Planet Platform

Catrin Lewis argues that moves to increase the number of MSs in the Senedd should be welcomed. However, she puts forward that the lack of discussion about Senedd reform as a whole in the public sphere overshadows the benefits Senedd expansion would bring to Welsh democracy.

Features by students from the School of Journalism, Media and Culture (JOMEC) at Cardiff University, commissioned and published as part of our sponsorship partnership with JOMEC.

  Cardiff University 

From starting new schools to being presented with new leaders, Autumn has been full of transitions, uncertainty and divisive opinions, and has served as a demonstration of just how inescapable change is on both the personal and wider scale. Whilst some of us embrace it others fear it, finding comfort in the safety of routine and the security of old ways. These polarised attitudes towards change have been around for some time with the 1997 Welsh devolution referendum, for example, resulting in a very marginal 50.3% voting in favour of a Welsh Assembly whilst a – very slightly – smaller cohort of 49.7% disagreed. This historic political event has become a testament to complicated attitudes towards change, particularly in politics.

There is no surprise, therefore, that these split opinions have been echoed in response to the proposal to expand the Senedd. The prospect of a Senedd reform first came to light in 2004 following a series of reports recommending that the move was necessary to tackle increasing workloads facing MSs. However, it was the establishment of The Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform in October 2021 that revived these conversations, making Senedd expansion a very possible reality. In summary, the expansion would aim to increase the number of Senedd members from 60 to 96 in response to MSs struggling to cope with greater workloads. Along with adding more members, the changes would also include the formation of new constituencies and adopting a different electoral system known as ‘zipping’ (a procedure whereby a party’s list of candidates alternates between male and female candidates, thus – alongside statutory integrated gender quotas – ensuring that equal numbers of male and female candidates appear on party lists).

The Western Mail’s Martin Shipton is just one commentator who has raised legitimate concerns surrounding the proposed shift to a ‘closed list’ system whereby the electorate could only vote for a party and not an individual candidate. The concerns raised include the fact that, in his words, ‘tribal party loyalists’ have a greater chance of being selected than independent-minded candidates. However, this feature will focus on the moves to increase the number of MSs, and the public response – or relative lack thereof – to this proposal.

Welsh Labour voted in favour of the Senedd reform proposal in July 2022 with a majority of 76%, whilst Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price described the system at Westminster as outdated and noted that the move would, ‘lay the foundations for a stronger Welsh democracy and a fairer, more representative Senedd’.

However, despite Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru being overwhelmingly in favour of the expansion, members of the Conservative party along with elements within the general public have expressed their concerns.

One of the main setbacks of the plan is the economic burden that it would place upon Wales, as it has been estimated by The Senedd Commission to cost between £11.7 and £12.9 million in taxpayer money. Many have argued that there are more urgent issues that should be funded, particularly considering rising living costs meaning that people are increasingly reliant on financial aid to sustain themselves and their families. This is a concern that has been echoed by the leader of the Welsh Conservatives Andrew RT Davies who fears that investing in Senedd expansion would limit the funding invested in other areas.

Whilst the Senedd expansion would, undoubtedly, impact Welsh citizens by allowing more laws and policies to be discussed, and offering greater capacity for MSs to address individual concerns of constituents, some struggle to understand how the change would benefit them with a number of Welsh citizens taking to social media to state the need for ‘more doctors not politicians’. The hardships caused by rising living costs and loss of life due to hospital waiting times are something that have directly affected tens of thousands of people across Wales. Therefore, it’s easy to understand why investing in emergency services and providing financial support to individuals may be viewed as more valuable by most citizens. Although Senedd expansion would likely play a crucial part in initiating significant changes, the effects wouldn’t be felt directly with its impact coming into play gradually rather than immediately.

The lack of understanding surrounding the benefits and implications of Senedd expansion is an explicit demonstration of the democratic deficit currently facing the nation, with a critical lack of media focused on Welsh politics and lack of political education in schools, to give just two examples of this deficit. The scarcity of cohesive and detailed coverage of what the expansion would achieve makes it difficult for those who aren’t actively researching Senedd-related current affairs to understand its implications, with some left in the dark regarding what it would mean whilst others are entirely unaware of the proposal. This has left many feeling distanced from what is happening, as is often the case with Welsh current affairs, viewing it as something that benefits the ruling classes rather than ordinary citizens. Whilst the move would affect people of all backgrounds across the nation, it cannot be expected for people to support the plan if no effort is made to involve their input.

One citizen chose to display their anger toward this lack of public involvement in the decision-making by creating a petition urging the Welsh Government to hold a referendum before going ahead with the plans. Whilst the petition has only gathered around 1,500 votes thus far, a recent YouGov poll suggested that only 39% of the public backed the plan, with a substantial 33% responding with ‘don’t know’. Statistics like these demonstrate just how disconnected many Welsh citizens feel from politics, suggesting that not enough is being done to incorporate public opinion in Senedd decision-making nor to educate the nation surrounding current affairs.

Therefore, whilst I would argue that Senedd expansion offers a progressive change for Wales, Welsh democracy surely cannot thrive without it fully incorporating the public. Whilst Welsh politics has faced issues of all shapes and sizes over the years, the democratic deficit may be the largest of them all, and one that the nation must overcome to create a healthier democratic environment for the future Welsh political sphere.

Planet Platform