John Osmond reports on the debate that launched the IWA’s Politics in 21st Century Wales:
The debate in the Senedd on Monday evening that launched the IWA’s latest book on the future of Welsh politics proved a fascinating curtain raiser on the coalition negotiations between the parties that we can anticipate in the wake of the 2011 Assembly elections.
All the participants were key players in the two months of negotiations that took place following the May 2007 elections and three of them may well be in pole position in a little over three years time. So, it was instructive to watch them circling around one another warily and watching their words.
Of course, First Minister Rhodri Morgan won’t be among them after 2011, since he has announced his impending retirement from politics – “he has indicated a wish to stand down as First Minister well before the elections” (according to his biographical note in Politics in 21st Century Wales). However, he prompted the speculation by suggesting in his contribution to the book that Labour should countenance proportional representation in local elections in order to allow a coalition deal to be negotiated with the Liberal Democrats.
It was Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price who suggested somewhat mischievously that this was tantamount to Rhodri revealing ‘a bit of ankle’ to the Lib Dems. Read the small print, he inferred. Rhodri was not showing the whole of his leg. In fact the First Minister was suggesting what is called permissive PR. That is to say, on the presentation of a petition by a set number of electors, local authorities should be obliged to hold a referendum on whether to introduce proportion representation, following the similar system that obliges them to hold referendums on establishing a mayor. On Monday evening the First Minister stated that he had borrowed the notion from New Zealand where it had worked extremely well and, as he said, completely taken the heat out of the argument over proportional representation.
However, Adam Price wanted to know whether this would be enough to entice his fellow contributor to the book, the Liberal Democrats’ Kirsty Williams, into a coalition with Labour. She carefully skirted round giving a straight answer to the question, though she did concede that, although she vetoed a coalition with Labour last year she would be prepared to consider one after 2011.
In her chapter she criticises the June 2007 Rainbow deal the Liberal Democrats negotiated with Plaid and the Conservatives in the following terms, ones she reiterated on Monday evening:
“The All Wales Accord had a tick box and a sprinkling of pork barrel for every interest group, but where and what was the vision? The most attractive part of it was to get rid of Labour. The vision was to change the government – not to change the nation. Is that enough? It wasn’t for me at the time, and I remained unconvinced today.”
Adam Price retorted that this was a bit rich since in the negotiations it was the Liberal Democrats who kept on inserting detail after detail of commitments. He said he well remembered delivering a final version of the accord to the Liberal Democrat Chief Executive just before the fateful meting of the Liberal democrat Executive in Llandrindod, which rejected the deal. “It still had the ink of Liberal Democrat bullet points drying on it as I handed it over,” he said.
The Conservative leader Nick Bourne opined that it was a perfectly honourable ambition to have as a priority the replacement of the governing party if it had been so long in charge as Labour in Wales. He believed that the results of the 2011 election would more than likely mean that Plaid, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives would be facing that option once more.
Adam Price said that Red/Green stripes ran right through him and that it should be acknowledged that while the Plaid-Labour coalition Government might not be popular with party activists on either side, it struck a deep well of approbation amongst the electorate. “It chimes with what Wales wants,” he said. At the same time he said, and as puts it in the book, “The question for Plaid is not whether to challenge Labour for dominance, but when”.
He acknowledged there were dangers for any junior partner in a coalition in being sidelined by the electorate. But optimistically he referred to West Germany’s SPD, a party that Willy Brandt led into a Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats in 1968. This gave them their first taste of power since before the Nazis had taken over in the 1930s and legitimised them as a governing party. Two years later they went on to gain a majority.
Rhodri Morgan said he had been in politics a long time and lived through many periods when Labour had been written off, only to bounce back in often unforeseen circumstances, as was currently happening with Gordon Brown’s renaissance amid the credit crunch. But he warned that his party needed to embrace PR for local government if it wanted to have any choice of coalition partners in future.