Thoughts on the Future of the Welsh Assembly
Following the recent European Union referendum, Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservative Party, stated that "If the question were put to the people [of Wales] tomorrow I believe that they would vote to abolish the National Assembly". His statement drew much criticism. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, said that "there are too many people in this country who are ready to jump up and claim we're not good enough, or that Westminster would somehow do a better job than we can". Bethan Jenkins, also of Plaid Cymru, immediately came to the Assembly's defence on Twitter, suggesting that Mr Davies' statement indicates that he might not be proving his worth as an AM. Such responses are inevitable and reveal an continued divide in Wales, between a British and a Welsh identity. There is no doubt that the British nationalists who supported Wales leaving the EU, either publicly or not, would also want to roll back the empowerment of the Assembly. It is a clear long-term threat to Westminster's grasp on power. The European Union has been instrumental in the development of Welsh identity and success in the last twenty years, so it is distressing to think what the consequences of leaving will be. It would therefore be tempting to refute any connection between June's referendum result and the Assembly's future status. However, we should not fail to heed such warnings. They would not cause such consternation were they entirely groundless.
Since its inception in 1999 the Welsh Assembly elections have failed to achieve more than 46% turnout. Any reasonable advocate of representative democracy would draw attention to this. The consequence is that despite providing a system to promote multiple party representation, the Welsh Assembly remains in essence a one-party electoral system. The joke about Welsh politics is that you could put a dead horse (or insert your own negative phrase) up for election, and Wales would vote for it as long as it had a red sash. This failure of the people of Wales to consider alternative options continues to place their future autonomy at risk. At a time when people feel unrepresented by a failed electoral system in Westminster, they are unlikely to offer much patience to the Welsh Assembly. It is therefore the Assembly's responsibility to communicate to people what it is, what it can and can't do and how it works. The consequence of a similar failure to engage the electorate can be seen in June's referendum result. As just one example, consider that in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the South West Wales constituency provided a turnout of just 31.5%. Is it really a surprise then that when asked whether they wanted to continue to be a part of the European Union the people of Wales agreed with a leave campaign that argued that it was undemocratic. Given the positive attitude that the Welsh Assembly had of the European Union, it is reasonable to have expected them to have worked harder at encouraging participation.
The challenge must then be to drastically improve participation in future Welsh Assembly elections, or else risk a similar fate. The Youth Assembly for Wales (previously called...ahem!...Funky Dragon) is currently conducting a consultation on its future. Anyone interested in this is invited to participate at http://www.funkydragon.org/en/. Engaging a country's younger people would provide clear evidence of a governments' long-term commitment to this agenda. A modern Youth Assembly should seek the full participation of younger people in Wales. To that end politics should be taught in schools from a very young age and student participation should be actively encouraged through debate clubs and school elections. It is worth taking inspiration from such school systems as America in this regards, which historically have high levels of participation in such extra-curricular activities. Non-partisan participation through unions, colleges and universities should also be sought to encourage participation in a fully engaged Youth Assembly. It is the role of politicians to engage with everyone, not just those who cast their vote, and this should begin as early as possible. Relevance and visibility is essential to the future success of the Youth Assembly for Wales, so it should regularly sit in the Senedd itself and be treated with as much consideration as the National Assembly, with whom it should have clear communication and input. This might seem difficult to achieve but if Wales truly is an ambitious country such challenges should be met with confidence and determination.
On the 18th of September 2014 Scotland held its own national referendum, asking 'Should Scotland be an Independent Country?'. The referendum's turnout of 84% should be held as a benchmark for all democratic governments. Following the result the Electoral Commission conducted a public survey, which offers a good insight into the attendance of certain age-groups during the referendum. The ICM survey indicated that 75% of registered 16 and 17 year olds voted in the Scottish referendum. It also repeated patterns seen in Austria and Norway, which already allow this age group to vote, indicating that turnout in groups aged between 18 and 24 tends to decrease (54%) before increasing again for 25 to 34 year olds (72%), and even further for those aged over 55 (92%). One suggestion for the high attendance in 16 and 17 year olds has been that this age range were encouraged to attend by their parents and that those who were aged between 18 and 24 years old, who are generally living away from their parents by this time, chose not to attend. Given the attendance of 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland and their increased legal rights in the UK, a reasonable argument can therefore be made for them being allowed to vote in future Assembly elections. The impact on engagement amongst this age group was startling during the Scottish referendum debate and its legacy has been their continued participation in Scottish politics, a swing toward the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the empowerment of the Scottish parliament within the United Kingdom.
