The maths would work

I was surprised to see, as reported here and here, that talks about an electoral pact between the Greens, Plaid Cymru and LibDems for the Assembly elections in May had come to naught. There was a lot to be gained from such cooperation, although not as much as the total of 22 seats mentioned in the ITV report.

The reason for this is that the election system for our National Assembly is heavily weighted in favour of constituency seats. Two-thirds of the seats are decided on the first-past-the-post system, leaving only one-third of them to help correct that bias. Yes, these additional seats do correct it to some extent, by not to the same extent as in Scotland, where there is a 73/56 or 57%/43% split. So the key to electoral success in the Assembly is winning constituency seats.

A quick look at the results from 2011 shows that there are five constituency seats that could be won from either Labour or the Tories if the Greens, Plaid and LibDems were able to work together. Ordered by the size of the margin they are:

Cardiff Central
won by Labour with 37.9%, combined three party vote 44.9%

won by the Tories with 34.0%, combined three party vote 40.4%

won by Labour with 39.7%, combined three party vote 41.5%

won by the Tories with 43.7%, combined three party vote 44.9%

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
won by the Tories with 35.8%, combined three party vote 33.6%

Of course a lot has changed since 2011. Opinion polls show that the LibDems have plummeted and that UKIP have risen. But UKIP are not likely to win any constituency seats, so whatever they get is irrelevant to winning seats from Labour and the Tories. The LibDem collapse is rather more pertinent. It means that Kirsty Williams will have to fight hard to hold Brecon and Radnor, and could do with all the help she can get. So negotiating an electoral pact could positively affect that seat too, making six constituency seats in total.

So why on earth did they fail to do it?


There are two answers. Squabbles over which party was chosen to fight these seats, and the complicating effect of the regional lists.

As I see it, the LibDems are in prime position to win Cardiff Central and Montgomery, and Plaid in prime position to win Llanelli, Aberconwy and, as a long shot, Carmarthen West. Put bluntly, the Greens aren't in prime position to win any of these seats, so if Plaid Cymru and the LibDems wanted to reach a bi-lateral agreement without the Greens, they could do so and gain from it.


Looking at the North Wales region first. The LibDems have no hope of winning any constituency seat and Plaid are certain to win two: Ynys Môn and Arfon. Both parties won a list seat in 2011, but the problem this time round is that UKIP are certain to win one list seat, and might well win two. As there are still only four list seats, the last thing Plaid wants is to be in the scrap to win one of them. The win-win situation would be for Plaid to gain Aberconwy with LibDem help, thereby dropping out of the running for a list seat. This would mean that the LibDems only have to fight the Tories and UKIP to hold their one list seat, although it's still a long shot because a Tory loss in Aberconwy would just result in them winning a list seat instead. If the LibDems were really clever they would encourage people to vote for a Tory win in Clwyd South ... but that might be a step too much for them.


The next interesting region is Mid and West Wales. This is where the LibDems have most to gain from an electoral pact. Looked at from an "unambitious" perspective, Kirsty Williams probably feels quite safe. Provided she is first on the LibDem list, losing Brecon and Radnor would just mean that she got a list seat instead. But the general collapse in LibDem support means that the LibDems would find it all but impossible to win two list seats. So the only realistic way for the LibDems to keep two seats overall would be for them to hold Brecon and Radnor and gain Montgomery from the Tories.

Plaid, from the same unambitious perspective, probably think in a similar way. Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East were safe seats in 2011 and will remain safe this year. It didn't really matter to them that they narrowly lost Llanelli in 2011, because they made up for it by getting a list seat instead. However this time round they will almost certainly not get a list seat if they lose Llanelli, because of UKIP. I also think Plaid are far from certain of winning Llanelli this time, not least because Lee Waters is an exceptionally good choice of candidate for Labour. As a bonus, the pact would also give them an outside chance of gaining Carmarthen West from the Tories, a seat which they can have no serious prospect of winning without that help. Even if they didn't win it, they would have absolutely nothing to lose.

