John Osmond follows some straws in the political wind
To quote Herman Dooyeweerd, a little known Dutch social theorist from the 1950s, you can tell whether a community is becoming a nation if it is “conscious of its internal political solidarity.” There have been clear signs of this in Wales in the past few days.
First was the letter to Prime Minister Cameron signed by all four party leaders in the National Assembly calling on him to ensure the independence on S4C because of its “incalculable importance” to the future of the Welsh language. They call for an independent review into the broadcaster before it is allowed to become, in effect, part of the BBC empire.
Such an alliance between the parties on such a sensitive issue involving the Welsh language would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Only Plaid Cymru and possibly the Liberals would have been interested. Labour wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole. The Welsh Conservatives might have wished to identify with the language, but not hand-in-glove with Plaid.
In those days the language was a source of conflict between the parties. In the 1979 referendum campaign for instance it was deployed ruthlessly, and to some effect, by the late Pontypool MP Leo Abse to undermine any sense of solidarity that might have led to a Yes vote. The projected Assembly, he intoned would be a province for Welsh speakers only, with his people from Gwent denied a look-in. Conversely anti-devolutionists in north Wales claimed that an Assembly would be dominated by Socialists from the south. In politics you can have it both ways, and all at once.
You rarely hear this kind of language today, and certainly not in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, where on these kinds of issues all the parties are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Now the habit is spreading, at least partially, to Westminster. Today sees a revival of the Welsh Parliamentary Party which over the past 122 years has occasionally spluttered into life when issues of cross-party concern have arisen. It comprises all Welsh MPs of whatever political stripe. Unlike the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Select Committee its rules are not governed by Commons procedure, and so can meet whenever the mood music seems right.
Today is one of those times, prompted by Newport West Labour MP Paul Flynn who, as secretary, is the Welsh Parliamentary Party’s only surviving official – its last Chair Rhondda MP Allan Rogers left the Commons in 2001 (see Flynn’s account of the history of the WPP here). It is being revived to challenge a raft of UK government policies currently bearing down on Wales. First and foremost are the spending cuts. However, Welsh MPs also have high on their list the proposal to cut their number from 40 to 30 as part of plans to equalise the number of electors in constituencies across the UK.
Labour MPs are casting this as not only an attack on democracy but also a threat to the unity of the United Kingdom. In a remarkable article in yesterday’s Western Mail, Pontypridd’s new Labour MP Owen Smith claimed it meant Labour was the only Unionist party left in the country, with the Conservatives retreating “to rule the UK from England”. Unlike in Cardiff Bay political consensus at Westminster doesn’t travel very far, though on this occasion it does embrace Labour, Plaid Cymru and probably the Liberal Democrats. It will be interesting to see how many Conservatives turn up to today’s meeting.
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Wales are moving into dangerous political territory in the coming months. This week’s poll on Welsh attitudes to the spending cuts, carried out by researchers at Aberystwyth and Cardiff Universities, spells out their problem. A full 57 per cent against 29 per cent thought that Wales was being singled out unfairly for a greater share of the cuts than elsewhere in Britain (including a large majority of Liberal Democrat voters). Most thought the present Coalition government or the last Labour government was responsible, with only 3 per cent thinking the Labour Plaid coalition in Cardiff Bay had any say in it. This is a remarkable indication of the electorate’s ability to distinguish between the tiers of government involved.
Labour, bolstered by last week’s ITV Wales’ Yougov poll, is scenting blood. The figures for the constituency and regional votes, with September’s figures in brackets, were
Constituency: Labour 44% (no change), Plaid 21% (+2), Conservative 19% (-3), LibDems 9% (-2).
Regional: Labour 40% (-1), Plaid 23% (+4), Conservative 18% (-2), LibDems 9% (-3).
ITV Wales’ analyst Denis Balsom reckons that if this were the outcome next May then Labour would have an overall majority of 31 seats for the first time. On a uniform swing (and assuming Labour retake Blaenau Gwent now Trish Law is standing down) this would result in the Conservatives losing 4 of their 5 constituency seats to Labour (Monmouth would be the only hold). Add on the regional seats, where the Conservatives would get back some of the seats they lost at a constituency level, and the final result would be Conservatives 10 seats (down 2), Labour 31 seats (up 5), Lib Dems 5 (down 1), Plaid 14 (down 1). At both regional and constituency level Plaid take second place from the Conservatives.
These are the statistics behind Nick Bourne’s realignment of the Welsh Conservatives as pro Wales, pro Welsh language and pro devolution. Its why he signed that letter about S4C. Unfortunately, for the Conservatives their key player in negotiations with the Coalition government is their Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and she is not about to pay the Welsh card. For instance, she refused to countenance allowing a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to debate the cuts and reduction in Welsh MPs, which led to the revival of the antiquated Welsh Parliamentary Party. On S4C I’ve heard that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have had more leverage through their lines of communication to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. But none of this is going to help either the Welsh Conservatives or Liberal Democrats come the Assembly election next May.