Stop the hand-wringing over expanding the Senedd. The public don’t care – just do it

The Siambr. Picture by Julian Nitzsche. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

A decision on whether to expand the number of members in the Welsh Parliament from 60 to 80 or 90 has been put on hold until after the next election.

Labour have said that they will not back the plans without first putting it to the electorate in a manifesto.

Some members had feared that in the current anti-establishment age, an expansion would be unpopular with the public, and perhaps put the wind in the sails of populists who want to scrap the Senedd.

But to be honest, I think that the Senedd is flattering itself a bit if it thinks that the public care much about the exact number of politicians in the institution.

If you ask the public whether they want more politicians the answer will always inevitably be no, because people do not as a general rule like politicians.

However, it’s the job of those elected to serve us to make sure that the system they’re presiding over works. And there’s a widespread agreement in the Senedd that 60 members is now too few.

That’s no surprise – the members have a massive workload. When the Senedd was set up it had control over very, very little – it largely deserved its reputation as the upper tier of a two-tier council.

The last 20 years, however, have seen a huge amount of power devolved to Wales. Most importantly, in 2011 the Welsh parliament gained primary lawmaking powers in areas such as health and education.

In 2014, it also began to exercise powers over taxation and borrowing.

And yet, despite having much more, and more complex work to do, the institution still has the same manpower to get the job done that it had back in 1999.

The public may scowl at the idea of more politicians when asked, but what they really care about is that the complex job of running the country is done, and done properly.

And if just 60 members don’t feel they can do that effectively, then they should expand as soon as possible rather than waiting until 2025.

There is a real danger as it stands, with the M4 scrapped and no big ideas in the pipeline, that the Senedd might get back its reputation as a do-nothing talking shop.

A sense of urgency is sadly lacking. Just get on with it.

Proportional

Call me a cynic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Labour’s decision to delay the expansion until after the next election may have another motive.

Currently, 40 members are elected to constituencies in Wales and 20 on the regional list. Labour hold the majority of constituencies and so can, just about, form a government on their own.

If an expansion went ahead it would be unlikely that new constituencies will be created, so the 20 or 30 new members would likely be elected to the regional list, or some other proportional representation system.

That would mean that Labour, on current polling, would get closer to 35% of the total AMs rather than the near 45-50% they have seen elected under the system in place since 1999.

Is it possible, therefore, that a few Labour members are eyeing the polls, and Labour’s current electoral weakness, and thinking: ‘Let’s give this idea a miss for now?’

Perhaps I am being too cynical. But perhaps not.

Devolution

If the expansion to 80 or 90 members is to be delayed, however, it does perhaps give us an opportunity to consider a few alternatives.

I was in England two weeks ago comparing notes with the people involved in another devolution experiment. In that case, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

The Authority is comprised of councillors from the ten council boroughs in Manchester and also the directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

What struck me in talking to them was to what extent having a directly elected leader aided public understanding of devolution.

The Mayor has a high public profile, and people grasp the Mayor’s role and what he represents in a way they may not understand the dual roles of the Welsh Government and Senedd.

The focus on personalities in the Mayoral election also drove public interest.

Interestingly, also, was the fact that being directly elected by the people of Manchester gave Andy Burnham a bully pulpit to speak about issues that were beyond the Authority’s powers, but were at the same time key in defending the best interests of Greater Manchester.

If Wales wanted an alternative to 30 more members in the Senedd, perhaps one more politician would be an easier sell?

But it would be a politician with a strong executive branch behind him, that could scrutinise the Senedd and be scrutinised in return.

It would also help to solve the problem that people feel that devolution is too Cardiff-centred. The executive branch should, of course, be homed in the north of Wales.


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