What was always set to be an interesting Welsh Labour conference this weekend quickly became one for the history books as Carwyn Jones used his conference speech to announce his intention to stand down as First Minister this Autumn.
It was a shock to many, with reports that barely anyone knew of his plans prior to the speech, but it was only minutes after his announcement that potential candidates for the leadership election were being pressed on whether they would stand.
At the time of writing, while there has been lots of discussion in the media and some refusals by front-runners to rule outstanding, no candidates have formally announced that they intend to run. This will be a drawn out process with the new Welsh Labour leader likely to be in place in December, leaving us with months of speculation yet on who will win the race.
Yet this leadership election should be less of a case of who runs and more of a case on how the candidates face up to some critical issues facing Wales.
Crucially, the leadership election offers a space to have a debate about how we improve the health of our democracy in Wales. I’m not just talking about the debate on how the leader is elected, which is likely to be the focus for many in the Labour party over the next few weeks and months, but how the next leader intends to resolve the disconnect between many people across Wales and what happens in Cardiff Bay every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.
Nearly twenty years after devolution, the democratic deficit in Wales still persists. We’ve had numerous polls showing a vast number of people across Wales don’t know who runs our health or education systems, turnout at local and Assembly elections remains disappointingly low and representation in local authorities across Wales is still dominated by white, middle-aged men with very little progress on improving diversity.
This has led to a Wales where most people are not engaged in decisions that affect their future, where people feel left behind and ignored. The first year for the new Labour leader will be one disproportionately focused on Brexit, and it is vital that any new First Minister properly engages people across Wales in this process. With Welsh democracy in the state it is in, that presents a real challenge.
To improve democracy the new leader must be prepared to engage properly with reform. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Welsh Labour have been slightly reticent on reform to date. Take for example current efforts to change the way the National Assembly for Wales works and is elected.
An expert panel reported in December calling for votes at 16 to be introduced, a larger Assembly and a different voting system. All of these areas could be significant in creating an Assembly that’s working better for the people of Wales, yet the Labour party have so far only agreed to consult its members on the issue. Yes, it’s always a hard case to make to increase the number of politicians in any institution but it is desperately needed in Wales. What’s missing at present is any real leadership on this issue.
The next First Minister must be able to articulate the benefits of a better functioning Assembly for all citizens and begin to address the challenges facing Welsh democracy.
This is an opportunity for Wales to lead on democratic reform, to engage its citizens and give them a greater voice in the running of the country.
We need someone that can lead Welsh Government to engage in more meaningful ways with a wide range of communities on critical policy changes that will affect people’s lives, someone who can take radical action on politics’ failure to properly represent the diversity of people across this country, and someone who can make politically difficult decisions on democratic reform.
By addressing some of the uncomfortable truths around the health of our democracy, the next Welsh Labour Leader will be in a much stronger position to lead Wales to its true potential.
This article was originally published in the Western Mail on April 24, 2018.