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 government is formed may depend more on who comes second than on how many seats Labour gets.
The elections in Scotland, Wales and for Scottish local authorities are all in their way fascinating demonstrations of how much Britain has changed since 1997.
For someone so often lambasted as a control freak, Tony Blair has presided over a huge devolution of power, the consequences of which – local government electoral reform, a possible Plaid-Conservative government, even possible Scottish independence – spiral ever-further from his original intentions.
It is ironic, and perhaps sad, that the Labour party itself looks like getting buried in the rubble of this constitutional and political construction site.