Building Wales: Plaid Cymru's Participative Democracy

16 Feb 2013

Guest writer Leanne Wood is leader of Plaid Cymru


We may well live in a representative parliamentary democracy, but all too often democracy is only exercised at certain times. I believe the interaction between politicians and the people who elect them must go much further than the cross on the ballot paper.


One of the great advantages of our Senedd is its’ transparency and openness. Assembly Members are contactable, we are usually friendly and willing to discuss any issue with people. Polling regularly shows that, for a whole range of issues, Assembly Members are better trusted with power than Members of the UK Parliament.


That being the case it may seem odd that turnout for National Assembly elections remains stubbornly low, and why, despite the open door policy and easy access, do politicians remain mistrusted by significant sections of society?


The stereotype of a politician is the usual ‘pale, stale and male” which can limit the involvement from people who do not fit this bill.


Access to politics must be open and felt to be open by everybody throughout our country.


For example, since its inception, the National Assembly for Wales has done well in terms of reflecting Wales. It has had a far higher percentage of women elected than the Westminster Parliament, which has hopefully led to a more constructive political dialogue in Wales.


In recent years, however, numbers of women have dropped, showing there is far more work to be done to include women at all levels in Wales.


Our fledgling democracy needs more young people, those from so-called ethnic minorities, those with different abilities, all sexualities and classes, different everything. Our representatives should be an honest reflection of our country.


It is not just what our representatives look like, but it is important that they are approachable too. Representation is a two-way process and the process of listening and understanding is crucial to the way in which we do politics.


In that sense, social media has changed the game. It has helped to reduce the distinction between politicians and the people and forced politicians to leave their ivory towers. Responses and discussion between can be immediate, whether that’s a comment on a blog post (leave yours here!), on a Facebook profile or group or through Twitter and Linked In. It is a subtle but significant shift in the power relationship between politicians and the engaged public.


However, the digital divide that we have in Wales, with poorer take up of broadband or internet activity, means that participation must also mean the traditional, old-fashioned way of doing things. Public meetings, doorstep canvassing and street stalls all still have a very strong place in Welsh politics and will do so for some time.


Contact is crucial and that is why Plaid Cymru has stated our intention to hold one million conversations with the people of Wales ahead of the next National Assembly election in 2016.


Last November I announced that Plaid Cymru will have a crowd-sourced wiki-manifesto.


This is an ambitious idea, that we hope will give everybody the opportunity to have a voice in the policy process. It is an idea that was recently tested in Iceland where social media was used to get citizens to share ideas in forming the country’s new constitution.


We are mindful that, too often, policy discussions in Wales are dominated by only a handful of insights - ‘the usual suspects’. While those experts’ knowledge and experience is useful and gratefully received, they may not reflect wider opinions on subjects


For policy to reflect real life, we must reach the best-informed people in our communities who can provide new and original thinking in finding solutions to our problems as a society, and ensure that they are engaged in the policy formation process - in particular those with the real, ‘lived’ experience of policies who until now, have not had a say in how our country is run.


This means that proposals and opinions, whether fully-formed, half-formed or just felt in the gut, will all be taken into consideration.


Everyone has a role to play in building a better Wales


While the wiki-manifesto tag implies an online presence, the consultation process is intended to go beyond this. I’ll be visiting all corners of Wales over the next three years Wales to speak and listen to people face-to-face about their ideas and plans for building a better, more equal Wales.


It means taking politics out of Cardiff Bay and our National Assembly. When we campaigned for devolution back in 1997, we never intended to create another Westminster Village. We wanted a different politics representing our community of communities. We have yet to achieve this in full. People deserve a greater say in the shaping of our young democracy.


Our National Assembly belongs to the people of Wales. Without the people’s involvement we cannot have democracy at all.



1 Responses to Building Wales: Plaid Cymru's Participative Democracy

Philip Crocker 19 Feb 2013

Hi Leanne, your comments and concerns regarding true democracy reminded me of references I made in my MBA dissertation. Discussing democracy in the Organisational context rather than the Political, I directly quoted Linda Gratton (2004) who described democracy "as broader and deeper than the current notion of state democracy which has been reduced to merely having the right to elect a party or a leader". This is clearly in keeping with your view of the "cross on a ballot sheet".
Gratton (2004) went on to say that "the original inspiration for democracy was derived from ancient Athens, where observers marvelled at the agility, speed and courage of decision-making and the power of collective action generated by the wholehearted participation of citizens in the state". Surely a vision of democracy which now seems so distant from the experiences of most citizens living through our sophisticated times of excessive available information and transparent/accountable Government.
Just a viewpoint.