For the Greens, the advantage of a pact is that if the LibDems and Plaid were to win these constituency seats, they would then be completely out of the running for any list seats. The four available seats would instead be contested between Labour, the Tories, UKIP and the Greens. So even though a three party pact would not benefit the Greens in constituency seats, it could make all the difference in terms of them gaining a list seat. They might well be able to win the seat anyway, without a pact, but the pact would turn possibility into probability.


I don't think an electoral pact will make any difference to the outcomes in South Wales West and South Wales East, which leaves South Wales Central.

Despite all the optimism in the world Plaid and the Greens are not going to win any constituency seats on their own, and especially not Rhondda. Leanne Wood never stood a chance. In constituency terms, the only one of the three parties that could win on their own is the LibDems in Cardiff Central. Yet it would be far from easy because they have slipped a very long way.

There are two ways of looking at things, both dependent on the strength of the Green vote. In 2011, the Greens got a higher percentage of the list vote in Cardiff Central (9.1%) than in any other constituency in Wales.

In the first scenario, if the Greens had wanted the other two parties to stand down in one of the five constituency seats I listed above (leaving the others to Plaid and the LibDems) it would be this one. I wasn't involved in the negotiations, so I don't know whether the Greens made a stand on this. But from a LibDem perspective, they made up for losing Cardiff Central by gaining a list seat in 2011, and they would certainly win a list seat this time round if they stood down in favour of the Greens. So the LibDems had nothing to lose; one way or the other, they could only win one of the twelve seats in SWC ... and couldn't possibly win two.

The second way of looking at it is that if the LibDems won with Green and Plaid support in Cardiff Central they would then not win a list seat, and this would make it more likely for Plaid to win two list seats rather than one, or for the Greens to win one list seat.

The first option is better than the second, but either way, the overall result for the three parties is increased by an electoral pact. However the main factor will be how well the Tories do in the two SWC constituencies in which they stand a chance: if they win Cardiff North and/or the Vale of Glamorgan it will mean that they are that much less likely to win a list seat. With a pact (and Tory luck) the three parties could win four seats out of twelve if the Greens won Cardiff Central, or three if the Lib Dems won it. Without a pact they might end up with only two.


In short, an electoral pact was a no-brainer which would give the three parties a fair chance of winning five more seats than they are likely to win on their own. That's a lot to throw away.

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Owen said...

I don't know whether whoever leaked this has done Plaid a great service or should be taken out and shot.

In principle this sounds like a good idea - and for the reasons you explain it could've worked - but it's clearly a defensive strategy and about keeping what Plaid and the Lib Dems already have.

Hopefully, the fact this has been made public will help focus minds in Plaid as there's too much nonsense going around about coalitions, minority governments and wild goose chases in constituencies at the expense of the regions. It tells me that, in private, Plaid are (rightly) concerned that they're going to make little progress on their own. So although I'm relieved that the cult-like optimism is something of a mirage - and Plaid do, at a certain level, still retain something resembling rational thought - at the same time it's made their position look weak.

A pact like this would certainly be a no-brainer for the Lib Dems, but I fail to see what advantage the Greens hoped to gain. As you say their only hopes are on the lists, so you've got to assume that considering the fact they were bringing little to the table in terms of votes, their asking price was too high - a joint Plaid-Green-LD list in Mid & West and South Wales East with a Green at #1 perhaps (if that's allowed)?

Plus it would've been hard to see Plaid withdraw higher-profile candidates like Glyn Wise from Cardiff Central (likewise the Greens and Amelia Womack) or throw the likes of Simon Thomas under a bus.

Anonymous said...

I'm not against the general principle of pre-election pacts between parties. In one way, it is more honest and transparent than the kind of horse trading that inevitably happens in the wake of Assembly Elections, and it does allow the electorate some say in how they want the election to pan out. The problem is how to sell the idea to the public and to the supporters of the respective parties in the democratic void that exists here in Wales because of our non-existent national media. The likelihood is that it would remain a technocratic exercise, which would only resonate with a few party hacks.

