Adam Price has a blueprint to improve Welsh democracy that must be taken seriously
Adam Price’s leadership of Plaid Cymru may have ended rather ignominiously, but at his best it can’t be denied that he is an original political thinker who still has a lot to offer Wales.
I’ve been reading a recent lecture he gave under the auspices of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre called Remaking Welsh Democracy and I found it very impressive. Indeed, he may have come up with a credible plan to make the Senedd better engaged with the Welsh public.
While there is plenty of polling evidence to show that most people want to have a Welsh Parliament and trust it more than they trust Westminster, it is nevertheless disappointing that no devolved election has resulted in as much as a 50% turnout.
Over the years there has been much agonising over why that may be the case and various “outreach” initiatives have taken place without much palpable success. I recall a seminar in Cardiff Bay’s Pierhead Building at which a number of London-based journalists said they wouldn’t dream of covering the institution because it was too boring. This led to some wounded feelings, but not much else.
It’s been pointed out ad nauseam that the pandemic raised the profile of devolved power, but while voters in Wales may have preferred the avuncular style of Mark Drakeford to the bombastic charlatanism of Boris Johnson, there’s little doubt that both administrations will, when the report of the UK public inquiry is eventually published, be criticised severely for the mistakes they made.
There’s a powerful case for resetting devolution – but what would that mean in practice? In his lecture, Price set out a fairly comprehensive programme for how to achieve positive change with the help of Senedd reform.
The Welsh Conservatives rail against the plan to increase the number of Senedd Members from 60 to 96, while at the same time complaining that standards in the delivery of public services need to be improved. Yet they’ve failed to explain how the quality of delivery can be raised.
Price has made a compelling, four-pronged case for reform, the first strand of which entails increasing the Senedd’s capacity.
Increasing the number of Senedd Members is usually justified by reference to the need for greater scrutiny – a trite phrase that is trotted out with tedious regularity. Price puts the meat on the bone. He argues: “Rather than engaging in a sterile debate about [increasing the number of MSs], why not have a more productive debate about what we could and should do with that new capacity?
“A larger Senedd means a longer parliamentary week becomes possible – with a third plenary day being dedicated, potentially, to non-Government bills. This would massively expand the scope for individual member bills becoming law, unleashing some real legislative creativity on the backbenches which is currently heavily circumscribed. We should be electing legislators, after all, not lobby fodder.”
Price pointed out that the Senedd hasn’t managed to pass a Senedd Member Bill since March 2016, when Kirsty Williams’ Nurse Staffing Levels Act received its Royal Assent. He added: “To give us a sense of what is possible in other parliaments, the 349 legislators in the Swedish Riksdag submitted some 2,238 private member motions – binding motions calling for legislative or executive action – for decision in 2022.
“To support this new potential for political creativity we need to be investing in the capacity to generate new ideas. We should create an equivalent of the Policy Development Grant focused not on Westminster as the current system is but the needs of Wales.
“We could decide that the new National School of Government that is being proposed as part of the Cooperation Agreement [between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru] trained not just civil servants but politicians too – a glaring gap in schools of government worldwide currently with a few exceptions.”
Other reforms would involve a system for recall or resignation where a member of the Senedd is found guilty of the most serious breaches of the code of conduct. Lay members of the public would sit on the Standards Committee, as is the case in Westminster.
Price argues that it should be an offence to knowingly mislead the Senedd and the public and to refuse to correct the record when required to do so by the Llywydd. As he put it, “Businesses can’t make false claims. Advertisements must be truthful. Why should politics be held to a lower standard?”
The next task, argues Price, is to replace what he describes as “a culture of competitive individualism and conformist groupthink” with something better.
He says: “Making committee-initiated legislation a key part of the political process as happens in Sweden and Iceland could unleash all kinds of opportunities for political entrepreneurs in parliament and outside to reshape Welsh society. In Iceland they have a 90% success rate in becoming law, as they tend to reflect a consensus view of what needs to be done.
“That makes them sound dull and prosaic, but another way of looking at it is that they tap into the collective intelligence, the wisdom of crowds that is a rich storehouse in any society of ideas that have the traction to work. As with individual Member Bills we have the power already, but not the time or space to do so: only one Committee Bill has so far been passed in the history of the Senedd.”
