By Mick Antoniw
Welsh Parliament elections in May next year will be very different. The COVID pandemic will clearly have an influence on the politics of the election but not more so than the way campaigning will have had to adapt to our new public health environment. There will be none of the traditional door knocking and conversations we are used to having on the doorsteps and in the streets. Nor will there be the usual round of public meetings in community and church halls. Instead, Welsh Labour will rely heavily on social media, direct mailing, leafletting and telephone canvassing.
The election will be different in other ways too. For the first time in Welsh history, some 70,000, sixteen and seventeen year olds will be able to vote. In addition, Welsh legislation will also empower some 33,000 foreign citizens who have made Wales their home will to participate.
Reducing the voting age has been a longstanding aspiration of the Welsh Labour Party, only now able to introduce this reform because of changes to devolved powers introduced by the Wales Act 2017.
Opinions amongst school students in the run-up to the new legislation were initially divided. Of the discussions I attended, half were in favour and the remainder uncertain, mainly because they were not sure they had enough information about the issues they would be voting on. However, when the question was posed that if there was proper political or citizenship education in schools, the 50% rose to nearly 100%. Young people do want to vote, they do want to and are getting involved in politics – but they also want to be better informed through the education system. Reforms to the Welsh education national curriculum soon to be introduced are intended to address these concerns.
Another piece of legislation which has just passed its final stages in the Welsh Parliament is the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill which extends the same franchise to Council elections which will take place in Wales in 2022. One thing is certain, the voice of young people in Wales is becoming increasingly important in our political system and that can only be a good thing.
Whereas one third of Welsh Parliament members are elected via a proportional voting model, councillors have, up till now, been elected solely on the first past the post system. The new legislation will, for the first time, introduce a process that will enable councils to choose to introduce a proportional Single Transferable Voting system for future elections. Along with a power for councils to voluntarily merge with one another, to increase joint co-operation in the delivery of services and enhanced status for community councils, the legislation has the potential to radically transform the way local government operates in Wales. There will be a duty to on councils to develop a public participation strategy and this could see the development of a whole new raft of communication models aimed at explaining what the councils do and how they work, but importantly about how to make it easier to engage and communicate with local communities.
Digitising the electoral register is important and consideration of new ways of voting in the future becomes a possibility. There is a desire to modernise the Welsh voting system for those areas within the responsibility of the Welsh Parliament, using online voting and maybe even automatic electoral registration. The impact of these modest but radical electoral changes could open the door to even more reform to the way elections are conducted in Wales in the future, as well as the way in which local government operates and the way its services are delivered.
Mick Antoniw is the Senedd/ Welsh Parliament member for Pontypridd and Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.
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