By Rob Williams
In the good old days of democracy the person who won an election where you lived was generally the chap or lady who would go on to represent you.
It was a fiendishly simple system. Whether elected directly or through a regional list, via proportional representation – the principle was generally true. That is, if a person by themselves, or by dint of the votes their party collected, had enough of said votes they would be elected – simple. And then the disappointing political process would begin of course.
Initially you might have been impressed with your candidate. But then gradually you’d become ever more disenchanted. You’d start mumbling to yourself that ‘they’re all the bloody same’. You’d harrumph every time you saw an article in the paper about them opening something or condemning this thing or welcoming that thing. And then at the next election you’d vote them out. And thus the hope-disappointment-anger-hope-circle would be joined.
George Bernard Shaw had it spot on when he said ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.’ But George Bernard Shaw never lived to see a Welsh Assembly election. He was very much sans-the-breathing fifty years before that happened. However, had he lived to be the ripe old age of 155, and then taken up following Welsh politics (stay with me), he might have found himself revising his view in the light of this year’s democratic process.
The decisions to disqualify elected Assembly Members John Dixon and Aled Roberts (and then subsequently reinstate Aled Roberts following a report and a vote in the Assembly) have been taken as part of an oddly undemocratic and farcical process.
Let’s be clear from the outset – these two AMs both made mistakes. They happened to be members, at the time of the election, of organisations which as an AM, you are not allowed to be. ‘They’re all the bloody same’ eh? Well no, not really.
John Dixon was a member of The Care Council forWales, an organisation responsible for ‘promoting and securing high standards across the social services and social care workforce’. It sounds rather good actually. But regardless it is on the list of banned organisations, so there you go. As was the Valuation Tribunal forWales, of which Aled Roberts was a member.
These groups are on the list presumably because they could present the AMs with conflicts of interest once elected. But quite what influence they would have at election stage is not clear. Is the suggestion that being on the Valuation Tribunal forWalesis some sort of electoral advantage? Or is it simply that in order to take up your post you must not be a member? Either way it is difficult to see that the administrative error of failing to resign from these organisations warrants expulsion from the Assembly.
Mr Dixon, who subsequently admitted he hadn’t read the appropriate guidance, was a bit daft. But there is no suggestion that he was seeking to gain something inappropriate from being a member of this organisation, or indeed that his membership was influential in his being elected. It was a mistake. When it was discovered that the mistake was made it was rectified.
The punishment of disqualification does not fit the crime. The Liberal Democrats should have made a stronger defence of him, a view held by Lord Carlile. Peter Black – an AM who is rather more useful than many give him credit for being – feels that the Electoral Commission is not fit for purpose and expressed that there was little support for Mr Dixon in the Assembly. It is also disappointing that AMs seemed to be reluctant to support Mr Dixon a sure sign that tribalism in Welsh politics is as rife as ever.
If what happened to John Dixon seems a cruel and unusual punishment for an administrative error, what happened to Aled Roberts is bizarre.
Unlike Mr Dixon, according to Mr Roberts he did actually view the relevant information. He accessed it on the Electoral Commission website. He read the Welsh version of the guidance. Which was out of date. He was disqualified anyway, only to be reinstated after a vote in the Senedd, which as one commentator points out appears to be an instance of the legislature electing its own members.
There is something positively Kafkaesque about how these two AMs have been treated. John Dixon has lost his job because of his failure to resign from an organisation that is benign. Aled Roberts was disqualified because of his failure to resign from an organisation which he didn’t know he needed to resign from. He didn’t know because the advice given by the organisation who suspended him was out of date. Both of these men have been buffeted by forces out of their control, for crimes that aren’t exactly clear, and that they weren’t aware they were committing.
To add insult to very large injury the Electoral Commission subsequently confused the matter by claiming that, firstly, that no one viewed the document Aled Roberts said he had viewed on the day he’d viewed it, before changing their minds saying they were unable to establish whether anyone had viewed it. This simply is not good enough, and a clear statement is required to clarify what they meant. As a public body of this type they should be able to provide information as to how many people visited certain pages of their website. It’s laughable that they claim not to be able to.
So, in the case of Aled Roberts they were responsible for him being in breach of their own rules, responsible for his disqualification, then responsible for bringing his reinstatement into question and placing doubt over his honesty. If they’d set out to deliberately cause Mr Roberts trouble they couldn’t have done it any better.
Being subjected to the machinations of an organisation this inept, confused and wilfully complacent must have felt like being trapped in a Cardiff Bay version of The Trial, or one of those Escher drawings where no matter which set of stairs you take you go neither up nor down.
This isn’t the first time the Electoral Commission has presided over an almighty foul up of course. The referendum vote on part four of the Government of Wales act was undermined by the application of a series of rules in a way that appeared designed to frustrate the involvement of the Welsh people. Tomorrow the Electoral Commission will publish its report into the referendum. If it’s a white-wash, expect a back-lash.
It is a staggering indictment that within just four months the Electoral Commission, a body responsible for promoting ‘integrity and public confidence in the democratic process’ has managed to undermine both on not one but two occasions. And now the knives are out in The Bay.
There is justifiable anger at how badly the organisation has handled this recent crisis, with some suggesting that leadership is the real issue. After all John Dixon has lost his job because of an administrative error. Shouldn’t someone lose theirs for the administrative error the Electoral Commission made in not updating their guidance?
- Rob Williams is an online sub-editor and journalist at The Independent in London. As a ‘hobby’, he blogs about Welsh politics and media.