Working for eleven months at the Welsh Government has made me think more about the politics of the principality. This is the broader context of our work in social research.
The voter turnout for the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections was 45.3%. The voter turnout in the 2017 general election in Wales was 68.6%. (In England the voter turnout for the general election was 69.1% and in Scotland it was 66.4%, showing that the Welsh general election turnout was similar to that of other nations in the UK).
These figures seem surprising considering that the majority of topics such as health, education, and the environment are devolved to the Welsh Government. There are few subjects that Wales does not have control over, examples of these are defence, trade and monetary policy. I find it strange that the people in Wales are turning out for the general election, but the voter turnout for the Welsh Assembly elections is so low.
I suppose it makes sense that in the past, when Wales did not have many devolved powers, people may have felt it was more worthwhile to vote in general elections. Historically, voter turnout for Assembly elections is lower than that for general elections. However, now, when so many key topics are devolved, why are the people of Wales still not turning out for Assembly elections?
This is a big question that doesn’t have a simple answer. To find out more, I read an article on WISERD’s website which explains that in Wales there is a lack of basic information about the political system (https://wiserd.ac.uk/news/waless-schools-urgently-need-political-participation-lessons). People in Wales are frustrated with the political system and are confused by the different authorities. The article also suggests that people in Wales have a better understanding of British politics, rather than Welsh politics (potentially explaining why turnout for general elections is higher).
This lack of awareness has also been apparent in my own experience. When I moved to Cardiff I had very little understanding of the political systems in Wales. It took me a while to understand the different levels of government and their different roles. The Welsh political system is very confusing. Local elections, Assembly elections, general elections and EU elections amount to people being overwhelmed and unable to keep on track of what these systems do and how they affect the public. I was lucky that part of my induction at the Welsh Government involved a tour of the Senedd with a very well informed guide who could answer all my questions in lots of detail and provide me with a really clear picture of politics in Wales. But the fact it took me going to the Senedd and talking to someone who works there to get my head around it is not a good sign. People shouldn’t have to do this to get a basic understanding of politics in Wales.
The WISERD article suggests that the media has a responsibility to improve awareness of Welsh politics amongst the public. It also recognises the importance of the Welsh education system. It outlines that there are currently some political elements to education in Wales, however they don’t go far enough. It is necessary to have compulsory Welsh citizenship education in the national curriculum so every child in Wales is able to understand the political system and is politically informed. This will hopefully strengthen democracy in Wales by increasing voter turnout in Assembly elections and improve the legitimacy of the Assembly Government.
The lack of awareness of politics in Wales was also clear in the EU referendum results. In May 2016, itv news reported that Wales received £658m from the EU in 2014 (http://www.itv.com/news/wales/2016-05-24/wales-benefits-from-eu-budget-at-79-per-head-report-claims/), but that same month, the people of Wales voted to leave the EU in the national referendum. Why did Wales vote to leave the EU even though they benefit from it so much?!
The EU campaign in Wales was neglected by Assembly Members (AMs). The Welsh Assembly elections were held in May 2016. AMs were busy campaigning for this election, and Brexit was a mere afterthought by many Welsh politicians. In the end there was a poor remain campaign and Brexit was rarely looked at through a Welsh lens. This meant that the Welsh public did not receive different information from the UK public, so the result in the referendum in Wales was very similar to that in England. This was exemplified by the fact that the Welsh media coverage of Brexit was very poor. Again, the AM elections dominated media attention in the months leading up to Brexit, therefore the public were not provided with the arguments for the EU from a Welsh perspective.
The Welsh Government needs to address these issues. It is undemocratic to have a population who don’t understand the political system and don’t turn out to vote in elections. The political system needs to be communicated clearly and simply to the public. This can be via the education system or through general communications campaigns.
The Welsh Government has recognised disengagement of the public with Welsh politics and low voter turnout in Assembly elections as issues. As a result of the Wales Act 2017, elections are now a devolved power. In April 2018, the Welsh Government published a consultation on reforming elections in Wales (https://beta.gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultations/2018-04/180526-summary-of-responses.pdf).
The consultation focussed on local government elections. The Welsh Government hopes that the reforms outlined in the consultation will modernise the democratic process and improve engagement with Welsh politics, so it is also relevant for Assembly elections. The consultation considered the following topics: lowering the voting age to 16, EU residents’ and prisoners’ right to vote, electoral registration, and voting systems (changing from First Past the Post to Single Transferable Vote, electronic voting, changes to voting days, all postal voting). The Government is hoping implementing some of these changes will tackle issues of low engagement and low turn out in Welsh elections.
So they’re doing something about it! The Welsh Government is focussing on increasing engagement with Welsh politics. It’s encouraging to see a government reforming the voting system that put them into power - you’d think they’d be happy with the status quo! But they are committed to increasing voter turnout and increasing the legitimacy of their government. We’ll see if what they’ve done has worked in the Assembly elections in 2021. Hopefully they’ll be able to get a turnout of over 50%!