Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan has published a consultation document on changing the way that the Assembly is elected. It says that the choice is between keeping the existing system of 40 constituency AMs and 20 'top up' members from regional lists or having 30 constituency AMs and 30 list AMs.
The change would mean a more proportional Assembly, that would better reflect each party's share of the vote. It would make it highly unlikely that any party would have a majority on its own and so lead to permanent coalition politics in Cardiff Bay. The document gives the following options:
- 40 constituencies with modified boundaries to make them more equal in size, plus 20 regional seats as at present
- 30 constituencies, which would be the same as the 30 new Westminster constituencies, plus 30 regional seats
The consultation follows the Westminster government's decision to cut the number of parliamentary constituencies and make them more equal in size. The number of Welsh MPs will fall from 40 to 30 as a result. The consultation runs until August 13 and also raises some other questions:
- Should Assembly elections be held every five years, reflecting the change to fixed five year terms at Westminster?
- Should candidates be able to stand in both a constituency and a region, a practice stopped by the Labour government on the grounds that it turned 'losers into winners'?
- Should Assembly Members be banned from sitting in Parliament?
It's a review which has been widely predicted following the UK Government's plans to reduce the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30. Many think that that move could lead to a confusing situation whereby there are 30 Parliamentary constituencies and 40 overlapping Assembly constituencies.
But there are 60 Assembly Members: as well as the 40 from constituencies, a further 20 are elected via a top-up system designed to reflect the parties' share of the vote.
And this is where the controversy comes in. There's no question of reducing the total of AMs so if the number of constituencies is cut to 30, how do you choose the other 30?
Political opinion on this is sharply divided.
Welsh Labour says there should be no change. But after a bitter internal row, the party also agreed to back the former Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain who said that IF the system is to change it should be to one where 30 constituencies each return two AMs elected by the first past the post system.
Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has proposed that there should be 30 constituency AMs and 30 regional AMs elected using the same top-up system used at present. It's thought Cheryl Gillan and her number two, David Jones, also favour moving to this method but I understand her Conservative colleagues in Cardiff Bay are opposed to any change.
Sources close to Cheryl Gillan have insisted that she is open-minded and that the consultation is a genuine one.
I also gather that Welsh Labour's controversial position may not be set in stone either. Senior Labour figures have hinted that they'd be willing to accept 30 top-up members if those members were chosen from a national list rather than regionally as happens now.