General Election

#GE2015 | Do we need to worry about the Cardiff Bay Bubble?

Dr Peter Allen reviews the legitimacy for our political arrangements in Cardiff and Westminster.

On YouTube there is a clip of Nye Bevan discussing the NHS during the 1959 election campaign. On first watch it’s unremarkable. It looks musty, slightly blurred. It’s also only 6 seconds long. Bevan’s comments, in that characteristic bark, are aimed at Harold Macmillan. Bevan asks why, if ‘we are more prosperous than ever we were…haven’t the charges been removed?’ Like I said – unremarkable. But the thing that is remarkable is the setting. Behind Bevan is some washing out to dry on a line, blowing in the wind. In front of the washing is a garden fence, and then another fence, and another. It seems that Bevan was making this speech in someone’s garden. His presence spills over – a figurative presence for sure, but also a very real presence; he was out there, present among the people, quite literally in their back garden.

Whether or not most people these days would want a leading politician in their garden is a point worthy of discussion. Regardless, even if the opportunity arose, it’s unlikely that many leading politicians would be brave enough to enter. It is fair to say we are probably just witnessing the most carefully managed election campaign that Britain has ever seen. Not coincidentally, it is also probably the most boring election campaign we have ever seen as well. It was almost as if politicians don’t want to see members of the public. At least, not those members of the public who had not already pledged to vote for them.

Given what we know about the beast that is the modern politician, we shouldn’t be surprised by this lack of presence. Despite devolution to Cardiff and Edinburgh, the Scottish independence referendum, and increased calls for direct or participatory democracy like a constitutional convention, politicians are arguably less present than ever in the daily lives of those who elect them. At Westminster, this is obvious – the ‘bubble’ is increasingly filled by Oxbridge graduates, millionaires, and people who worked in politics before being elected to the House of Commons. More than this, politicians who have worked in the Westminster village before their election are additionally more likely to end up in a frontbench position than those MPs without such experience. The upshot of this is that if you see a prominent politician in the media, there is a high chance that they are one of the proverbial ‘professional politicians’.

It might be argued that none of this really matters; that as long as politicians deliver some sort of economic stability, their social background is largely irrelevant. Possibly. But it is more compelling to argue, as many political theorists have, that it really does matter who our politicians are, how connected they are to the lives of those they represent, and that they are representative of a range of lived experience, for all kinds of reasons. For example, there are arguable symbolic benefits to having politicians from a range of social backgrounds, promoting politics as an activity that ‘normal’ people should be involved with. Similarly, there might be substantive benefits for members of traditionally underrepresented groups – once members of those groups are present in decision-making bodies, those decisions may actually begin to benefit those people more than they did previously. At the heart of this is the cultivation of a connection between political representatives and those they are charged with representing. This connection acts as a source of legitimacy for our political arrangements – without it, politics is simply something played out for an empty stadium, devoid of real meaning.

Devolution, in the form of the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament in 1999, was seen as a way of forging this connection more closely in Wales and Scotland. The argument was that these two nations had been let down by Westminster, and that having politicians closer to home would make sure that the neglect they suffered under the Thatcher government would not be allowed to happen again. Has it worked? In one sense, the Assembly has been a clear success. Simply by still being here, it has done something right, and it has undoubtedly established itself as a political fact in Wales. It is not going anywhere anytime soon. Equally, survey evidence from the Welsh Referendum Study at Cardiff University suggests that Welsh voters do trust the Assembly, certainly a lot more than they trust Westminster. Across multiple measures of political trust, the Assembly is seen by a majority to be working in the interests of Wales and to be telling the truth. This is in stark contrast to the UK Government and Westminster MPs .

So the success of the Assembly seems to be, in part at least, derived from it not being Westminster. But how long can the shine from its newness, and this distinction, remain? Although designed explicitly to break-up the hegemony of the so-called Westminster Village, it is common to hear accusations that the Assembly is now the centre of a ‘Cardiff Bay Bubble’, an unflattering comparison. Inside this bubble, the story goes, live the AMs and the cottage industry of party aides and policy wonks that has sprung up around them. The 2011 referendum on increased powers for the Assembly, although ultimately successful in increasing those powers, saw the development of a ‘No’ campaign based on the idea that the Cardiff Bay political class had treated ‘the people of Wales like children’ and that the ‘Assembly has failed’.

Is this fair? Is there a Cardiff Bay Bubble? Identifying such informal institutions is difficult, especially as those who claim their existence often do so as part of a process of locating themselves outside of them. In 2008, for example, Kirsty Williams contrasted herself to Jenny Randerson, claiming ‘I think our styles are different, our approaches are different. She is very much schooled in the Cardiff way of doing politics, and I think my background in campaigning is much more varied’. Similarly, Andrew RT Davies responded to the Silk Commission report last year saying that new proposals for the Assembly should not be ‘about the pipe dreams of politicians caught up in a Cardiff bubble’. Research by political scientists suggests there are often institutional effects on the attitudes and behaviour of politicians. For example, individuals entering the House of Commons have been found to undergo a long period of institutionalisation as they adjust their behaviour in accordance with the dominant traditions of the legislature. It is equally common to see individuals claiming institutional membership as part of their own identity, such as being a ‘House of Commons man’.

A different approach to the ‘bubble question’ is to consider the day-to-day lives of AMs, specifically how different they might be to those of their constituents. AMs are currently paid a minimum of around £54,000, with rumours late last year that this may rise by a further £10,000. The median wage in Wales (by 2012 figures) is £19,000. Once translated into the ebb and flow of daily life, there is a world of difference in that £35,000.

But this distance isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t exclusive to Wales. Indeed, it is probably inevitable. If you adopt a political system that selects a small number of people from a larger group of people in order to run the country, there is a natural distance forged between them. As such, the issues seen in Wales, although fresh and immediate as a result of the relatively recent foundation of the Assembly, are classic ones. Politicians make complicated decisions in a pressured environment, and will inevitably upset some, or many, people as a result. The real question is whether the source of any disconnect stems from dissatisfaction with political outcomes (and the survey evidence suggests it does not), or from a more fundamental lack of representative connection between politicians and the public. As the late political scientist, Peter Mair put it, ‘for an elected politician, it is not enough to be just a good governor; without some degree of representative legitimacy, neither the parties themselves, nor their leaders, nor even the electoral process that allows them to be chosen, will be seen to carry sufficient weight or authority. The result will be to encourage distrust and scepticism’.

If we don’t all want to be politicians (and I don’t think we do), then we have to hand over that responsibility to some people who do. And whether they are in London or Cardiff, simply by virtue of that role they will be separate from most of us. The issue is negotiating a distance that Welsh voters are happy with, something easier said than done.

Dr Peter Allen is a lecturer and researcher in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London.