Imagine just for a second that local government could be reformed to ensure people are more engaged, their votes matter and their voices are properly heard. That rather than putting up barriers to participating in democracy, those barriers were stripped away.
That is what has happened tonight in Wales as the Welsh Parliament/Senedd voted 39-16 to pass the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, a significant piece of legislation which transforms local elections and revolutionises the way councils operate.
The bill includes several ways to improve and expand Welsh democracy, changes that ERS Cymru have been fighting hard to achieve.
The Single Transferable Vote comes to Wales
This legislation is the first in Wales to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) into Welsh elections. For the first time councils will have the chance to move to a system that gives voters more choice, ensures their vote counts and delivers greater representation. A huge victory for campaigners of electoral reform in Wales. Because of this Bill individual councils will now get to vote on whether to move from the ineffective First Past the Post System to STV, potentially ending years of uncontested seats and disproportionate results. Across the border in England, all local authorities will remain stuck with a system that doesn’t effectively deliver for voters.
Votes for 16 and 17 year olds in local elections
The bill will also open up our democracy to those previously shut out, extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds and to all foreign citizens legally resident in Wales. The franchise, which was previously extended for next year’s Senedd elections, will mean a whole new generation of voters will now have a say on the future of their local area. It leaves England and Northern Ireland as the only two nations in the United Kingdom that systematically denies the right to young people to have their say on critical issues which affect their day to day lives.
Automatic Voter Registration
The bill also paves the way for an overhaul of our outdated and ineffective system of voter registration. The bill could lead to a new system where registration officers can identify people missing from the register and let them know they’ll be added. This will go a long way in addressing the problems caused by the lack of integration between council services and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote come election day.
Changes will now also come into effect for the 2022 elections that put the emphasis on councils to better engage people living in their community. Councils will soon be required to publish strategies boosting participation in their area as well as develop and run petitions schemes allowing constituents to call for change on an issue affecting them.
The bill will also go some way to addressing issues with diversity. At the last elections in 2017 just 28% of those elected as councillors were women. While further work will need to be done here measures are being put in place to allow for job sharing in cabinet roles and greater training around diversity for members.
A victory for voters
All of this will see fundamental changes to the way local democracy works in Wales. We’ve been calling for these changes for a long time and now, thanks to this legislation, we’ve got them. Over the next few years we should see local authorities being brought into the modern era and making voters their priority and see our local democracy begin to thrive.
All of this change in Wales leaves us to ask ‘Why can’t England do the same?’
Urgent reform is required to deliver a fairer and more representative local government in England. With Scotland already leading the way on proportional representation and now Wales joining the cause for fairer votes surely England must be next. Eyes should be on Westminster to follow suit with a string of reforms to our local democracy and make sure voters all across the UK are fairly represented.
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