Social media and other electronic communication tools should also be utilised to encourage and secure the future participation of younger people. Its use in the recent EU referendum, and the manner in which it contributed towards campaigners living within a bubble must not be ignored, but its power to engage people in active debate should not, and must not be ignored either. Estonia have allowed internet voting since 2005, beginning with local elections and expanding in 2015 to parliamentary elections where 176,491 people, 30.5% of all participants, cast their vote using the internet. In a world in which people conduct their daily banking over the internet it is difficult to believe that a secure system could not at least be trialed in some capacity, perhaps during future Youth Assembly elections. One of the benefits of having devolved governments within the United Kingdom has been the ability for UK states to impact on the wider nation with their own ideas. For example, it was Wales who first introduced the charge for plastic carrier bags. This was so successful that England have since initiated their own policy. Another example would be the recently reported increase in organ donations following the Welsh Assembly initiating an assumed consent policy. Wales has the potential with such an experiment to further impact on the wider UK with a progressive use of social media and electronic communication.
The internet is a great leveler, and should you be inclined to, all the information you will ever need is available to you. Wales does not have full internet coverage though and this must be taken into consideration when seeking to share information. The Welsh Assembly needs to engage in an active leaflet campaign in which they seek to provide information to the electorate about its functions and what it has achieved since its formation. A regular newsletter or information leaflets that are delivered through an aggressive postal campaign would be a good start. It would probably be necessary to begin with such basic information as what the Assembly is and how it works, what has the Assembly achieved, what powers does the Assembly have, and how does it interact with Westminster. Another proposal might be to assume that everyone on the electoral register wants to vote, but in order for them to be as inconvenienced as possible the Assembly should simply send everyone the necessary paperwork to vote by post. From that point it would then be their choice whether to (a) not participate (b) vote by post, or (c) take the provided paperwork to vote as they usually would.
In recent years it has been recognised that Wales has been sorely lacking in its own specific news media. The Western Mail, which claims to be the national newspaper of Wales, is visibly pro-UK, and owned by the UK's largest newspaper company, Trinity Mirror. Its capacity, or more to the point, its interest, in representing an alternative view of Wales is limited at best, especially when you consider that its circulation in North Wales is entirely nominal. The power of alternative voice newspapers and news providers to empower a nation has been clearly evidenced in Scotland, where they have their own national television channel that provides Scottish national news to the population (STV). During the 2014 referendum campaign Scotland also saw the launch of its own national newspaper, written from a pro-independence viewpoint, The National, which continues to be published long after the campaign ended. More recently, following the EU referendum result, The New European, a pro-Europe 'pop-up' weekly UK national was launched, offering an alternative perspective on Europe that was sadly lacking during the national "debate". Initially intended to be published for 4 weeks only, it has currently been extended to 12 issues. It is worth considering whether the result of the EU referendum would have been different in Wales had such a newspaper been in existence. The point of such newspapers is not that they they offer the 'correct' perspective on the world, only that they offer an 'alternative' one. In Wales, we are inundated with national newspapers that exhibit a clear pro-Brexit and pro-union perspective and there were very few television debates with a specific welsh perspective. It is very difficult for to come to a reasoned conclusion when you are only offered one solution.
In a recent article Leanne Wood drew attention to how a 2011 referendum on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly, and recent polling results, suggest that support in Wales for the Assembly has increased since 1997. However, only 35.63% of the registered electorate voted in 2011, and whilst polls might suggest positive attitudes towards the Assembly, such surveys are notoriously prone to swift changes depending on the public mood of the time. This is why we do not and should not rule by plebiscite. The turnout in 2011 and the recent EU referendum result should be a stark warning to everyone in Wales who supports the Welsh Assembly. The time is right for a drastic rethink on how we engage the people of Wales about the future of our country, and this must include new ideas and a clear planned agenda to increase turnout at the 2021 Assembly elections to at least finally pass 50%.