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.

9 thoughts on “Poverty of political engagement

  1. Cymru is not Scotland.
    If you genuinely want to address the lack of public interest and engagement you need to get down to root causes. Even if you ignore the greater proportion of people in Cymru who don’t identify themselves as being Welsh compared to those in Scotland who do not identify themselves as being Scottish. Scottish people as a rule, whatever their politics feel more distinctively Scottish than Welsh people feel distinctively Welsh.

    Here we all exist in an ENGLAND&wales environment. Many of us have an ENGLAND&wales mentality. There is no such thing as England&Scotland never mind an ENGLAND&scotland
    Scottish identity is ultimately what drives the interest in the Scottish parliament.

    However I can’t see British nationalist parties such as the Conservatives or Labour in Cymru committing to actions that undermine ENGLAND&wales. In fact just the opposite. May the Great Western Force be with you.

  2. ‘It’s our job to persuade voters we are worth voting for.’

    You’ve had nearly 20 years and you’ve failed every step of the way! The Tories betrayed their core membership around 2000 to become part of the problem and you’re still part of the problem. But it’s not a party issue – with the probable exception of Plaid there are people in every party, and none, who don’t want any party running a senseless extra layer of governance which is not, and cannot foreseeably be, self-financing. The money soaked up year after year on a pointless, frankly destructive, extra layer of governance could and should be going straight into front-line services for the benefit of the many, not the few on the political and establishment (civil service) gravy train.

    Large sections of the electorate are not disengaged, disinterested, or any of the other drivel levelled at us – we did not want legislative devolution, we still do not want legislative devolution, we will never want legislative devolution. The majority of the electorate have spoken repeatedly by not turning out – legislative devolution is not wanted, not widely respected, and in many ways is simply reviled. Many of us are quite engaged but HOSTILE! Much of what is passed off by the political class as apathy is actually passive hostility. In Wales far too many people rely on public sector salaries to be able to say what they really think. Some call it buying votes – maybe – but it’s certainly buying silence.

    Most people I know just want to you all to pack up and GO! Let’s have a referendum on scrapping the Assembly, or whatever it’s called this week.

    And then we have to ask why more powers are continually being handed to a layer of government that hardly anybody wants to vote for? Somebody else just expanded on this:


  3. I’m a Tory-leaning voter, and I would lay much of the blame for the ‘poverty of political engagement’ at the door of Mr Davies and the woeful opposition in Wales. The Welsh Conservatives, in particular, make Jeremy Corbyn look competent. If the party fails to engage a natural supporter like me, what chance has it got of engaging anyone else? When did the Tories last achieve meaningful change for the people of Wales or truly hold the Welsh Government to account? In my experience, they’re too busy chasing short-term gains and spouting wingless words from the sidelines. There’s next-to-no strategy and, for that reason, Mr Davies should step down.

  4. I have been in favour of devolution since I voted for Heath in the 1970s because he was pro-devolution. Now I’m more Plaid, though I’m beginning to wonder!mnI happen to believe that Wales could be successful as an independent country if it wanted to be. Similar logic to the UK wanting to leave the EU. But I also try to keep my feet on the ground.
    Which party wants Wales to raise its own budget to foster self-sufficiency and a better Wales? The Conservatives. Or many of them.
    We had this chance with the Rainbow Coalition a few years ago. Yes the foolish Lib Dems were the reason for failure on the face of it but really it was deeper than that. Plaid under Leanne Wood anyway won’t do the deal, as you have observed. Beats me why not. Labour ought to back self-sufficiency but in all honestly simply prefers the status quo, a backward Wales and 100 more years of Labour hegemony.
    How to break out of this?
    I’ll do you a deal. You back a directly elected Welsh Constitutional Convention leading to Dominion Status – and I will give up on full independence in my lifetime. And maybe accept (soft) Brexit which I am reluctant to do. But Wales comes first.

  5. I agree with CapM, Wales should look to itself and not worry about what is going on in Scotland or England. Welsh problems require unique Welsh solutions. The WAG has been handicapped by limited powers, time to let the WAG do what the Welsh people voted for in 1997 and the 2011 and allow them to govern

  6. Why aren’t we more like the Scots? Why do we insist on following the UK press and ignore Welsh news? Geography has a lot to do with it; a long border with England, many reasons to travel from East Wales to the large English cities and few reasons to travel Westwards or South but, as most people realise, few of the many English born people living in Wales identify as Welsh and presumably don’t fully identify with Welsh affairs.
    At the 2011 census there were 636,266 English-born people living in Wales and of those only 9.4% gave themselves a nationality that included “Welsh”.
    In addition, of those people born in Wales, 13%, (287,680) identified themselves as British only, English or English and British but not Welsh.
    Welsh Nationalists tie themselves in knots of anger that there are so many people in Wales who don’t identify as Welsh and therefore have no particular interest in Welsh affairs, or, if they pay any attention at all, are mostly inclined towards criticism but who’s to blame for that? Where I live there are families who have been in Wales for 3 generations who would always call themselves English for the simple reason that they are excluded by the Welsh language…and have grown used to that exclusion.
    Although it isn’t completely true that English born, or identifying, people vote Tory, it is true that their votes are available for any party which offers to give the English language, English medium schooling and employment equality to non Welsh-speakers.
    When Mr Davies finds the courage to actually offer something along those lines he may find that a whole lot more people become engaged with Welsh politics.

  7. The Assembly was designed to be Labour-led, and so it will remain unless and until Plaid realise that it is in their own interests to go into a Coalition with the Conservatives and offer at least the possibility of change. That such a prospect is extremely unlikely, to put it mildly, is the firm foundation of Labour’s calculations.

    Without a realistic hope of voting out an administration that even Labour supporters think is lacklustre, the people of Wales cannot be be blamed for their apathy towards the Assembly. Next to this great structural obstacle, it is of secondary importance that it is also not exactly famous for its quality of debate and the clash of great ideas. L’Affaire Bennett demonstrated how it is not a forum open to the free and frank exchange of controversial opinions. It retains the mentality of a glorified county council rather than a true national Parliament.

  8. i agree with JWR. Too many Welsh politicians are deficient in the most basic skills of their calling. Of course there will be little interest in the national assembly if no-one expects the government ever to change. Therefore, Plaid should not have an unthinking anathema on the Conservatives. It should talk to them to see what sort of joint programme can be worked out. There will be many areas where progress is impossible because there is no agreement but if they can agree on two or three policies and actually implement them the country will be better off. To avoid electoral penalty each party should take responsibility for specific ministries and particular policies so they retain an identity and the public can associate them with something specific. At the next election the UKIP seats will go elsewhere and that presents an opportunity for change. I am a Labour leaning voter but I think the best thing they could do for Wales right now is lose office for a while. And the best thing RT Davies could do is resign because he personally is an obstacle to his party’s rapprochement with Plaid. With Melding and Price replacing RT and Leanne… who knows?

  9. “Why the majority of people in Wales are disengaged with the work of the Assembly and the Welsh Government”

    Perhaps we should look at our Prif Seneddwr and his vision of “bara a syrcasau” for Wales in his satire to the Fabians……..

    ” There’s also a new found confidence in the country, which we see expressed on the sports field and in our ability to bring the biggest events to our doorstep – the Champions League final, Ashes cricket and World Cup rugby to name but three.”


    Surely the people of Wales will engage now that the senate itself has becomes the circus.

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