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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Who is voting?

The Electoral Commission published their official report on the Welsh Assembly elections today. Predictably it identified voter turnout as the key issue of concern. Only 38% of the electorate turned out to vote in these elections. Their analysis was perhaps a bit simplistic. Specifically, they criticised the media who, they said, treated the campaign as a "second-order election". This is a bit unfair as by and large the media did their best in difficult circumstances. They were often flogging a dead horse in trying to arouse interest in the process and in most instances were only talking to half of Wales anyway. The problem is that most of the east part of Wales watch English television and large numbers of the population only read English newspapers. There is no Welsh media as such and the closing down of the Welsh Mirror, as the Electoral Commission report points out, has been a further blow to attempts to create such a concept. This is not the case in Scotland.

I have not read the report in detail yet but I can not see at first glance any reference to the value for money of the Electoral Commissions own advertising campaign that sought to encourage people to vote. The fact that turnout went down must surely raise doubts as to the efficacy of this approach and I would not want to see such a huge waste of money in future. Equally, a feature for me in the campaign was the way that the Electoral Commission issued so much contradictory advice to returning officers and managed to confuse everybody.

The political response from Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group Leader, Mike German, was, I thought the right one. He identified three deep-rooted problems. Firstly, is the disengagement people have with their politicians. "We have a huge task," he said, "if we are to re-connect people's interest in political issues, with our democratic and political structures and if we are to restore their faith in politicians' ability to make changes for the better." He referred to the need to build a Welsh civic society - the media and institutions - that cover Wales in a meaningful way, so that people no longer look so much to England for comment, thought and leadership. Finally, he referred to the need to establish an Assembly with the powers of a proper Parliament, as in Scotland, so that people in Wales stand a better chance of understanding what devolution is about and can actually elect a body capable of making a difference.

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