Julie James MS talks to Josiah Mortimer about reforming the electoral system in Wales and the implications of the recent attacks on devolution.
Last month, the Welsh Parliament/Senedd voted 39-16 to pass the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, a significant piece of legislation which follows years of campaigning and work in the Senedd to boost Welsh democracy.
Josiah Mortimer from the Electoral Reform Society spoke to Julie James MS, Minister for Housing and Local Government, following the passing of the Bill – which rolls out votes at 16/17 for local elections, lets council adopt the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for elections, and paves the way for automatic voter registration.
Josiah Mortimer: How did we get to this historic package of reforms being passed?
Julie James MS: “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been working on the bill through successive ministers for around seven years! This has been in conjunction with the Senedd elections bill. It’s been a long and involved genesis.
“We wanted the franchise for 16/17 year olds to apply to all devolved elections, which needs a two thirds majority. It’s been quite complicated.
“We would have very much liked to have done something for [enfranchising] qualifying prisoners, but it just wasn’t possible.”
Is this a step towards proportional representation at a local level?
JJ: “There’s the option of STV for councils. We’ve been working hard on that. Various parties wanted to change that to either not having STV, or compulsory STV, but a local authority that wants to [introduce PR] is able to do that.
“I very much hope that some [councils] will do that so that we try it out, and persuade people that it works.”
So, you would like councils to adopt STV?
JJ: “Eventually, yes. There’s a head of steam when people see the world doesn’t end [with PR]. There were a lot of political discussions to get where we are. The Government has a very slim majority, as a result of having non-Labour members.
“We’ve paved the way [for councils to adopt STV], with preferably two or more councils to start. We’d see better diversity of both councillors and decisions – which we’re all in favour of. It reinvigorates democracy when votes have the same weight wherever they are.
“The Act is all about diversifying councillors – making it more attractive to stand as a councillor. It would enable flexible working, update family absence provisions – it’s a package. We’re hoping for STV, but also a wider range of people involved in politics. Enfranchising younger people is all part of the same piece.
“We’ve just announced separately that we’ve managed to sort out disabled access fund – I’m really pleased with that. I’d really like some more people with disabilities to come forward.”
“Part of that is discussion about making the Senedd bigger or not. There’s a range of opinions in the Labour party on that.”
James added she’d like to see Westminster follow suit for proportional representation across the UK.
What’s the reaction been from civil society in response to the Local Elections Bill?
JJ: “It’s been very welcoming – we’re very pleased. We’ve worked hard with councils on this. I pay tribute to the Welsh Local Government Association. This has been done in partnership with local authorities: they want more diversity too.”
Is automatic voter registration next?
JJ: “It’s something I’d like to see introduced. It’s extraordinary in a modern democracy you don’t automatically get your right to vote. I’ve never understood what the need for another process is. We know who everybody is – what’s the need for this extra process? It’s a way of preventing people from engaging.”
What’s next for democracy in Wales – let’s take Senedd reform?
JJ: “I would love to see the Senedd enlarged, and the voting system moved to a more transparent proportional system – as an individual, I’m not saying it’s the government’s position. But there’s work to do there [on size] – the public perception of politicians is not great.
“If you stop the average person on the street and say ‘What does a Senedd member do?’, often they don’t know.
“[More members] sounds superficially expensive as they don’t understand what the system is. It’s undoubtedly the case that the Senedd needs more members. If you want good law, you need good scrutiny. That’s really hard at the moment. Many MSs serve on two or three committees – in the House of Commons you’re lucky to serve on one committee. So we’re struggling with bandwidth.
“Trying to get that across is a difficult one, an uphill task. But the pandemic is making people more aware of devolution. Some journalists have been startled at the devolution we have.
“Objectively, it’s obvious that having 60 members is not sufficient.”
On STV for the Senedd: “Nobody is going to change the voting system to STV in the short term.” She added there were ‘issues’ with the current Additional Member System however.
“The Shared Prosperity Fund and the Internal Markets bill are straightforward assaults on devolution.”
Would you like to see Welsh Labour back a larger Senedd and STV?
JJ: “[Labour’s] whole policy process is in full swing. A range of policy initiatives will come out of that. Part of that is discussion about making the Senedd bigger or not. There’s a range of opinions in the Labour party on that.
“I personally wouldn’t use the D’hondt system – explaining the complexity of how people’s vote counts is really difficult. A Single Transferable Vote is a simple concept. The system needs to be transparent to the electorate.
What other barriers are there to standing?
JJ: “I’m often asked about abuse on social media; yes, we get some, but can they now ask me why I do this job? It’s the privilege of my life, and it allows me to change things in my local community for the better. We need to concentrate on the positive.
“The Act makes a number of other changes – candidates no longer have to put their local address on the nomination forms. Some women candidates have suffered from that in the past.
“The Senedd has brought smaller parties in – but it has a long way to go in terms of diversity. We’ve never been a woman of colour elected – that’s a disgrace. We need to ensure the right candidates come forward and ensure it’s rewarding and beneficial.”
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Earlier this month the PM Boris Johnson said Scottish devolution had been a ‘disaster’. How strong is devolution in Wales: does it feel secure to you?
JJ: “It’s the first time in the history of devolution that we’ve had a majority Conservative government. They’ve shown their true face immediately. They don’t like devolution and they’re centralising.
“The Shared Prosperity Fund [circumventing Welsh government by the UK government approaching councils directly] and the Internal Markets bill – they are straightforward assaults on devolution. I don’t think they’re trying to hide it.
“The argument for devolution needs to be constantly made. If you look to see – there’s plenty of evidence devolution works. I think that’s self-evident. We believe in subsidiarity – decisions made as close to community as possible.
“We should empower local government so people care about what their council does and are more motivated to come out and vote.”
Looking ahead to the elections next May – what challenges do they face?
JJ: “We absolutely want to have the elections in May. The Senedd needs to be refreshed – there’s a number of people who’ve changed parties a number of times. That’s hardly optimal. There’s a whole discussion about whether people elected on a party slate should be able to change parties – given people voted for party rather than individuals.
“We’re not going to have full immunity by next May, so we’ve got to put in place all the possible mitigating features. We’re in the throes of that conversation right now, with an emergency bill to make sure we can protect integrity of the elections. The country needs it.
“We’re finding innovative ways to connect to the election – I’ve never done so many zoom hustings and meetings! [But] it’s been really frustrating trying to get people’s awareness of the election.”
Some questions and answers have been trimmed for brevity. Views do not necessarily reflect those of the ERS.
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