‘Democracy’ is seen as an ideal system of government, because it confers power and legitimacy to political actors and institutions only to the extent that it represents the ‘will of the people’. To those that seek to govern, they must be able to show that the have the support of those who are to be governed. But exactly how the ‘will of the people’ is measured through systems of deliberation and selection has always been a contested feature of democracies across the world. Concerns are repeatedly raised about ‘democratic health’ – do the systems of selection (mainly – but not necessarily exclusively – through electoral processes) really represent popular will, and, if not, how can they be improved?
In Wales in recent years, the debate over democratic health has focussed on low voter turnout in Senedd and local elections. Low voter turnout is seen as an indicator for low democratic health, because it means that the electoral system does not necessarily capture the will of the populace, potentially conferring less legitimacy to governments than would otherwise be the case. Low turnout is seen as synonymous with low levels of engagement in politics.
However, the issue of democratic health reaches much wider than this. Are citizens engaged in political issues? Do they have the sources of education and information to allow them to take views on important political matters affecting their lives? Are their rights to political organisation and expression protected? And are all citizens equally able to participate in democratic processes, no matter what their background?
The Counsel General has asked the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) to explore how Wales’ democratic health can best be defined, measured, and monitored. This work will help focus efforts to increase participation and engagement in national and local democratic processes in Wales, especially among under-represented groups.
It will focus on the following three research questions:
Work is also currently underway by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, established by the Welsh Government, to help ‘strengthen Welsh democracy’. There have been several recent research projects in this area, including WCPP’s research exploring how changes in electoral administration internationally have affected turnout, and research on newly-enfranchised young people’s experiences of voting in Wales.
This project builds on this growing evidence base to understand what lessons can be learnt from other countries on defining, measuring, and monitoring democratic health in Wales. It will enable the Welsh Government to better gauge confidence in democracy and democratic institutions, demographic patterns, and drivers for engagement and participation.