The debate about the UK’s constitutional arrangements has come to the fore in recent years. We’ve seen a Scottish referendum, with another possible next year, the UK’s exit from the European Union and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
In Wales, we’ve seen a process of devolution, with ongoing changes to the devolution settlement ever since the 1997 referendum, and there have subsequently been questions about how Wales fits into a changing UK.
Given all this upheaval at both a Welsh and UK level, the Welsh Government has established the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which has two broad objectives;
- To consider and develop options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part.
- To consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales.
As part of this a national conversation was launched, asking people and organisations across Wales to have their say about the way Wales is run.
ERS Cymru’s response to this consultation highlighted the democratic deficit in Wales, which is demonstrated partly by low turnout at devolved elections. While the pandemic showed that the Welsh Government is able to forge a different path, and though the public is generally supportive of that, we are yet to see that feed through into how the public engages with elections. The 2021 Senedd elections saw a turnout of 46.6% and early figures suggest turnout in the 2022 local elections was slightly down on 2017 at 39%.
This low engagement from the Welsh public and the backdrop of constitutional change and unrest led us to highlight three main areas where we think the commission should look to make recommendations;
- Process – improving access to democratic participation in Wales.
- Engagement – increasing engagement and understanding; embracing innovations in deliberative democracy.
- Governing – reimagining the governing structures of the UK to build collaboration and trust between different levels of government, and ensuring that decisions are being made as close as possible to the people and communities they will affect.
Improving access to democracy can be achieved partly by improving the processes we have around our elections.
The latest estimates from the Electoral Commission (December 2018) suggest that around half a million people in Wales (410,000 – 560,000) are missing from the electoral register. Improving access to our voting system through automatic voter registration would be a significant step forward in removing one of the first barriers to democratic participation.
We would also like to see a voting system used in all devolved elections that ensures seats match votes and which maximises voter choice. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is our preferred method of achieving this where, along with seats matching votes, voters are also enabled to express their voting preferences without the fear of wasting their vote.
In addition, decisions and the workings of government at all levels should be transparent and adhere to the principles of Open Government (transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation).
It’s clear from our 2017 Missing Voices report that a lack of understanding around politics along with frustration around how decisions are made are key reasons for disengagement in Wales. This lack of understanding was echoed by young people across Wales in our 2018 Our Voices Heard report.
The lack of a robust and varied Welsh media increases the democratic deficit in the country. A survey by the BBC/ICM in 2014 found only 48% people could correctly identify that health was a devolved matter, and 42% of people wrongly believed the then National Assembly had control over policing.
ERS has long advocated for proper political education in Wales as one means of combating the democratic deficit. In 2018 as part of the Our Voices Heard project we worked with over 200 students in twelve schools throughout Wales co-producing recommendations about what they wanted to learn in school to prepare them to participate fully in democracy.
The use of deliberative tools, such as citizens’ assemblies, at various levels of government can also help to build trust between the electorate and the system as well as providing legitimate, effective and sustainable solutions to the problems we face in the 21st century.
The current balance of powers within the UK is failing, anchored in Westminster and underpinned by its centralising and power-hoarding structures and culture.
There should be a new constitutional framework, based on an overarching, comprehensive, long-term vision and purpose, and underpinned by clear principles and parameters, to serve as the overall structure of the UK’s governance arrangements – across, between and within each constituent part. We would advocate for UK-wide constitutional conventions to help determine these arrangements.
We would also advocate for reform of the House of Lords as a central pillar in strengthening and enhancing the UK’s governance arrangements, recognising the UK as it is, not as a pre-devolution, unitary state. A reformed and elected second chamber could serve as a forum in which the four nations can work together.
Within Wales itself, devolved powers are still highly centralised within the Senedd. Powers should be dispersed more widely across Wales and brought as close as possible to people and communities, in line with the principle of subsidiarity, allowing for local policy-making and citizen involvement.
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