As she joins us as the new Director of ERS Cymru, Jess Blair sets out the challenges and opportunities for deepening Welsh democracy.
In the last twelve months the political landscape across the world has fundamentally changed. We’ve seen the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, President Trump’s inauguration and two elections in Northern Ireland. This year looks set to be no less eventful with elections across Europe and a reinvigorated constitutional debate ahead of what’s likely to be another Scottish referendum.
With so much going on globally it’s easy to miss what’s going on locally.Yet in Wales fundamental changes are heading our way, which bring a whole host of new opportunities and challenges.
The first few months of this year in particular have laid the groundwork for a reform of the way things work in Wales.
Firstly, the Wales Act was passed, which will bring new powers to Wales over elections and the opportunity to increase the size of the assembly and introduce Votes at 16.
Then, at the end of January, the Welsh Government published its Local Government Reform White Paper setting out plans for changing elections in Wales at a local authority level. This featured a proposal that local authorities be able to choose from using the First Past the Post electoral system or the Single Transferable Vote, as well as a reduction in the voting age in local elections in Wales. Furthermore, the White Paper also introduces the idea that elections may be conducted differently in Wales, with a review of postal voting procedures, the use of all-postal elections, electronic voting, electronic counting of votes, voting at places other than polling stations, and proposals to hold elections on different days all on the agenda.
This paper signals that the Welsh Government are open to new ideas and that Wales could be a trailblazer for innovative ways of conducting elections that could appeal to a much wider set of voters.
Despite these huge steps forward there are no guarantees that some of the greatest challenges facing democracy in Wales will be met. While the foundations have been laid, delivery is now the watchword.
Increasing the capacity of the Assembly is of vital importance, particularly considering the impending loss of 11 of our MPs with boundary changes by the next General Election. With new powers and the need to step up to the changes that Brexit will bring, the current number of Assembly Members is not sufficient. Changing this needs the support of two-thirds of AMs and could be politically difficult. ERS Cymru will be working hard to further the case for a bigger capacity for the Assembly following our recent report with the Wales Governance Centre, Reshaping the Senedd.
We’ll also be keeping a close eye on the upcoming local elections in Wales. On May 4th, council seats across Wales will be contested. But with just a 38.6% turnout overall in 2012 and 9% of seats with just one candidate, the pressure is on to ensure a more engaging and fairer election in two months’ time. If you’re not already registered to vote in the local elections you can do so here.
With so much change going on in the governance arrangements of Wales there’s never been a more critical time for ERS Cymru. I’m so excited to be joining the team and building on the great work undertaken by Steve Brooks, ERS Cymru’s Director since 2011.
There is a real chance for the Electoral Reform Society in Wales to effect change and improve the way Wales works. By engaging more people in a fairer way, Wales can thrive. And ERS Cymru intends to play a key role in making that happen. Would you like to join us to help it happen?