Thursday, 18 August 2011

Stormy weather

Posted on Wales Home on August 10th 2011

IT IS THE calm before the storm. With both Westminster and Cardiff Bay in recess the political scene appears tranquil, but storm clouds are gathering. And when the new Parliamentary boundaries are published for the rest of the UK next month they will erupt.

A reduction in the number of MPs Wales sends to the House of Commons by a quarter is certain to unleash powerful and unpredictable weather within the political parties as politicians digest the implications of reshaped constituencies. As well as having profound implications for the nature of future UK Governments, the changes will have more immediate impacts on Welsh politics.

Even though the detailed proposals for Wales will not now be published until January, the febrile Westminster atmosphere will make MPs jumpy. At a time when delicate political judgements will be required to decide the future funding arrangements for the Welsh Government, our MPs will be pre-occupied. Where calm minds and even tempers will be needed, frayed nerves and anxiety are likely to be found.

There will also be a direct knock on consequence for the way the National Assembly is elected. Some 40 of the Assembly’s 60 seats are based on the boundaries for Westminster constituencies. With the template changing it is almost certain that the Assembly boundaries will follow suit.

We could follow Scotland where voters find themselves in different constituencies for Holyrood and Westminster elections. But this messy arrangement is seen as an unhappy precedent that few want to follow. Instead Peter Hain has proposed a complete re-jig of the Assembly’s voting system. Instead of the present mixed system of First Past the Post and PR, Mr Hain – an advocate of PR for Westminster and one of the leaders of the 1997 referendum campaign which introduced the ‘element of proportionality’ into the Assembly’s voting system – now wants something quite different.

The Shadow Welsh Secretary is pushing for 30 two-member constituencies using the same electoral system as the House of Commons. A rival proposal favoured by the other three parties is to increase the number of AMs elected on party lists to make the Additional Member System more proportional – and in-turn less favourable to Labour.

The debate is likely to get ugly as each side in the debate digs in behind a voting system that is more likely to benefit their party. But behind this wall of white noise the National Assembly will be getting on with using its new law making powers. While the question of the distribution of seats will cause much angst, the question of whether 60 AMs is sufficient remains.

Though March’s referendum now seems like a distant memory some important issues that were raised in the campaign remain to be addressed. Much as I disagreed with True Wales, there was much in the analysis put forward by Rachel Banner that struck a nerve. In particular her points around deficiencies in scrutiny were well made. In her WalesHome essay during the campaign she argued that:

“the serious lack of plurality in the Welsh press means that it is much more difficult for a unicameral Assembly with the greatly enhanced law-making power… to be held accountable”.

On this her analysis was right, but her solution was wrong. So how do we address the problem of accountability and scrutiny in a more autonomous Wales?

Cymru Yfory has an answer to this question, and it’s been perfectly consistent in making the case of the Richard Commission. it says the number of Assembly Members needs to be increased from 60 to 80. Its position seems to have support from unexpected quarters. In a letter to the Western Mail in the aftermath of the vote the former Labour leader of Bridgend Council, Jeff Jones, wrote that: “one of the problems with our Assembly is that it is actually quite a tiny institution with not much depth of talent”.

He drew the comparison between the size of the Assembly with the Parliaments of Estonia (which has 101 MPs with a population of 1.3 million), and Ireland (166 TDs and a population of 4.5 million). He might have added that it is also smaller than the House of Representatives in the US states of North Dakota (94), and Vermont (148) – all of which have smaller populations than Wales.

Yet, while there may be an intellectual case for increasing the number of AMs, it is politically difficult impossible to justify in the aftermath of a referendum campaign that was fought on the premise that the number didn’t need to rise.

That said, the question of how we apportion elected representatives to our various levels of Government has been reopened by the decision of the Westminster coalition to reduce the number of MPs from Wales by 25%. The precise calibration of how many politicians we need at each level of government is a question that will come up again when the time comes to re-examine the number of Welsh councils. By then we will have had some experience of operating a legislative Parliament with 60 AMs. At that point it may be possible to recalibrate and increase the number of AMs, providing the total number of politicians in Wales does not rise overall.

In the meantime, how do we strengthen the Assembly’s ability to scrutinise the Welsh Government? Professor Laura McAllister from Liverpool University has analysed the devolved legislatures across the UK and believes there is a weakness in scrutiny capacity in general, and in Wales in particular. She points to the small scale of the Assembly and the weakness of civil society as the main causes, and argues that the coming of primary powers is likely to stretch ever further our capacity to scrutinise.

As Jeff Jones suggested, there is a need to draw on a greater ‘depth of talent’, and even if the number of AMs was to increase, the question of ‘depth’ would still remain a moot one. The dedication and drive required to gain entry into formal politics is resulting in an increasingly narrow political class. A small country such as ours with its democracy still in its infancy needs to draw on as wide a talent pool as possible to prove the naysayers wrong.

One way forward was floated three years ago by the former Welsh Government Minister Jane Davidson. She suggested bringing ‘talented non-politicians’ into the Assembly via the PR top-up lists. She argued there were many people of ability with a passion for Wales who did not want to enter formal politics, but would be willing to serve for a defined period. However, her call for political parties to reserve a third of the Assembly seats for outsiders and to put tribalism to one side came unstuck because of, well, tribalism.

Nonetheless, the spirit of her suggestion is surely right. Laura McAllister has pointed to examples of Scandinavian and Commonwealth states like Norway, Iceland, Canada and New Zealand where outsiders are co-opted onto parliamentary committees. By ‘outsourcing’ some of the scrutiny function their parliaments have increased their ability to hold their Governments to account and simultaneously strengthened civil society.

It is a model that should be considered by the Assembly Commission. After all, it was adopted by the business community long ago in the form of non-executive directors to challenge the executive, look after the interests of the company’s share-holders, and bring a range of experiences to the board table. The particular advantage of adapting the model to fit into the context of the Assembly is that it would bolster its capacity to scrutinise, without increasing the number of AMs.

No matter what electoral system we settle on, or where the constituencies’ boundaries lay, unless we can create the capacity and the culture to challenge the state we are in, we will not fulfil the potential of our country and its people.

This is an adapted extract from an article in the latest edition of the IWA’s Agenda journal

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