This article was first published on 23rd November 2009 in openDemocracy
In a small nation on the Western margin of the British Isles, amidst sheep and rocks and old mines, the world’s first popular movement for demarchy is beginning to test its strength.
As the indigenous political establishment manoeuvres to wrest control of its developing parliament away from a Westminster Select Committee, a revolutionary party is rallying the people towards a participative assembly that will reform the nation into the world’s most progressive democracy.
And as its professional politicians stumble from crisis to scandal, as record unemployment continues to bite into quality of life and as the electorate increasingly disengages with the confrontational style of modern party politics, so events seem to be conspiring in its favour.
The nation is Wales. The party is Newid (pronounced neh-wed, ‘change’ in Welsh). It’s prospects of success look to have improved significantly this week with the publication of a report by the All Wales Convention, a body set up by the Welsh Assembly Government to gauge public support for further devolved powers.
Such a move is clearly not popular in all quarters. Battle lines were drawn up long before the Convention came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on law-making powers is ‘obtainable’ but not a ‘certainty’. Indeed, the opening shots had already been fired in what looks like being a protracted internecine conflict.
Leading the charge is Tomorrow's Wales, a pro-devolution alliance of establishment interests marshalled somewhat incongruously by the head of the Church in Wales, Archbishop Dr Barry Morgan. Its executive reads like a who’s who of the ‘crachach’, the unelected ‘elite’ whose members chair Wales’s business, cultural and sporting organisations. Devolution has brought this group wealth, power and influence. They also have hospitality suites at the Millennium Stadium to protect.
Ranged in opposition are the shadowy forces of True Wales, a reactionary organisation that claims ‘grass-roots’ credentials but appears to be an alliance of Monmouthshire Tory gentry, remnants of old Labour that still cling to the dream of a Fifth International and supporters of UKIP and the BNP, both unionist parties that are not yet represented in the Assembly.
Fighting on a separate front to defend the personal fiefdom he has prostituted himself to obtain is the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, who launched a pre-emptive strike on the Convention before its Chair, former diplomat Sir Emyr Jones Parry, could present its report.
Needless to say, Hain does not think he should have to give up power. The crux of his argument is that the Governance of Wales Act 2006, of which he was the architect, is adequate while the Welsh government matures. After all, he can veto any ‘bad legislation’ it might foolishly or carelessly propose. He has already had to neuter the Welsh language ‘legislative competence order’ (LCO) and force Welsh councils to continue selling off their social housing stock in line with New Labour policy. More powers for the Assembly would be ‘dangerous’ and, anyway, a referendum would fail.
The needs of the people of Wales seem to be entirely irrelevant to the interests of the political class. But their accession is necessary if Plaid Cymru, the nationalist ‘Party of Wales’, is to achieve its political ambitions. ‘The Plaid’ has been governing Wales in coalition with Labour since it was swept to power in 2007 with the votes of fully 9% of the electorate, slightly less than the Conservatives managed. A condition of the ‘One Wales’ coalition agreement was that a referendum be held before the next Assembly elections in 2011. The agreement naturally assumed the people would approve.
So, on the face of it, the All Wales Convention looks like a classic New Labour outflanking manoeuvre aimed at keeping its ally close: appoint a safe pair of hands, an establishment Taff who looks and sounds the part but knows on which side his bread is buttered; form an executive committee of people who are for the most part committed to the cause; give it a name that sounds inclusive and consultative; spend a lot of money (£1.3 million) buying a bus and handing out chicken curries and generally creating a lot of smoke and noise while doing nothing remotely thorough or scientific before reaching the desired conclusion having delayed the inevitable for as long as possible (18 months).
Since the only referendum options the Convention considered were ‘more of the same’ or ‘the same’ – not ‘less of the same’, ‘something completely different’ or ‘none of the above’ - they could just have recommended giving each voter their bus fare to the polling station, thereby saving a lot of trouble and ensuring a marginally better turnout.
