Who are the real Welsh leaders?

The answer will be clear in next year’s Assembly elections when the current leadership debates will surely have set a precedent

I had an odd feeling about last night’s Welsh leaders debate on ITV Wales and it was quite a while before I clocked why. It came to me in the early hours this morning that the reason was the mixing up of Welsh and Westminster politicians. It raised the question: who are the real Welsh leaders in this election? Are they:

  • Peter Hain or Carwyn Jones for Labour?
  • Ieuan Wyn Jones or Elfyn Llwyd for Plaid?
  • Kirsty Williams or Lembit Opik (or perhaps Roger Williams) for the Liberal Democrats?
  • Cheryl Gillan or Nick Bourne for the Conservatives?

The answer last night appeared to be Peter Hain, Cheryl Gillan, Kirsty Williams and Ieuan Wyn Jones.  It seemed to me, however, that these choices – and they were for the parties to choose who represented them – conveyed a confused message.

The equivalent debate in Scotland last night did not mix up their politicians from north and south of the border in the same way. Their leaders were all Westminster-based: the Scottish Secretary of State, Jim Murphy, Labour MP for East Renfrewshire, and his respective shadows – Angus Robertson, SNP MP for Moray; David Mundell, Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdsle and Tweeddale; and Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.

There seems to be a logic in sticking with Westminster politicians for a Westminster election, especially as there is a danger if mixing up who is responsible for what in our devolved world. In the first UK leaders debate last week they were focusing on domestic issues, but for most of these Westminster’s writ does not run in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Quite apart from that, politicians tend to address questions with a different slant depending on where they’re coming from, and in particular whether their feet are planted by the Thames or the Taff. It is also rather odd to have people fronting for a party who are not actually standing in the election they’re pontificating about.

It is perhaps understandable for Kirsty Williams, the newly elected Welsh Liberal Democrat leader in the National Assembly to wish to size the chance to project herself on the national stage. It is also true that Elfyn Llwyd and Peter Hain don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. Nevertheless, Ieuan Wyn Jones’s decision to take the stand seems counter-intuitive, especially when set against the position adopted by his Scottish counterpart Alex Salmond.

Salmond, no doubt responding partly from pique at being sidelined from the UK leaders debate – he dubbed last week’s clash as “three machine politicians having nothing to say to three countries” – has attempted to distance himself from the UK campaign. The SNP campaign, he suggests, is of a different character to the others. It is about Scotland’s future and altogether apart from customary, flawed Westminster politics. As Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s Political Editor, put it on his ‘Blether with Brian’ blog yesterday:

“His party cannot win the election in the conventional sense of forming the next UK government. By definition, they only contest seats in Scotland. By dint of simple arithmetic, that means they cannot enter Downing Street as the elected administration. Solution? Do not fight this election in a conventional fashion. Present a manifesto which is a shopping list for substantive opposition rather than a programme for government. By which means, the SNP would hope to enter Downing Street to negotiate with the new Prime Minister, whoever that might be.”

This may be part of the reason why the SNP has been less affected by the Liberal Democrat spike in the polls, following last week’s leaders debate compared with Plaid in Wales. In this week’s ITV Wales Yougov poll Plaid fell back five points to 9 per cent compared with a poll taken a month ago. On the other hand the Liberal Democrats surged to 29 per cent (compared with 12 per cent) only narrowly behind Labour on 33 per cent (down four per cent) and ahead of the Conservatives’ 23 per cent (down 6 per cent).

In this week’s Ipsos Mori poll in Scotland Labour is on 36 per cent, the SNP 26 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 20 per cent and the Conservatives 14 per cent. The Liberal Democrats did see a leaders debate bounce, but only eight points compared with 17 points in Wales. At 26 per cent the SNP is well up on the 17.7 per cent share of the vote it achieved in the 2005 Westminster election.

I suspect that this election’s mixed-up leadership debates in Wales will be the last of their kind. Certainly, there seems little doubt that the UK leaders debates have set a precedent for next year’s Assembly election. Then we’ll have a real leaders debate in Wales, starring Carwyn Jones, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Kirsty Williams, and Nick Bourne. And even if they refuse to talk about it, the elephant in the debating chamber will be the make-up of the coalition following 5 May 2012.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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