Wales Election 2016

Election 2016: What will the new assembly ever do for us?

The people have spoken: Mae'r bobl wedi siarad - but what on earth did they say?

Now the votes are all counted, what will be the main talking points after this fifth round of elections to the Welsh Assembly, this slightly wan, soft-spoken sibling of an increasingly-boisterous Scottish Parliament?

Well, with no party winning a majority of the 60 seats, the most immediate question will be which of them can make the electoral arithmetic add up to produce a stable Welsh Government that can last for the next five years, or at least stand a chance of doing so?

As predicted, Labour has lost ground but still emerges as by far the largest party even though its vote share slumped from its showing in 2011, at the last assembly election.

Whether it can defy political gravity and govern with fewer than half the seats, or may else be forced to look for coalition allies, or a looser arrangement with another party, will be the key question in the days ahead.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Welsh politics suffers from a lack of big personalities like Aneurin Bevan, says Welsh historian Kenneth O Morgan

The most viable coalition ally looks like Plaid Cymru, which overtook the Conservatives to win second place in the election.

But whichever party attracts the amorous attentions of the Labour monolith, it will be a dance of the seven Vales to extract as many concessions for its natural supporters as possible, in return for propping up the party that has dominated the assembly since the dawn of devolution 17 years ago.

The Conservatives' Welsh chairman Jonathan Evans knows all about close election results.

He lost Brecon and Radnor to the Liberals by just 56 votes in the 1987 general election but won it five years later by a majority of 130.

They call him Marginal Man: he went on to snaffle Cardiff North from Labour in 2010 by fewer than 200 votes. Evans had held out the tantalising prospect of an arrangement to govern with arch-rivals Plaid Cymru though that was dismissed as pie in the sky by most observers - almost a 5,000 to one shot, and those odds never pay out, do they?

The dark horse of this Welsh election race - UKIP - is the real success story, winning its first Welsh seats. It will be a major presence in Welsh politics and could even be a power broker in some conceivable circumstances.

Cosy consensus

A voice in Cardiff Bay will certainly give the party a strong launch-pad for the final weeks of the EU Referendum campaign which has overshadowed much of the campaigning for this assembly election.

And it's a presence that some politicians in other parties - and some political journalists - are privately welcoming, in the hope that UKIP members will make themselves heard and shake up the cosy consensus, real or imagined, that is often complained of in the Senedd.

One of the assembly's problems has long been enthusing apathetic voters.

Image copyright Matt Cardy
Image caption What impact will new AM Neil Hamilton have?

Bigger or more colourful personalities among the assembly members might well help achieve that for, as the eminent Welsh historian Prof Kenneth O Morgan acknowledges, Cardiff Bay doesn't currently echo to the oratory of anyone of the stature of the Welsh political big beasts of the past, who could engage public interest:

"Are there latter-day Gladstones and Disraelis there? I think not, but the esteem of politics has diminished generally.

"The party system has changed a good deal. Wales has not got the Lloyd Georges, Bevans and Kinnocks of yesteryear but which party has?

"I can see in 20 years a time, though, when a new tranche of politicians, possibly black or Muslim, might come to the fore."

Prof Morgan, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, wonders what impact the former, disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton may have if he's elected for UKIP.

Embroiled in the cash-for-questions affair, Hamilton lost one of the safest Tory seats in the country at the 1997 election to the anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell.

Prof Morgan has his own rather rueful memory of the former university student from Ammanford whom he taught at Aberystwyth: "He came to me for advice on his thesis which was to be on the Conservative Party in Wales. I said 'it will be a short thesis'."

Not so short nowadays perhaps, when Hamilton's old party holds 11 of the 40 Westminster seats in Wales, compared to three for Plaid Cymru.

But the number of Welsh MPs is due to fall dramatically to just 29 soon, as the Tory government at Westminster implement proposals to "compensate" for devolution by curbing the numbers of Welsh and Scottish MPs - a move that's expected to hit Labour hardest in Wales, where they are still the dominant party with 25 seats.

That move may trigger a campaign for a significant increase in the number of assembly members - a move that's likely to prove highly controversial with a public deeply sceptical at spending public money on more politicians.

Aled Eirug, former constitutional adviser to the assembly's presiding officer, doesn't apologise for defending such an expansion of the number of assembly members, or AMs.

"You have 12 or 13 ministers at present, plus the presiding officer, out of 60 AMs. So we only have some 46 AMs we can deploy for around a dozen committees of the assembly.

"I understand people are suspicious of having more members but it's a trade-off with having fewer MPs. It is inevitable as the assembly gains the power to make more laws.

"You have to ensure it has the resources to deliver what it is supposed to be delivering. The biggest problem is the increase in legislation that will require close analysis of the draft laws, as well as having to maintain scrutiny of the various policy areas."

