A tactical mistake

There's probably not much of what Adam Price says that I fundamentally disagree with, but one part of what he's quoted as saying in today's Western Mail is worth challenging.

He wants the Welsh Affairs Select Committee to be made up in proportion to the number of seats held in Wales, rather than the overall composition of the House of Commons.

On the surface this sounds fine, but it has major flaws.

     

The reason the WASC has an "almost statutory role" is because it, like other similar committees, represents the overall make up of the HoC. This enables these committees to make recommendations which broadly reflect how the HoC will vote on any issue. This has immense practical advantages, because the purpose of such committees is to act as a microcosm of the HoC, so as to save the whole House from having to become minutely involved in too many different areas to do any of them justice.

Ultimately power rests with the HoC as a whole, and any vote on any issue can potentially be taken by the House as a whole. Those issues that go though with just a handful of votes do so because it isn't worth the hassle of every MP voting on every issue when the outcome is going to be decided on party lines anyway. If there were a situation where a committee was balanced differently from the overall make up of the HoC, it would end up being irrelevant because they could simply vote down any proposal it makes.

The only way that could change is if some sort of convention were introduced that the HoC as a whole would not overturn the decisions of the committee. To me, that sounds very like the sort of fudge the Tories dreamt up for an English Grand Committee.

Besides that—and much more seriously—the HoC is elected by under a FPTP system which gives an artificially inflated majority to a party that represents only a minority. This is particularly the case in Wales.

Westminster Election, 2005

Lab .... 42.7% of vote ... 72.5% of seats
Con ... 21.4% of vote ... 7.5% of seats
LibDem ... 18.4% of vote ... 10.0% of seats
Plaid ... 12.6% of vote ... 7.5% of seats

I think everyone, not least the Welsh Labour MPs, knows that Labour are in for a big fall in their share of the vote in the next election. I think the moot question is whether Labour's share of the vote will be above or below the 30% mark. Yet even so I think it is a cast iron certainty that Labour will remain the party with most Welsh MPs. Again, the moot question is whether the figure will be above or below 20 seats.

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So what would Adam Price's proposal mean in practice? Assuming that there was a convention that the HoC did not overturn the WASC's recommendations, it would mean that a party with say 30% of the Welsh Westminster vote gets an effective veto on any proposed new areas of legislation for the Assembly.

Look at the big picture. The big constitutional issue of the day is whether the Assembly will get primary lawmaking powers. The decision about whether we get a referendum or not rests entirely with the Labour party: their votes are necessary to get the two-thirds majority in the Assembly, their majority is needed to get it through Westminster. If we now hand the WASC veto powers on a plate, then Labour will not support a referendum. Why should they? Why would they give up their power of veto?

The major factor in focusing the minds of Welsh Labour is that Westminster, and in particular the Secretary of State for Wales, has so much power over the Assembly. That's been all well and good for them while Labour has had a majority at Westminster. It has given them a "double handle" on politics in Wales. The only reason they will now change their minds is because they know they will lose the next election and someone else will hold one of those handles.

In tactical, as well as practical terms, Adam has got this one completely wrong. He is giving Labour MPs a straw to clutch at, and some of them will reach for it. As they do so, it will divert their attention from the real task at hand, which is to transfer power to the Assembly so that a future Tory Secretary of State for Wales has less influence over our own ability to make decisions on matters which affect Wales.

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