With a bit of power comes a bit of responsibility…

Mat Mathias laments the lack of engagement in Welsh politics ahead of the forthcoming election.

May 5th will be the country’s fifth ever election to send our representatives to the National Assembly for Wales. Only around 41% of the electorate bothered to get off their arses and put a big kiss on the two ballot papers in the 2011 election. The lowest turnout was the east part of Swansea where just under 70% couldn’t find the time or enthusiasm to head to the polling station. The biggest turnout was barely over half when 52.94% of the electorate of Brecon and Radnorshire went out to cast their vote and because of the rurality of the constituency, probably had to make more of an effort to do so.

Why the apathy?

“Nothing ever changes.”

“It’s boring.”

“They’re all the same.”

Unimaginative mantras of the uninformed who seem to use them as a badge of honour. Like it or lump it, the National Assembly makes decisions about people’s lives.

It’s not just that people out there are apathetic but sometimes their political ire is misplaced. My Facebook timeline is jammed with people from Wales going utterly bananas about something Jeremy Hunt is doing to the health service or asking me to sign a petition against what Nicky Morgan is doing to teachers or Michael Gove is doing to kittens and puppies, without an inkling that it’s not happening in Wales.

Yes, there is a case of cross border solidarity in fighting against perceived injustice, but I barely see these people signing up to petitions against certain health policies of the SNP or openly calling the education minister of the Republic Ireland a massive arse because of his views on grammar schools. Alternatively not one of my friends who live in Texas have become so apoplectic with rage over the fact that Huw Lewis has told headmasters they can let parents take their kids on holiday during term time, that they have been sharing a petition to get rid of him. Is it because these petitioners don’t understand, don’t care or is it a bit of both?

If you disagree with UK Government policies on austerity, foreign policy or benefits, fill your boots – blame and attack, but basically because of some people’s need to blame the pantomime baddies of the Tories all the time – we are ignoring what is happening to us. It means that the Welsh Government does not get blamed when it is target avoiding but also does not get praised when it is visionary.

The Assembly is “really boring” is something I also hear a lot. What do they expect? Maybe, it’s not meant to be fun or exciting! It’s running the bloody country not the Hunger Games. What do these people want? Assembly Members Mick Antoniw and David Melding resplendent in leotards, hitting each other over the head with giant cotton buds, the winner gets to ask Carwyn Jones the first question?

Running a country is serious business but surely we have to be equally serious in how we get involved. If politics is so mundane, why are people so enthused or appalled with Corbyn or Farage, both offering very different visions of what they want Britain to look like? And the same can be said about the leaders in Wales, but without the constant media storm that surround the other two we have to find those different visions out for ourselves.

There are choices. There are five parties currently in the mix for seats if you look at recent polling and six if the Greens professionalise further and fulfil the promise they always fail to meet.

Are people serious when saying that Plaid are the same as the Conservatives? Or that UKIP and the Liberals are two peas in a pod? Come on! They all want to make us healthier or better off, the question we have to ask, through all the shine and show, is how?

Wales even has a form of proportional representation with a second vote. Say what you want but it’s fairer and if people start understanding the regional list system, it will make the Assembly more diverse, and possibly, Gods forbid, even more interesting.

We see so much hand wringing amongst the commentariat in Wales about the relative weakness of the Welsh media or how parties and politicians have a responsibility to work harder to engage with voters. All true but how about the people of Wales take some responsibility and get informed? The information is out there. How about watching the Welsh news or a Welsh political programme? How about reading the election leaflet before it hits the bin? Rather than the clictivism of a petition maybe there’s a need to email candidates, ask them their thoughts on an issue close to your heart.

So on May 5th we will head to the polls, vote for our constituency Assembly Member, vote for one of our Regional Assembly Members and…..hell, I haven’t mentioned the Police and Crime Commissioner…you have to vote for her or him as well. The next day Wales will have made its decision and the leader of the winning party will head to the Senedd to talk about the Wales they want to see and the momentous changes that will occur as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.

Meanwhile on the UK news we will learn that Donald Trump is declaring that he is going to build a bloody big glass dome over the United States and make the Canadians pay and that somebody from Geordie Shore has joined the ‘out’ campaign and 55 of my friends on Facebook who were born in Wales, live in Wales and work in Wales will be sharing petitions about what Jeremy Hunt is doing to a hospital ward in Market Harborough not having a clue what is happening to a similar ward just down the road from them.

Mat Mathias works for the charity sector in Wales.

