There's a national election today in Wales — but nobody seems to care
It is testament to how Wales is viewed through the prism of British politics that a by-election in the North of England can get more media attention than a once-in-five-year event. As voters go to the polls in Scotland and England today the Welsh will select their next government too.
Or will they? Some will, of course, but turnout in Senedd elections is depressingly poor.
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Fewer than 50% of eligible voters have come out in the previous five polls. The original 1997 devolution plebiscite was when that watermark was broken; fourteen years later, when the public voted for direct law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly, a little over a third of people turned up.
(By contrast, over 70% of eligible voters in Wales headed to the ballot box during the Brexit referendum and over two-thirds did so in the 2019 UK General Election).
There is some cautious optimism that a larger profile for devolution throughout Covid-19 has awoken a new spirit across the country, but even half of those newly enfranchised 16-and-17-year-olds have failed to register to cast their ballot today.
Alas, here we are again: the slumbering dragon continues to drag its feet while the Scots rush to cause a constitutional crisis and the English put two fingers up to Labour.
Wales’s embrace of partial self-government was never especially enthusiastic. In 1979, the idea was rejected by a majority of 4:1 and almost twenty years later the Welsh voted for devolution by the slightest of margins: 6,721 votes.
Structural issues may partly explain this. The first few terms of devolution in Wales essentially meant that the Welsh Assembly took over the roles and responsibility of the country’s Secretary of State, while primary legislation remained the domain of parliamentarians in Westminster.
Welsh Labour remains in power after 22 years. Political opponents have and continue to be rather hopeless. An electoral system — with votes in a constituency and then a regional list — appear nonsensical and difficult to understand. And our depleted media landscape continues to better reflect Westminster and Scottish politics than the bubble in Cardiff Bay.
Perhaps Wales’s apathy is explained above all by the failure of politicians to ignite the public imagination. They are, to be frank, boring. There has been no Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn throughout the era of the Welsh Assembly-cum-Parliament who has generated much excitement; no figure to transcend party politics and reach out to communities who now feel so distant from the institution in the Bay.
The prospect of a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition, a repeat of the outcome after the 2007 election, may breathe a little more life into Welsh politics. But we will only know how engaged the public are as the votes are counted.
“Not brilliant, but then not apocalyptic”, the former First Minister Carwyn Jones described the turnout in the 2011 referendum. In this election, I hope Wales can aim higher than that.
Theo Davies-Lewis is the National Wales’s chief political commentator. He is a native Welsh speaker from Llanelli, west Wales.