Price argues that the work of the Finance Committee and the financial scrutiny of the Senedd as a whole could be transformed by the creation of a distinct parliamentary budget office with the kind of expertise and capacity necessary to provide parliament with independent analysis of budget proposals.
The availability of detailed independent advice could allow the committee to play the kind of active role in the budget process seen in Nordic countries and Canada at both federal and provincial level, where finance committees regularly propose amendments to the draft budget. A Senedd Budget Office could advise other committees and party groups wishing to cost manifestos and individual policies independently as happens in the Republic of Ireland and Australia.
It could also allow the Senedd as a whole to own the budget process, with a Budget where all members are able to table amendments to it, increasing expenditure in specific areas and reducing it in others or raising additional finance in order to achieve this, so that the Budget is genuinely approved by the Senedd rather than simply being nodded through.
Another strand of Price’s strategy involves creating a more diverse Senedd, and he favours measures to ensure that happens, not simply in terms of gender balance but with race and disability too. He said: “Changing the culture of politics will attract a broader range of applicants. Parliament for many is still synonymous with a group of older white males shouting scripted questions and answers at each other as they work their way up the greasy pole. But we can do things differently, and therefore become genuinely inclusive and diverse.”
Price advocates job sharing for all positions, up to and including the level of the First Minister. He said: “If co-captaincy works for the Welsh rugby team then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for politics too and it will certainly open up the idea of elected office to a far wider range of people by background and by personality, so we achieve cognitive diversity alongside the social, making space for introverts as well as extroverts. And people will be able to balance their skills and experiences on joint tickets rather than pretending that anyone can be the complete package.”
To improve engagement, Price wants voting in Senedd and local elections to be made compulsory, but in return political literacy, media literacy and civic education could be made mandatory parts of the new curriculum. Price said: “We could do what Paris has done and allow school students to make decisions on a small proportion of local budgets, as democracy is best learned by doing. And teaching basic democracy should not be confined to new voters. We should make it a compulsory part of graduation from our universities and colleges, and support a massive programme of outreach in every community.”
Other proactive initiatives could involve advancing far beyond traditional consultation and the Senedd’s current petition system by adopting the latest democratic innovations in civic participation from randomly chosen citizen assemblies, juries and panels to participatory budgeting, participatory energy planning, participatory transport planning, deliberative polling, government and citizen co-design and co-creation and co-production of policy and public service delivery across every single area.
Price said: “We could take participation down to the local level and taking the recent upsurge of engagement through the 20mph decision as an example, make it much easier for local people to suggest an amendment to local regulations like speed limits through a sort of democratic equivalent of the neighbourhood app nextdoor.
“We could have instant online fact-checking of statements made during Senedd debates. We could give the Youth Senedd the formal right to be consulted on all legislative proposals which affect young people.
“Embracing a more transparent, responsive, participatory democracy would be a positive response to the generalised crisis that we see in democracy worldwide – the collapse in trust in institutions, in turnout in elections, in membership of parties, in satisfaction with outcomes.
“But I think it is not just about embracing particular methods or practices but a more wholesale shift to the idea of a collaborative democracy, a new hybrid between modern representative democracy and the direct democracy of classical antiquity. Electors and the elected, the governed and the governing have to become joint participants in a shared process.”
Price concluded: “Two hundred years ago the Chartists presented their six demands. If I had to create a New Charter which six would I choose?
“Top of the list for me would be universal civic duty voting. Coupled with that would be basic education in democracy for all. Third, I would say new public funding for political think tanks and public interest journalism. Fourthly, an incubator for new leaders. Fifth, quotas not just for gender but all under-represented groups in society.
And the final idea would be to create, as the Basques have recently done in Arantzazu high in the Mondragon Valley, in the shade of a Franciscan monastery that was a bastion for Basque language and culture and a bulwark against fascism, a democracy lab, seeking new ways to build the future, through collective intelligence and collaborative governance. A democracy lab would be a platform for ongoing evaluation and experimentation. Most major organisations or systems have some kind of R&D team. If it is to survive and thrive for the duration of the 21st century, then democracy needs an innovation function.”
By setting out a programme for democratic reform, Adam Price has issued a challenge to Wales’ political class. Either it can carry on in the same old way, making decisions that fail to resonate with a high proportion of the population, or it can resolve to make big changes that have the potential to draw the majority in. Let’s hope they have the courage to take the plunge.
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