2023 might not have been an election year but there was plenty of politics to go round. Senedd reform, a UK Covid inquiry, problems for the SNP, and a new leader for Plaid following a truly damning report on allegations of a dreadful culture within one of our biggest political parties.

We’ve seen an epidemic of ‘toxic culture’ allegations across public and private organisations – the WRU, S4C, Amgueddfa Cymru, the CBI and McDonald’s. It’s a depressingly long list but governance failures not only scar reputations – bad governance has a directly detrimental impact on delivery for those who matter most, the people of Wales.

Personally, 2023 was dominated by two pretty big and exciting work projects. This week, we’ve concluded the work of the Independent Constitutional Commission. Our brief was to examine options to improve what rapidly resembles a dysfunctional model of politics and governance with an almighty chasm between citizens and leaders at its heart.

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Bang in the middle of the most intense period of that work, I was elected to Uefa Executive Committee and swiftly (and very unexpectedly!) appointed vice president. I’m only eight months into that work so it’s very early days, but it’s been a learning curve as steep as the Eiger. I’m used to working with organisations constantly under funding pressure with skeleton staff. Uefa is richly staffed, represents 55 European nations and spends nearly €5bn annually. You might think a political scientist would be ready for this but, to paraphrase sports journalist Graham Thomas, football politics make the EU look like a rural community council!

Sitting at the top table of football has been a genuine eye opener and one not without its challenges. I’m reading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer which is jammed with advice about coping with and crossing the cultural divides that trip us up professionally.

I was chatting with Cymru manager Rob Page after the Euro 2024 draw in Hamburg earlier this month. Aside from suggesting that he wrapped Jordan James and Harry Wilson in bubble wrap until March 21, we talked more widely about my Uefa role. Rob talked of the pride he felt at seeing the Ddraig Goch represented in the board room in Nyon alongside the flags of footballing superpowers like Italy, France, Germany and England.

The Euro 2024 draw gave Wales a potentially tough old group, but one step at a time. Let’s see off Finland first, then focus on Poland or Estonia.

We’re going to need every ounce of Yma o Hyd and Y Wal Goch’s fervour to get Cymru over the line. But we can do it and what an achievement that would be. Wales’s fourth major tournament out of five and remember, big nations like Italy and the Netherlands have missed out on some of those.

A lesson for our self-esteem too. I’m proud to be the first ever Welsh representative in those corridors of football power (and the first woman in Europe to become a vice-president) but it begs the question of why so long?

Cymru’s place there is merited – Wales is a successful, independent football nation and our workforce deserve recognition for what we do on and off the pitch.

It’s scarcely believable that I’m the only woman on the Ex Co. But being the sole woman with a hinterland in football brings opportunities too. I’m a member of the small team working on Uefa’s overarching organisational strategy. I’m deputy chair of Uefa’s Women’s Football Committee, working on the new women’s football strategy. This at a time when women’s football grows exponentially at a rate five times faster than the men’s game. There are two million female players and an ambition to be a €1bn industry by 2030 – facts which make a mockery of how football has systematically silenced women’s voices at all levels of the game.

But those agendas are not all progressing without challenge or resistance. I don’t need to remind you of what happened at the Fifa Women’s World Cup this summer, where we witnessed the shocking behaviour of a football leader whose evident misogyny displayed itself in grotesque crotch-grabbing and a hideous, forced kiss on a Spanish player.

I’ve thought a lot about this. Not the behaviour, which is unequivocally awful, more about how to engineer change. But I understand football well enough to know that shouting on social media is simply not the way to have any impact. Sport is an environment where behind the scenes alliances and deals traditionally prevail. Washing dirty linen in public is massively frowned upon. But I’d talked openly in my election campaign about the systemic misogyny and discrimination that blights football.

So, when the president wanted to examine the cultural and gender problems our game faces, he asked me to lead a project to come up with some solutions. My point is – leadership isn’t always theatre.

Sure, transplanting lessons from sport to the rest of society is never simple, but it remains one of the few really concrete examples of us (mostly) getting it right. I sound like a stuck record when I say that our national psyche is too prone to low ambition and accepting its lot. There are a host of good historical reasons for this of course, but we are in danger of letting our past become a comfy sofa rather than Macmillan’s springboard for the future. Wales is a nation rich in talent, imagination and passion, but painfully poor when measured against so many more basic metrics. Wales is a table topper but regrettably in leagues in which no one wants to compete – a reverse beauty contest of economic success, quality of public transport, incarceration rates and educational performance.

I talked about all of this in my recent National Library of Wales Political Archive lecture at Cardiff University. In the spirit of not just stating the bleeding obvious, I suggested we need a new politics based on a different contract between the people and the state.

Two thirds of us don’t trust politicians. No great shock when we see the cavalier attitude to truth, power and representation at Westminster of late, symbolised by the chaotic and sclerotic reigns of prime ministers Johnson and Truss, both of whom were singularly ill-equipped to lead anything, never mind a government, as well as the mealy-mouthed answers of a compromised Sunak at the UK Covid inquiry.

