The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) welcomes the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales’s national conversation about the way Wales is run, through its open consultation. Debate and concerns around Wales and the UK’s constitutional arrangements, and their long-term stability and effectiveness, have come to the fore in recent years, particularly in light of the UK’s exit from the European Union and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. The ERS has long campaigned on issues relating to the future governance of Wales and the UK, including calling for UK-wide constitutional conventions as well as advocating for measures to improve democracy in Wales, from Senedd reform to the use of deliberative democracy tools.
About the Electoral Reform Society
The Electoral Reform Society is the UK’s leading voice for democratic reform. We work with everyone – from political parties, civil society groups and academics to our own members and supporters and the wider public – to campaign for a better democracy in the UK.
Our vision is of a democracy fit for the 21st century, where every voice is heard, every vote is valued equally, and every citizen is empowered to take part. We make the case for lasting political reforms, we seek to embed democracy into the heart of public debate, and we foster the democratic spaces which encourage active citizenship.
The Electoral Reform Society would like to see a Wales where every voice is heard, every vote is valued equally, and every citizen is empowered to take part. This includes improving our democracy by removing barriers to participation at all levels, increasing engagement and ensuring everyone has the knowledge they need to make informed decisions.
With devolved elections yet to reach 50% turnout and a backdrop of declining trust in politics and politicians across the UK more generally, it is clear that something needs to be done to reinvigorate democracy in Wales as well as across the UK.
The Covid-19 pandemic showed that the Welsh Government is able to forge a different path and that the public is generally supportive of that. However, this support and increased salience of the Senedd, Welsh Government and devolution did not equate to significantly higher turnout in the 2021 Senedd elections (at 46.6% this was the highest turnout to date, though still less than 50 percent of the electorate) or the 2022 local elections where turnout ranged from 31.33% in Torfaen to 48.6% in Ceredigion. We need to change how we do democracy in order to reconnect the electorate and politicians and in some cases forge first connections. We commend the Welsh Government for the steps it has taken to broaden democratic engagement in Wales over the last couple of years, from extending the franchise to the flexible voting pilots, however there is still much work to be done. Below we have outlined the changes we think could help reduce this democratic deficit and build a Wales where everyone’s voice is part of the conversation.
These changes fall into three main themes:
- 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.
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. The report’s chair, Sir John Holmes, reflected that these findings ‘should not be acceptable in a modern democracy’ and called for more innovative use of the national data already available in addressing this problem by moving towards automatic or more automated forms of registration. 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.
In addition to increasing the accessibility of registering to vote, making sure everyone is able to follow through and cast their vote on election day is also crucial. We are keen to see the outcomes of the flexible voting pilot schemes that took place during the local elections earlier this year and would advocate that any lessons in increasing engagement through broadening access to voting are taken forward and rolled out across Wales ahead of the next devolved elections.
We would 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. While we welcome the current progress on Senedd Reform in embedding a commitment to proportional representation and a clear rejection of the winner-takes-all First Past The Post (FPTP) system, the current plans for a Closed-List PR electoral system still do not provide the freedom of choice that the electorate deserves. While this system goes some way to addressing the tactical voting regularly employed in FPTP elections, including the constituency voting element of AMS currently used in Senedd elections, it falls short on voter choice, with votes only given to a party not specific candidates. Here STV is the gold standard, maximising voter choice beyond a single ‘X’ through preference transfers while providing fair and proportional results. Progress has also been made on local government elections with the opportunity for councils to optionally move to an STV system if there is over 2/3rds support. While we welcome the option to introduce STV at a local level, much more needs to be done in supporting councils to make the move.
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. It cannot be right that many people do not receive basic information about the Senedd and Welsh Government that allows them to participate meaningfully in Senedd elections and Welsh politics in general.
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.
A number of committee reports and academics have mentioned devolving or transferring some powers over broadcasting would improve media provision in Wales. This issue has been brought up frequently since the beginning of devolution and needs to be urgently considered especially now it is the view of the Welsh Government that broadcasting should be devolved following the Cooperation Agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.
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. As it stands, political education is patchy but when talking with young people, it is clear that there is a desire to know more about the way decisions are made, about how to campaign and influence those decisions, and how things in Wales actually work.
Statutory political education in schools would arm the next generation with the tools to make informed decisions while wider political education could help address the same issues amongst the wider population. Welsh Government’s commitment to ensuring pupils ‘understand and exercise their human and democratic responsibilities and rights’ through the new Welsh curriculum is a great step forward in addressing the knowledge gap amongst young people. However, every pupil must have an opportunity to learn the fundamental basics of our democracy or we will be repeating the mistakes of the past.
The use of deliberative tools, such as citizens’ assemblies, ensure that people are at the heart of decision making and can see their voices and opinions being respected and having an effect. The use of deliberative tools at various levels of government can help 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. ERS has led the way in Scotland using deliberative tools to empower local citizens to make decisions in their local areas through the Reclaiming Our Coalfield Communities project. As part of the Our Democracy coalition feeding into the Scottish government’s local governance review, ERS Scotland has piloted and developed innovative ways of involving citizens in the decisions that affect them, showing how to create ‘a ‘honeycomb’ of democratic layers’. Projects such as these can provide a route map to how similar engagement could be achieved across Wales.
The current balance of powers within the UK is failing, anchored in Westminster and underpinned by its centralising and power-hoarding structures and culture. Despite devolution across the UK, this centralisation permeates the British state’s relationships with the UK’s nations and localities, acting as a barrier to genuine and long-term collaboration, trust and parity of esteem.The ERS believes that the overall structure of, and approaches towards, constitutional arrangements regarding the governance of the UK should be revisited. 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. Principles might include: transparency, participation and co-creation, subsidiarity, trust, collaboration, and parity of esteem. A new framework of this kind should not only inform reform of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, but the various devolutionary settlements across the UK. 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 second chamber could serve as a forum in which the four nations can work together. An elected second chamber could be the place where UK-wide, sub-national, and cross-border issues are discussed, where sub-national interests and concerns can be raised and given a fair hearing away from the more politicised and short-term ethos of the House of Commons, and which provides a space for union-wide collaboration and shared learning on an ongoing basis.
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.