Does the Welsh Assembly have a relevance problem?

Marc Thomas argues that the Welsh public simply doesn’t understand what the Welsh Assembly does






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Recently, at a party in Abergavenny, a friend asked what I had been doing that day. I mentioned that I had been in the Senedd at an event looking at how the Welsh Assembly could relate more closely to citizens. A puzzled look came over her face as she, a person who has lived in Wales for 10 years now, asked, “What’s the Senedd?”

A great deal has been said in the last year about the relevance of the Welsh Assembly. In recent months, as disillusionment with UK politics has risen and Europe seems increasingly distant from our reach, it appears that more and more people are waking up to the proximity of the Government in Cardiff.

Meanwhile, the Assembly finds itself stymied by partisan squabbling and an existential crisis.

Even Plaid Cymru, a party whose aims I support in general, appear to be so concerned with distinguishing themselves from Labour that the vitriol passing between both sides is alienating  supporters of both those parties. UKIP members appear to be shadowboxing while the Conservative party within the Assembly is unable to tell whether it is a Welsh branch of a UK party or a separate entity.

And so, is it any wonder that a public who are becoming switched on to Welsh politics (many for the first time) appear to be confused by what the relevance of the Assembly is in the first place?

Last year, I read a book written by US Senator Cory Booker. Entitled United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good, the book recounts Booker’s own career, which, although relatively short so far, has been characterised by reconciling partisan voices in order to be more effective within the American democracy.

In addition to the developments in the political everyday within Cardiff Bay, we also face a time of uncertainty for devolution in general.

The General Election campaign in June highlighted a reality that, I think most of us will agree, turned out to be quite an uncomfortable truth.

The contradictory manifestos of the Labour Party and the Party in Wales in particular highlighted that there are those in Wales and outside Wales, both politician and public who are unsure of which matters are devolved.

Many people in Wales seemed to value pledges by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour which dealt with issues such as health and education, both of which are devolved matters over which the Labour government in Cardiff has control – and crucially, has had control of for quite some time now.

This slight jarring of manifestos demonstrates further that the public simply doesn’t understand what the Welsh Assembly does.

It is vital that people like my friend in Abergavenny understand that the Welsh Government is currently protecting their healthcare from the, frankly, vicious dismantling of the NHS that is happening in England. Not only this, but that the majority of AMs in the Welsh Assembly are working towards making Wales a more prosperous and fair place.

Finally, there is the thorny issue of geographical dislocation. This is a problem not only for political institutions in Wales but also for business and the third sector too.

It is well recognised that even in a world where information is placeless, that the physical location of an institution and individual is important.

Talent will continue to locate itself in a location where there is already a high concentration of talent already.

For Wales, the South and in particular South East, is where the majority of government, business and third sector organisations are headquartered. We have a legacy of growth in the coal era to thank/blame for that.

Nevertheless, it is a problem for the Welsh Assembly that so much of the investment, so much of the policy, and so much of the focus is on Cardiff and the capital region.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear that people in other areas of Wales are sceptical of the Welsh Assembly and devolution as a whole.

In summary, three problems now face the Welsh Assembly: creating a progressive culture of political co-operation; advancing public understanding of devolution and its workings; and ensuring that the entirety of Wales is a benefactor from the devolution process.

Now, as we enter a period where the UK democracy seems like a farce, it is of the utmost importance that we find a common purpose in Wales. If we fail to do this, we will be overrun by apathy in a time when it is crucial that we create a sense of identity and pride in the country.

This requires leadership from the top as well as a willingness to reconcile very disparate voices to one another at every level of society.

We must identify needs and work together, whether within government or without, to make Wales a more cohesive country with a strong national identity.

 

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Marc Thomas is Co-founder of doopoll