Is it time Wales had a President?

Peter Birkinshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

Welsh politics has a visibility problem. Survey after survey show that few can name more than a handful of politicians and most couldn’t tell you what powers the Welsh Assembly has.

As a result, Wales has what has been called a ‘democratic deficit’. The majority can’t make a fully informed choice whe voting, because they don’t know who is in charge of what.

Most people think, for example (according to a BBC/ICM poll conducted in 2014) that the UK Government oversees health and the Welsh Government in charge of policing.

The lack of a strong Welsh media usually gets the blame for this. And that is certainly a factor, something voluntary alternative news sources such as Nation.Cymru, Senedd Home and Desolation Radio hope to address.

But a piece of research published last week shows that it isn’t just Wales’ AMs which are largely anonymous – London has the same problem.

This is notable because on paper London has what Wales lacks – a vibrant media that keeps the population informed about what its politicians are up to.

This suggests that it may not just be a lack of media that is at fault here.

Part of the problem surely is that weak devolved legislatures lack political dynamism. This is particularly the case in Wales where the same party has been in charge for 18 years.

There just isn’t much of what was once derided as the ‘Punch and Judy’ of politics to maintain the viewers’ interest.

But, of course, devolution in London does get a lot more attention than Wales. Because one thing London does have that Wales does not is a separate and directly elected executive branch.

They have a Mayor. And I’m sure the majority not just in London but the UK would know that the current Mayor is Sadiq Khan, and would probably be able to name both his predecessors too.

There’s nothing unusual about this system where the legislative and executive branch are elected seperately. It’s used successfully in autonomous governments around the world.

The United States is a good example of such a federal system at work. Every state has a semi-autonomous legislature and a governor.

Australia is another good example. The other ‘south Wales’, New South Wales, has a governor as well.

And Catalonia, as we’re very aware at the moment, has a President who is the focus of great public attention.

There are three main reasons why I think Wales should emulate this system:

  1. Public interest

A single president-style figure is very good at maintaining the public’s interest.

The election to choose a Mayor of London gets a lot more attention than any other in the UK bar a General Election, and that’s because it’s a clear clash of personalities.

As any novelist or journalist will tell you, the best stories are about people. This is impossible when you have a cast of 60. But a presidential election puts the focus on two or three individuals.

It is also simpler to understand. The individual with the most number of votes wins. PR and STV may be fairer, and should remain in place for the legislative branch, but they’re difficult to explain to the lay voter.

  1. Conflict

The other advantage, which becomes apparent when we look at London’s Assembly and the United States’ state governors, is that the political affiliation of the executive and legislative branch can often be very different.

Boris Johnson faced an assembly where Labour was in power. In the United States, a Republican such as Arnold Schwarzenegger could get himself elected in deep-blue California.

The differences in political allegiance makes politics in these areas much more unpredictable and interesting, and ensures that no single party can rest on their oars without any real opposition for decades.

Even when the governor and senate belong to the same party, the system creates friction as they attempt to pull the agenda in different directions.

It would also keep politicians themselves on their toes. They would know that one day they may want to run for President, and that their political decisions would be pored over. There would be nowhere to hide.

Perhaps the reader won’t be particularly keen to see controversial ‘celebs’ such as Johnson, Trump or Schwarzenegger in positions of power in Wales.

But the choice of President would of course be up to the people of Wales. And if they choose a politician from outside of the current consensus, with very different ideas about how things should be run, all the better.

  1. Geographic balance

One other possible advantage of having a separate legislative branch is that it could be an opportunity to redress the north-south, east-west balance in Wales.

A President would be accountable to voters in all of Wales, and would know that every vote counts. They wouldn’t be able to depend on electoral fortresses in any part of the country, or ignore counties where they had little hope of winning a seat.

The same BBC poll mentioned earlier showed that 31% thought that the south-east had profited most from devolution, while only 1% thought that north or mid-Wales had done best.

The legislative branch could be located somewhere in the north of Wales to counterbalance the Cardiff-centric nature of the Assembly.

Attention

Last year’s EU referendum showed how dangerous it can be when the public are ill-informed about the work a legislature does, or feel that it’s not directly accountable to them.

A directly elected Welsh executive branch would increase public interest in Welsh politics, as well as increase accountability. It would energise voters, activists, and politicians themselves.

There is nothing unusual about this idea – it is used successfully throughout the world, including within UK devolution.

We can only do so much about the lack of media attention for devolution in Wales. But there’s nothing stopping us from doing all we can to ensure that Welsh politics is interesting enough that people will want to pay attention to it.

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