerged with more votes and more seats than any other party – a clear lead of 11 seats over their nearest opponents.

This is irrelevent.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Although you call for STV in your postscript your main message argues for a "first past the post" settlement. Because Labour won more seats than their nearest rival you argue that they have FPTP "right" to be part of the Government.

Whichever party we voted for we delegated responsibility for the issue of forming the government to the elected members. Whichever choice those members make has equal legitimacy, be it Minority, Red-Green, Lib-Lab, Rainbow or even Red-Blue.

Normal Mouth said...

This is ann excellent analysis which illustrates forcefully the need to do one of two things;

1. find a mechanism (AV might work) to measure the voters' preferences in more detail or;

2. come at it from the other side of the telescope and look to weaken the party system. I did an article about this a while ago (http://normalmouth.blogspot.com/2007/05/forget-new-zealand-over-rainbow-could.html) which at the risk of plugging my blog explains what I mean better than anything I could put here.

Normal Mouth said...

I didn't paste in the whole URL. It was published on May 16, anyway.

Christopher Glamorgan said...

Excellent post, but wouldn't it be wonderful if all this coalition talk was over. It'll give us bloggers something else to write about :-D

Labour-Plaid coalition aside, my thoughts are with Rosemary Butler at the moment... How can one woman have so much bad luck?


Anonymous said...

You ask the very relevant question of what do voters want?

That's why we are in this situation now. The electorate do want something different, but the system we have for getting to that point is too confusing. Or we have elections and all the parties promise things which no one believes. So most just vote out of habit, or for a favourite person.

What they want are good jobs, good schools, good medical care in local hospitals and the very best elected politicians who are above party nonsense when it comes to taking desicions. They want good homes, good salaries, good social care and a fair system of taxation.

Teilo said...

It is clear that the present Assembly electoral system with its mixture of ‘first past the post’ and the ‘Victor D’Hondt list’ does not work, for the reasons that you give in your post.

It might sound stupid, but is very easy to lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the election is to act as a means of chosing people to represent us to form a government. It is not to act as some kind of giant opinion poll. The aim of an electoral system should be to produce a government which is stable, effective, and able to make decisions which reflect the aspirations of the majority of the electorate.

Under a ‘PR list system’ the emphasis shifts away from the principal aim of the election, the formation of a government, and is very much on the political party. In its more extreme forms it results in a plethora of small parties being elected. It appears to be more democratic, but this is too simplistic a view. It only takes into account one aspect of a voter’s opinions. It only allows for their first preference to be acknowledged.

A fair voting system would ensure the election of a government which would command the broad support of the majority of the electorate. This can best be achieved under an electoral system where STV is used to elect a single representative in one constituency.

This would give the power back to the electors.

Ceredig said...

Alwyn, I'm not arguing that whoever wins the FPTP element should automatically have the right to lead the government. If one party had a margin of only one or two seats over another, and their vote was roughly equal, then I think that the question of legitimacy looks different. If the other three parties had gone into the election openly talking about linking up afterwards, that would also be different.

What I am challenging, and will continue to challenge, is that it is in any way reasonable to assume that anyone who voted against party A must, almost by definition, have been voting for a government consisting of all the other parties. Electors only got to express their first choice - i.e. which party they wanted to see in government. Had they been able to express a second choice, we might have a better idea of what combinations would or would not be acceptable to the people who really count - us. All we have is one or two opinion polls (which showed, by the way, that rainbow was just about the least popular option).

Normal Mouth, I'd prefer STV over AV, but the basic principle, of allowing a more sophisticated expression of opinion than simply a single choice ballot would be a better way of informing decisions than is currently available. I'm not sure about weakening the party system personally, but 'open' lists rather than 'closed' party lists would put more power back into the hands of the electorate.

Anonymous - you're right about people's wants being much more about bread-and-butter issues than about who delivers them. The problem is working out what they actually chose in the election on May 3rd.

Teilo, I partly agree, but not entirely. I don't see elections as just about choosing who will form the government; they are also about indicating what sort of future we want, what policies we want to see pursued. The job of parties is to offer us not just politicians, but programmes and, dare I say it, a vision of the future.

How do we work out the 'aspirations of the majority', as you put it, when there is no clear majority for any particular programme? I agree with your conclusion that STV would enable a much better assessment of which party or parties had convinced most people that their views were the most appropriate way forward.