Political Piracy: Should there be an early Welsh General Election?

(Title Image: via etsy.com)

There’s been a lot of heat generated by the recent defection of four AMs to the Brexit Party. Despite attempts to halt the process, from what I can tell there’s very little the Llywydd could’ve done to block it other than take a close look at how the “party” – which has been set up as a limited company – actually defines membership.

Amongst the defectors are Mark Reckless and Caroline Jones – two people who’ve jumped more ships than Black Bart Roberts.

A pirate reference is fitting as one tactic pirates used, apocryphal or not, was to approach a ship under one flag, then raise a battle flag once in close quarters (hence the term “false flag”) – near enough exactly what the Brexit Party have done in the Senedd.

In football, there’s a rule whereby a player can’t play for three different clubs in a 12-month period. Politics works on different perceptions of time, where one term can often feel like 12 months.  Mark Reckless has now had three different political allegiances since 2016 (four if you include his few days as an Independent, five if you go back to include his original defection to UKIP from the Tories in 2014). Caroline Jones has changed four times since 2012 (Conservative – UKIP – Independent – Brexit Party). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to change the electoral map or the vote infographics to accommodate suspensions and defections; it’s quite fiddly and time-consuming to do too.

All this seems to have incensed Plaid Cymru and Labour to the point where a change to the Senedd’s rules (Standing Orders) to prevent sitting AMs defecting to a party which has no prior representation in the Senedd might be approved if introduced at some point in the future – though it could never be applied retrospectively. Nation.Cymru’s editor, Ifan Morgan Jones, has also launched a petition to this end which, at time of writing, has already received more than 1,200 signatures.

There’s a clear strength of feeling about this, but I would argue that “crossing the floor” – as it’s politely termed – is a long-standing parliamentary tradition. I doubt anyone defecting to, for argument’s sake, the Greens or Change UK would attract as much ire, while trying to stymie the formation of a Brexit Party group would boost their anti-establishment, populist credentials – the best thing you can do to a populist from their perspective is turn them into a martyr.

The long term solution to this is electoral reform as the defections show up the limitations of the Mixed Member System. Short term, if the argument goes that Brexit Party AMs lack democratic legitimacy there’s a very clear solution – so far only raised by lobbyist and commentator Daran Hill but definitely worthy of wider discussion:

Bring forward the next Senedd election.

In terms of morale, the tone of debate and the pressures on legislative time caused by Brexit, the Fifth Assembly has at times been a painful experience. The thought of two more years of this isn’t the most appealing prospect and a line needs to be drawn under it all.

I’m not suggesting an election needs to be held this year, particularly as the threat of a snap UK General Election looms. There’s a window to hold it in May 2020 at the same time as the next Police & Crime Commissioner elections.

This could also be used to put the Senedd back on its original four-year-term cycle instead of the five-year cycle forced on us by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

A year would give the parties more than enough time to prepare and to select candidates (where they haven’t done so already) and build upon successes/repair any damage the European election will do. There’s certainly an argument that we shouldn’t hold an election – Welsh or otherwise – while Brexit remains unresolved but, to be blunt, the Senedd is very much a passenger there and can’t make much of a difference either way.

Some AMs might be up for an early election, but many won’t be. There’s a very obvious reason why not – based on current momentum in the polls, instead of facing four Brexit Party AMs, they could be facing ten or more elected Brexit Party AMs and it’ll be 2016 all over again. They can try to ride this out and hope Brexit happens and the populist wave recedes by 2020-2021 (with the Brexit Party being no longer relevant), or they can get out there and take their case to the electorate as soon as practically possible.

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