With a strong mandate Labour now has a once in a generation change to deliver desperately needed Senedd Reform
Jess Blair, Director of ERS Cymru
When Mark Drakeford and Adam Price stood on the steps of the Senedd in November 2021 and announced The Cooperation Agreement, they set in place a process of collaboration on policy for the next three years.
One of the areas they agreed to collaborate on was Senedd reform. In the agreement the parties set out a commitment to an expanded Senedd of between 80 to 100 Members; a commitment to a voting system, which is as proportional – or more – than the current one and to enshrine gender quotas into law.
While Plaid Cymru have been committed to Senedd reform for some time this was a significant step forward for Welsh Labour. Their 2021 manifesto had had a loose commitment to reforming the Senedd stating they would “improve the representation of the people of Wales in their Parliament.”
The Cooperation Agreement certainly moved Welsh Labour’s position in the right direction with clear and solid commitments on these key issues of reform. It also, most importantly, committed to legislating on these commitments and making them a reality.
But, as Mark Drakeford made that agreement with Plaid Cymru, questions remained over whether the Welsh Labour party membership moved on with the leadership on these issues.
Last weekend 500 people gathered in Llandudno for Welsh Labour conference – their first in-person gathering since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. One of the first items on the agenda was a debate on Senedd electoral reform, discussing a Welsh Executive Committee report looking into options for moving forward on this issue. That report contained eight recommendations for progressing talks between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru on the size of the Senedd, the electoral system and boundaries and measures on diversity.
While the debate on the size of the Senedd has been taking place for nearly twenty years, this has often been a difficult conversation for those within the Labour party in Wales. Yet, on Saturday there was strong support from a range of speakers, including council leaders, Members of the Senedd, union representatives, and party members from the breadth and depth of Wales. The most striking of these were the young members, those who had grown up in a devolved Wales, and made the case that an increase in the size of the Senedd is vital for a maturing modern democracy.
At voting time the result was emphatic. Hundreds of hands up in support of passing the report. Zero in opposition. The vote was unanimous.
It is hard to describe how significant this vote is. Senedd reform cannot happen without two thirds of the Senedd backing it, and with Welsh Labour as the largest party any reform relies on their support. The full support of party members strengthen Labour’s mandate to deliver on this agenda.
And these reforms are desperately needed. Nearly 25 years after the narrow victory for the yes campaign in the referendum on devolution the Senedd has changed beyond recognition, going from a small Assembly with no government functions and limited powers to a fully fledged Welsh Parliament with law making and tax raising powers.
This is a parliament that has spent the last two years scrutinising major legislation and budgets in the midst of a pandemic and has had just over 40 people to do so, when government ministers, party leaders and Senedd Commission representatives are removed. Ultimately this isn’t about more politicians but better public services and governance for our country.
This vote recognises that the time is right for a parliament that can properly scrutinise decisions, for an electoral system where each vote counts and for our elected representatives to more accurately reflect the people of Wales.
It signals that the Welsh Labour party had indeed moved with the party leadership on this issue.
Ultimately, this vote provides the endorsement the First Minister Mark Drakeford needs to go into negotiations with Plaid Cymru on Senedd reform and come back with specific proposals on a stronger Senedd by 2026. These negotiations must be ambitious and forward thinking.
We have a once in a generation chance to deliver a parliament that works for Wales, and thanks to last weekend’s conference this chance is greater than ever.
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