Welsh Assembly must not miss this golden opportunity for reform

Jess Blair urges the Assembly to take the lead on democratic reform ahead of a motion today in plenary.

Politics in Wales has reached a critical juncture – and this week Assembly Members (AMs) have a big decision to make.

One road would see exciting changes to the way politicians are elected, placing power back into the hands of the millions of people who are currently left feeling confused and frustrated.

But journey down the other road and a golden opportunity will have been missed.

The decision will be made in the Senedd today(Wednesday) when AMs will vote on whether to consult the public on the findings of an Expert Panel on Electoral Reform.

This panel – which worked independently from the Assembly – came up with several recommendations which could, if implemented, be a game-changer for democracy.

Firstly, it is proposed that 16 and 17 years olds are given the vote in Assembly elections. Votes at 16 is a policy which has attracted support rapidly in recent years, and for good reason.

All the evidence from the Scottish independence referendum shows 16 and 17 year olds will vote when given the chance and politicians from all parties were impressed with how they engaged with the historic vote.

With votes at 16 also set to be introduced for council election in Wales, keeping the minimum at 18 for the Assembly would create a bizarre and unhelpful constitutional imbalance.

Secondly, it is proposed that the number of AMs is expanded from 60 to between 80 and 90. This, we say, is long overdue.

As more and more powers are devolved from Westminster to the Assembly – and there will be a surge of additional powers when Brexit goes through – the workload of AMs increases too.

The ability of AMs to effectively scrutinise legislation, and for backbenchers to hold the Government to account, is being greatly diminished.

There would of course be a financial cost associated with expanding membership but this could be dwarfed by savings achieved in the long-term as a result of improved scrutiny. Wales currently has four MEPs costing £1.79m each a year. Following Brexit this saving could cover the cost of 24 additional AMs.

Additional AMs would also mean a more representative Assembly and more voices promoting the interests of the Welsh people.

Thirdly, and importantly, the panel recommended a change to the voting system.

Currently AMs are elected by what is termed the Additional Members System (AMS) which uses a combination of the antiquated winner-takes-all system used in General Elections, and a ‘party list’ selection.

The alternative being recommended is called Single Transferable Vote (STV.) This system, where voters rank candidates, creates a legislature which more accurately reflects the will of the people and does away with the problem of ‘safe seats.’

There are other recommendations too including a ‘gender quota’ to ensure there is a fair balance between male and female AMs, a requirement for parties to publish diversity data on their candidate selections and ideas on new ways of working including job sharing for elected representatives.

These are significant changes and so it is right that they should be properly scrutinised with the Welsh people given the chance to have their say.

That is why ERS Cymru has joined forces with Chwarae Teg, Community Housing Cymru, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, NUS Wales, Positif and Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales to urge AMs to approve the consultation.

This is an opportunity for Wales to lead on democratic reform, to engage its citizens and give them a greater voice in the running of the country.

The alternative is that these proposals are kicked into the long grass and power in Wales is kept from its people for potentially years to come.

This blog originally appeared on the ERS Website

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

Jess Blair is Director of ERS Cymru

5 thoughts on “Welsh Assembly must not miss this golden opportunity for reform

  1. The really honest step that they could take would be to abolish the political structure designed around the assembly. Wales is simply not suitable for being run as one country which is why it never has been so (apart from about 8 years in medieval times.
    North Wales is intrinsincly liinked to Liverpool, Manchester and the NE of England.
    Mid Wales is lightly populated and linked to Shrewsbury, Hereford, Ludlow and Worcester.
    South Wales is the M4 corridor offers far better trade and governance than anywhere else.
    It would be great if the ‘Turkeys in Cardiff’ could vote for Christmas but I doubt if they will.

    One can only live in hope.

  2. J. A. Harrington should clarify whether his objection to the Assembly is based on economic geography or devolution in and of itself. Objection based on the former ignores the shared sense of identity based on language, culture and shared aspiration from which devolution draws its authority. Medieval Scotland and pre-Norman Ireland were never run as one country, and in the latter case post-Norman attempts to run it so withered on the vine. Would he argue that the governance of Scotland and Ireland should be similarly splintered? Should England be run by economic cluster rather than nationally? Of course not.

  3. My objections are based on the fact that the current regime does NOT meet the needs of the people of Wales.
    ThAnyone who has studied Welsh history will understand that the cultures in North, Mid and South Wales are so very different that trying to have them represented under one government in Cardiff is simply not practicable, realistic or desirable.
    It would be far better to devolve power to our regions (as in England) so that they can decide what is best for them. It may well be that certain regions might want to run their own transport or environmental policies although I rather doubt it.
    To meet Robin Lynn’s desire for an identity when a truly ‘Welsh Only’ issue needs resolving we should use our Welsh MPs to sit together (as they did yesterday in Westminster) to debate and then vote on this.
    A far better governance would exist and with the power of the UK national goverment but without the vast expense of The Welsh Assembly.

  4. Is J.A Harrington a Welsh historian?
    Having followed the evolution of Welsh devolution over the past 50 years, I can’t remember a single Welsh historian who did NOT support it.
    As a student of Welsh history, formally and informally, over the same period, I have a very clear sense of the over-arching unity of Welsh culture.
    Even English incomers like myself can become part of this unity.
    In fact, in the words (more or less) of Cerys Matthews, “every day I watch the BBC news and thank the Lord I’m a Welsh citizen”.

  5. As regards J.A. Harrington’s suggestion that our usually non-Tory Welsh MPs would have the power and authority of Westminster to deliberate and decide on matters Welsh, but not deliver or be accountable for delivery, how would that constitute “a far better governance”(in exile?) when particularly as at present they are in Opposition in a Parliament swamped by the demands of Brexit. What role would a Welsh Secretary of State have under such a regime.

    As an Ulsterman living in Wales these past 40-odd years I fully subscribe to Adrian Roper’s “very clear sense of the over-arching unity of Welsh culture.” Would that my own homeland was as united.

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