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.

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