Merlin Gable analyses the upcoming electoral reform in local government and why it may mark a turning point for Welsh democracy.
Local government reform has been a slow-burning issue in Wales for some time now. Way back in 2014 the Williams Commission presented its findings, suggesting in its mammoth, cross-party report a reduction in the number of local authorities from 22 to between 10 and 12. This was to be done through mergers, not through changing existing boundaries, revealing the first in a series of examples of the massive challenges in achieving consensus whilst reforming Wales’s local government system.
Earlier this year these plans were finally shelved and instead the focus is now on a programme of ‘mandatory regional working’, where existing councils are obliged to pool resources for the provision of certain services. In addition there are the city regions, which will inform future development priorities across the country.
To add further confusion to the mix, Wales will soon have for the first time the power to run its own elections. The Wales Act 2017 provides the devolved administration with the competencies to administer local and Assembly elections, choosing the franchise, controlling the electoral registration system, and even changing the voting system we use.
The Welsh Government consulted on how to use these new powers, and the IWA was amongst the organisations that submitted a response, which you can read here. As the consultation notes, the way we vote has stayed the same for generations now. The Welsh Government intends to change this, and the document was wide ranging in the changes it suggested. These varied from the highly technical to the completely fundamental.
Perhaps the biggest change on the agenda, but the one also most spectacularly mishandled, was that of proportional representation. The consultation suggested a move to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Scottish local elections and Northern Irish local and assembly elections. Under this system, constituencies elect multiple members, and you rank the choices in order of preference. STV is great for all sorts of reasons, primarily because it can increase the political awareness of electors by encouraging them to make a more active choice, as well as making councils more representative of the diversity of views – perfect for fostering the political maturity in our elected officials that mandatory regional working and the city regions will require.
However, one can’t help but feel the Government wanted to stymie these proposals from the start. The consultation committed them to yoking STV to an opt-in system, where councils could choose to use STV on an individual basis: undesirable in practice and objectionable in principle.
There were other proposals that are to be welcomed. 16 and 17 year-olds look set to finally be allowed to vote in local and Welsh Assembly elections once relevant legislation is enacted. This has been Welsh Government policy for some time, and the Assembly voted symbolically in favour of extending the franchise in 2013. Turnout rates in all Welsh elections are pretty dismal, but the evidence shows that if young people can be enthused early about voting, through school discussion and engagement by political parties on issues that matter to them, then they develop voting habits that last a lifetime.
And this demonstrates something about the issue of local government reform that can perhaps be missed amongst quibbles about the responsibilities of Electoral Registration Officers and digitising the electoral register. Although it can be tempting to understand local government purely through the lens of service provision, serious reform of the way local government is elected could not only have a profound positive impact on the effectiveness of local administration but also contribute to the strengthening of the public sphere in Wales, increasing engagement with Welsh democracy and reinforcing the devolution settlement.
We must also remember that the Llywydd’s Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform is due to report in the coming weeks: what happens in the world of local government electoral reform may well have a bearing upon the future of our parliament too. This seems most likely to be the case with the proposals surrounding the actual casting of ballots. For decades this has been unchanged, but the consultation included a series of proposals to modernise the voting system and make it more accessible. Primary amongst these was the proposal to introduce public polling places in supermarkets, train stations and so on, that anyone from any voting district could use.
These have been in place for some time in New Zealand, and are open for the week preceding the actual election day. Over 50% of votes were cast this way in their recent general election. Such a system could be transformative in local government elections, where turnout is low and people often can’t drum up the enthusiasm to go out of their way to find their polling station. Also proposed were mobile polling stations, which could tour around the very rural parts of the country, ensuring that less mobile and more isolated people could still vote.
Overall, many of these reforms could go a long way to reinvigorating Welsh democracy and could have a tangible effect on the experience of voting in Wales. However, there were glaring holes, and they reveal something about the technocratic approach that is so often taken when we try to solve our problems in Wales. There was no mention in the consultation, for instance, of the appalling lack of diversity in local councillors, despite this having been raised by a Welsh Government expert group only a few years ago.
In considering local election reform a purely technocratic process, as the consultation largely seems to, there is a risk of failing to confront the wider issues holding back our local democracy, even where culture shifts in these areas might produce greater change than any technical reforms. The new powers over elections provided by the Wales Act 2017 make it possible to chart a distinctive Welsh approach to local democracy suited to the needs of the country. Some of these reforms could undoubtedly help do that, but it remains unclear if the desire is there to truly strike at the heart of the problem.
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