Today’s blog post is a guest article by my Wales Governance Centre colleague Dr Einion Dafydd. You can find Einion on Twitter (@EinionDafydd).
Devolved institutions in Wales were established to improve representation and to strengthen accountability. Labour won a majority of seats in Wales at every general election during the years 1922–97, yet the Conservative Party was in power for most of this period. Devolved elections in Wales have been a success story in at least one regard: the composition of its devolved government has more accurately reflected the popular will in Wales, with Labour either governing alone or leading coalition governments throughout the period since 1999. By this specific measure, devolution can be said to have improved political representation in Wales dramatically.
However, politicians (see also here) and commentators have long voiced concerns regarding the strength of accountability in devolved Wales. Voters’ ignorance is a key issue. Fewpeople in Wales consume news created in Wales, and coverage of devolved politics in Wales by the London-based news media (widely consumed in Wales) is limited and often inaccurate. The result, it is claimed, is that Welsh voters are too ill informed about devolved politics to hold representatives to account.
To create true accountability, citizens must evaluate the performance of their political representatives and must be willing to sanction them at the subsequent election. This means that citizens must know who is in office, must appraise their performance, and must be willing to remove them from office by voting for an alternative party. Acquiring enough information to be able to identify which party is in government may not appear particularly taxing. Being able to evaluate the performance of office holders is a far greater challenge. This requires citizens to know enough about the legislature and the issues that it considers to form a clear idea of which attributes are desirable in a representative; they need to be sufficiently informed about the activities of legislators to evaluate whether they deserve to be rewarded with another term in office.
Limited news media consumption is a potential explanation for why there is an accountability deficit in Wales, but it does not provide a direct measure of the degree to which people in Wales are (mis)informed.
How much do citizens in Wales know about devolved politics? Do Welsh voters possess the basic information necessary to use elections to hold those in power to account? Can they identify which party (or coalition of parties) is in power? Do they know that responsibility for two highly significant policy areas – health and education – lies with devolved representatives? Unless voters know at which level of governance responsibility for various policy areas rests, they cannot reliably draw on their (dis)satisfaction with public services to hold those in power to account: either to re-elect strong performers or to ‘kick the rascals out’.
Evidence from successive surveys carried out by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, in collaboration with YouGov, suggests that a surprisingly large proportion of citizens in Wales do not possess basic knowledge of devolved governance in Wales. Only 19.6% of respondents correctly identified that Labour had governed alone in Wales for the previous five years, when questioned during the 2016 Welsh election campaign period. At the 2011 election, just over a third (36.7%) of respondents knew that the Welsh Government consisted of a Labour–Plaid Cymru coalition during the 2007–11 term.
Knowledge of which policy areas are the responsibility of the devolved administration is also limited. More than a third of respondents to successive surveys (see here and here) have been unable to identify that responsibility for health has been devolved, even though spending on healthcare accounts for over half of the Welsh Government’s budget. Only 61.0% of respondents to the survey conducted during the 2016 Welsh election campaign period correctly identified health as a devolved policy area, while only 54.9% correctly stated that responsibility for education lies with the Welsh Government.
An accountability deficit
Devolved elections in Wales have been a major success in that they have established a clearer link between electoral outcomes and the selection of the individuals responsible for key policy areas in Wales. Yet there is a deeply problematic aspect to these elections: many Welsh voters do not possess the knowledge they require to use devolved elections as a means of holding their elected representatives to account. These individuals cannot cast their ballot on the basis of whether or not they believe those in power carry out their duties well.
While politicians frequently blame the Welsh news media for this state of affairs, they may wish to consider what these findings say about the success of their own efforts to communicate with citizens. Less than a fifth of voters (19.0%) felt that the election campaign had given them ‘enough information to make an informed choice’ in 2016. Devolved politicians of all parties – like the media – have failed to inform certain segments of the public of who is in government in Wales, and what responsibilities that government holds.
Both are responsible for the accountability deficit in devolved Wales.