This Is No Time To Bloat Welsh Politics Even More

David Taylor says that calls for more Assembly Members fail to understand the current feelings of the public.

This article originally appeared on Heat Street. 

It beggars belief that, in this peak moment of anti-politics, the Welsh Assembly’s Presiding Officer decides it’s time to make the case for more politicians.

When the cost of politics has never been so under the spotlight, this shows a tin ear to the electorate.

Boss of the assembly, and other AMs she speaks for, seem not to understand the vulnerability of their position, created and occupied by an unpopular political establishment.

Indeed, wheeling out Presiding Officers to call for more AMs has developed into a persistent habit. They even propose the drastic anti-devolutionary measure of slashing local representation to pay for it. Each time, the bleating falls on deaf ears.

But there is now a serious risk that continual moaning from Cardiff Bay about not having enough AMs, or powers, or money to do the job effectively, and to excuse poor performance, will ultimately lead people in Wales to the conclusion that devolution just does not work.

If the events of 2016 teach Welsh politicians anything, it should be that there is nothing inevitable about the future of devolution.

Each stage of the Assembly’s history has been facilitated by politicians not being truthful with the electorate.

Even before the new institution was established, the then Secretary of State for Wales, the now disgraced Ron Davies, assured fellow Welsh MPs that there was no proposal “to construct a new building for the Assembly” or “to create more bureaucracy” or “more civil servants” (Hansard, 22nd July 1997).

That, as we know, has turned out to be a little short of the actualité.

During the 2011 referendum on direct law-making power for the Welsh Assembly, politicians made various promises that they have since casually shrugged off.

All parties closed ranks to deny that a Yes vote would lead to more AMs. As the First Minister rightly said during that campaign, Wales does not need more than 60 AMs, with whom the problem has always been quality not quantity.

For a country of 3 million people, Wales has an Assembly of 60 members. It can hardly describe itself as underrepresented. The Assembly largely discharges the functions of the old Welsh Office, which comprised just four ministers.

Some AMs are saying they can’t do that and provide adequate scrutiny. Well here’s something they should have known before standing for election: politics and being an elected representative can be hard work – it’s meant to be. The best way of proving their worth would be to get on with it.

The United States, with a population of 320 million, has 100 senators, 435 voting members of the House of Representatives and is generally considered to do a pretty effective job of holding the leader of the free world to account.

The irony is that those in the Cardiff Bay bubble call for fewer councils, are ambivalent about the proposed reduction in number of Welsh MPs, yet consider more AMs to be vital to democracy. This is, quite frankly, cobblers.

If they’re honestly overworked – and little suggests that they are – it is because they focus too much on things that are either trivial or outside their competence.

If they weren’t obsessed with Donald Trump or local village fêtes they would have ample time to do their jobs effectively.

The idea that more AMs would provide more effective scrutiny is for the birds.

Why does First Ministers Questions last for the best part of hour every week? With droning, turgid, stale questions and clichéd, generalised pre-prepared responses, AMs are not holding government to account effectively.

Committee meetings are even duller affairs, largely consisting of AMs reading out prepared questions for them from the Assembly library service, with little follow up or probing. With canny Ministers ensuring they have advanced sight of the questions, whole committee sessions are often pointless charades.

There is a cosy arrangement in which no culture of Written Questions (as exists in Westminster) has been allowed to develop. There is hardly any scrutiny via this method. This suits the Welsh Government perfectly, as it doesn’t even have a unit set up in government to give appropriate, thorough responses. AMs are to blame for not asking tough, sufficiently demanding written questions.

If politicians are so confident in their case for more AMs, they should put it to people in a referendum, especially as they were categorical in 2011 that no more AMs were on the agenda.

They should understand that the continual clamour for more AMs following the recent 17.7% pay hike is not a good look to a population who voted for Brexit amid a mood of rebellion.

Indeed, the £10,000 pay increase takes average backbench pay up to £64,000, more than three times the median wage in Wales. Add to that £8-12,000 extra for Committee chairs.

We were told devolution would herald a brave new era in Wales in which efficiency and vocation would be a trademark of the incoming Welsh Assembly political establishment. The incessant cries for more cash belie that early promise. At the same time, there has been little or no discernible impact on anyone else’s living standards in Wales.

Cardiff Bay politicians should remember that public affection cannot be taken for granted, especially when all indications are that the mood is for sweeping change whatever the cost.

David Taylor is a former Labour Special Adviser.

9 thoughts on “This Is No Time To Bloat Welsh Politics Even More

  1. A rather entertaining rant.
    As ever with Mr Taylor, some home truths smothered in indulgent dollops of anger & spite.