Image caption The Siambr at the Senedd - room for any more?

And Eirug, a former journalist who was head of news for BBC Wales, has his own take on the likely "Hamilton Effect" on Cardiff Bay: "UKIP in the assembly will not necessarily be a bad thing because they are outside the political consensus, an alternative voice.

"There is so much agreement in the assembly between the main parties. Attitudes are generally more to the left of centre, with the Lib Dems, Plaid and Labour having so much common ground... it could be good to have something else."

He also recalls how Hamilton outraged mining communities in Wales on a visit as a junior Conservative industry minister while memories of the year-long miners' strike were still raw: "He said that one of the best things the Tory government did was to close the coalmines."

Politics Professor Roger Scully of Cardiff University agrees that the current 60 AMs just aren't enough and that more backbench members - who are not in the government - are needed to staff the various assembly committees.

It's a view shared by several former AMs, including Jenny, now Lady, Randerson of the Liberal Democrats.

"Assembly members are hugely stretched.

"I work now in Westminster, an institution with 650 MPs and 800-odd peers. There are plenty of corners to hide in Westminster. There are no corners for assembly members to hide in.

"There is such a tiny pool of talent and with the same party, Labour, always in government it is very difficult to find new people to refresh your team. You need fresh talent. It is a huge burden."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Queen said the assembly showed 'a new and significant direction in the way Wales is governed' at its official opening on 26 May 1999

It's also a view echoed enthusiastically by the assembly's first presiding officer and former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd, now Lord, Elis-Thomas.

He too thinks there just aren't enough members to scrutinise the Welsh Government effectively: "With the reduction in Welsh MPs to 29, we could have three AMs per constituency - so 87 - or larger assembly constituencies with six or seven members in each."

He wants these multi-member constituencies elected by a more sophisticated form of proportional voting, the Single Transferable Vote or STV, rather than what he calls the current "very weak form of PR" used to choose 20 of the assembly seats, which ensures what Elis-Thomas calls centrally-chosen "party apparatchiks" are elected.

You'll be hearing a lot more about all this in the months and years ahead.

Scandal fears

One thing all the main parties can agree on, though: the assembly is here to stay, though it was an anxious time for a while after that wafer-thin vote in favour of devolution by just a few thousand votes back in 1997.

As Labour's former First Minister Rhodri Morgan recalls from retirement: "There were originally fears that there might be one scandal after another. Would it be all jobs for the boyos? That was the concern about the Welsh political system.

"It was thought that the Welsh collectively were too venal, after the corruption scandals we had experienced in the past. But in fact there were fewer problems here than in Scotland or England.

"There was concern, though: that all appointments would be made on the basis that if you can find a member of your own family, do so, and there would be no proper procedures.

"Well, we have scotched those arguments, which were quite powerful.

"The Scots thought they could run the Empire. In Wales, we weren't sure we could do it: there was a fear factor. Wales civil society was usually a branch office of England.

"Yet the Scots have had scandals over school exams, trams and more. If we'd had that, it would have been absolutely disastrous. Any fragile confidence would have been destroyed. But we didn't, and it wasn't."

Image caption Newport-born and Port Talbot-bred actor Michael Sheen: 'Wales needs leaders with courage and vision'

So, for now, as the former Liberal leader David Steel nearly said, it's time to go back to your constituencies and prepare for bed.

But if one of the recurring criticisms of the assembly is of political timidity and a lack of "the vision thing", I leave you with a rallying call to the new assembly - whoever has won this election - from one of Wales' best-known ambassadors, a uniquely-talented chameleon who could get inside the skin of Tony Blair, David Frost, Brian Clough and even Kenneth Williams with equal facility.

The fate of the steelworks at Port Talbot that framed his youth has prompted the award-winning stage and screen actor Michael Sheen to enter the political debate on how to save the plant from closure - an issue that has loomed large in this election.

He has tweeted support for the proposed management buy-out and also campaigned on other Welsh political issues, so I asked him what priorities he thought the newly-elected assembly should have.

Speaking from Los Angeles, Sheen says he fears that the forces of deindustrialisation and globalisation are still ravaging whole swathes of his home country: "I would like to see a focus beyond the major cities and much more emphasis on unleashing the huge potential in the communities that too often feel they have been forgotten.

"It will require some radical thinking perhaps, and leaders with the vision and courage to transform Wales' future without discarding the lessons of its past."

"Radical thinking... leaders with vision and courage". Kenneth Morgan's "Lloyd Georges and Bevans" - I wonder if the man who brought Labour's triple election-winner to life so vividly on screen has considered a new career in politics when he tires of Hollywood?

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