Welsh devolution is a Labour success story. It was the vision of a Labour government that led to the creation of the assembly in 1999 and since then the project has only grown in strength. The most recent illustration was the way Mark Drakeford steered Wales through the pandemic with a statesmanship that typified a Welsh Labour approach led by compassion and competence.
The success of the devolution project is evident by the fact that our Senedd is now responsible for more than £17bn that provide vital services in Wales – from healthcare and education to transport and the environment. Just this week, Welsh Labour launched a new, radical pilot project to provide a basic income to young people leaving care – the first of its kind in the UK.
Yet, the stark truth today is that the Senedd is not keeping pace with the expanding responsibilities it now shoulders. With just 60 members, it is still the same size as when it was first created as an assembly with limited powers. This is not just a problem for Welsh governance, it has also created an inequality at the heart of the UK’s political settlement, as well as a frankly absurd situation, where there are local councils with more elected representatives than the Senedd.
In contrast, Northern Ireland, which has a smaller population than Wales, has 90 members in its national assembly and Scotland has 129 MSPs sitting in its parliament. The question today is not whether Wales should reform its Senedd – but why this inequality should be allowed to continue?
That is why Labour has put forward an ambitious package of reforms to modernise the Senedd. Not only will it bring Wales into line with other devolved nations by increasing the number of MSs to 96, but it would also ensure that it is a parliament that can properly carry out its duties for the Welsh people.
As well as that crucial reform, this progressive package will also bring in statutory gender quotas, making Wales the first nation in the UK to enshrine democratic gender equality into law. It has been a century since women won the vote in this country, yet in that time progress towards equal representation has been far too slow across the UK. While Wales has led the way, being the first national parliament to achieve gender equality, progress has lagged shamefully elsewhere. For instance, only around a third of Westminster MPs are women. With Labour’s reforms Wales will again lead the UK by ensuring that gender equality in parliament is a basic statutory right, rather than a neglected aspiration. Lastly, the package also proposes reforming the Senedd’s voting system to make it more proportional and representative of Welsh voters.
As with any bold reforms, these proposals have generated a healthy debate. Even critics of the plans have conceded that the Senedd needs modernising; that this is debate about how, not whether to reform. There is also overwhelming consensus that gender quotas are a necessary ground-breaking step forward.
One of the main sticking points for critics has been debate around the party-list electoral system proposed to elect future Senedd members. The concern is that this might hinder Labour’s successful electoral record in Wales.
This debate mirrors similar concerns voiced 20 years ago when the current additional member system was established – that it would also hamstring Labour electorally. Yet over the last two decades Labour has thrived in Wales. That is because Labour’s success stands on its record – as a party and in government. It will be the same under the proposed system, which will also make Wales’s electoral system among the most proportionate in the UK.
This weekend, Labour members will take part in a special conference to debate the reforms. As they do, they will have the opportunity to support these reforms and what they aim to achieve: a Senedd with gender equality at its very heart and one that is fit and able to keep delivering for the Welsh people. The Tories will be hoping the package will be defeated. They have wanted to tear down the devolution project since its inception.
Devolution was achieved through courage and vision of a Labour Party that understood power is better exercised closer to the people it affects. That project has been a stunning success, which is why the Senedd now oversees large swathes of Welsh public life – taking a Welsh approach to Welsh problems. As the architects of Welsh devolution, Labour must now again show that same vision to ensure devolution is a success for the next 20 years and beyond. That is what these reforms will achieve: a Senedd that matches the ambitions of the confident modern Wales of today and is fit for future generations to come.
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