Last week, Italians voted to reduce the size of their Parliament by a third, a move which Movimento 5 Stelle claims will save the country €1 billion over 10 years. In contrast, amidst the economic precariousness wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Labour-Plaid axis in Cardiff Bay continues to gripe about ‘needing’ more Senedd Members at the estimated cost of £12 million per year. Wales, for a country of 3 million people, has 60 MSs and 40 MPs.
Ever since the Richard Commission published its report in 2004, the demand for more politicians has been a regular refrain. It’s understandable: a whopping 17.7% pay hike, chauffeur-driven cars, the opportunity to get multiple family members on the payroll, £8 -12,000 extra for Committee chairs – why would such perks not prove a siren voice to thrusting devocrats?
Over these twenty devolution years, there has been one, albeit brief, moment when Bay politicians stopped calling for more AMs. On the contrary, they positively didn’t want them! This miraculous hiatus occurred around the time of the 2011 referendum. Indeed, First Minister Carwyn Jones affirmed that Wales wouldn’t need more than 60 AMs in the event of a Yes vote.
In March 2010, the then Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones went further. Not only would there be no need to increase the number of AMs if new powers were gained as a result of a referendum, but there might even be “cost efficiencies”. She would also, she declared, “rather no public money be spent on funding two campaign groups than if public money was used to peddle lies”.Fast forward to 2016 and Ms Jones, now Presiding Officer, stunned us all with her Damascene conversion: “There are no more hours in the day, you can’t be in two places, or in two committees, at the same time…we need more members.”
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to proponents of a larger Senedd that their demands for more Members presuppose one-way traffic on the powers question. If, as the Welsh Government claims, devolution is being rolled back by the Internal Market Bill, we actually need fewer Members of the Senedd, not more.
The truth is that until the separatists get their way – or until grievance narratives no longer serve Welsh Labour well – even a thousand new Senedd Members will not be enough to quench the incessant demands for more powers, capacity and cash.
Here’s a challenge to the Cardiff Bay establishment: put your argument for more Senedd politicians to the people in a referendum. Don’t, this time, resort to cosy consensus, slipping it discreetly into your respective manifestos and interpreting that as a mandate to increase numbers. That is not consent.