The Independent View: Direct democracy in Wales

The idea of recall caught Welsh media attention on Monday, when Kirsty Williams, Welsh Lib Dem leader, made the case for this form of direct democracy to apply to Assembly Members if 20% of local voters signed a petition.

Direct democratic methods such as recall, referendums and petitions are increasingly popular, especially among those who least trust politicians. For many of these citizens, taking control into their own hands is preferable to either creating more politicians (mayors; assemblies) or giving the existing crop more powers. So as Westminster continues to debate a (limited) form of recall, it makes sense for Wales to consider similar measures. After all, Wales suffers a similar disconnect from formal party politics as other parts of UK and actually has the lowest turnout in any devolved elections. Kirsty Williams’ model is an improvement on the current proposal before Westminster, which puts the recall trigger in politicians’ rather than citizens’ hands.

But Kirsty’s speech, given at ERS Cymru’s first Platfform event, went beyond single policies to offer ‘a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform’. Direct democracy was there (recall, American-style propositions and mini-referendums); but so was renewal of existing institutions (more AMs to reflect greater powers, combined with the Single Transferable Vote – ‘the best way to make every vote count’), as were reforms designed to bring voting into the modern era (same-day registration; experimenting with election timing; online voting and extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds).

(It was great to hear a Welsh party leader throw down the gauntlet to others to join her in supporting the call for more Assembly Members. Kirsty bases her argument on the need for greater scrutiny, as more powers are devolved. In Size Matters, our report written jointly with the UK’s Changing Union project, we make a detailed case for increasing the number of Assembly members from 60 to 100, drawing on evidence from legislatures elsewhere. Now that Kirsty has shown the Lib Dems’ commitment to this idea, we hope others will follow suit so we can have a mature debate about the levels of representation required for effective scrutiny and accountability.

Another broad theme to emerge was about who is responsible for the health of our democracy. This is a highly relevant issue for those of us keen to see a constitutional convention bring together citizens and politicians as equals, to deliberate and draw up recommendations on identified constitutional issues. For Kirsty, democratic participation includes civic groups taking responsibility for legislative scrutiny, for example by being open with decision-makers about their true opinions of public services and government policy.

Finally, noting her pride in the strength of Liberal Democrats’ internal democracy, Kirsty Williams promised to put her democratic reform package to party conference in Aberystwyth this weekend. Crucially, the package combines institutional and voting changes with ideas for fostering a greater culture of participation outside election periods. From extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds to fresh ways to encourage participation, they provide a fantastic starting point for members to debate the future health of our democracy.

* Katie Ghose is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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