Let’s talk about Wales baby…

This is the first of what I intend to be a regular series of musings on the forthcoming Welsh General Election which will be held on 5th May 2016-but with a few twists!

At least some of the commentary that appears here will be deliberately written for an audience less familiar (or even completely in the dark) with the goings-on in Welsh politics and elections. Events in Scotland-the Independence referendum in 2014, the meteoric rise of the SNP, the wipe out of Scottish Labour-mean that anyone, inside or outside the United Kingdom, who shows an interest in the devolved nations is likely to turn first to Scotland not Wales.

Turn-out for elections to the National Assembly for Wales has been disappointingly low. Last time round in 2011 it was just 41.4 %, down two percentage points on 2007 and nearly five down from the first ever elections to the new Assembly in 1999. Equally, polls continue to show a basic ignorance as to what the Assembly and its government are able to do in relation to Westminster, Europe and local government.

As well as being a member of the small band of academics who research Welsh politics, I do a few external things too. This means that my worlds regularly collide. From conversations, I have learnt two fundamental things: first, there is goodwill towards the notion of us having a democratic institution in Wales, but this sits alongside little real regard for the Assembly or respect for its politicians (we can talk capacity and calibre in another post). This compounds the inevitable lack of ingrained, historical legitimacy surrounding devolution, and a perception (backed up by historical realities and an electoral system that clearly benefits the biggest party) that Wales remains a country where Labour rule is inevitable and impenetrable.

All of this triggers a deep concern in me, namely that we risk conducting a fifth devolved election campaign here in Wales that passes by the vast majority of the people who live and work here. That's pretty unforgivable in itself after seventeen years of devolution to Cardiff Bay, but even more so when set against the aspirations of those who campaigned for devolution in the late nineties, proselytising about a new participatory democracy, closer to the people, with a different profile of politician represented and the voices of ordinary citizens heard more loudly.

Now, those were always lofty (and to a degree, unrealistic) ambitions for a brand new democracy set against, let’s face it, a political culture that was hardly renowned for openness, plural and diverse viewpoints, and critical analysis! Still, as a long standing commentator on politics in Wales, I am quite frankly terrified that this election will be another when we simply talk to ourselves. Oh, the irony of we pundits dwelling on potential coalition deals post-election and pouring over the odd poll predicting the vote and seats configuration, whilst many across the nation (including a lot of intelligent, well-educated folk who’d consider themselves pretty socially and politically aware) haven’t even computed that there is an election in ten weeks time. Fiddling while Rome burns springs to mind. And none of this is meant as a critique of any of my academic or media colleagues-we are all in this together, to coin a phrase…

Alongside all this, electoral realities mean all of the political parties will effectively shrink their roles in the election campaign to focusing on that whimsical phrase “getting their vote out”. The brutal reality of this is that there is a small-ish core of voters who are absolutely crucial to the parties and it is on these folks amongst us that their efforts will focus. So, we can’t really expect a contribution to political education from the parties can we? Equally, a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU just seven weeks after the devolved elections doesn’t bode well for a more searching and intelligible focus on Wales either.

Now, I am the first to acknowledge that writing accessibly, with limited technical jargon and stripping away an assumption of knowledge of politics in Wales that often simply isn’t there, is going to be something of a challenge for an academic. And I’m not sure I will always get this right, but using Medium will help shape the direction and style of these posts, as I hope it will generate comment and annotation, together with suggestions for future content and focus. It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?!

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