Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Lifestyles of the dull and half famous

In May 2011 there was a turnover of 23 new AMs compared to the previous term. The Hansard Society recently published a report into the experiences of these new AMs over their first year in office.

I thought it was interesting, but some of the things raised weren't entirely surprising. It's worth covering their side of the story for a change.

Getting Elected

It cost roughly £4,000 to run for an Assembly seat in total.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As you might expect, AMs go into it to "serve the community, help people" blah blah blah. Call me cynical, but everybody going into public service says the same thing – not just politicians, but teachers, doctors, nurses etc. You can judge whether they mean it by outcomes and how willing they are to put service ahead of "perks" and "working conditions".

The costs for running for the Assembly are said to be around £4,000 – including the costs of getting selected for a constituency/region in the first place. I'm (pleasantly) surprised the costs for running for the Assembly are that low. I would've expected £10,000 minimum.

There is an issue of, even these rather modest costs, putting people off standing - especially if they're on a low income. However, I don't think even partial state funding for AMs or parties would work in practice. The state shouldn't underwrite specific ideologies or private members clubs – and that's what political parties are, essentially. I'm not a fan of trade unions or special interest groups funding them either. Maybe there's a case for some sort of Short Money, as they have in Westminster, for party administration purposes.

It's said that a few AMs took a pay cut to run for office. I don't really care what AMs did before they became an AM, and I'm even less bothered about what they earned – it's none of my business. It gives you an idea into what they might bring to the table professionally and in terms of skills, but that's all it is really.

I'd have more respect for a former tramp who could draft decent legislation and ask awkward questions than a lawyer or teacher who just grunts their approval at whatever their leaders say.

Getting Started

Some of the new AMs described starting work at the
Assembly like the "first day at school".
(Pic :
Again, as you might expect, most say they were excited at becoming an AM. There's praise for the Assembly Commission's induction programme, but it's said some aspects could be improved upon, including providing some sort of "starter pack" in their offices. There were also issues raised about some aspects Assembly support for constituency offices – particularly IT. I'm surprised the Assembly's responsible for that and not the AM's office themselves.

There's criticism of the relationship/understanding between the Welsh Government, civil service and AMs. I believe one of the most poisonous aspects of the Westminster/Whitehall system is that the civil service are distant from the people accountable for decisions they make. More worrying, it seems many AMs don't understand how the Welsh Government works – neither do I! And the less said about how Welsh Government ministers respond to questions the better.

Some AMs question the role, perhaps even the purpose, of plenary sessions (an issue raised recently). Many prefer to work in the committees, citing that it's more deliberative and it's easier to ask questions and get answers as there's less grandstanding. This was obvious, you generally get that impression anyway. Some AMs - especially those with local government experience - want to shift more power/influence to the committees.

However, like it or not the Assembly is a Parliament in all but name. One of the criticisms of the Assembly is that it comes across as a "county council on steroids". I think anything like the old committee system being taken nationally would be a backwards step. The blazer brigades in local government are/were bad enough.

AM Lifestyles

Issues with travelling I can appreciate, even those living closer to Cardiff. I would support something like free public transport for AMs and their staff in exchange for a cut in expenses or salaries, but I imagine that would be difficult to implement and not entirely useful. However, I found the complaint from some AMs that properties in Cardiff within the £700-a-month rent limit (roughly the median rent in the city) "didn't meet their expectations" offensive.

The work-life balance problems I don't have (much) sympathy for until working practises change right across the economy. I don't think people appreciate how hard professional politicians work. However, it's fair that if we elect someone into that position they put in the hours. It's probably naïve to think longer recesses and well-publicised family-friendly practises are going to make the job easier by themselves.

But everyone deserves to rest and relax. It's their right to "switch off" regularly, and I think people expect politicians to store themselves away in a cupboard or fridge until activation the following day. It's their policies that are robotic and similar/repetitive, not the AMs themselves. I don't think any of us dislikes politicians so much that we'd want them to neglect their own well being. I actually think long recesses are a good thing even if, in practice, it probably only means AM's work slows down slightly.

Assembly Workloads

It's said average working hours are around 57 hours – an increase on 49 hours compared to 2011. That difference could be accounted by beefed-up lawmaking powers, which requires more reading of draft legislation itself.

To put things into perspective, I'd estimate that every 1,000 words here is an hour's work once you include research, redrafts, sourcing pictures etc. That's probably why I don't cover as many committee reports as I'd like to. I tried to do something on the committee report into adoptions from November but it was so heavy even I turned my nose up at it. Once reports go over 70 pages – unless there's something in there that'll make it worth my while – it's usually a "no".

So yes, I definitely appreciate the workload AMs have - and their need for teams of support staff - once regulations, legislation, constituency casework and portfolio responsibilities are added to that. It's a shame many don't, but there you go.

However, I consider committee reports to be highly readable and well-presented – even the long ones - and if anyone thinks they're dull and dry, I suggest they try reading a scientific journal sometime. I don't mean New Scientist; I mean some real hardcore top-shelf stuff like Science, Microscopy Research and Technique or Cell.

