Taking the Assembly Forward

John Osmond speculates on what might emerge from the re-entry into frontline Welsh politics of two leading personalities

Two figures who look set to be significant players in the National Assembly following next year’s elections made important steps in their political comeback over the weekend. On Saturday Labour picked Mark Drakeford to succeed Rhodri Morgan as their candidate to fight Cardiff West next year. And less than a mile away and only a few hours later Ron Davies, former Secretary of State for Wales and Labour AM for Caerphilly during the Assembly’s first term, received two standing ovations when he was a guest speaker at Plaid Cymru’s Spring conference.

Plaid’s invitation to Ron Davies, currently an Independent councillor in Caerphilly, to speak at their conference was another step in a remarkable journey that now seems likely to include his standing under the party’s banner in the constituency in May 2011. Less than a month ago he announced that he was winding up Forward Wales, the party that he and another former Labour MP and AM for Wrexham John Marek founded following the 2003 elections. At the same time Davies said he would be supporting his erstwhile opponent in Caerphilly, council leader Lindsay Whittle, as Plaid’s candidate in the forthcoming Westminster general election.

On Saturday Ron Davies told Plaid that he had attempted over many years to persuade the Welsh Labour Party that it needed to reform itself in response to devolution, to become a more autonomous institution separated from the English Labour Party and responsible for its own organisation and policy-making. “You can’t take the devolution genie out of the bottle and expect things to be the same, “ he said.

“I thought we might see Labour and Plaid come together as a fusion at the left of centre of Welsh politics along the lines of the Social Democratic Labour Party in Northern Ireland,” he said. “But it was not to be. Labour’s attitude to devolution is grudging, reluctant, and only responds under force. It is not in the DNA of the Labour Party to be interested in what it has created and to take devolution forward.

“Ten years on from the creation of the Assembly the big issues still remained to be settled, in particular devolving full law-making powers and achieving a fair funding formula. Every step of the way is a political arm wrestle,” Davies said. “It now falls to Plaid to carry the National Assembly forward.”

If anyone can prove him wrong it will be Mark Drakeford, who first attempted to get elected for Cardiff Central in 1999, but lost to the Liberal Democrat’s Jenny Randerson. As a key political adviser to Rhodri Morgan over the past ten years, he has been the main inspiration behind the ideas that have most distinguished Welsh from New Labour. Dubbed as ‘Clear Red Water’, after a speech crafted by Drakeford and delivered by Rhodri Morgan in Swansea ahead of the 2003 election, this has thus far emerged as devolution’s most distinctive philosophical approach to service delivery. In an article in the Winter 2006-07 edition of the IWA’s journal Agenda Drakeford described six principles underpinning the approach, which he described as “progressive universalism.” These included the beliefs that the delivery and receipt of pubic services should be regarded as a collaborative rather than quasi-commercial transaction, and that equality of outcomes than that equality of opportunity should be the objective in public service provision.

If the outcome of the next Assembly election is another coalition between Labour and Plaid, and if as now seems likely, Ron Davies and Mark Drakeford emerge as leading figures in the government that results, it will be fascinating to see what emerges in the mix.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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