Future of the Red-Green Alliance

Mark Drakeford says Labour should be prepared to talk with the Liberal Democrats as well as Plaid

Those of us who lived through the 1980s read so many obituaries of the Labour Party that it was often a surprise to wake up in the morning and find that we were not only still alive, but winning elections at every level here in Wales. Then we were told that demographic and economic change ‘proved’ that Labour could never win again. Today, the soothsayers are at it again, only now they assure us that it is Labour’s very electoral success which dooms the Party to opposition. We’ve simply won too many elections. ‘Time for a change’, one of the most potent slogans in any politics, means that we can’t win again.

The lesson, and the health warning, is this: beware any one who tells you that anything is ‘bound’ to happen. Determinism may work well enough for Marxists but voters appear to be less impressed by such a doctrine. Instead, the realities of politics are more banal. There is an electoral lesson for Labour from the devolution decade, but rather than any high-flown talk of ‘realignment’ or Darwinian decline, it is simply this: that political success depends on:

  • Having a message which Welsh citizens understand as authentically Labour.
  • Communicating this message in a language which voters recognise as their own.
  • Never, ever, taking the support which the Party has enjoyed for so long for granted.

    The ratio of perspiration to inspiration is the same for politics as it was for the inventor Thomas Edison, and in achieving electoral, as well as electrical illumination there is no substitute for hard work.

    Looking forward, there seems little reason to depart from what recent opinion polling in Wales suggests – that the Assembly’s particular electoral system is very likely, in the 2011 election, to leave Labour as the largest party, by some distance, with an outside, but by no means impossible, chance of an overall majority. Having experienced the 2003–07 Assembly, my own conclusion is unambiguously that 30 seats does not represent a working majority for a full Assembly term. There may be political exigencies which make it impossible for a Labour leader to do anything other than attempt to form a single party administration in such circumstances, but its knife-edge existence does not make for stable government, or one which can easily make long-term decisions. In a period when financial circumstances are going to face all Ministers with difficult choices, the need for durability and an eye to the future will be all the more necessary.

    Against such a background, some thinking about a coalition after May 2011 is a necessary precaution. It seems clear to me that Labour’s interests are best served by having more than one option open, should this be the verdict of the voters. The coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru has, I believe, been a success. It has benefited from a clear and open policy agreement and a set of political arrangements, agreed in advance. Business has been conducted, too, by Ministers who possess a nuanced understanding of what it takes to pursue a common programme, while retaining distinct party identities.

    Coalition government requires a quiet maturity far more than it does the Tuppenny Tarzan posturing of those who believe that politics is best conducted as a combination of breast-beating and jungle calling. Fortunately the Assembly, with its high proportion of women politicians, has a predisposition to the former way of doing business, even as other elected forums seem to attract those who prefer the latter.

    However, even though the current coalition has been a success, Labour will not want to forget the similar experience of forming a government with the Liberal Democrats. The failure of nerve by that Party in May and June 2007 remains one of the great mysteries of contemporary Welsh politics. Nonetheless, if the Lib Dems are in a different frame of mind, post 2011, the possibility of a progressive alignment in that direction should not be discarded out of hand. My point is not, at all, that one form of coalition has more to commend it than the other. It is simply that, from a Labour perspective, flexibility will be an essential bedrock of a willingness to respond constructively to whatever the outcome of the next Assembly might be.

    That is why, I believe, Labour needs to return to a proposition first made by out-going First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, that it should positively embrace a policy of permissive proportional representation in local government. Certainly, such a proposition had much more to commend it, both politically and practically, than the immense distraction of a further round of local government reorganisation – a chimera which exercises a continuing hold over some in the Party. It is why, also, Labour will want to thrown its weight behind the green energy revolution which has such potential, if single-mindedly pursued, to move Wales from the margin to the centre of the European economy, creating jobs in manufacturing as well as energy production, and contributing well above our weight in power generated through wind, wave and water.

    In the end, of course, governments are judged by the ways in which they pursue the fundamental issues of the economy and public services. This is why, as the General Election approaches and electors face a choice between a Labour or Conservative government in Westminster, the gap between the parties has narrowed. The future rests between a Labour Party which has demonstrated the crucial role of public spending in dealing with the global economic down-turn, and a Conservative Party which believes, in its DNA, that public spending is only there to be slashed and public services only there to be burned. Plaid Cymru’s suggestion that the election of a viscerally rightwing government in London could somehow be to Wales’ advantage is unlikely to be forgotten.

    Here in Wales, Labour at the Assembly elections will concentrate not on grandstanding, but on demonstrating its distinctive approach to dealing with the different circumstances of the second decade of devolution. This is an approach which retains a commitment to universal services; which celebrates the value of public services, publicly provided; which knows that front-line, as well as back-room services, will have to be reformed, but recognises that this can only be done effectively by harnessing the experience and commitment of front-line staff in the reform process.

    In a period when money will be very tight, the experience which Labour has of leading the Assembly will be more important than ever in re-shaping public services which retain the trust, and feel the influence, of Welsh citizens. Above all, Labour will offer an approach which resonates with the long-established preferences of Welsh voters – the understanding that when we act collectively we achieve more than we when act alone, that pursuing the public interest is more important than the pursuit of self-interest and, more than anything else, that greater equality brings a set of social and economic advantages which markets alone can never match.

    There are many reasons why Labour in Wales will face next year’s elections with confidence. New First Minister, Carwyn Jones, demonstrated a sureness of touch and a steely political nerve in steering the Assembly vote on commencing the referendum process to a highly successful conclusion. Labour retains its hard-won reputation as the party of devolution – the party which has consistently delivered those practical democratic advances which devolved government represents. With the record of what active government can do in combating the recession in Wales, and a programme which concentrates on making a difference in the everyday lives of all its citizens, Labour can look forward confidently to the future.

    Professor Mark Drakeford was Rhodri Morgan’s special adviser in the Welsh Government 2000-2010 and will be Labour’s candidate in Cardiff West in the May 2011 Assembly election. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda.

    Also within Politics and Policy