CONVENTION SPECIAL 5: A Question of Priorities

Huw Lewis argues a referendum Yes vote must be won on the basis of more powers being needed to improve our economy and society

Following the report of the All Wales Convention last week, a great deal of attention has already been focused on what the question should be in any referendum. Should it reference Scotland, should there be an explanatory pre-amble? Should there be another question altogether, as the mischievous David Davies asks?

There remains, however, a much more important question which too few people seem ready or willing to answer – more powers for what end? Surely that must be our starting point, but why has there been so little comment on this? Perhaps it is a case of being too obvious a question to answer as George Bernard Shaw once said, but that is not my experience. It is my experience that for those most supportive of securing further powers, this is still an afterthought.

Writing for this website, Geraint Talfan Davies for example rightly talks about the need to develop a programme of radical policy deliverable with new powers – but only after raising the false assertion that we will be regarded somehow as a “lesser people” without a Scottish style settlement. Carwyn Jones rightly dismisses this in his own article published by the IWA, where he points out the different political history and culture which exists in Wales. As Eleanor Roosevelt observed, “No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

The Convention’s report is a good piece of work. It is engaging, important and it raises serious questions in addition to the answers it provides. But the report does not explain how, in social terms, more powers will deliver better outcomes for our communities – a better economy, better schools and a cleaner environment. Nor does the Convention really deal with how you actually win a referendum.

My leadership will focus on answering those questions because I believe it will be Welsh Labour’s job to answer those questions. The Tories are too split on devolution to do it; the Lib Dems are not a serious enough party to do it; and Plaid Cymru don’t want to answer those questions. As emphasised again by Adam Price last week, their’s is an argument based on a vaguely distasteful pretence that we are a subjugated people. As Orwell reminds us, “nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception”.

That is why I believe Wales requires an honest-broker at the helm in the coming months and years, someone who is committed to devolution, but committed, too, to developing and explaining a radical new agenda that will move the devolution project back to its original purpose as I saw it. Delivering better services for our communities. Essentially, that is what my leadership campaign has been about. Putting a long-term vision back into the heart of the Labour movement in Wales, developing ambitious end goals – like eradicating child poverty and then working up a plan of how we do it.

In practical terms, too, it will again be down to Welsh Labour to play the central role in delivering a ‘Yes’ vote, as it was in 1997. As Labour’s organiser for the referendum vote in that campaign I remember full well how close we came to losing. The ‘Yes for Wales’ campaign had bankrupted itself with two weeks remaining, and we were haemorrhaging support across Wales. Without the huge financial support and organisational skills of Welsh Labour that vote would have been lost. I’m not sure there are many people arguing for an early referendum who understand the nuts and bolts of how you win a campaign like this. There’s a huge amount to do to raise the money you need, and to put the organisation in place. That is why I have been consistent, and the other two leadership contenders have come on board with this now, that there should be no referendum before the General Election.

As for inspiring people to vote yes, with a vision for a better Wales, only deliverable through further powers – well I think that remains the elephant in the room. Tactically, is it possible to win a referendum saying you want parity with Scotland for the sake of fairness? Possibly. But without explaining how that delivers a better economy and a better society, it is an electoral con trick. I don’t want to con the people of Wales. I want to inspire people to vote yes.

Huw Lewis is AM for Merthyr and a Labour leadership contender.

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