Labour and Plaid Cymru deal is a big step forward for Wales’ democracy

Author:
Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 23rd November 2021

This week saw a historic moment in Wales. Standing on the steps of the Senedd on Monday afternoon, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price announced The Co-operation Agreement, setting out around 50 policy areas where the two parties will work together.

Set to last three years, the agreement is far-reaching, spanning policies on free school meals, energy and second homeownership. In the midst of the deal is also a commitment on Senedd reform, an area ERS Cymru has been campaigning on for nearly a decade. 

The agreement commits the parties to work together to reform the Senedd, delivering a larger chamber of 80 to 100 members; a voting system, which is as proportional – or more – than the current one and legislating for gender quotas. 

This is a huge victory for the long-standing campaign to increase the size and the diversity of the Senedd. The Senedd’s size has been a talking point since it was established in 1999 and the need for more members has increased ever since.

ERS Cymru first highlighted the impact of the then Assembly’s lack of capacity back in 2014, recommending a chamber of 100 members. An earlier commission had called for it to increase to 80 and this was then followed by the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform in 2017, which recommended between 80 and 90. All significant increases to the current 60 person chamber.

Wales has been a leader on diversity in politics with the Senedd being the first legislature in the world to achieve gender parity back in 2003. But this has been hugely dependent on the electoral success of the parties who have used positive action measures such as All Women Shortlists to improve representation rather than through measures of the Senedd itself. As part of the Diverse 50:50 campaign with WEN, Race Council Cymru and EYST Wales (Ethnic Youth Support Team) we’ve been working to build up support for quotas to promote gender parity and wider diversity amongst elected representatives. The commitment of the agreement to commit gender quotas into law is a seminal moment for this campaign.

Yet, the work doesn’t stop here. These measures alone will not be enough to deliver the fairer, more representative politics we need. To do that there must be agreement on the voting system used to elect a bigger and stronger parliament. Without a commitment to a system like the Single Transferable Vote (STV), we risk undermining the steps made to deliver this much-needed reform.

We have been making the case to MSs and party insiders since our 2016 Reshaping the Senedd report that STV would be the ideal system for an enlarged Senedd – improving voter choice and delivering a more proportional result. This was backed up by the Expert Panel in 2017 and then a cross-party Senedd Committee in 2020 – both of which we gave evidence to

But we must do more if we are to see a Senedd that truly reflects the population of Wales, exploring how the commitment to positive action can be extended to include other underrepresented groups such as black, asian and minority ethnic women, disabled people and those from the LGBT+ community. 

Despite the need for more work to be done, we should recognise yesterday’s agreement for what it was – a giant step forward for electoral reform in Wales. Constitutional upgrade and cooperation are what progressive governments do, ensuring a strong and modern democracy is the foundation on which policy is made. We have huge challenges facing us as a country – the economy, the climate crisis and the pandemic recovery all need an effective government and parliament to tackle them. These measures provide the opportunity for getting that foundation right and meeting these challenges head-on. 

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