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The Assembly’s big conundrum

May 6th 2019

Twenty years on from the first elections to the National Assembly for Wales, Victoria Winckler asks why more people don’t vote to choose their elected representative.

It’s hard to believe that it’s twenty years since I, accompanied by my violently-objecting then-nearly-three-year-old, went to my local polling station to cast my vote in the first Assembly elections. There was novelty not only in voting for an Assembly Member but in having two separate votes – one for the constituency AM and one for the regional list AMs.

In bothering to vote at all, I was in a minority.

In the 1999 elections, only 45.9% of the electorate popped along to the polling station. This proportion was even less than the turnout in the referendum two years previously.  Fast forward to the most recent elections, and not much has changed in terms of voter turnout. The Electoral Commission’s report on the ballot notes a mere 45.6% voted in 2016.

The low turnout doesn’t reflect attitudes towards the Assembly itself.

Despite the apparent apathy in elections,support for devolution has grown steadily since 1997, to the extent that all major parties are now pro-Assembly.  The new Abolish the Assembly party attracted less than 5% of the vote in 2016.

So there’s a conundrum – people in Wales like the Assembly but they are not so keen that they can be bothered to choose who’s in government.

There’s been no end of reasons given for voter indifference

Various explanations of voter indifference have been offered.

Perhaps the most obvious is that despite 20 years of devolution, too many people still have no idea what the Assembly is or does. I still regularly hear people suggesting that someone writes to their MP about a problem in the NHS or further education. This is not surprising given the weakness of the Welsh media and the the persistent – even willful – neglect of devolution by UK media outlets.

It’s also often said that Welsh politics is dull and that there isn’t enough difference between the parties to make it worthwhile people turning out to put an X. Certainly Welsh politics lacks the yah-boo of the UK Parliament and thank goodness for that. And it’s also the case that none of the parties offer the kind of profound choices offered in the big turnout Brexit referendum. The prospect of parties having different positions on income tax in the 2021 elections might well change that of course.

And most recently the idea that the Assembly’s geographical remoteness from north Wales (indeed – almost all of Wales!) is a factor has been raised by the Llywydd, Elin Jones. It certainly doesn’t help having Wales’ national institution based at its most southerly tip, but it remains to be seen if decamping to Llangefni once a year will increase voter interest.

A stronger civil society would help

Much less often discussed is the relative weakness of Wales’ wider civil society. The Assembly alone cannot generate interest in its business. Nor is the media the only other vehicle.  Civil society bodies – trades unions, charities and, of course, think tanks like the Bevan Foundation, all help to raise awareness and understanding of devolution amongst the wider public. You would hope that people involved in fundraising for, say, the MS Society or Marie Curie, would know that health is devolved and that it is their AM, not their MP, taking decisions.

I suspect that electoral trends are like much else in Wales – the same as the rest of the UK but worse.  There is no single answer, whether it is holding Assembly sessions in north Wales or better coverage of devolved matters in the media. But it would all help – which is why you should support the Bevan Foundation.

We are part of the bigger picture, stimulating debate, coming up with creative solutions and engaging with communities across Wales. We don’t get government funding and rely on people like you to not only provide much-needed funds but get involved and spread the word. Sign up here.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.

 

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