In the wake of Labour’s success in the Assembly elections, and dismal showing of both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, it is tempting to conclude that occupying the position of the minor party in a coalition is no place to be, whether in Westminster or Cardiff Bay. Surprisingly, Welsh Conservatives have weathered their association with the senior partner at Westminster.
Yet it is almost impossible to disentangle and measure the impact of the multitude of factors that may have shaped this result in Wales:
- The first election in which different parties have been in power in Cardiff and London.
- The first post-recession and post-spending review election, producing a climate of fear, amongst both the poor and the middle class. There are no other classes in Wales.
- The overlay of the acrimonious AV referendum campaign that brought an already prickly UK coalition politics to the boil and dominated headlines. In choosing this date for the AV referendum the coalition acted cavalierly towards the devolved administrations.
- The impossibility of building any campaign momentum in a month punctuated by a Royal Wedding, Easter, a profusion of bank holidays and, at the finish, the killing of Osama bin Laden.
- The lack of any powerfully distinguishing features in the managerial manifestos of the main parties.
- The vagaries of the electoral system and the narrow margins in many seats – Liberal Democrats, in particular, should offer up a prayer of thanks to M. d’Hondt, while Labour might do likewise for the intervention of the independent, Sian Caiach, which unseated Plaid’s Helen Mary Jones.
While all these factors may have conspired to Labour’s advantage, Labour in Wales has also made its own luck. Carwyn Jones, while having a softer image than Alex Salmond in Scotland, has cut an increasingly Prime Ministerial figure since his election as leader 18 months ago, something which cannot be said of any of his opponents. His party’s manifesto was a more formidable document than it has produced for any of the previous Assembly elections, with an emphasis on ‘delivery’ that is as welcome as it is overdue. Plaid, too, offered a ‘decade of delivery’.
If delivery does turn out to be the distinguishing mark of Labour’s new leadership – outcomes, rather than strategies and declarations – it will be clearly visible and measurable. Certainly, after a public commitment to delivery, there will be no place to hide.
Part of Plaid Cymru’s rationale in entering the One Wales coalition in 2007, was that it would be seen as a party of government rather than protest. There was nothing wrong with that rationale, but unlike the coalition at Westminster, the coalition in Wales has, if anything, seemed too comfortable. In 2007, Labour and Plaid sought to establish a ‘progressive consensus’. One might wish to argue about the extent and meaning of the adjective progressive, but the two parties certainly gave the appearance of a warm consensus, right up to the moment of ritual pre-election estrangement. A Welsh dislike of unpleasantness may have recoiled against a necessary rougher relationship.
It has been difficult to distinguish the parties from each other in their overall approach and, arguably, it has been easier for Nick Clegg than for Ieuan Wyn Jones to list areas where their parties have clearly influenced the core policies of their respective coalitions, outside the constitutional sphere. Indeed, if you were to cut up paragraphs from the manifestos of all four parties and paste them anonymously on a wall, I would defy anyone to identify accurately the originating party.
It is for this reason that the issue of personal leadership assumes such importance. It emphasises the foolishness of Plaid in jettisoning Dafydd Wigley prematurely in 2001, the Conservative misfortune of losing Jonathan Morgan simultaneously with Nick Bourne’s cruel departure, and the Liberal Democrat discovery that sincerity and competence are not the only ingredients of real political heft.
While Labour ponders its coalition options, it will surely also look not only to its own past experience of minority government, but also to the experience of Alex Salmond in Scotland, who managed to govern successfully while having an advantage of only one seat over Labour and more than 30 seats fewer than all other parties. This he did, initially, with a Cabinet reduced to only five ministers, canny alliances with different parties on particular issues and an increasing reputation for efficient and brisk government. The overlap between the manifestos in Wales suggests that it should be possible to construct similar issue-based alliances here.
It could be argued that a tighter Cabinet in Wales would not only be seen to save money but also make good use of scarce talent, now that four Labour Cabinet ministers have stood down – Rhodri Morgan, Jane Davidson, Andrew Davies and Brian Gibbons. There are no less than 12 new Labour members, only one of whom – Mark Drakeford – has a close association with government. Although the three previous Plaid ministers were all returned, the Liberal Democrats are not an obvious source of new Cabinet members, having seen the re-election of only two of their previous group.
Indeed, the turnover in Assembly Members, across all the parties, is striking – a total change of 23 out of a total membership of 60 – a fact that emphasises both the cruelty of politics and the unpredictability of the list system since the 2006 Government Wales Act forbade dual candidacy in constituencies and regional lists. It was a partisan stricture that should now be removed. It is also noteworthy that amongst that 23, only eight have any experience of working in the private sector. Only one of the eight is a Labour member, unless you also count the early years of Jenny Rathbone and Ken Skates in television and journalism. In this sense the make-up of the fourth Assembly retains the restricted gene pool of the previous three.
Whether Labour chooses to go it alone or not, it should not be shy of plundering some of the more imaginative proposals in the manifestos of other parties. The weakness of Labour in the past has been a tendency to exclusivity. But the additional challenge for the new Welsh Government, whatever its colour, will not only lie in the delivery of services in Wales, but also in constructing some leverage in London at a time when Westminster is likely to become obsessed with handling Scotland and the prospect of a referendum on independence.