Empty Senedd

Outside In – The Welsh Assembly Election for Outsiders and Beginners

Published: 12 April 2016
Newcomers to a devolved political environment can find it bewildering says political scientist and incomer, Dr Matthew Wall, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Swansea University. Here he offers a few pointers for the Welsh election. 
When I first moved to Wales in 2012, I knew next to nothing about Welsh politics. Of course, as a politics specialist, I was aware of the broad brush strokes – that Labour is the dominant party, that a devolved government has powers in an array of important areas, and that the country has struggled economically since the decimation of the mining industry in the 1980s. However, the work of AMs in the Senedd is basically invisible in the international media sphere, and I knew little of the detail of the policy debates or of the internecine rivalries that characterise Welsh political life. 
Over the course of my time in Wales, I have struggled to catch up. Compared to my native Ireland, where a rapacious media dissect the daily goings on of our national politics, there is something of a lack of oxygen in Wales-specific coverage. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent journalists and programmes covering Welsh politics, it’s only to say that they’re not as pervasive as they might be. Part of the explanation is the lack of a ‘critical mass’ of audience figures here in Wales, but more important is the relatively sub-ordinate role of the National Assembly for Wales in the UK’s complex asymmetrical devolution governance structure. 
From major infrastructure projects like the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, to economic emergencies like the on-going Tata Steel crisis – the limitations of the Assembly have been all too clear in recent weeks and months. Even more troubling are the findings of a Wales Governance Centre report that the public sector expenditures for Wales exceeded public sector revenues by £14.7 billion in 2014-2015. This weak fiscal position leaves Wales deeply dependent on the rest of the UK and stymies arguments for greater political independence. 
Perhaps then, the lack of attention paid to the Assembly in the UK media and among members of the Welsh public (as evidenced by the consistently low turnout for Assembly elections) is not wholly unjustified.       
On the other hand, the Welsh Government does happen to be responsible for many of the things that matter most in our day-to-day lives, such as health and education. The Assembly spends just under £16 billion annually – no small sum. Furthermore, as Roger Scully has been outlining in his excellent blog, the election race in Wales is a highly interesting one – with Labour struggling to hold on to the support they obtained in 2011, and with UKIP making huge inroads into the vote shares of all of the parties. 
In what remains of this post, I would like to point readers to a couple of online resources that are useful to the interested but perhaps uninitiated Welsh voter in trying to decide how to cast their vote on May 5th. 
The National Assembly for Wales as an institution has created a bespoke website (http://www.2016.wales) – which seeks to encourage people to register to vote, and also provides an excellent breakdown of the powers of the Assembly. The website includes a series of very relatable videos showing how the areas where the Assembly has power influence the life experiences of people here in Wales. 
I’ve also been working on a website that might help to inform interested citizens about some of the major issues coming into the election. Working with colleagues at Swansea University and Cardiff University, we devised a questionnaire that seeks to cover some of the policy questions that divide the main parties. Issues covered include devolution, the economy, health, education, housing, transport and the environment. We also ask a series of questions on the upcoming EU referendum. We sent this questionnaire to the policy officers of the parties competing and they indicated their position on each issue. 
What the site allows you to do is explore the extent to which your opinions on the issues ‘match’ with each of the parties – this is represented in a graph that appears once you’ve answered the questionnaire. You can also explore your match with each party issue-by-issue as well as looking at the justifications provided by the parties as to why they stand where they do. The site is: wales.electioncompass.org.   
Of course neither site can provide a substitute for deep, continued engagement with Welsh politics, but they can represent a first step towards such engagement. That is, at least, my hope. 
Image by Paul Holloway from Birmingham, United Kingdom (Welsh Assembly chamber  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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