10 ways the Welsh parliament and government could bolster support for devolution
Ifan Morgan Jones
Once Brexit is ‘done’ the Welsh Parliament is likely to become a target for those who wish to further centralise political power at Westminster.
There are some signs that the effort has already begun, with a Facebook page (originally run out of an address in Bristol) set up to plug adverts about how the Senedd is a drain on the public purse.
Concerns have also been raised by a recent poll suggesting that 33% would vote ‘yes’ to scrapping the Senedd at a referendum.
It’s important not to over-react to this poll. If 33% want to scrap the Senedd, that means that 67% want to keep it – more than voted for more powers at the 2011 referendum.
And in the same poll the only party that actually wants to abolish the Senedd, the Abolish the Assembly Party, only polls at 2%.
Furthermore, support for the Senedd was highest among the youngest age group, with only 14% of those aged 18-24 saying they would vote to abolish it in a referendum.
However, for supporters of devolution, there is no room for complacency. As Ron Davies said, devolution is a process, not an event. And it can just as easily be pulled back as well as be pushed forwards.
But let us consider the growing profile of the Abolish movement as an opportunity rather than an annoyance – a chance to shake off complacency and consider what really needs to be done not only to strengthen support for devolution but to improve how Wales is governed.
Because in truth even devolution’s biggest supporters would admit that after 20 years some complacency has set in, and that the Welsh Government and Senedd have done surprisingly little so far to embed the institution in the nation’s collective consciousness.
My suggestions below suggestions essentially fall into three categories: i) Ensure people feel they’re being listened to, ii) bring power closer to them, and iii) expand public understanding and interest in the Senedd and the Welsh Government’s role.
- Bring in STV
First of all, ensure that people feel they’re being listened too.
Senedd elections are more proportional than elections at Westminster, but ultimately two thirds of Assembly Members are chosen by First Past the Post. This means that too many voters still feel that their vote has little real impact on the result.
The Senedd should switch to a Single Transferable Vote system where voters rank candidates in order of preference. Single Transferable Vote means that every vote does count, because even if your first choice is knocked out your vote will then transfer to your second and third choice.
This would also give voters unhappy with the main parties the chance to vote for smaller parties or independents without feeling that they’re wasting their vote, but also the option of including a larger party as their second or third choice in case their first doesn’t work out.
Some argue that this system is too confusing. But I think this is nonsense – a similar system is already used at Police Crime Commissioner elections, and is used for General Elections just over the Irish sea.
- Bring in Citizen’s Assemblies
Another idea successfully adopted in Ireland in order to expand engagement are Citizen’s Assemblies. Meeting over the course of a year, 100 citizens are selected randomly as a cross section of society and considered hot topics. In Ireland these have included climate change and legalising abortion, with the recommendations then delivered to the Government.
The Citizen’s Assemblies were commended as a great success that could do a great deal to counter the sense of frustration arising from the perception that the political class aren’t listening to the people. They could almost function as a kind of second chamber to the Senedd, with 100 members of the public randomly chosen for the task each year.
- Empower councils throughout Wales
These next suggestions fall into the second category – bringing power closer to the people.
It’s telling that the Scrap the Welsh Assembly ads don’t read ‘take power away from the Senedd and give it back to Westminster’ as they know that Westminster is even more unpopular than the Senedd.
What the ads say instead is ‘take power away from the Assembly and give it to your local community’. Of course they can promise nothing of the sort, but the Welsh Government could. And it isn’t a bad idea, either.
Local government in Wales is ripe for reform – there are 22 councils and 1,264 councillors in Wales. That’s far too many with costs being duplicated for no good reason.
The Welsh Government has had a number of attempts at solving this problem but so far hasn’t been able to do so, for understandable reasons. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and the councils have resisted attempts to scrap or merge them.
What might sweeten the pill would be promising to invest new councils with more much more power. Wales isn’t a one-size-fits all country with a fully integrated economy. The north-east faces different challenges to booming Cardiff which faces different challenges to the rural west.
Powers over the economy, transport and planning need to be devolved another step so that they can be adapted to fit the particular needs of different parts of the nation. Prof. Calvin Jones of Cardiff University makes this case very compellingly here.
Ultimately we may only need four super-councils: The North-East (and Powys?), The Cardiff City Region, Swansea City Region, and Arfor (Gwynedd, Ynys Môn, Ceredigion – and northern Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire?).
There would be far fewer councillors but they would be properly compensated for their increased workload, power and local expertise, opening the post up to a far larger cross-section of the population.
The Senedd could then stick at 60 AMs and deal with broader issues that require cross-council cooperation across Wales.
- Connect north and south
As things stand, however, people need to feel that they have access to where power is currently centralised – Cardiff.
The idea of devolution was to bring power closer to the people but the reality of Wales’ creaking transport network means that for many it’s faster to get to London than our own capital city.
There is really no good reason why after 20 years of devolution the roads between the north and south of our nation are still in such a dire state.