  2. It’s not uncommon for some people in Wales to question why we need an Assembly at all. Not a lot of people, I’ll grant you, but ATWAP did creditably in the last Assembly elections. What fuels this rump of dissatisfaction? Certainly the broken promises and deceptions by which our mendacious political establishment have eased themselves into a comfortable niche down in the Bay of Inadequacy have been a constant source of irritation.

    The overwhelming problem is that the two most powerful parties in Wales are Nationalist. They both, deep down, seek the end of the UK, the only difference between Plaid and Labour now is that Labour would destroy the UK by stealth over a longer period while Plaid would have it done yesterday.

    So we have a Welsh establishment of Empire builders and the Welsh people are there to be duped, misinformed and dismissed as irrelevant. Nor does the blame end with politicians; next to our politicians are our tame academics. By now only Devophiles are left in prominent positions, after all, why would government provide research funds to any but supporters of the great Devocon. Thus we have the ubiquitous Roger Scully and Owain ap Gareth pointing the way forward towards ever more, incompetent, sneering, self aggrandising Assembly members or Senators as they will soon be called.

    Can the voices of the disenchanted minority be heard on this issue…or any of the truly contentious issues that our politicians put upon us without a care for our views? Actually, no. Not many of my posts appear here on the IWA site, and those that do usually long after the topic has slid down the page. The Western Mail will publish nothing that seriously challenges the WG. Answers to pertinent questions put directly to ministers are given answers that…aren’t answers and even Welsh Government forums politely tell posters that they won’t publish anything that criticises them:-

    This is so close to a totalitarian state in the way that its esteemed leaders and establishment organs behave that we should all seriously question whether it is functionally democratic at all.

  3. A brilliant and a factual overview on David’s part of the Welsh Assembly realities – The only problem as I see it, is that we have 60 AM’s too many!

  4. No doubt this post reflects a strain of public opinion. But what if it is simply wrong? The comparison with the United States omits the fact that that is a federal country. As well as the Federal Senate and House of Representatives, there are fifty state legislatures of similar size and 50 state governors too. If you compare numbers at Westminster and in Scotland and Northern Ireland (which is smaller than Wales and has more legislators) it is obvious the Welsh legislature is undersized. It is unreasonable to expect AMs to serve on numerous specialist committees because there are not enough of them to go round and then complain that they are not experts in the subjects under discussion. It is also unreasonable to complain about their pay and then say the quality isn’t good enough. As Wales loses 11 MPs it should bring the Senedd up to a practical size. What is democracy? It is rule by elected politicians. You can’t excoriate all politicians and then say you believe in democracy. Throw out the politicians who you don’t think are doing a good job but then you have to elect new ones. Throw out all politicians and you know where you are heading. Mr Taylor’s view is nihilistic and craven in the face of the uninformed element in public opinion.

  5. This is an excellent, challenging piece. I’ll come back on just a few of the substantive points. While the Federal U.S institutions have a relatively small number of elected representatives, the State legislatures (which would be the relevant comparison) are different. For example the House of Representatives in the US states of North Dakota has 94 representatives, and Vermont has 148) – and both States have smaller populations than Wales.

    Whilst I don’t disagree with some of David’s points about the way the Assembly organises itself, he lets his irritation with Welsh politics obscure a broader point: the voice of the Welsh people will get weaker in Westminster with fewer MPs, and will be silenced in Brussels with the disappearance of our MEPs, so the importance of the Assembly will increase. Once you take out Ministers, Presiding Officers and Committee Chairs there are relatively few backbenchers (especially on the government side). As he knows there has been a self-reinforcing culture which makes challenge and dissent uncomfortable in such a small group, and the main attraction for me of having greater numbers is to create more space for pluralism to flourish.

  6. “when all indications are that the mood is for sweeping change whatever the cost.”
    In which case surely your effort and intellect should be focused on attempting to convince those who are in this mood to stop acting in a way that costs the rest of us and themselves dearly.

  7. Enjoyable piece. Having worked within the Assembly and subsequently with all current groups few would disagree that AMs are under resourced.

    While I agree that Senedd proceedings are drab, and Committee sessions are scripted; having more AMs would likely provide a solution to that. Perhaps we would not then have AMs working 80 hour weeks on 4 Committees with only the early hours of Thursday mornings to prepare.

    Of course there are some AMs less effective than others. Many of them retired back in May. Nonetheless the vast majority are very hard working, as are their staff.

    I would not want to get into a discussion about numbers, Lee’s comment highlights the selective nature of the data sets used to support any position.

  8. Yes, any democracy has to take account of public opinion, but our representatives should not act like rabbits caught in the headlights of that opinion. They have to search for the road beyond. It seems there is scarcely anything the Assembly could do – other than dissolve itself – that would please David Taylor. I agree with Lee. The backbencher class needs to be augmented, allowing more scope for specialisation and healthy dissent.

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