15 thoughts on “With a bit of power comes a bit of responsibility…

  1. Well that article certainly knocked a rather large nail on the head! I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time pointing out ‘that’s devolved’ every time someone has a rant over Westminster Government policies, those emanating from the Senedd seem to pass people by.
    The question seems to be how do we engage people in what the Assembly does for us? It is clear that it is not getting its messages out there and I’m pretty convinced that unless we can tap into MTV or Sky Atlantic, things are not going to change in the near future.
    Sadly, the trials and tribulations of Trump and Clinton seem to have a greater resonance in Wales at the moment than the upcoming elections

  2. A good read which perhaps unintentionally points out just how illegitimate and democracy dodging the Welsh Assembly is! Set up by a 0.3% winning margin on a 50% turnout in 1997… yet even today (when AMs universally hail devolution a triumph) some seats are still only getting paltry a ~30% turnout in Assembly elections as stated by the author.

    Contrast this with the ~65% turnout that the UK general elections receive and overlay the fact (as evidenced by a recent BBC poll) that only 50% of the Welsh electorate realise that health and education are devolved and you really do have a shocking state of affairs!! A democratic deficit unrivalled anywhere else in Europe I would have thought… yet are our AMs bothered?! Of course not! They are far too busy demanding more powers, tinkering with constitutional changes, campaigning for more AMs or dreaming up yet more legislation with no tangible benefit other than to make us ‘distinct’ from England.

    Why would they want to rock the boat anyway? It’s clearly a win for Labour… but what of Plaid? You would think they would champion greater democracy and higher turnout. Of course if you look at the data their silence on this issue is obvious: In the 2015 UK General election with a turnout of 65.9% in Wales, Plaid Cymru received 181,704 votes. In the 2011 Welsh Assembly election with a much lower turnout of 42.7% Plaid Cymru received 182,907 votes. In other words the fervency of Plaid Cymru voters and the low turnouts at Assembly elections plays right into the Welsh nationalist’s hands. There is no way on earth they’d want to upset that golden goose or else they would find themselves even further behind the Conservatives and probably even UKIP too!

    I congratulate the author for highlighting this incredible situation. The ruthless London based media would be all over this if it were a UK wide problem…. but of course our own toothless, amateur and subservient Welsh media continues to turn a blind eye.

  3. … which raises a different question:

    Is our Welsh media adequate, competent and independent enough for a nation where issues such as health and education are devolved? Does it have a far enough reach? Even in North Korea the media reaches the masses but here in Wales all evidence suggests nobody watches it! It used to be blindingly obvious back in the days of aerials (which were all pointed over the Bristol Channel) but nowadays with the advent of satellite, digital and cable the issue clearly still exists albeit invisibly.

    Of course back in the days of aerials, pointing yours over the channel to dodge a bit of S4C was harmless (and completely understandable)… but today after the advent of devolution, it is much more than Pobol y Cym the majority of Wales is missing out on. It’s democracy itself!

  4. Roger Scully has put some figures to Wales’ political apathy here:-


    Tories and UKIP very engaged by the upcoming EU referendum with Plaid the least interested. On the other hand Plaid very interested in the Assembly elections with UKIP and Tories least interested….despite the fact that our way of electing Assembly members gives UKIP its best (possibly only) chance of having elected politicians anywhere in the UK.

    As Mat points out, many of the people in Wales don’t really know what the Assembly is responsible for and, although Tory attacks on the Welsh NHS, well publicised in the right wing press, mean that more people in Wales know that the Assembly has responsibility for health, a recent poll found that a majority thought that the Assembly had primary responsibility for social security spending.

    This level of ignorance is a wonderful opportunity for our politicians to do whatever they like (or do nothing at all) and avoid any blame.

    Personally I shall vote Labour in both the constituency and regional ballots….I always have done and, although I am not very enamoured of what Carwyn actually does, I am completely convinced that I wouldn’t let any other party near political responsibility in Wales.

  5. The point about people’s ignorance as to what is and isn’t within the remit of the Assembly is well made, and we should be looking at the media to shoulder their share of the blame for that (although – because far more people get their news from London-based media than from sources within Wales – there’s a limit to what they can do).

    However, there’s a another reason for the ‘apathy’ which the author doesn’t even refer to. If a lot of people don’t see the point in voting in Assembly elections, it may well be because they realise that – thanks to the deliberately-skewed voting system which was imposed at the time of its creation – every election is going to result in Labour being in office afterwards, either on its own or as the dominant part of a coalition. Little if anything will change, so what’s the point?

    Until we get a real and credible opposition party to Labour, such as developed in Scotland after their devolution (and in this, it would help if we had a genuine, all-out nationalist party, rather than a perpetually-triangulating Plaid), then people are not going to see the point of traipsing out of the house even for half an hour once every four or five years only to be certain of the end result beforehand. It’s the same reason why local council election turnouts in those areas which have been effectively one-party states for nearly a century are so low – people don’t see the point anymore. This isn’t healthy for either good governance or democracy itself, as the evidence of persistent incompetence, cronyism and outright corruption in those councils shows.

