Welsh civic engagement 7: More democracy is devolution’s dividend

David Melding says we need more risk-taking in our politics

As someone who worked in the voluntary sector before becoming a politician, I have been pleased to see the scale of civil society activity in Welsh political life grow considerably since I entered office in 1999. Without doubt there has been a marked devolution dividend in this respect. We could not hope to succeed in growing our civil society without the help of the third sector and thankfully their capacity to engage has increased massively over the past decade of devolution.

I saw this directly when I was the Welsh Conservative Party’s Director of Policy. When I started in the early 2000s, engagement with the third sector was far too limited and the skills of the sector were often underdeveloped. Now the situation has been transformed. In the Welsh Conservative Party’s consultation process for the 2011 Assembly election manifesto we received over 100 written responses from the third sector. We have held over 50 follow-up meetings at which the sector has lobbied skillfully and with great purpose. Ideas are more practical and focused and the sector is generally comfortable about influencing the political process. A genuine partnership has developed.

This is the last in a series of essays on ClickonWales exploring initiatives within the Welsh economy, environment, media, and politics. They are taken from Growing Wales’ Civil Society, published by the IWA earlier this year.

Of course, civil society goes beyond the third sector, but voluntary organisations have been at the vanguard of innovation and best practice. Participation very often needs to be mediated by voluntary bodies and non-governmental organisations. The Chartist and Suffragette movements were a brilliant example of this truth.

In the early and middle decades of the 20th Century the political parties themselves were effective agents of citizen involvement. They were mass membership organisations and drew strength from local communities and trade unions and other groups. Those days are over. Today citizens are more likely to join an NGO to further a particular political cause or opinion. This is not a bad thing, but it does change the environment in which effective participation must take place.

Of course, we need to strengthen local democracy. This means starting at the Town and Community Council level. More decision making should be devolved to local authorities and indeed to citizens directly. The right to petition is a key tool for local communities and groups of interest. The Assembly has a robust petition process already, but it could be improved. Petitions that receive a certain level of support could be debated in plenary, for instance. I am also intrigued by IWA Chairman Geraint Talfan-Davies’ suggestion that the Assembly needs a citizens version of Westminster Hall to serve as a popular, supplementary chamber for debate.

I would also like to make a slightly naughty suggestion of my own. It might be time to reform institutions like the House of Lords to promote citizen engagement. Why not hold a lottery of interested citizens and draw out 30 or so to serve in the House of Lords? They could be supported by a small staff and be suitably remunerated for their service. Fanciful? That is now people first reacted to the idea of popular election in the early 19th Century. Working class people, many of the landed haughtily believed, could never hope to be distinguished figures in Parliament. How wrong they were! Democracy reinvigorated the British state and was soon emulated across Europe and the world.

Finally, we need to develop leadership skills in the general population. Many of our fellow citizens feel locked out of the political processes. They feel intimidated about putting themselves forward for positions of responsibility. Yet given a fair chance, they have much to contribute and would serve to keep the political process relevant and citizen focused. In the age of the career politician, we need to find ways to allow the voice of engaged citizens to be heard. One idea that came out of our manifesto consultation process was to develop ‘anchor’ voluntary organisations across Wales. They would serve as hubs for civil society activity. This is an idea worthy of careful consideration.

But let me end with a small warning. New technology and what is generally referred to as social media will not provide all the answers we need to promote citizen engagement. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker last year (4 October), there is a distinction between vertical and horizontal action amongst citizens. Real social change and citizen engagement requires vertical skills like risk-taking and leadership. Much of social media can end up being shallow and horizontal. As Gladwell observes, social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact”.

David Melding is Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly.

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