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Post  Admin on Wed 1 Oct 2008 - 14:58

The main branches of Government are the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. None of us would want the Judiciary and operation of the legal system to be political, but the other two branches are inherently political in nature. Although some might take exception, we are fortunate that the systems of devolution that are developing in Wales and Scotland are more democratic (through a degree of proportional representation) and more accountable and open to scrutiny than Westminster (self evidently, since Westminster designed these bodies to be subordinate and accountable to its own scrutiny). One would hope it would not be too difficult to retain this same level of accountability in an independent Wales ... but for this to be to the people of Wales instead.

Yet as things stand we are some way from having the range of political bodies that an independent country will need. So this forum is to discuss how we shape the political structures of Wales in order to make our political processes more relevant, more effective and more democratic.

We are used to a political structure that has grown in a piecemeal fashion to suit a much larger state. Over the centuries the United Kingdom was formed and developed in parallel with the British Empire becoming the largest the world has ever seen ... and some things have not changed much since. The concepts on which these systems are based have much more to do with defining the rights and sovereignty of parliament, as it was gradually wrestled away from the monarchy, than the rights citizens. We must at least ask ourselves whether something that has developed this way and still accommodates sixty million people is entirely appropriate for a country of three million people. Even if we start with what we've got, we must surely consider how we can adapt it to suit us better.

At the top level, we currently have a single chamber National Assembly, from whose elected members the government is formed. Yet if we look at countries of similar size to Wales, some are unicameral, some bicameral, but nearly all have a greater number of elected representatives than our current 60, or likely future 80. The UK has a bicameral system and, although we can marvel at how an undemocratic institution can have survived so long, the second chamber does perform a limited balancing role which is particularly necessary because a party with a minority of the popular vote inevitably gets an artificially inflated majority in the House of Commons, which allows it to pass legislation without much consultation. Perhaps a second chamber will be less necessary with a fairer proportional voting system, or would still need one? If so what size should it be, how should its members be chosen, and in what way would it have a different role from the main chamber?

The second issue to discuss is the relationship between national, regional and local government. Again, we are used to a system in which national government is seen as being more important than local government, not least because it depends on national government for much of its funding. This reinforces a generally "top down" rather than "bottom up" model of government. Do we want to change this, or is it right that our sense of national identity should be more important than our local identities?

Currently Wales has 22 unitary authorities, and below that community councils. However democracy at the community level is problematic; it is often hard to find people to stand for election, and many seats are uncontested. This cannot be good. So have we got a scale and structure that is appropriate for Wales, or should this lowest level of democracy be either made larger to carry more responsibility or abolished? Would that in turn mean a change in the number of unitary authorities? Is it right that nearly half these authorities are bigger in terms of elected seats than the Assembly?

We might also ask whether our regional identities in Wales are properly reflected? Our national government has got to be based somewhere, but it is in one corner of a country with poor cross country links. So would it be appropriate for say North East, or West Wales to have a democratic tier of government in the same way as the metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties of England? Is there a place for directly elected mayors, and what would be the division of responsibility between them and local government?

We should also consider frequency of elections and whether they we should have fixed or flexible term parliaments. Should our head of state, even if generally non-political, have a role in inviting parties to form government as in many other governments, or should the role be entirely non-political? And to what extent should we let non-political bodies and the individuals we usually refer to as "the great and the good" have an influence on political life? What is the right place for quangos? Should some functions of government be "at arm's length" from elected politicians, and how would they then be accountable? Is there a case for electing the heads of non-political bodies, or would that merely turn them into politicians?

We can look at how parties are funded, what the rules for donations should be, and what place public funding should have. We can look at how politics is presented in the media and how to establish a more effective two way dialogue between politicians and the people they serve, perhaps by bypassing the traditional media and using more modern means of communication like the internet. We can consider whether there is a place for consultative or binding referendums.

Finally we might ask about whether our political structures encourage participation by our citizens, or lead to apathy and the feeling that "if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it." Turnout in some elections is embarrassingly low, and there is a general mood of dissatisfaction with politicians. Would designing better structures make any difference, or it is just the standard of politicians that is at fault? Does the answer lie in compulsory voting, or is the freedom to express alienation from the political process just as important a right? What place is there for pressure groups, protest and civil disobedience?


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