Rhodri Morgan once famously remarked, in the early years of the National Assembly, that its electoral arrangements had been devised to ensure that Labour would achieve a majority of seats in at least three elections out of four. Speaking at a seminar on coalition government in the Senedd earlier this week, and with the benefit of hindsight, he revised that estimate sharply downwards.
He said that, at best, Labour could not hope to form a majority government following one election out of two. “The 1999 Assembly was not set up for majoritarian rule,” he reflected. “It was designed to make it as difficult as possible for Labour to form a government.”
The former First Minister also made it clear that he wasn’t just referring to the electoral arrangements and their form of partial proportional representation, but to the inaugural Assembly’s internal procedures as well. Ron Davies’ passionate pursuit of ‘inclusive’ government had resulted in excessive powers being handed to chairs of Committees, whose role gave them as much if not more influence than Secretaries in the Cabinet. “It was all meant to operate as a happy clappy scout camp,” was the way he scathingly described it.
Which was why following the first coalition of Labour with the Liberal Democrats in 2000 he moved swiftly to rename Secretaries as Ministers, to ensure the separation of the legislature from the executive, and to institute as strong a system of Cabinet government as possible.
But more than providing a perspective on the history of Welsh coalition government the seminar, organised by Swansea University’s European Institute of Identities, provided an important glimpse of where Welsh politics could be following the May 2016 Assembly election. For the likelihood is that the parties will once more find themselves locked in negotiations to form another coalition.
Rhodri Morgan said he disagreed with a recommendation from the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the formation of coalitions, published last week (here http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/constitution-committee/news/scotland-independence-lord-hope-prof-mclean/ ), that negotiations “should be concluded as quickly as possible”. The five days that it took to form the present Conservative Liberal Democrat government at Westminster was too hasty, he said, and destined to ensure that parts of the coalition agreement would unravel. He contrasted it with the two months it took to negotiate the One Wales coalition that he led following the 2007 Assembly election. That, he said, was closer to European norms.
It was important, too, that coalition agreements were endorsed by the parties involved. The 2007 Assembly agreement was voted on by special recall conferences of both Labour and Paid Cymru. This contrasted with what happened in Westminster following the 2010 coalition deal, when only Liberal Democrat MPs voted on it, while the Conservatives didn’t seek a mandate of any kind from amongst their party members.
Another speaker at the seminar, South Wales East Plaid Cymru AM Jocelyn Davies, who led her party’s team in the 2007 coalition negotiations, set out some practical lessons. She said it was important that she and Vale of Glamorgan Labour AM Jane Hutt, who led for Labour, knew each other well and quickly established a basis of trust. “Neither of us had leadership ambitions ourselves,” she said. “So there was no risk to either of us in whatever might have come out of the negotiations.
“We quickly established a safe environment and operated on a basis of trust. There were no leaks and no grandstanding to the press following meetings. We agreed that as far as possible our respective leaders should be kept away from the detail. We would only raise matters with them that we could not resolve ourselves.”
She said it was important that following the Agreement the subsequent coalition government acted as one in sharing the commitments in common and not identifying which came from either party. “That allowed us to be more progressive and braver in implementation,” she said.
Any disputes that arose during government over issues not covered in the one Wales Agreement were dealt with by a star chamber, made up of the two leaders – Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones – and their two special adviser, Mark Drakeford, now Health Minister, and Simon Thomas, now Plaid’s List AM for Mid and West Wales.
Both Rhodri Morgan and Jocelyn Davies rejected as a myth the notion that smaller parties should be wary of entering coalition government because they would reap adverse electoral consequences. Jocelyn Davies said her party’s setback at the 2010 election, when its seats fell from 15 to 11, was more to do with Labour benefiting from a Conservative-led government at Westminster than Plaid participating in the coalition government.