Building a stronger Senedd: Why size (still) matters

The case is made. It’s political courage that’s now needed for more AMs, says Jess Blair

Almost since its inception there has been discussion and debate about a larger National Assembly here in Wales. Most recently, an expert panel on Assembly reform led by Professor Laura McAllister stated simply that the Senedd didn’t have the capacity to do everything it should be doing – and the right number of members should be 80 to 90 members, rather than the current 60 members. They recommended that this increase should be delivered by 2021 alongside other recommendations about the electoral system and gender quotas.


Yet, the process to get this reform through has been so difficult that a few weeks ago the Assembly Commission decided not to legislate on the issue.


The decision to not legislate this term on the other areas of reform recommended by McAllister’s expert panel wasn’t necessarily a big surprise. There has been a feeling for a while that the 40 Assembly Members required to pass any legislation on this was out of reach.


What was surprising was the response to the decision after it was announced. Assembly Members from multiple political parties, many of whom hadn’t previously been vocally supportive, were coming out and saying that they regretted the decision.


That response left us believing this issue isn’t dead and buried just yet. While legislating by 2021 looks unlikely, there is scope to ensure that this issue is moved forward in a tangible way by then.


That’s why last Wednesday we announced a new coalition backing a larger assembly through a simple statement:


“For a parliament fit for the 21st century we need the right number of members. I’m backing an increase in the size of the assembly, which parties should commit to in the next manifestos to be delivered by 2026.”


This statement focussed on a larger assembly deliberately, rather than including other areas of reform. While we sense support from a majority of the assembly for an increase in size, the issue remains of how that would be delivered.


That was evident in an Assembly debate also held last Wednesday, in which there was little agreement on the system or exact number that would be introduced as part of these reforms.


This led to some very understandable frustration from Plaid Cymru AMs that the reforms now look unlikely to happen by 2021.


Plaid rightly point out that Welsh Labour’s insistence that this be put to the public in manifestos, as well as a failure to agree on what electoral system they would back to deliver this, have been the main barrier to getting reforms passed. However, we are now at the point where manifestos are the most realistic route to ensure reform actually happens.


Given this, our statement is calling for parties to commit to implementing reform by 2026. To do that, we now need parties to guarantee that this will be a central part of manifestos for the 2021 elections, with a tangible commitment to legislate on this in the very first part of the next Assembly term.


2026 isn’t our ideal date – but it’s still better than waiting another 20 years to see a parliament which delivers for the people of Wales.


Ahead of the publication of manifestos, it falls on all parties to ensure they have robust and open debate about the best way to increase the size of the assembly, particularly when it comes to electoral systems.


The work and the recommendations of the Expert Panel report should be used as the basis for this – and their recommendation that the Single Transferable Vote would be their preferred option should be front and centre to party considerations.


While political parties play a critical role in this, it also falls to us in civil society to keep up the pressure for reform. Over a dozen organisations and charities signed our statement last week, demonstrating wide support for a larger Assembly, outside of the Senedd itself. The statement is only the first step in a wider campaign leading up to the next election, so please do get in touch if you’d like to play a part in it.


The Assembly is coming to a crossroads. Will it continue to be strained and unable to reach its potential? Or will it grasp the nettle and commit to a series of democratic reforms that ensure its fit for the future, and for properly serving the people of Wales?


Only time will tell, but 20 years on from the advent of devolution AMs are finally putting their heads above the parapet to back more members. Now, the devil is in the detail on how they deliver this.


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Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Jess Blair is Director of ERS Cymru.

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