I can understand Plaid's thinking on this issue on one hand since it does appear that this election could be very difficult if a EURO referendum were to be held a month after the election. Welsh issues will undoubtedly be relegated to the sidelines, with the election dominated by the In/Out debate. It will merely be a practice run for the referendum, and the only beneficiaries will be UKIP. In that sense, Plaid need all the help they can get.

BUT, linking up in such a way to the Lib Dems and Greens does suggest that Plaid have no confidence that they can make any headway themselves in May. And that will be the subliminal message sent out to the electorate as well, I'm afraid.

MH said...

Just to start, there are two other blog posts on this subject that are worth looking at. One by Bridgend's Green Leftie, Andy Chyba, and one by Hogyn o Rachub.

Andy is generally in favour of a pact, although not so keen on the LibDems being part of it. To him, I would say that the plan (as I've outlined it) needs LibDems votes and needs the LibDems to win seats in order to benefit Plaid and the Greens.

Yr Hogyn is totally against it. However he sees the pact as something which would apply across Wales (so that Plaid and the LibDems would have to fight over who contests Ceredigion, for example) and would therefore be unworkable. For all I know, that might well be what Plaid were arguing for, and I agree with him that such a plan is hopeless. But, as I see it, a workable plan only needs agreement in six carefully targeted constituency seats.

For any deal to work, each of the parties involved needs to gain something, and none of the parties involved should lose anything. The plan I outlined achieves both these aims. I don't know the details of the negotiations, but for the LibDems to walk out, it would appear that Plaid were asking for something that benefited them at LibDem expense.

MH said...

As on so many things, Owen and I see eye to eye. Talk about this pact resulting in 22 seats and a Plaid Cymru/LibDem/Green government is nonsense. The benefits are smaller than that (with luck, 18 seats) but achievable. The realistic aim would be to prevent Labour being able to form a minority government on their own, and force them to have to make a deal with PCLDG as a group.

As we now know (from the ITV report) that Plaid initiated the approach, it can be said quite clearly that they did it because they realize they are in very deep trouble. On their own, Plaid will certainly be facing the loss of one list seat in SWE and one list seat in MWW; and would have to scrap hard not to lose their list seat in NW. If they did lose it, it would bring them down from 11 to 8 seats ... but they might win Llanelli, bringing them back up to 9.

There is a very real danger,that Plaid will fall behind UKIP in terms of seats (UKIP could win 9: 2 list seats in NW, SWC, SWE and SWW, 1 list seat in MWW) and, even if they managed to win more seats than UKIP, it would only be because the system favours constituency seats. In terms of the overall vote across Wales, UKIP are very likely to beat Plaid into fourth place.


Plaid don't need to throw Simon Thomas under a bus, Owen, because he's already dead meat. If Plaid hold their 3 constituency seats in MWW it will take a miracle for them to hold their list seat as well. Plaid's only real hope of keeping 4 of the 12 MWW seats is for Helen Mary Jones to win Llanelli, and she could do with LibDem/Green help to do it because Lee Waters is a strong, fresh candidate.

As for Glyn Wise in Cardiff Central, he may have a high profile, but he doesn't have a prayer! Plaid could never win Cardiff Central. If Plaid want to play him as a "celebrity candidate", put him on the list. For the Greens, I think it's safe to say that Amelia Womack will be first on the SWC list so it wouldn't matter which way she won a seat.

On a more technical point, I don't envisage any joint lists. It would invalidate the strategy. My plan is about a few candidates standing down in constituency seats which they have no hope of winning anyway.

MH said...

To 11:29, I agree that it is much better for parties to be more open with the electorate about who they will or won't make a deal with. Obviously you negotiate in private, but you then make the deal public.

I also agree that most of the public won't understand the intricacies of tactical voting. For the pact to work, it must be carefully worked out by the "technocrats", but presented as something easy for the public to understand and accept.

