Nicolas Webb says back benchers have the potential to offer a lot to the fifth assembly.
This week Plaid Cymru revealed their new Shadow Cabinet. Leanne Wood described it as “an excellent, strong team”. It would be hard to argue with that assessment. The Plaid Cymru group is full of intelligent, eloquent AMs who have a lot to offer as they hold the Welsh Government to account and propose legislation. However, the decision to share portfolios among every member of the group brings Welsh democracy back to a difficulty that Plaid themselves had started to resolve.
The most recent Plaid Cymru front bench had just five AMs. Of course, this does mean that there is a necessity to condense and combine some of the briefs which can be challenging. It also results in a risk that some AMs may feel out in the cold and as such freer to speak out against their group leader. There is no doubt that the diplomatic approach is to provide a job for everyone in the group.
Yet, there were also two notable benefits to the slimmed down front bench model. One is a boost to electoral chances, the other is to facilitate greater scope for ideas, debate and scrutiny.
The 2016 Assembly Election demonstrated the growing maturity of the institution. For differing reasons there was little sign of David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trail and the figures which came to the fore were Carwyn Jones, Leanne Wood and Andrew RT Davies. However, it has taken a long time to ensure these leaders have the profile in Welsh awareness which they currently hold. No doubt a journalist or a pollster has toured Welsh towns with photographs of AMs to find out how well recognised they are. I suspect the results are not good. A small front bench team allows for the same faces to be seen on a regular basis during policy announcements and political programming which builds up the profile of a leadership team rather than the leader becoming the sole focal point.
The electoral reasoning behind a smaller shadow cabinet deserved a mention, but is primarily a matter of campaign strategy. The real benefit to Welsh democracy is the ability to have backbenchers who are better able to take a view on a matter which is consistent with their party’s principles but not limited to the exact line to take of the day.
The number of Labour AMs mean that there will be plenty of backbench contributions from a centre-left perspective. The only occasions the Conservatives have had backbenchers has been following a falling out over a particular issue and typically these have been resolved to the extent that the AM has a portfolio restored at the next convenient opportunity. As a result, it could be argued that there has only ever been the official party line interpretation of Conservatism heard in the Senedd. I suspect such a scenario sounds very attractive to David Cameron right now, but a broader view of Westminster’s workings really does show the benefit of independent thought from the back benches on all sides of the house.
Robert Halfon was such a strong influence on UK Government policy from the back benches he was brought into the Government. Jacob Rees-Mogg is unlikely to become a Minister, but his respect for, and determination to uphold Parliamentary protocol acts as a check on the actions of the Government. The Labour back benches at Westminster are a little different these days as many of the key figures are those who were on the front bench until recently, but the leadership from Yvette Cooper to put pressure on the Government to respond to the refugee crisis is a good example of a pro-active back bench MP. Douglas Carswell has contributed a coherent voice for libertarianism in the House of Commons. His views are never likely to be adopted wholesale to become the policy of any UK Government but better legislation is made when it is open to wider contribution and scrutiny from across the political spectrum.
This is a dynamic which is lacking in the Senedd. Some will argue that it is due to there not being enough AMs, but there is scope to improve matters as things currently stand. Not all views from a group broadly bound together by Welsh nationalism will be included in the Plaid Cymru policy of the day. Nor will every market-based, low tax, personal freedom position be covered by the Conservatives at a specific point in time. It is healthy to have different views expressed in a constructive way. Welsh democracy would be better served if this occurred in the chamber rather than only being limited to closed session group meetings.