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Plans for more Senedd politicians move step closer

Senedd
The Senedd, or Welsh Parliament, is based in Cardiff Bay

Plans for 36 more Senedd politicians cleared their first hurdle on Tuesday night.

Senedd members voted to back in principle new legislation to expand the Welsh Parliament at the next election in 2026.

It proposes a new voting system which has been criticised for potentially leaving voters with less choice.

But the government minister leading the changes said the new elections will "ensure every vote counts".

During a passionate debate, a senior Welsh Conservative said the system amounts to a "power grab" for political parties.

A total of 39 politicians supported the first stage of the legislation's passage through the Senedd, with 14 against.

It is not the last vote, with further amendments and discussion to come.

By the end two-thirds of the Welsh Parliament must back the legislation for it to become law - but that is likely with both Labour and Plaid supporting the plans.

Under the 'closed lists' system at elections voters will pick parties, instead of individual candidates.

The aim is that candidates will be elected according to the proportion of their vote.

But the inability of voters to pick an individual candidate has been criticised by a Senedd committee, a Welsh political expert and a Labour MS.

Mick Antoniw
Welsh government minister Mick Antoniw says closed lists are a "compromise"

'More representative'

Labour's Counsel General Mick Antoniw admitted the so-called closed list electoral system was a "compromise".

He said: "It will improve democracy and ensure that every vote counts. It will lead to a Senedd that's far more representative of the people of Wales in all our diversities.

"It simplifies the current system - voters will have one ballot paper instead of two. And it is a system that is already familiar to voters being used for the current regional list ballots."

He added that MSs would have an opportunity to look at the issue again after the next election in a formal review.

"We've waited 20 years for this package of reforms and I believe that, taken together, they help to create a parliament for Wales that will be fit for purpose for the next 20 years and beyond."

Darren Millar
Darren Millar said the proposed new electoral system would be devastating for Wales.

'Wales needs more doctors, not more politicians'

But Conservative MS Darren Millar said the Senedd should be "discussing matters which are more important to the people of Wales".

"Wales needs more doctors, nurses, dentists and teachers. It does not need more politicians."

He said the closed list system will be "devastating for Welsh democracy".

"This is a system which amounts to a power grab by political parties taking power away from the voters and preventing them from being able to vote for a candidate of their choice."

Mr Millar called for a referendum: "give the people of Wales the choice on whether to endorse this atrocious system to elect people to this Senedd or not.

"I can tell you which fingers they will use to salute you in response," he said.

Former Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, who helped draw up the original plans with Mark Drakeford, argued against the Conservative's case.

"Strengthening our democracy's ability to deliver, to strengthen its ability to deliver its key function, which is to improve the lives of the people - that's not a distraction from the work of politics, that's at the heart of politics.

"If you follow the logic of your argument, then actually you're arguing in favour of abolition, which is I hope not where you really want to go."

Mr Millar replied that his party was not in favour of abolition.

Heledd Fychan
Heledd Fychan said the new system would make the Welsh Parliament the first in the UK to move away from first past the post

Plaid Cymru's Heledd Fychan said: "These are ambitious plans and let us not allow anyone to claim otherwise, because Wales will be the first national legislature in the UK to move away from the first-past-the-post electoral system."

Labour backbencher Mike Hedges used his speech to criticise the legislation.

He said he would vote for the general principle, but said he shared the "significant reservations" of a Senedd committee of the closed list system, and warned it could leave Wales with very large constituencies.

"Can we approve everything but the electoral system," he asked.

The Welsh Conservatives' Natasha Asghar said: "What I really would like to know is how on earth the Welsh government can really justify spending upwards of £120m on putting more politicians in this place when the public services are truly struggling and the government is slashing vital budgets.

"Quite simply, the bill is a waste of time, money and effort in my opinion."

'Good comrades'

Jane Dodds, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader and the party's only MS, was also critical of the closed list system proposed.

She said: "In its current form this bill falls far far short of building a healthier, more equitable and inclusive democracy."

"If Welsh labour wanted a different system to the one that's been proposed, Plaid Cymru would have supported it. And there is your supermajority".

Alun Davies, Blaenau Gwent Labour Senedd member, suggested the compromise was not about achieving supermajority but because of different views held in his own and other parties.

"It was about recognising that good comrades and friends and colleagues, both in this party and other parties, felt powerfully and differently."

As things stand there will be no byelections in the new Senedd. If vacancies cannot be filled by others from party lists, then a seat will be left empty.

Conservative MS James Evans appealed to Mick Antoniw to address the issue. He said vacancies could leave the Senedd in "paralysis with things not able to happen".