So, for example, it wouldn't work for Plaid to say: "Yes, we have a Plaid candidate standing in Montgomery, but please vote for the LibDem instead." But it would work if Plaid withdrew their candidate in Montgomery and made it known that they were doing so because the LibDems were best placed to beat the incumbent Tory and Plaid didn't have a cat in hell's chance of winning anyway. That should be enough in itself, but it would be combined with the message, "By the way, the LibDems are standing down in Aberconwy because we, Plaid, are best placed to beat the incumbent Tory there." That is a simple, easy-to-understand trade off that has obvious benefits for both parties. Also, my plan has the advantage of not requiring any compromise at list level; voters just vote for their preferred parties.

As I touched on in my response to Owen, I agree with you that UKIP will do well because of the EU referendum, and because the English media will concentrate on that referendum, as there are no devolved elections in England (except in London) to focus on instead.

As for the "suggestion" that Plaid have no confidence that they can make headway themselves, the simple fact is that they can't. Plaid needed this pact to stop them going backwards. OK, perhaps they didn't want the general public to know how desperate they are, but the cat's out of the bag now!

Hogyn o Rachub said...

I don't really have much more to add to what I said on my blog, but this is a point that I feel needs to be reiterated, regarding standing down in constituencies certainly, even if only in hopeless ones.

There is a truly painful misunderstanding here of the nature of Plaid Cymru's (and the Lib Dem and Green) vote - and when I say painful I mean it. Your two examples of Montgomeryshire and Aberconwy demonstrate this. Do you really think that Plaid Cymru voters in the former would lend a vote to the Lib Dems, even if Plaid Cymru stood down and encouraged them to? Well, they wouldn't. They'd either not vote, or the vote would in all probability split quite evenly between the Tories and Lib Dems. Wouldn't make a difference - I'm actually tempted to say that if PC didn't stand then actually most of their votes would go blue.

Same with Aberconwy Lib Dems. Their vote there is highly Anglicized and urban - in stark contrast to Plaid Cymru's vote. Lib Dems in Conwy would by and large not even consider lending a vote to Plaid Cymru to defeat the Tories. In all likelihood they'd turn to Labour.

In short, voter transfer between the parties would be very, very poor overall, and for this to work it would have to be pretty much 100%. And I think a hell of a lot of PC activists just wouldn't bother; don't underestimate the bad blood between PC and the Libs Dems & Greens. It's toxic. They're simply not natural allies - I know a lot, lot of Plaid Cymru voters and activists and it's no big thing to say that they despise the Lib Dems and the Greens. Same goes for their loyalest supporters.

This was utter madness from the beginning.

MH said...

I wouldn't disagree with you that, for many or even most voters, voting for a different party is unthinkable, Hogyn. But I don't think you are right to rule it out so completely. Politics is all about getting a small group of voters to change the way they vote according to the policies different parties offer. Another way of looking at it is that turnout in Assembly elections is much lower than in Westminster elections ... that surely means that there is a sizable portion of the electorate who could be persuaded.

The seats I listed are marginal and all of them have been won by one of the three PCLDG parties in the past. So it's entirely possible to win these seats back from either the Tories or Labour now. It doesn't require all Plaid voters in Montgomery to vote LibDem, or all LibDem voters in Llanelli to vote Plaid. Helen Mary Jones only lost Llanelli by 80 votes in 2011, but the LibDems got 548. So it would only have taken a few more of them to switch to Plaid than to other parties, something that would be all the more likely if parties were honest about why voting for another party in these circumstances benefits both that party and your own first preference party.

Anonymous said...

Has your spat with Plaid had something of an effect on your analysis?

MH said...

No, it didn't affect my analysis, at least not in terms of the maths, 08:31. The maths speaks for itself.

What I haven't offered in this post is any analysis of why Plaid is in such a mess. But my experience of how the party thinks and works, at least at leadership level, is at the core of what's gone wrong. I'll probably explain things more fully in a later post but, in a nutshell, a party that abandons what its members stand for and is systematically dishonest with the electorate is bound to see its support decline.

It's a great shame. But, on the positive side, this episode shows that some in the party realize that the party is in a mess and at least tried to do something about it. My concern is that they're still trying to alleviate the symptoms of the problem, when what they really need to do is address the cause.

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