We need to talk about political stagnation in Wales.
by Gareth Axenderrie
The global political landscape is constantly changing, and it’s doing so faster than ever.
In Wales however, things feel very much the same. In the most recent Welsh Political Barometer Poll for the Wales Governance Centre, Labour remain well ahead in voting intention for both Welsh Assembly (43%) and Westminster elections (47%). When converted into seats, things remain pretty much the same as they are now.
As the rest of the world experiences political uncertainty, Wales just stumbles onwards, meandering from election to election, rarely delivering anything more than minor uncertainty.
Political apathy in Wales is consistently high, even when compared to a general trend on a UK level. Turnout in Welsh Assembly elections has never reached 50%, that means half of all people eligible never feel compelled to vote. This could be excused if the political power residing in the Senedd remained at the levels of its formation, but it doesn’t. The Assembly now has authority over many areas of government, including health, education and transport. From next year, it will also have tax raising powers. If engagement doesn’t increase along with further transfers of power, then the democratic deficit in Wales will only grow.
In stable political systems where the status quo usually prevails, engagement rarely spikes. The problem in Wales is that we need further engagement and debate, because our increasing political power needs public scrutiny. Our news media is notoriously weak with over 90% of Welsh people reading newspapers that contain little or no Welsh news. We are saturated by English news on politics and current affairs. Our television screens and social media feeds are filled with debate that is occurring the other side of Offa’s Dyke.
Brexit is the barometer of this deficit. The debate was based upon an increased realisation of English nationalism and identity. The debate that we engaged in here in Wales was usually Blue on Blue; Tories arguing with Tories about issues that were salient in England, with little in the way of a Welsh perspective. What the Brexit referendum did offer the disengaged Welsh electorate, many of whom feel complete apathy and dissatisfaction with politics, is genuine political empowerment. An opportunity to have their voice listened to, and make a genuine change.
Brexit mobilised a section of the Welsh population, and regardless of whether you agree with how they voted, they were involved for a moment. Almost eighteen months on, there’s little in the way of an engaged debate in Wales around what a Welsh future outside of the European Union looks like. ‘Let’s just get out’, ‘We’ll be alright’ and ‘I’m not sure it’ll even happen’ simply aren’t good enough. It appears the reengaged masses have disappeared again.
This latest polling once again suggests that Wales remains stagnant in the way the population shapes Welsh politics. There appears to be no genuine alternative to Welsh Labour, no further opportunity for political change. No alternative means no motivation to engage. That means the population is threatening to sleep walk through a period of rapid change for Wales, and that stagnation provides a huge threat to any sense of independent Welsh political direction.