THIS Saturday is crunch time for Mark Drakeford’s aims to expand the Senedd and reform Welsh democracy – when he must convince the Welsh Labour Party of his plans. 

Welsh Labour is holding a special recall conference to determine whether it will back proposals for a 96 member Senedd elected via a form of proportional representation and using a ‘closed list system’. 

Should the proposals pass it could dramatically change the face of Welsh politics – marking Welsh elections as sufficiently different from those held across the UK and from how those of the first 23 years of devolution were conducted. 

But the ‘closed list system’ is openly opposed by some Labour branches while it was also discounted by a an expert panel that examined potential electoral reform in 2017. 

When the first minister and Plaid Cymru leader announced their plans to increase the size of the Senedd to 96 members in May – and outlined their preferred electoral system – there were complaints they had jumped the gun of a Senedd committee looking at the issue. 

When that committee reported it backed the package put forward by the governing Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru which has a formal agreement on many policy areas. 

READ MORE: What has the Senedd's reform committee recommended?

But the electoral reform package has to win the support of the Welsh Labour Party at Saturday’s special recall conference, in Cardiff. 

Welsh Labour’s spring conference backed more members and a voting system "at least as proportional" as the one currently in use for Senedd elections. 

But the recall conference is to consider that question in detail with Drakeford’s agreed package to be put to delegates. 

An electoral college of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), trade unions and affiliates will consider the package with only a simple majority required for the proposal to pass. 

But over recent weeks it has become clear that not all CLPs are on board with the proposals. 

Saturday, at the 19th century banking building Portland House, a stone’s throw from the Senedd, will be make or break for the reform package as no amendments or alternatives will be tabled. 

The first CLP to break ranks was the Rhondda, with the constituency’s MP Chris Bryant announcing it would oppose the reforms. 

This week the MP told BBC Radio Wales that though he personally doesn’t support an additional 36 members for Senedd he backs expansion but his, and his CLP’s opposition, is based on the closed list system. 

Under it parties win seats on the percentage share of votes. But seats are taken by approved candidates with electors having no say in which of the party’s candidates they would like to see elected or having any opportunity of ranking preferred candidates. 

Bryant told the BBC: “My bigger complaint is abolishing all constituencies, you won’t have a member for the Rhondda it will be for a much larger area. 

“With the closed list system voters won’t be able to say who you put as number one on the Labour party list, they just have to like it or lump it.” 

The first past the post system, currently used to elect the 40 Senedd Members who represent constituencies, is also seen as a simple way for electors to sack politicians. 

In Assembly/Senedd elections there have been a handful of high-profile losers via the first past the post method. 

In 2007 then culture and sport minister Alun Pugh was booted out of office by the electors of Clwyd West who switched from Labour to Conservative while in 2016 public services minister Leighton Andrews became one of the biggest Welsh election night causalities. 

Though Labour would once again finish as the largest party there was a high-profile defeat in the Rhondda where electors turned to Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.  

Underlining the winner takes all nature of first past the post, in May last year Wood felt the power of the voters’ right to determine their representatives when she got the boot and Labour’s Buffy Williams won their backing. 

READ MORE:

It isn’t only within Welsh Labour there is opposition to the ‘closed list system’. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are opposed to it, preferring the single transferrable vote (STV) by which voters can rank their preferred candidates and Plaid Cymru has been criticised for ditching its support for STV. 

Professor Laura McAllister, the respected expert on politics and governance, who chaired the 2017 expert panel on Assembly electoral reform has also described Labour/Plaid’s preferred system as a “strange choice” with a “host of problems”. 

McAllister said the gender quotas, in which elected candidates will be selected to ensure a gender balance, further complicates the issue of electoral choice. 

Writing for the Constitution Unit Blog McAlister said: “A closed proportional list system was rejected by our expert panel as it failed to meet several of our criteria for a strong electoral system, most notably voter choice and accountability.  

“It is a strange choice, as there are a host of problems with closed list PR systems, most notably over promoting party control over voter choice. Under closed lists, voters have no influence on the hierarchy in which candidates are elected – this being pre-selected by the party, locally or nationally. Furthermore, in this specific case, candidates will be ordered not only by party preferences but also by gender, which gives even less independent choice for voters.” 

At present 20 Senedd Members are elected via a list system, using the D’Hondt PR method, and it’s proposed it is in future used to elect all 96 but the system is considered to favour larger parties. 

The Senedd has been forced into a rethink on constituencies, with its 40 first past the post seats currently the same as the Welsh Westminster constituencies that are being reduced down to 34. But the stop gap measure is to create 16 super constituencies electing six members each. 

But Bryant said he fears a loss of local connection with voters, in constituencies of up to 220,000 electors, unlikely to know which MS they should contact and he thinks giant constituencies will be a disincentive for those in office to carry out some case work. 

“I think they will only do the really popular stuff,” said Bryant who said the reforms could “drag the Senedd away from voters.” 

But Bryant was clear he believes the Senedd needs more members but with the package on offer on Saturday on a take it or leave it basis the Rhondda CLP, at least, is set to walk away rather than accept an electoral system its sees as less than satisfactory. 

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