  6. How can you blame the media – they are going to the wall. Nobody buys a Welsh newspaper anyway. We live with an uninterested electorate. If you don’t take an interest you can’t be well informed. The electoral system isn’t perfect but its a lot better than first-past-the-post, which would give Labour a majority every time. No, no excuses. It’s the electorate’s own fault. They get the government they deserve – in this case a timid lot who won’t take a chance to get things done.
    It’s a missed opportunity. The Welsh people can’t elect a competent Westminster government with Wales’ interest at heart – they are too small a part of the electorate. They could do it in the Bay if they could be bothered to get off their backsides and pay attention.

  7. R. Tredwyn,

    It’s not entirely the electorate’s fault. Barely a day goes by that Carwyn doesn’t blame “the Westminster Government” for something or other so it’s fairly understandable that many think Westminster is responsible for everything.

    It also doesn’t help that Carwyn keep pompously renaming everything in Cardiff bay deliberately making it sound like Westminster. There was some clarity between the ‘Welsh Assembly Government’ and ‘the government’ but now that’s gone and no doubt the long term plan is to start calling the Welsh government ‘THE government’ in order to massage the fragile egos in the bay. Also, the ‘Welsh Assembly’ is soon to be changed to ‘Welsh parliament’ as we know. Carwyn and co seem to be deliberately pouring a smoke screen over themselves with this further confusion

  8. For apathy you could easily say contentment. Ignorance and disengagement could be viewed as a positive decision making mechanism – we shouldn’t pretend that many people are affirmatively choosing to be disengaged. Its easy to think that if things are rolling along nicely then why not let others worry about it.

    Contentment can lead to boredom and the mischievous may enjoy rocking the boat from time to time We could also try rocking the boat a bit, try to breed more discontent, more disharmony , more fear and more resentment and that would work as a tool to promote more political engagement, but that is simply a pantomime indulgence.

    The masters and perhaps the popular anti-heros of modern politics are ploughing this furrow – the Trumps, the UKIPers and the Brexiters – these are the wicked witches and the ugly dames that everyone secretly wants to see on TV, because they make the plot more interesting. These are the ones who are rocking the boat and turning the banal into a gross spectacle.

    It wasn’t that long ago that people would love a good public execution, complete with drawing and quartering. Not everything that creates interest is in everyone’s interest.

  9. Aledf: but a minimal amount of interest is required if democracy is to work. Otherwise we would be better off picking the government by lottery. That way we would a change from time to time.

  10. R.Tredwyn,

    The sad thing is, I know you are right and I don’t know how you can really and legitimately spice up interest in the sort of society we now live in. Unfortunately, I also think that many people have cottoned on to the theatre which the media tries to portray and can see through simple plots. The assembly or even Westminster is not the most interesting show in town and no-one would turn their TVs on to watch the EU parliament or the US senate/congress, unless there was a scandal. It should come down to conflicting visions and ideas together with judgements on performance, but scandals and demons are far more intriguing.

    We are not going to find an obscenely corrupt AM or catch anyone with their trousers down, which would be real theatre and the best we could hope for would be someone brawling in a cafe or saying someting mildly offensive. We could Trumpify Welsh politics and split the country right down the middle very easily, which would drive people to the ballot boxes – thankfully no-one is doing that yet, although there are some contenders.

    We need at least two versions of the labour party in Wales – something to split opinion on socialist ideas. The tories will never get majority opinion and Plaid is too much of an umbrella organisation and hasn’t really proved convincing to the hard core labour vote in South Wales.

  11. @ R Tredwyn

    Given the abysmal turn out and the fact that only half of people know what they have power over that really isn’t a bad idea!

  12. Why the apathy?

    “Nothing ever changes.” “It’s boring.” “They’re all the same.”

    How about – we didn’t want them in the first place? Why should turkeys vote for christmas?

  13. Christmas comes whether the turkeys vote or not but if they vote they can have a say between cranberry jelly or bread sauce. If they don’t vote they get what they’re given and needn’t moan about it.

  14. How about – we didn’t want them in the first place?

    Here we go by the Abolish Wales Party again.

  15. Arrange a hustings meeting. Get it properly chaired and get discussion going. Focus on devolved issues and Welsh government Acts. Get your AM to turn up to meetings in between elections. Cooperate with all the local NGOs and get them to raise their issues directly There’s lots you can do to raise awareness in your own locality.

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