No other developed nation on earth as far as I’m aware requires a person to leave it to get quickly from one side to another on public transport.
A motorway or even a dual carriageway are unnecessary – even a relatively straight three-lane road with regular passing places would make a massive difference. A train would be a nice alternative.
I have written more on this subject here.
- Devolve broadcasting
So on to the third category – expand public understanding and interest in the Senedd and the Welsh Government’s role.
With the future of the BBC as it currently stands in jeopardy as the Westminster Government plans to scrap the license fee, the need to devolve broadcasting and set up a public broadcasting service for Wales has perhaps never been greater.
The historian John Davies argued that Wales was an artefact produced by broadcasting, and if BBC Wales and S4C were to disappear or be severely weakened that artefact might also well dissolve along with it.
Even the status quo is far from ideal, however, with little of the BBC’s coverage of current affairs having relevance to Wales. According to a study in 2010 only 3.6% of BBC television, radio and online news was geographically relevant to Wales.
Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore polling has found that people in Wales have little understanding of devolution.
- Support print and online media
For the same reason, the Welsh Government in particular could do much more to ensure that a thriving media exists in Wales. As print sales for newspapers continue to fall a gaping hole has been left for the discussion and scrutiny of Wales’ institutions. The market has failed and if people aren’t to be completely in the dark then public subsidy must step in.
As it stand the Welsh Government only spends around £3.5m of their £18bn budget on print and online publishing in total. Ultimately, if the government wants the people of Wales to be able to understand what they do thay are going to have to spend more than £1 each on everyone in the country.
It may suit the government not to have too much scrutiny of its actions but if that breeds apathy that turns into a preparedness to scrap the institution altogether, they will rue it.
- Teach Welsh history in schools
The new curricilum being rolled out over the next few years is extremely vague about what is required in terms of teaching Welsh history, making few requirements beyond the teaching of some local history.
This seems to be a missed opportunity in terms of developing a common civic identity in Wales by teaching how and why, despite geographical, political,cultural and linguistic differences, an autonomous Welsh nation has developed and endured.
There is perhaps a fear that teaching Welsh history will turn pupils into raging ethnonationalists but teaching the real history of Wales – warts and all – is actually likely to have a much more sobering effect.
It will however help anwser the key question of why. Why does Wales have self-government? But more importantly, why it’s important than what power Wales now has is used well and for the benefit of all.
A nation, like devolution, is a process. The role of teaching the history of Wales shouldn’t be about teaching students what to think about Wales, because every generation needs to decide what Wales is for themselves.
It’s about giving them all the evidence to make that decision. And it’s difficult to make an informed decision about where you’re going next if you don’t know how you ended up there is the first place.
- Ensure every school student is taught the basics of devolution
With 16 year olds now able to vote at Welsh Assembly (and soon at local) elections it’s vitally important than high school children are taught the basics of how government operates in Wales.
Unlike information about how Westminster operates which is largely gained by osmosis many school pupils will have no access to information about devolution.
I still remember a time as recently as 2006 when I had no idea who my Assembly Member was and had little understanding of how Welsh elections worked differently to General Elections and what was devolved and what wasn’t.
By teaching these basics to students at a high school level would provide a foundation of understanding that will carry them through for the rest of their lives.
It needen’t even be a course in and of itself and could be easily included under the ‘Humanities’ subject heading in the new curricilum.
- Keep young people in Wales
On to some miscellanious ideas.
It was noted earlier that those most supportive of devolution are young people. Therefore stopping the current ‘brain drain’ out of Wales would seem a very important step to preserve devolution.
Unfortunately, the Welsh Government’s policy of paying the tuition fees of students that choose to study outside of Wales, and their funding of the Seren Network that helps Welsh students apply for Oxbridge, seems to be designed to encourage this talent and skills drain rather than stem it.
It sems odd that we spend £1.78 billion education school age children in Wales every year and then as soon as they have their A-Levels we encourage them leave and use their skills to enrich other countries. How many will come back?
The SNP’s policy in Scotland of offering free tuition fees not to everyone from the country but for those who wish to study there has the effect of ensuring that talent both stays within and is drawn into the country.
It has boosted both universities there and the economy and has brought in talent from across the globe. Keeping those who support and understand devolution in the country would be a happy side-effect.
- Demonstrate how devolution can improve governance in Wales
Wel, duh. This might seem like a rather obvious point but so far the steady as she goes approach of subsequent Welsh Governments hasn’t produced much in the way of big successes to shout about from the rooftops.
For the first decade or so of devolution perhaps this approach made sense in order to ensure the support of those who lost the 1997 referendum.
But now surely the shackles should come off? There are plenty of big radical, transformational ideas around that could make Wales a better place for all, and I know many Labour AMs support them in theory, but the government doesn’t seem to be in any rush to implement them in practice.
If there was a referendum on the Welsh Parliament again tomorrow, what would they point to as the greatest successes? The plastic bag charge?
They need to get cracking.