Toward a more democratic National Assembly

Nick Ramsay calls for secret ballots to be used to appoint Assembly Committee Chairs.

The words I found hardest to say yesterday were “Leanne Wood”. The words I found easiest to say were my support for openness and proper democracy in the National Assembly.

When I contemplated running for Deputy Presiding Officer yesterday morning, I did so not out of ego but out of principle. Had I stood, it would have been about a platform which pledged to change the Assembly. I am pleased that the winning candidate, the formidable and fun Ann Jones, talked about independence of mind in her appeal for votes. It is a very important aspect for whoever does that job and I am confident they were just not empty words. Like me, Ann cares passionately about not just the Assembly as an institution but how democratic and inclusive it is.

From the many discussions I’ve had with people in many parties I know that concern is not just confined to Ann and myself. Many people – including new Assembly Members I’d never met – told me how important it was that yesterday was about more than personality. People had concerns about deals in dark rooms, discussions between party whips rather than in group or in public. That’s why I declared my interest in being Deputy Presiding Officer in the most public way possible, on social media.

Just because I didn’t run for the job, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop talking about the ways in which the Assembly could be improved. A good place to start is with the way in which we select and elect officers of the Assembly. I was really impressed yesterday that party groups relaxed the whip and allowed us free votes on who should be Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer. This hasn’t always happened in the past. It made for better decision making.

And it also made me realise the value of a secret ballot in Assembly proceedings. That is why I’m now advocating that all Assembly Committee chairs are elected by secret ballot.

For those who don’t understand the system as it stands – and here I’m probably including many new AMs who never get told anything other than where to sit and which button to press – the way it works is the overall number of Committees is decided between the party whips and then the chairs are divvied up in proportion to the size of the groups in the Assembly. All sounds democratic and fair doesn’t it? But then each party decides who gets those allocated chairs. Labour has the fairest system. They let their group members elect the chairs. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives have the most closed system: the party leader decides.

I have been a whip. I know that dangling the possibility of being a committee chair is a really big carrot. As is the five figure salary increase chairs get. I also have seen the stick as well as the carrot. In the last Assembly both myself and Dafydd Elis Thomas were, at different times, dismissed from both our respective shadow cabinets and as committee chairs. The first decision was properly entirely a matter for the party leader. The second decision should not have been.

I firmly believe that this needs to change. The Assembly as a whole would elect Committee chairs by secret ballot. This would allow people a free choice and a better choice for who chairs our committees. If, in that scenario, a party like Labour would still like to go through a process of internal elections to reach their nominees, that is perfectly feasible. They and other parties could also still seek gender balance in the nominations they make too. But it would also make the Assembly as democratic as the House of Commons by allowing us our own votes on committee chairs. I think that is a hugely important principle.

Of course there is one obvious downside to my suggestion, since using a secret ballot would mean there would be a real chance that the party balance in committee chairs would probably end since it would be more difficult to ensure. The balance of Committee members would, of course, continue and that is enough compensation to the party machines.

To my mind, yesterday was the day the Assembly changed. But I hope that change is not confined to one day.

Nick Ramsay is the Assembly Member for Monmouth.

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