In light of recent attacks by the Conservatives on the performance of the Labour-run Welsh Government, you could be forgiven for thinking that the main message at the party’s conference in Llandudno last weekend would be about “Standing up for Wales”- something Welsh Labour pledged to do in the 2011 National Assembly for Wales manifesto.
And, indeed, that was what the party’s leadership talked about. A clear narrative was developed throughout their conference that what was coming from London was a ‘Tory war on Wales’. Several speeches, notably the First Minister’s conference address, set about putting this right with “the truth” and “standing up for Wales”.
But hidden amongst all this defence rhetoric were more subtle messages about what the ‘party of devolution’ have in mind for the future of Wales. The first keynote speech was made by the UK party leader Ed Miliband who certainly provided enough for those interested in devolution to chew upon. Referring to the recent Supreme Court tussle between the UK and Welsh Governments over who has competency in relation to the Agricultural Wages Board, Mr Miliband said that this was an issue that would stop Welsh Labour from delivering fairness. Citing this example, he went on to say
“Friends, under a Labour government, it will never happen again. That is why I can announce, following the Silk Commission, and on the advice of the Welsh Government, the next Labour Government will legislate to extend further the model of devolution in Wales. Under a new Government of Wales Act. With powers assumed as devolved to Wales, unless specifically reserved. Bringing Wales into line with Scotland.”
This welcome statement secured, somewhat astonishingly, the biggest applause of the speech. But that was not the end of the devolution bandwagon.
At a well-attended fringe event, the UK’s Changing Union and Electoral Reform Society held a roundtable discussion to discuss the findings of their joint report Size Matters. During the roundtable discussion there was much agreement on the need to increase the number of Assembly Members in the Senedd, particularly in support of AMs’ vital role in scrutinising legislation and holding government to account.
There was also recognition that the workload for AMs had increased significantly since the inception of the Assembly in 1999, something that has been recognised in several independent reports over the years. First Minister Carwyn Jones said that in his view 80 Assembly Members are needed, echoing the comments he made in First Minister’s Questions a few weeks ago:
“It is right to say that this is a small Chamber, given the work that it does, and I am aware that backbench Members from all parties here work extremely hard… I think that 80 Members would be better as far as the Chamber is concerned” (11 March 2014).
This was a significant conference for devolution, as was reflected in much of the media coverage: “Ed Miliband promised to clear up devolution confusion” (BBC Wales Online) and “Owen Smith: Labour will give Wales income tax powers” (Western Mail). Whilst many observers expected Labour to back widespread calls in Wales for a reserved powers model of devolution at some point before the 2015 election, not too many were expecting it last Saturday.
Of course, a reserved powers model is arguably one of the easier of the Silk recommendations to which Labour can commit, as it’s probably easier to implement than some of the Commission’s recommendations. Nonetheless, the fact that this announcement came right from the top of the Labour Party’s UK leadership indicates how seriously the Labour party is treating this matter.
Moreover, reserved powers unlocks a far more interesting debate. Labour’s commitment means that the party now has to answer the question ‘What will be reserved?’ For example, will policing be explicitly reserved? Whilst the reserved powers announcement will be welcomed by many organisations in Wales, Labour will have to provide the fine print of this conference commitment in their 2015 General Election manifesto.
In addition, the new Government of Wales Act that was announced by Mr Miliband will also provide a vehicle for many further changes. Some have already noted that matters like a reserved powers model could have been included in the current Wales Bill. If Labour are elected, there will be plenty more opportunities to legislate on such matters with the new Government of Wales Act.
The pre-conference briefings were about defending Wales against the attacks from a London Government and a London media, raising the heat on Welsh Labour’s performance ahead of next year’s general election. But the most significant statements of the weekend came in the form of new devolution pledges that will keep the constitutional obsessives engrossed for a while yet.