There's perhaps argument for an increase in AMs to spread the workload, but I wouldn't want any more than 80 AMs even if Wales were independent. It's a hard sell to the public and, like many things in Wales, could've been addressed years ago by adopting the Richard Commission's recommendations in full. Thanks again, Peter!

Media Coverage

I think there's a disconnect between media, public and Assembly and this contributes to misunderstanding about what AMs can actually do – and perhaps what work they do full stop.

If people don't understand what AMs can do for them, they might go to them expecting help on matters that are non-devolved - welfare for instance. In those positions AMs end up coming across as a limp "advocate" rather than a driver of change. It's a waste of their time, but I can see why they would feel honour-bound to try and do something, and reluctant to say no even if - by rights - they should.

Legislation is another example of the disconnect. It was only the Byelaws Bill row last year that drew wider attention to the Assembly's law-making powers since the referendum. You could say the reason people aren't interested is that these laws are weak, or so narrowly-focused that they're ground down in bureaucratic wonk talk. I'd agree with that to an extent, but it's damaging when only "bad" things get reported.

Two good pieces of legislation to appear this term have been Member's Bills – Peter Black's (Lib Dem, South Wales West) Mobile Homes Bill and Mick Antoniw's (Lab, Pontypridd) Asbestos Disease Bill. Both of these proposed laws could impact people's lives for the better.

So I can understand why AMs would be annoyed if they put the effort into drawing up legislation, sitting through committees and plenary debates, make brilliant contributions, then have it all effectively ignored. Or for us - as members of the public – to turn around and say, "We didn't know about X,Y,Z."

I don't think we need a "Welsh Question Time" anymore, possibly extending to Pawb a'i Farn. People can easily interact with AMs directly via social media if they want to. Not everyone can use that though, so there's still a place for surgeries and constituency offices – even if the report suggests a big chunk of work comes via e-mail. I'm working on yet another filibuster on local government that will partially address this in March.

Media Portrayal
I don't have the personality to run for office myself. However,
are all of us too quick to rush to judgement of politicians (of
all sorts) when negative stories are published?
Someone mentions the "bitchiness" surrounding some coverage – and yeah, even if I'm on the fringes I'm guilty of that too sometimes.

If AMs say or do something incompetent in relation to their jobs, it's fair to pick up on that – even get annoyed.

As representatives of the general public some of them are going to be naughty occasionally because all of us are at some point. To judge "negative" stories in a balanced and rational way you have to consider what the reaction would be if politicians did same things as ordinary members of the public. I think coverage would be different. That's not really fair, is it?

If you prick them, they will bleed. They have feelings too and it's worth respecting those feelings.

You can't judge politicians by anything other than job performance unless you know them personally. However, reporting of some AMs (and other politicians) over the last few years by sections of the media has been, in my opinion, tantamount to public bullying. In those circumstances it makes me feel more sympathy towards the targets – regardless of party – but I'm probably in the minority there.

I'm rather egalitarian and – to put it bluntly – boorish, irreverent and against pompous forms of authority based on title and tradition over merit and competence. You probably figured that out yourselves, but there's a point to it.

When politicians take themselves too seriously I consider it a sign of insecurity, not a sign of strength or authority. I'm not overawed by them and I don't consider them celebrities. I believe it's dangerous to put politicians on that sort of pedestal because it may give them the impression they're infallible, "special" or grant them a false sense of entitlement. But you have to respect their personal space for the same reasons to prevent all that from happening in the first place.

Having said that, most of my criticism of AMs and the Welsh Government is from a perspective that I believe they're better than they think they are and have more potential than they're currently showing. Don't take this in a soppy way, but I suppose I do care about them.

I'm not interested in running for office of any sort because I know what my strengths and weaknesses are and I don't have the personality for it. My political career would probably end with "....before turning the gun on himself."
So I think it's worth taking time to appreciate ALL those one time "ordinary members of the public" who stuck their necks out and ran for the Assembly – on our behalf - in the first place.

So whoever you are. Thank you.


  1. mmmm and today a spokesman from a private clinic says that Wales is a totalitarian state because they are losing funding and in an interview blames "the Assembly" - though swiftly corrected by the reporter (Government - some assembly members will not agree with this policy)..... now we may all bash politicians and governments of all stripes but using the term totalitarian in this context is clearly overkill.

  2. Some aspects of government are authoritarian as opposed to totalitarian, or potentially authoritarian if the system is abused - as it is in Carmarthenshire. Authoritarian being interpreted meaning any sort of "unaccountability and vulgar displays of executive power by a select few/elite".

    But the Assembly itself - the legislature - doesn't have any problems at all with transparency in my opinion. I'd probably put them down as a model for open democracy, with some exceptions relating to things like lobbying.

    I think this confusion comes down to people not realising the executive functions are separate from the legislative functions and that it's still all one "WAG". The Welsh Government do have problems though in my opinion, but not quite to the same extent as local government.