Like others I enjoyed listening to and watching the referendum results coming in. Back in 1997 it felt like we’d crashed over the winning line, exhausted and mightily relieved. I still remember the long anxious wait into the night listening to the radio for news (it’s a long story but I was in Beirut). In the early spring sunshine on 4 March 2011 devolution became mainstream.
It’s certainly fair to say that several times during the campaign I felt a frustration that we had to fight a referendum on such an arcane and difficult issue. However, on reflection the referendum has strengthened not only the institution but its relationship with the people. We have the new powers not by Act of Parliament but by the popular vote. And that’s a more powerful mandate.
The Welsh General Election
This is the second of a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election on 5 May. Tomorrow Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, says the referendum is proving a Welsh political game changer.
In this way, my feeling is that the referendum reflected and measured the settled will of the Welsh people. This wasn’t a victory delivered by the hard work and organisation of a political machine. It was a quiet and determined democratic decision. Devolution is not only here to stay, but it is now an accepted part of Welsh national life and there is a strong and still growing feeling in Wales that we want to take more responsibility for own domestic affairs. And that was the real difference between 1997 and now.
So where does this leave us today? I’ve made my contribution to the drawing up of Labour’s manifesto. I’ve written up leaflets, begging letters and ordered my election publicity (helpers to deliver the leaflets are always welcome) and there’s a harder edge to the political debate. Normal service has been resumed. But not quite.
The fact of the referendum campaign has tested all the parties and allowed us to have a glimpse and a preview of their relative strengths and weaknesses.
We know from by-elections and polling that the UK coalition parties are experiencing strangely different fortunes. During the referendum campaign Nick Bourne, the Tory leader, was almost irrelevant, turning up for set-piece photo opportunities and speeches. Indeed, his taking a holiday a week before polling day demonstrated a certain lack of enthusiasm.
On the other hand what is to be made of the Welsh Liberal Democrats? Their leader Kirsty Williams emerges from the campaign as a strong and compelling advocate, able to connect easily with people and their concerns. But all too often she appeared to be a leader without a party. Certainly on the ground there was no sign of Liberal Democrat foot-soldiers and no sign either that the people have either forgotten or forgiven them for the choice that was made for them in London last summer.
For Plaid Cymru the referendum was a greater test than for either the Liberal Democrats or Tories, but it was also an opportunity for the party to energise its activists in a campaign that you’d expect to be right up their street. But they seemed out of sorts, unsure of themselves. Ieuan Wyn Jones appeared to have been hidden from view. Perhaps there was a fear that he would frighten the voters? In Blaenau Gwent he certainly did. The single most common issue I had to confront was fear of nationalism and of Plaid Cymru. Four years in government has done nothing to earn them any trust in the Valleys of north Gwent. “This is nothing to do with nationalism is it?” was the question from people unsure how to vote. Had Plaid Cymru led the campaign then it would have been lost. This was a vote for a strengthened Wales within the UK. Anyone who believes that it was in any way a vote for nationalism or separatism simply wasn’t there.
It was this trust of Labour that enabled nearly 70 per cent of people in Blaenau Gwent to ignore the distortions, fabrications and, frankly, the lies of True Wales (and the local Independents) and to vote Yes. It was also Labour activists that (in this case – literally) delivered the campaign. We produced our own literature and canvassed and campaigned for a strong Labour says Yes vote. The result was a strong endorsement of that message. On the wider stage, Carwyn Jones has emerged as a popular and trusted national leader. He stepped easily and confidently out of Rhodri’s shadow and is now his own man with his own popular mandate. He won the Welsh Labour contest easily but this was his first national test. He came through it strengthened and with his authority enhanced.
But will all this translate into the election campaign that is being predicted by the Western Mail and various university departments? My guess is that the new context of additional powers will generate higher expectations of the parties and a greater scrutiny of their manifestos. In this way the 2011 Assembly election will be Wales’ first ever proper parliamentary contest which means that the election will be fought on entirely new territory.
Post-referendum I believe there is a real sense that Welsh Labour is again at the centre of gravity in Wales, leading the way, and in step with grain of the Welsh mood. But Labour will be making a terrible mistake if anyone believes that simply the shared values of Wales and Welsh Labour will be sufficient for the next five years. It is true that we represent the only real alternative to the ideology and hard right theocracy coming out of Westminster. Yet Wales deserves more than a government in exile, a government of perpetual opposition.
Devolution has come of age and all the political parties need to up their game. This is an opportunity for Welsh Labour to publish an exciting and radical manifesto which prioritises the creation of wealth and demands consistently higher performances from our public services. And this means a radical change of expectations from the politicians elected on 5 May. Whatever the result, I hope that those politicians understand that more of the same simply won’t be good enough.