Tactical voting: Should the next leader re-visit Welsh Labour’s attitude to Regional List votes? — David Collins
Anyone who thought disgraced ex-MP turned Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales Neil Hamilton was as low as UKIP could go will have taken a deep breath last friday at the comfortable election of Gareth Bennett AM (South Wales Central) to be his permanent successor as UKIP’s Welsh Leader.
Bennett has variously blamed immigrants for rubbish in Cardiff, and claimed transgender people undermine society by their “deviation from the norm”. Straight after his victory in UKIPs Welsh leadership battle he waded into the Boris Bhurka row describing the women who wear it as “apparitions of pre-medieval culture” a view seemingly shared by the latest successor to Nigel Farage as overall UK party leader Gerald Batten who has variously referred to Islam as a ‘death cult’, described Muhammad as a ‘paedophile’ and warned of an ‘explosion’ of mosques.
Whereas Hamilton, despite his colourful and chequered history, is essentially a Tory who swapped a blue rosette for a purple; one Bennett is an outright racist and transphobic bigot who aims to court controversy and is following Steve Bannon’s playbook. Already he has shifted Welsh UKIP’s position from one of critical support for the Assembly as an institution to a far more populist call for its abolition and a return to direct rule from Gwdyr House. As Prof Matthew Goodwin has observed, the People’s Army 2.0 “may well be distinctly less cuddly than the original incarnation.”
In Wales itself the self annointed army numbers about 900 paid-up members, so it’s actually closer to a battalion. The last Assembly elections came at the perfect time for UKIP’s candidates, just a month prior to the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the salience of their anti-EU platform combined with the continuing toxicity of the Lib Dems to win them seven seats in Wales’ 60 strong Senedd (now cut to five following Mark Reckless switching to sit with the Tories, although he has not yet and may never be fully re-admitted to his former party; and Mandy Jones AM, opting to sit as an independent). Come the end of March when the MEPs disappear UKIP’s sole remaining parliamentarians will be based in Cardiff Bay.
UKIP’s post-brexit positioning appears set to be as an explicitly far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamism party, with Bennett and Batten both pounding the May government for betraying the dream (fantasy) of pure brexit; combined with a willingness to indulge toxic groups that would alienate Farage’s former (much larger) target audience of middle-class conservatives and patriotic blue collar voters turned off by the social liberalism and internationalism of both the two main parties. One may hope the media spotlight will serve to expose their political and personal uglyness, and inadequacies; neither is comfortable dealing with the media, but they’ll presumably improve a bit with time and in any event traditional media isn’t so crucial as it was — the alt-right’s strength lying in their ability to peddle their messages virally on social media.
Although the last Assembly elections could not have come at a better time for UKIP, their breakthrough also owed a lot to the hybrid electoral system where a third of the seats are allocated on the basis of a seperate regional party list vote to parties that have failed to win seats under FPTP. From its inception in 1999 until UKIP’s breakthrough in 2016 this dual system meant near stasis, with Labour always ranging between 26 and 30 seats and the other parties winning or losing list representation in inverse relation to their FPTP gains or losses. The millions of party list votes cast for Labour in the four regions outside Mid & West Wales have never yielded a single AM over the 5 election cycles since 1999 due to Labour’s domination of FPTP seats. Quite simply (Mid & West Wales region aside) there is nothing in it for Labour to win list votes; whereas they’re vital to Lib Dem hopes in every region other than M&WW (the sole surviving Lib Dem AM, Education minister Kirsty Williams, holds Brecon & Radnorshire and their next target seat is Ceredigion). For anyone who is serious about beating UKIP 2.0 electorally the answer must lie in large part in persuading more Labour supporters outside Mid & West Wales to cease wasting their list votes and instead lend them to the Lib Dems.
When it comes to GOTV messaging the maxim has always been to keep it simple (and bear in mind most voters ignorance of the way the system actually allocates seats). “Use ALL your votes for Labour” is much easier than saying “vote for Labour’s Xxxxx Xxxxx in Xxxxxxxxx constituency on the white ballot paper and do as you please with the pinky one because a Labour vote on the pinky paper can’t help us.” This generally sound rule of thumb however can only be applied if there is an initial political decision that Labour doesn’t much care which other party the regional list seats end up with. If the leadership decides it does, then Welsh Labour’s messaging will simply have to become more nuanced.
This author has long loathed the Lib Dems. They are unprincipled opportunists who deserved to pay a high electoral price for their coalition with Cameron which exposed both the impracticality of their pledges and their nonchalance about imposing swingeing and unnecessary austerity on Britain’s working families. The ‘magic penny’ on tax with which they used to suggest could fund every public service at once was similar populist snakeoil as Bennett is now peddling in his call to ditch devolution to save the Welsh Budget £100 million a year and give it to the NHS. As a repository for protest votes however they aren’t proto-facists, and they do offer Welsh Labour an (in many respects preferrable) alternative coalition partner in the Senedd to Plaid Cymru.
Having built hybrid proportionality into the Assembly’s electoral system Welsh Labour cannot avoid nor ignore the need to regularly govern in some form of coalition or confidence and supply pact with one of the other parties. Would any of the AMs currently jostling to be Carwyn’s successor be happy to horse trade with Bennett’s UKIP if we slip a seat or two in 2020? If not, then perhaps they should be using the platform of the contest to set about redefining (or at least being open about the consequences of sticking to) Labour’s historic reluctance to entertain talk about tactical voting.
Dave Collins @davidiancollins is a longstanding Fabian member and Labour activist.