The issue is that the Welsh Assembly has a fraction of the law making powers of Scotland or Northern Ireland. It is dependent upon asking the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster for individual powers as and when it needs them to meet specific policy objectives. The resulting legislative process is frustratingly slow, especially since MPs have a habit of redrafting proposals to maintain their superiority in the pecking order.
The Assembly that New Labour imposed on Wales is based on the elected representative confrontational model established by the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. There weren’t any options. They didn’t think to ask, for example, whether the people might prefer a deliberative assembly in which everyone could participate, an Assembly perhaps more in keeping with Welsh Nonconformist traditions and the realities of the world in which we now find ourselves.
Maybe that’s why Wales has never shown more than a half-hearted commitment to devolution at the ballot box. The turnout for the 1997 referendum that led to devolution was so low (50%) that barely one in four of the electorate actually voted in favour (75% either voted against or abstained). But since all of the main political parties had a manifesto commitment to devolution, and since marginally more votes were cast in favour (50.3%) than against (49.7%), it went ahead anyway. This is what passes for ‘democracy’ in Wales.
Most Welsh ‘voters’ aren’t because they don’t. Only 43% were sufficiently enamoured with devolution to participate in the 2007 Assembly elections. A clear pattern has developed since; only 38% voted in 2003 and 46% in 1999 when devolution was still new.
Do people not vote because they think the Assembly doesn’t have enough powers? The Convention doesn’t say. There’s no evidence to suggest that a referendum held in the next year or so would achieve more the 43% median turnout for all Assembly elections held to date.
And when the majority abstains from voting, it means there is something so seriously wrong with the political process that a referendum on more of the same would be considered unconstitutional in anything other than our electoral dictatorship. We should first consider what alternative political systems might appeal to the majority.
It might be popular to believe that all politicians lie, embezzle their expenses, break promises and pursue nothing but their own careers but the chief failure of the political class is in putting its own interests ahead of the people’s need for real democracy.
Even the All Wales Convention can smell the coffee. In its executive summary there is a prominent line that reads, ‘Democracy requires that information be provided, the arguments be presented, and the electorate given the opportunity to be better informed.’
If Wales is to be a democracy, if the nation is to govern itself rather than be governed by a remote political elite that has little sympathy for the Welsh condition and little interest in improving the quality of our lives, the people should be able to decide from all of the possible options, not just the one that suits the political class.
The battle is about to be joined. Newid is about to step out onto the Welsh political landscape with all guns blazing. Its ‘single purpose’ proposition (as opposed to ‘single issue’) gives it some unique advantages.
Newid is campaigning for a deliberative People’s National Assembly based on a progressive form of democracy called ‘demarchy’ where decisions are made by ordinary people selected at random (sortition), like jury service, rather than by professional politicians chosen in elections. Such a system will remove the need for political parties, eradicate political expediency, eliminate the almost perpetual state of electioneering and greatly reduce the corrupting influence of vested interests.
People’s assembly members will be guided by an independent judiciary and civil service and will hear evidence presented by advocates. They will select a professional executive to deliver policy in specific fields of expertise rather than have their ministers appointed by political patronage.
Newid can legitimately claim to be representing the interests of all the people of Wales because it can accommodate a wide spectrum of political opinion rather than that of a narrow interest group. Its constitution makes clear that the party will disband in favour of a people’s assembly as soon as that objective has been achieved.
Newid is fully in favour of a referendum on a written constitution that sets out the rights and responsibilities of all Welsh citizens. The key question to ask the electorate is this: which is more likely to give Wales a fresh start, the Assembly it already has with more powers or the world’s most progressive democracy?
Newid will give the people of Wales fresh hope. They’ll have the opportunity, at last, to build a sustainable economy with full employment, to establish a better education system, a more efficient health service, affordable housing and a more secure environment with a better standard of living and quality of life.
Peter Hain, Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the crachach and rest of the political class will of course dismiss these proposals as utopian. They’ll no doubt issue dour warnings to the Welsh electorate to do what they say or suffer dire consequences. But then that’s the only defence they can offer, isn’t it?