When Ron Davies described the idea of devolution as a ‘process not an event’ back in 1999 he had little idea his words would come to describe a quarter of a century of reform in Wales. His words have become an adage of sorts, a trope even, and one found in nearly every piece of analysis on Welsh political developments.
The thing is that those old adages are so often true. Davies’ words seem particularly fitting right now as we take the next step in that ‘process’ – the long overdue reform of the Senedd.
The Senedd was opened in 1999, and it’s fair to say that in its 23 year history we’ve been talking about its need for reform for nearly 20 of them. In that time a lot has changed; devolution of further powers, a referendum that allowed the Senedd to make its own laws as well as tax-raising powers to name just a few. But throughout all of this the number of seats in the Siambr (Senedd chamber) has stubbornly remained at just 60.
The first report recommending an increase in the number of members (MSs) was back in 2004 though little if any action was taken. It was another 13 years before the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform called for a package of reforms including an increase to between 80-90 members, a change in voting system and quotas. These were then backed up by the first cross-party committee on reform in 2020. Now, in 2022, we’re closer than ever seeing these changes come to life.
In the Senedd last week, MSs voted to approve a new report from a cross party committee, which has recommended an increase in the Senedd to 96 seats, a new voting system using closed proportional lists with the first gender quotas in the UK to go alongside them. Their support means that these recommendations will now go to the Welsh Government, who will plan to draft a bill delivering on these proposals for the next elections in 2026.
While we’re delighted to see the Senedd back plans to increase the size of the Senedd to 96, we do have concerns around the closed list system that will elect these members. We are hugely supportive of the move away from First Past the Post and the move to multi member constituencies – a clear rejection of the kind of dated, winner-takes-all politics we see all too often in Westminster. Yet, a closed list system comes with its own issues – it’s a system that restricts voter choice and puts too much power back in the hands of parties and party members. Allocating seats by the D’hondt method (as proposed) also risks a system that won’t be much more proportional than the current AMS system and could lock smaller parties out.
Measures to improve the Senedd’s diversity in terms of gender are the first of their kind in UK politics and a landmark to be welcomed. The Senedd hit the headlines back in 2003, becoming the first legislature to reach 50:50 gender equality. Since then representation of women has slipped back and the hope is that integrating gender quotas into the electoral system will lock in greater gender diversity.
Yet, gender is only part of the story on diversity. On other areas, such as race and ethnicity, the Senedd has been poorer on representation. It was only last year that the Senedd finally elected its first female ethnic minority member. These proposals are a clear step forward but there is also more work to be done sooner rather than later – something thankfully the committee has recommended.
Overall, while we have concerns about some elements of this Senedd reform package, it does signify a huge moment in Wales’ devolution journey.
The next step, to turn these plans into law, will likely begin next year. Discussions must start on how we turn these proposals into a bill that will deliver a stronger, fairer and more diverse parliament. The Senedd will have waited over 25 years for reform, let’s now work together to deliver these plans for a better democracy in a way that works for all of Wales.
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