My idea is for a Lockean-style social contract between we, the people and those elected to represent us. Somewhere in the dominant Anglo-Saxon tradition of representative democracy, we’ve lost the sense of politics as being less us and them, and more a symbiotic, two-way relationship between those elected and we, the citizens who have given them a temporary mandate to speak for us.

Reform of the Senedd gives us an opportunity but, alongside creating a fit-for-purpose Parliament, it simply must strengthen and improve the calibre of those who represent us there. I’m afraid some elements of the new Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill are simply unacceptable.

Back in 2017, our expert panel rejected the closed list PR system at the first stage of evaluation, for two simple reasons: it reduces further voter choice with even less direct lines of accountability with electors. Secondly, it encourages an already bloated, all-powerful party machine. Closed lists put more power into the hands of party bosses, risking rewarding loyalty and longevity, rather than calibre and contribution. They promote conservatism and conformism, risking a race to the bottom at the very time when we need an injection of diversity and talent.

Mark January 18 in your diary, when the report of our Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales will be published. As we finish our work, I’ve been jotting down a couple of clear learnings.

We agreed early on to frame our analysis of a better constitutional model for Wales, around governance changes that can improve delivery for people – moving away from the sneery “that’s for the anoraks” comments of Andrew RT Davies. Ensuring citizens have voice and agency was a critical pre-requisite for our work. This can be the only way to ensure the necessary legitimacy for our report’s recommendations.

We’ve had a proper go at a genuine National Conversation, directly reaching out to those not normally engaged in this type of discussion. Not easy, but we’ve tried to be as innovative as possible. We’ve heard the opinions of thousands of people; we’ve worked in colleges, supermarkets and agricultural shows, through rap, visual arts, and poetry, alongside more traditional methods - no one can say we haven’t tried to make matters constitutional more exciting!

Our guiding principle was that anything presumed right and appropriate for Scotland to control, should also be deemed appropriate for us. Removing the weirdly unchallenged exceptionalism around Wales that usually has little rationale bar a political legacy of “England and Wales-ism”. We anchored our work in values – agency, accountability, equality and subsidiarity – which we applied to all of the constitutional alternatives that we regarded we as viable, namely stronger devolution, federalism and independence.

We had already concluded that the current settlement “is not a reliable or sustainable basis for the governance of Wales in the future”. Most significant are the fundamental flaws in current relationships between the different governments across the UK. To be frank, there can only be one way to conduct inter-governmental relations, and that’s on the basis of mutual respect and parity of esteem.

Yet, we’ve seen from the Covid Inquiry that UK politicians and officials bristled at the idea of making joint decisions with Wales, even during a global pandemic.

And now, as we listen to spine-chilling evidence from the likes of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the Welsh Government’s refusal to hold a Covid inquiry here looks more indefensible by the day. It’s a fundamental part of the social contract that should exist between the people and politicians. A Welsh inquiry could examine the specific preparedness of Welsh Government for a pandemic, of the efficacy of its crisis management and the effectiveness of political decision-making.

Notwithstanding the constraints of a UK political and economic framework, facing humanity’s biggest challenge in maybe a century, we need to know did our devolved government – with responsibility for health, remember – step up to the plate? The answers to these questions have profound implications for us all and to avoid a Welsh inquiry means to shun proper and rigorous scrutiny.

As we gear up for a Welsh Labour leadership election, maybe we should grill the contenders on their plans to get the basics right. Personally, I’d be happy to see some boring policies that prioritise making changes happen.

At the end of the day, delivery trumps grand ideas, especially when it’s tough to pay the bills. Wales’s dismal Pisa education results would not be so shocking if they showed higher levels of well-being and satisfaction amongst Welsh learners, but they don’t. Education is about shaping the future. The NHS is a financially insatiable sickness service and will remain so until prevention is embedded front and centre.

The scale of the climate change crisis should trigger transformational interventions. How about a Costa Rica-style policy package to decarbonise Cymru, linking a greener future to eco-tourism here? The number of natural species in Wales has declined by 20%. Meanwhile, 65% of visitors to Costa Rica cite eco-tourism as their motivation, not surprising given they can see jaguars, toucans and howler monkeys there. Costa Rica is the only tropical country to have reversed deforestation. How? Through culture change and sound state leadership from those like environment minister, Alvaro Umana, using tools like a fossil fuel tax of 3.5%, and an innovative “debt-for-nature” swap with the Dutch government so that money spent servicing foreign debt is switched directly to conservation projects.

2024 will see a new Welsh First Minister and very probably, a new UK Prime Minister. There might well be a return to political co-habitation but I suspect it’ll be a case of be careful what you wish for given the punishing budgetary environment.

So Nadolig llawen bawb. Happy new (UK election and Euro 24) year. Let’s just hope Wales is seen and heard in both!

* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of Wales Women’s international football team.