Suddenly More is Possible

Politics is defined as the art of the possible – and there is nothing like a good upheaval to define what’s possible.

The Conservative-Liberal coalition’s plans for electoral reform are modest and will not take us up to the standard of representation long enjoyed (or endured) by many of our European cousins.

However, the British constitution is rather like a giant woolly jumper which has proved stretchy enough to accommodate successive generations. It can be altered and amended but each time one strand of wool is pulled another element unravels.

And David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s plans to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote method of election and to reduce the number of constituencies will create challenges and opportunities for Wales.

At present, the National Assembly has just 60 AMs – 40 of whom represent the same constituencies as their Westminster counterparts and are elected using the identical first-past-the-post system.

If the number of constituencies in Wales shrinks, it is unthinkable that the number of AMs would be allowed to be slashed. The Scottish Parliament has 129 members and the Northern Ireland Assembly – which serves a population of just 1.78 million – has 108.

The Government of Wales Act will have to be modified to prevent a cut in AMs. But what should the new system look like?

Will unique constituencies be drawn up? Or will the number of directly elected AMs fall and be replaced by more chosen through the regional list top-up system which today sends 20 men and women to the Assembly?

In exploring such questions, an appetite for greater change may gurgle.

Will it look odd if Westminster adopts the Alternative Vote method and Wales still has the bulk of its AMs chosen by first past the post? Is there a case for giving the Assembly at least as many members as sit in Cardiff’s council (75), especially when the workload and responsibilities have increased so strikingly since AMs first gathered?

Even if a referendum grants new powers to the Assembly, the level of devolution will be far more limited than in Scotland and Ulster and the question will be increasingly asked: “Why?”

Throughout election campaigns, Liberal Democrats speak with pride of being the true federal party of Britain and the Conservatives boast about their role in creating S4C, the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Language Act.

Now that the two parties are united in Government, will adventurous spirits want to go further than anyone now imagines? Their plans to remodel UK politics mean they will be forced to reshape the way Wales works.

They can either approach reform with a grudging spirit and a box of sticking plasters or they can pursue a true federal vision which could serve the United Kingdom well in the 21st century and beyond.

A Thursday column