Poverty of political engagement

Andrew RT Davies asks why the majority of people in Wales are disengaged with the work of the Assembly and the Welsh Government

When it comes to drawing people to the ballot box, devolution has left the majority of Welsh citizens out in the cold. Devolution was supposed to empower and enthuse voters, to make them feel more connected to the democratic process.

But in the two decades since Wales voted Yes, Assembly elections have never attracted more than a 46% turnout – a highpoint not replicated since the first elections were held in 1999.
In the five elections since the Assembly’s birth, an average of just over 43% of people have turned out to cast their ballot, compared to the average of 53% of voters who’ve turned out for Scottish parliamentary elections over the same period.

More evidence of how Holyrood has managed to galvanize the Scottish electorate in a way hitherto unmatched by our own Parliament can be found in how the public engages with it online.

Analysis by Welsh Conservatives shows that First Minister’s Questions in Scotland amassed 225,801 views on YouTube in 2017. Conversely, Wales’ own FMQs clocked up just 2,125 YouTube views, representing a paltry 71 views per session.

To put things further into perspective, in 2016/17 just over 58,000 people tuned into Senedd TV – the National Assembly for Wales’ own TV channel – which represents less than two per cent of the Welsh population.

A freedom of information request also revealed that visitors to the Assembly’s website between 2015 and 2016 (the most recent records available) were a mere 42,374 versus well over 1.5m visitors to the Scottish Parliament’s website during the same window. In fact, records show that in every month, visitors to the Scottish Parliament’s website were higher than the annual total for Wales.

So why does this poverty of engagement exist in Wales? Many will point to the fact that Scotland’s devolutionary settlement was from its outset more complete than the one conferred to Wales, and so there’s always been more at stake for the Scottish voter. Though to take this reason as definitive would be to ignore a host of other factors which have kept many in Wales from warming to their democratic home.

Understandably, after nearly two decades of one-party rule, I believe that many have simply lost the belief that their vote can make a difference.

With Labour winning out in every election since 1999, the fruits of devolution are sparse. Educational attainment in Wales is behind countries like Vietnam and Slovakia, as evidenced best by the latest international PISA assessment. Wages are almost 10% lower than the rest of the UK – and Welsh workers are every week £49 worse off than Scottish workers despite being on a par with one another 20 years ago. Meanwhile, one in seven Welsh people are currently languishing on waiting list for surgery compared to one in 50 people in Scotland.

With so little change in the health and prosperity of our nation after so many years of running our own affairs, it is little wonder so many are disengaged to the work of the Assembly and the Welsh Government, whose Labour party occupies half the seats in the Senedd.

For members of the opposition, like myself, shining a light on the failings of Welsh Government and communicating an alternative vision to the electorate has often felt like a Sisyphean task. The already narrow media landscape is narrowing further, with many titles closing for good or finding new life in mergers after struggling to foster a sustainable advertising revenue stream.

Indeed, one newspaper covering North Wales recently made its Assembly correspondent redundant altogether, preferring to devote its money to covering transport issues. With such influential and far reaching titles diminishing their coverage of Assembly matters, opportunities for the public to learn and engage with devolved matters are sadly diminished.

There are a number of things that we as politicians – especially opposition politicians – can do to cultivate greater public engagement with our work, and the work of the Assembly. I will list three of them.

Firstly, we need to give voters hope that change is possible, and it falls on us to carve out a positive vision for life after Labour that voters can buy into.

Secondly, in the absence of a healthy media, we need to improve our use of social media. This puts us in instant, direct and undiluted contact with the electorate.
Finally, we need to end the cosy politics of consensus. There is a commonly held view that we politicians in the Assembly are all the same. We are not. There is difference, there is challenge, there is an alternative, and it’s worth fighting for. It’s our job to persuade voters we are worth voting for.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Andrew RT Davies is Leader of the Welsh Conservatives.

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