Gwyneth Sweatman writes that although it might not have dominated headlines, the recent changes to the Welsh Parliament could well have profound effects.
Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that the National Assembly for Wales could change its name officially, and instead of a glorious reception overlooking the steps of the Senedd, it would stand empty? No giant unveiling of a new sign, no speeches, and definitely no free prosecco.
Even more unimaginable, that the change would be overshadowed by a much bigger ‘invisible’ force. In the quiet noise of the Bay, as officials got the hang of Zoom in their homes, and the debate about localised travel raged on, the name of our governing body in Wales changed.
Wales now boasts its very own Parliament. It is able to perform all the same tasks and carry out all the same functions it did as an Assembly, but the hope is that the name-change will lead to more national recognition. Other notable changes came into force too, with new legislation paving the way for 16- and 17-year olds to register to vote in the next Welsh Parliament elections in 2021, as well as eligible foreign nationals.
Instead of an event celebrating the name change, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, tweeted a photoshopped image of the sign outside the Welsh Parliament. He shared with us all what the new sign will look like, when non-essential work such as changing a sign on a building, can continue.
Public Affairs Cymru and Grayling, who were due to host the first parliamentary reception celebrating the name change, moved the event online. We also moved it to the middle of the day, making it more accessible.
Of course, there has been plenty of debate over the name change. As Professor Roger Awan-Scully pointed out in the Introduction to Welsh Parliament Webinar, plenty of other countries with successful governments have an Assembly, rather than a Parliament. The debate in Cardiff Bay stems largely from a Welsh Language perspective, with many pushing for a monolingual name, ‘Senedd.’
Member of the Senedd and Chair of the Committee for Assembly Reform, Dawn Bowden, noted during the Introduction to Welsh Parliament event that the name-change now seems like something of a footnote in a chapter called ‘Coronavirus’, while she hopes the renaming will improve recognition and perceptions of democracy in Wales.
Before coronavirus sprinted past Brexit to dominate news screens and daily conversations, the Welsh Parliament would have hosted countless events and would have been the stage for endless company and third sector announcements, and rightly so. Now, as it prepares to creak its physical doors open later this year, it is set to re-emerge into a much different world, with expectations and demands of the new legislative body well and truly transformed.
Following the dramatic change in the makeup of the UK Parliament after December’s general election, polls have been predicting a dramatic shift in Senedd makeup after 2021. But what kind of new world will it land in?
The number of those seeking unemployment benefits has doubled in Wales.
The April Welsh Political Barometer suggested the Welsh Conservatives were set to win the biggest vote share in the next Senedd elections in 2021. If this result were to come to pass, this would see the Welsh Conservatives overtaking Labour for the first time in the history of devolution.
While this poll result didn’t take the ‘Cardiff Bubble’ totally by surprise, it was still predicting the biggest shake up in Welsh politics since 1999. The most recent poll in June however paints a slightly different picture of our post-COVID world. While it remains likely that there will be more blue seats than before, Labour is back in the lead as the realities faced during lockdown make their mark on voting intentions.
As we edge towards the election and parties develop their manifestos, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: politics has never been the most accessible route. While the Welsh Parliament can almost boast gender parity in numbers, with 46% of Members of Senedd being female, there has yet to be a woman of colour in the Senedd. Representation of Welsh people of colour in Westminster is not much better: there has never been a Black or Asian MP from Wales.
We’re clearly long overdue a bit of a shake-up.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Wales, from Bangor to Carmarthen to Cardiff, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, the number of those seeking unemployment benefits has doubled in Wales. ‘Business-as-usual’ policies in the Senedd have some catching up to do.
Meanwhile, organisations are shifting their policy engagement events online as attendance pools and contributors are widening, allowing people from more diverse backgrounds across Wales to take part. Webinars are blossoming as an educational tool, as companies, think tanks and charities use them to share their message and engage their stakeholders. Finally, that 4-hour train at 5am from north Wales to Cardiff to partake in a roundtable may soon be confined to the history books.
The hope is that some of these changes could be long-lasting. It would also allow for people with families to stop facing the difficult choice between work and home. Businesses that can adapt and utilise technology in new and exciting ways are doing so, and the hope is that this trend continues.
Cardiff is widening its pavements to allow for more socially-distanced active travel (something third sector organisations like Sustrans Cymru have been lobbying on for years), and young people are preparing to vote for the first time in 2021. These little changes are just some of many, along with adaptations to respond to Coronavirus, which could be contributing to a much more considerate Wales, leaving us a silver lining as we work towards building Wales back better.
Our new Welsh Parliament will be opening its doors to a world that looks very different to the one the Assembly left behind. One thing is sure: it is not just our Parliament that is changing – perhaps our society is too.
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