Assembly needs the politics of personality

Martin Johnes says broadcasters and Welsh politicians can learn from the television drama of the present Westminster election campaign

As a committed believer in devolution, it pains me a little to say it but this election is proving to be far more interesting than Assembly politics. It’s not that there seems to be more at stake. I still believe that who’s in power in Cardiff Bay matters more to Wales than who’s in office at Westminster. Whichever party or combination of parties wins is going to have to make massive cuts and raise taxes, but the impact of that depends on the Welsh Government. It’s just that this election is more engaging than any contest we’ve ever had for the Assembly.

Part of that is down to the television debates. The media would do well to remember that only a minority of the population have watched them but it is hard to deny that they have enlivened things for those who are even only a little interested in politics. A full leaders’ debate for the next Assembly election is essential if turnout is to come anywhere close to the numbers who vote in Wales at UK elections.

Apathy is probably the biggest threat to devolved democracy and a proper televised debate is the only way to make people take more notice of Welsh politics. For that to work the Welsh media must avoid banishing its coverage of the next Assembly election to the late hours roamed by Dragon’s Eye. If finding room in the primetime schedules is good enough for Westminster, it has to be for Cardiff Bay too.

The other reason why the campaign and the debates have been interesting has been personality. The three main UK party leaders are very different people and that makes it interesting. Coverage given to their wives has enhanced that personal dimension and told us something about the kind of men David, Gordon and Nick are.

Aloof purists might complain that wives have nothing to do with policy but the electorate is deeply interested in personality. Given that the policy differences between the parties are not ideological gulfs, then much of the electorate is making a choice based on the assumption that the man who seems most honest and decent will probably make the right decisions. The electorate might not be quite sure what those decisions are or should be but knowing the man making them gives people some faith. And democracy desperately needs the electorate to have faith in its politicians again.

At Cardiff Bay, where, despite what AMs may say, the policy differences between parties are even smaller than at Westminster, the politics of personality are desperately needed. Rhodri worked as First Minister because he was a personality. You knew what kind of person he was – a little eccentric, but committed, honest and proud of being Welsh.

The electorate just don’t know enough about Carwyn, Ieuan, Kirsty and Nick. They certainly don’t know enough about their respective partners – in the case of Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams (pictured) her farmer husband. We need to hear about their lives, families, interests and tastes. That isn’t shallow. It’s about making connections with people and banishing cynicism. Real democracy needs the electorate to know more than the policies of the political parties’ policies. It also needs the electorate to know their representatives are real people.

Martin Johnes teaches the history of modern Wales at Swansea University.

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