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A sturdy constitution or just indigestion?

26/05/2022

By Jonathan Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but debates on the constitution will be on the menu a lot in coming months. The question is – can the UK Government, or Welsh Labour in Cardiff for that matter, stomach the changes?

The successful referendum in Wales now means that we now have primary law making powers – but Welsh representation and the democratic make-up of elected chambers in both Cardiff and Westminster are about to undergo even more changes.

There are two interlinked issues: firstly, the weakening of a Welsh voice in Westminster and secondly, the implications of re-opening of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and what this means for the Assembly.

Let’s look at the issue of cutting the number of MPs. Let us be in no doubt that the reason the UK Government has introduced their proposals to cut the numbers of MPs from 650 to 600 is purely partisan.  

In nullifying the Celtic bias, the aim of the Prime Minister is to enhance his electoral prospects come the next General Election.   Ignore the spin surrounding equal sized constituencies, if these undermined the electoral prospects of the Tory party they wouldn’t be on the table.

I have to admit that I find it strange that these changes are being introduced by the Conservative and unionist party. In reducing Welsh representation by a quarter, it is inevitable that the influence of Wales within this Parliament will be severely undermined.

You might be surprised to hear me make these points as a Plaid MP as obviously if the ultimate aim of Plaid Cymru is achieved - then there will be no Welsh representation at all.

But, as long as so many key political fields such as policies over defence, policing, justice and so on remain in Westminster, then there is a need for Welsh MPs to defend the interests of our people.

Of course I am not against reducing Welsh MPs as a point of principle. But any reductions should only take place after the devolution of political fields of responsibility.   I don’t accept the argument that the successful referendum in March justifies the reductions in Welsh MPs we now face.   The referendum didn’t devolve any extra fields of power, it merely secured sovereignty over currently devolved fields.   This was the case in Scotland and should also be the case in Wales.

I have discussed the much trailed “Calman-style Commission” for Wales on this blog before, but there is another element of it which will mean that the 2006 Government of Wales Act will need to be re-opened.

I believe we must grab this opportunity to revisit the gerrymandering that took place in that Act by the then Labour Government.

For one, the clause that was introduced in 2006 which prohibits candidates from standing in both regional lists and constituencies should be overturned.   A similar ban only exists in the Ukraine, and it’s time we joined the rest of the democratic world.

In addition, it’s also an opportunity to revisit the electoral make up of the National Assembly in time for the fifth Assembly. My personal preference would be to increase the membership of the National Assembly to 80 as advocated by Lord Elystan Morgan.

The 80 member body should then be elected via STV.   Plaid MPs will be tabling amendments to the Bill when it comes to the Commons to press for this.

Changes to the number of MPs will also mean that constituency boundaries will no longer match those of the National Assembly, something called “decoupling”. Labour was vehemently opposed to this - their preference was “co-terminosity”, meaning the MPs and AMs areas should be identical, as they operate now. From a party organisational point of view I can see their argument.   I’m not sure how things work in Scotland where they have decoupled, but it must be a nightmare to have to structure a party locally based on different constituency boundaries.

But in anycase, based on Labour’s opposition to decoupling and the opposition of the Tories to PR, one way of achieving consensus might be to re-adjust the National Assembly’s boundaries to be the same as Westminster and electing the remainder of AMs via the list system.  Such a reform would also help make the National Assembly more proportional.

There’s something to chew over!