Welsh electoral system may produce surprise result (1 May 2007)

Which parties get to form a government in Wales may depend more on who comes second than on how many seats Labour gets, writes Lewis Baston The electoral system in Wales is significantly less proportional than the one used in Scotland. In an assembly of 60 members, 40 are elected from single-member constituencies and only 20 from compensatory regional lists (Wales is divided into five regions, each with four regional seats). This 33% element is not enough to produce the high level of proportionality achieved in Scottish elections and it sets a higher threshold for the election of smaller parties. Coalition was always going to happen in Scotland, but not necessarily in Wales, and in a good year Labour could obtain a comfortable majority. But in the last two elections Labour fell short, with 28 seats out of 60 in 1999 and 30 in 2003, when they were able to form a precarious executive without the Liberal Democrats. The backdrop in 2007 is so unfavourable that the chances of Rhodri Morgan and his fellow assembly members winning another majority in Wales are remote at best, but there is still no doubt that Labour will emerge the largest single party. The questions of the election are how far short of a majority Labour will fall, and who will come second? Labour looks likely to lose constituency seats to the Conservatives such as Preseli Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West (both Tory gains in the 2005 Westminster election) and suburban Cardiff North, and the Tories have other, sketchier hopes elsewhere. Plaid Cymru will hope to pick up Llanelli, and both they and the Conservatives are trying for the redrawn seat of Aberconwy in the north west. This would take Labour down to 25 seats, although the party would probably pick up a compensatory list seat to make 26. Most expectations are for Labour to have 24-26 AMs. This is probably not enough to run a minority government, and a coalition would need to be formed. Labour has two potential coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (with whom Labour worked well between 2000 and 2003) and Plaid Cymru. Another tantalising option is the “rainbow” coalition of Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats. While this alliance between nationalist left and unionist centre-right may seem incongruous, it could work; the Welsh Conservatives are much more thoroughgoing modernisers even than Cameron supporters in England. Strangely, the Conservatives’ chances of going into government would be enhanced by coming third rather than second in the election. It would be easier for them to work under a Plaid Cymru First Minister than vice versa. The Conservatives coming second would also make Plaid Cymru a more attractive coalition partner for Labour. Which...

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Great expectations (1 May 2007)

There has been so much interest in the Scottish parliament elections because so much is at stake, writes Lewis Baston The Scottish parliament elections have dominated the thoughts of commentators on Thursday’s poll because the stakes for Labour and the SNP are so high, and the powers of the parliament so strong. The SNP is trying once again to break into Labour’s strongholds in the central belt of Scotland, where most of the population lives and which has never yet succumbed to the nationalists’ charms. There are a number of seats where the SNP has a sizeable vote and a local government base and where they should expect to win constituencies from Labour. Among these seats are Cumbernauld & Kilsyth, Kilmarnock & Loudoun, Dundee West and Linlithgow, and the next line of defence for Labour in East Kilbride, Fife Central, Livingston and Glasgow Govan. The last of these has repeatedly been denied to the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon; could this at last be her year? The Labour majorities in many other seats in 2003 were so mountainous that it is nearly impossible to imagine them falling, which would be necessary if the SNP are to achieve the high end (50 or more seats) of their projected tally of seats. The final balance between Labour and SNP will be affected by the cross-traffic between the big two and the smaller parties. The Conservatives are of pretty marginal significance, but just as the SNP will hope that the Tories can knock out Labour in Dumfries, Labour will be hoping the Conservative MSP in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, Alex Fergusson, will hold his highly marginal seat. The PR system should mean that the number of seats achieved by both the Conservatives and Lib Dems should not alter greatly (17-20 each) as long as their shares of the regional list vote are not squeezed. The Socialists, who did well in 2003 but have since split, are expected to fall back from their 6 seats to 2 at best, and possibly none at all. Expectations about the Greens vary. Early poll-based predictions of them being similarly cut back were probably unrealistic. The party should absorb some of the anti-Labour vote that does not feel committed to the SNP, and get something between 4 and 8 seats. So, barring a late swing in opinion (for which Labour devoutly hopes) the outcome should be something like SNP 45, Labour 40, Lib Dem 18, Conservative 17, Green 6 and others 3; not as catastrophic for Labour as it might be, but still abject enough. Things have got to the stage that the smallest of Labour leads would count as some sort of moral victory. In the...

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Local elections explained (30 April 2007)

The 2007 elections will mark a milestone in the deterioration of the Labour party as an organisation with a nationwide presence, writes Lewis Baston For nearly all of England outside London, Thursday will be local election day. The number of seats being contested is the largest in the complicated four-year cycle of local elections, and, although these elections will be overshadowed by those in Scotland and Wales, they are still important, both for local services and as an indicator of how the political parties are faring in England. There are elections for 312 English councils, from big cities like Birmingham and Leeds to pocket-sized district councils like Teesdale and Maldon. For the big provincial metropolitan areas the parties will be defending the seats they won in 2004, but in most of the rest of England the seats were last fought in 2003. Neither 2003 nor 2004 was a particularly good year for the Labour party in the English local elections. The 2003 elections followed shortly after the Iraq war and, although Labour still led in the polls, the party’s support was slipping rapidly. The Conservatives did relatively well in this set of elections, although there was still a shadow over the party’s prospects and direction, and its leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was not faring well. For the Liberal Democrats it was a good year, with gains from Labour in urban areas and a solid performance against the Conservatives in some rural and suburban areas. The metropolitan boroughs and some of the unitary authorities were last contested in 2004, the only year in recent times when Labour has come third in the national vote share in the local elections (see table above). Labour tends to do worse and the Conservatives and Lib Dems a little better than their national poll rating in local elections, in large part because of differential turnout. If April’s poll figures are a guide for May’s results, the Conservatives are doing considerably better than in 2003 or 2004 and Labour worse. The implied swing from Labour to Conservative since 2003 is 6%, according to these very rough and dubious calculations, but since 2004 only 3%. Labour is in a similar position vis-a-vis the Lib Dems as in 2004, but a fraction worse off than in 2003. The Conservatives also look as if they should make some progress against the Lib Dems, with a 4.5% swing since 2003 and 3.5% since 2004. The relationship of these rough national swings and the territory being contested is interesting. The swing to the Conservatives may be even larger in some of the shire districts last fought in 2003, particularly those in southern England where David Cameron seems to have gained...

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