Our democracy is threatened in multiple ways and on multiple fronts. It’s time to draw a line and work for change
Welsh democracy is in a mess.
Our next First Minister is being elected by a process that is deeply flawed, the Senedd’s electoral system is being changed to one where we won’t be allowed to vote for human beings, and those whose responsibility it was to make sure that a significant public body was run properly happily nodded through a big pay rise for the boss at a time when the organisation was riddled with misogyny and under investigation.
Now, in a grotesque parody of how an election is supposed to work, someone who was the runner-up in an unofficial party election has, after being declared the winner, been given a seat in the House of Lords.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever met Carmen Smith, whose announcement as a Plaid Cymru peer was made on February 9. A former deputy president of the NUS in Wales and an ex chief of staff of the party, from what I’ve heard she’s competent and caring. Be that as it may, it is a democratic outrage that she has been made a peer.
Elections and the House of Lords don’t really sit well together. Like the monarchy, it’s a post-feudal institution – and it retains the power to legislate. Ironically, until now the only elections relating to the House of Lords have seen hereditary peers voting to replace colleagues who have died.
Plaid Cymru has broken new ground. With its former leader Dafydd Wigley approaching 81, he gave notice some time ago that he wants to retire. At the end of February it will be 50 years since he was first elected as the MP for Caernarfon.
After leading Plaid to a spectacular success at the first National Assembly election in 1999, when it won 17 seats, he stepped down from elected politics in 2003.
His career resumed eight years later when he accepted a seat in the Lords at a time when the National Assembly had to seek permission from Westminster to legislate in devolved policy areas.
Plaid decided it wanted to nominate a replacement for Lord Wigley, but rather than letting party leader Rhun ap Iorwerth make the choice, as happens in other parties, an internal election was held.
As Nation.Cymru reported last December, former MP Elfyn Llwyd received about two and a half times the number of votes as Ms Smith, but she was declared the winner because Plaid’s National Executive Committee (NEC) decided that its new peer had to be a woman.
Realistically, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was never going to appoint more than one Plaid peer, and that indeed is what has happened. Constitutionally, Mr Sunak had to turn a blind eye to Plaid’s internal election and treat the nomination of Ms Smith as someone simply put forward by Rhun ap Iorwerth.
But that shouldn’t stop us from being outraged at how the choice was made.
The NEC’s insistence on nominating a woman no matter what the result of the party election had nothing to do with gender balance. It was about subverting democracy by depriving the candidate with the most votes of the victory he had won.
When foreign dictators stage mock elections where the result is rigged in advance, we call it out for the corruption it is. Plaid Cymru, on this occasion, has behaved no better. I say nothing about the respective merits of Mr Llwyd and Ms Smith – that was for Plaid members to make a judgment about. But those on Plaid’s NEC who rigged the election in favour of Ms Smith trashed democracy in a way that the likes of Alexander Lukashenko and Robert Mugabe would surely have applauded.
An arguably more subtle form of rigging, though in fact no less brazen, is being attempted in the Welsh Labour leadership contest. Crucial to Vaughan Gething’s chance of winning involved gaining an advantage by securing endorsements from the big Labour-affiliated trade unions.
This was achieved by getting the support of a small number of committee members responsible for deciding whether the union threw its weight behind Mr Gething or his rival Jeremy Miles. When members of the Unite committee seemed likely to support Mr Miles, the union’s so-called regional secretary for Wales intervened and disqualified Mr Miles on spurious grounds.
Having scooped up all the big unions’ nominations, Mr Gething has an enormous advantage. Members of the unions concerned have since been bombarded with pro-Gething promotional material, while Mr Miles has no access to the union membership lists.
This is also an anti-democratic disgrace which should never have been allowed to happen. Either unions should only be able to nominate a leadership candidate if they ballot members to see who they want to support, or both candidates should have been allowed equal access to the union members. This is not a trivial or nitpicking point – there are less than 20,000 Labour Party members in Wales, but more than 100,000 union affiliate members.
While the turnout has in the past been much higher among ordinary party members than among affiliates, Mr Gething’s team sees a path to victory if his propaganda advantage among union members succeeds in mobilising more to vote for him.
What’s happened is, of course, grossly unfair and another example of how our democracy is being undermined. The winner won’t just become the leader of Welsh Labour, but First Minister. This is no way to elect the head of our Welsh Government.
Democracy depends on robust scrutiny and high quality governance to ensure standards are maintained in the public sector. The other day Deputy Social Partnership Minister Hannah Blythyn sacked the entire board of the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.
They had approved a £12k pay rise for the chief fire officer, even though there was an external investigation going on into a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment similar to that previously uncovered at the WRU.
It was additionally worrying that all 24 board members were elected councillors who were nominated to the board by the local authorities they sit on. All of them were paid extra for being members of the board. Twenty of the 24 are Labour councillors, two are Tories, one is Plaid and another a Liberal Democrat.
Since all the parties are tainted by this scandal, none are especially keen to highlight it, although Ms Blythyn deserves to be commended for taking the firm action she did.
When I sought comment from the 24, none of them wanted to say anything. The moral of this episode is that those given governance duties must take them seriously and not become too pally with those they are supposed to be holding to account. What happened illustrated another weakness of our democracy that needs to be addressed.
The fourth area of major concern is, of course, the imposition of the Closed List electoral system on future Senedd elections. Like most people, I suspect, I want to be able to cast my vote for an actual human being – or indeed multiple human beings in an open system of proportional representation that gives me the power to make choices based on my evaluation of the candidates.
My awareness of the Machiavellian shenanigans that goes on behind the scenes in every party has turned me into a sceptic bordering on cynicism.
Putting it bluntly, I don’t trust the party apparatchiks responsible for facilitating the selection of candidates to perform their duties with honesty and integrity. There have been too many examples where people of calibre have found themselves excluded or downgraded because they are considered too independently minded and have not been prepared to pursue a career of unreflective docility.
We recently learnt that Welsh Labour has decided to reserve places at the top of the Closed Lists for sitting MSs who are seeking re-election. That couldn’t happen under the STV (Single Transferable Vote) system, because voters could rank the candidates as they wished. A party candidate who wasn’t popular because they were seen as lazy or for any other reason could be sacked by the electorate. But if they sucked up to the party hierarchy and did their bidding, they would be untouchable.
Our democracy is threatened in multiple ways and on multiple fronts. It’s time to draw a line and work for change.
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