Political lights set to turn amber to green in 2011

John Osmond on what the coming year holds for our politicians

The defining political moment in Wales in 2011, and perhaps for the coming decade will, of course, be the referendum on 3 March. A Yes vote will mean  the National Assembly becoming a fully-fledged legislature in the areas where is has competence. However, the referendum result will be even more significant in Welsh existential terms.

A Yes vote will provide an affirmation that the people of Wales are content with the devolution process and the broad direction in which it is heading. The extremely narrow margin of victory for the Yes side in 1997 gave an amber signal for devolution to proceed. March 3 is about, finally, turning on the green light.

This is important in its own right, but in many ways it is even more important for the attitude of the English political class towards Wales. For hitherto they haven’t thought Wales is really serious about devolution in the way they take for granted about Scotland. If you want proof of that consider the bizarre clause in last May’s London coalition agreement which states, “Depending on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, we will establish a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly”.

This means that if there is a Yes vote the London government will set up a review along the lines of the Calman Commission which has examined the Scottish Parliament’s funding and the case for taxation powers. Such a review would have to revisit the Barnett formula which calculates the distribution of the block grant to the devolved administrations.

Of course, as Gerry Holtham, who chaired the Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales, has pointed out more than once, there is no logical connection between the vote on further legislative powers for the Assembly and the way it is funded. But politics are not logical. What that coalition clause signified was simply this: if you, the people of Wales, vote Yes in the referendum, we will take you seriously.

The obverse, of course, is that if we vote No we can expect to be sidelined and ignored.

What I find most remarkable about the present moment is the quiet confidence amongst Yes campaigners that they will achieve a convincing result. There is, of course, the evidence of recent opinion polls which all point one way. There is the  lak of credibility of the No campaign, focused almost entirely on the Pontypool Labour Party. There is also, I think, a feeling that moving the Assembly on makes so much common sense that it can hardly fail. Beware complacency.

What is certain is that the referendum result will have an enormous impact on the character of the Assembly election campaign that will swiftly follow. Manifestos are being drawn up that assume a Yes vote and, therefore, are attempting to respond in imaginative ways to the legislative opportunity that will then be presented. What are the areas where we can expect some innovative new thinking that will require a legislative input? Answering this question is not easy since many if not most policy innovations do not require legislation. But some examples come to mind.

Legislation may be required to give the Welsh Government powers to better co-ordinate public transport and especially the integration of bus and rail provision. The IWA’s forthcoming report advocating the creation of a metro for the Cardiff city region is a case in point.

Given the declarations by Education Minister Leighton Andrews that he wants an early reconfiguration of higher education, with a reduction of the number of Universities from the present ten to five or six by 2013, then this might need some radical changes to the role and powers of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Existing legislation that its functions cannot be tampered with by the Welsh Government may need to be changed.

Health policy is largely a matter of budget allocations. However, the Welsh Government has already said it wishes to legislate to make the sourcing of organ transplants easier by putting the onus on the individual to opt out rather than in to the system. Last week the Attorney General intervened to cast doubt on whether this lay within the Assembly’s competence. Doubtless he is uneasy about the impact on England of Wales going its own way in this area. A Yes vote would undoubtedly strengthen the Welsh Government’s hand in such grey legislative areas.

In the environment field the evident intention of the Welsh Government to merge the functions of the Environment Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission’s functions in Wales will require legislation.

How such issues work through will very much depend on the precise colour of the Welsh Government that emerges after 6 May and that, of course, will depend on the performance of the parties. How are they likely to fare? ITV 1 Wales’ latest Yougov poll last month suggests that Labour is benefiting so much from the Conservative-led government in London that it might achieve a majority government in Cardiff Bay after 6 May.

National Assembly voting intention (December 2010)

Labour Plaid Con Lib Dem Other
FPTP 44 21 23 6
List 42 21 22 5 10

However, the vagaries of the Additional Member proportional voting system means this is unlikely. And as First Minister Carwyn Jones stressed in a number of interviews over the New Year, he has no intention of trying to run a minority government.  My best guess three months away from the poll, during which all manner of events will occur –not least the referendum itself – is that we will end up with something like the following distribution of seats: Labour 29, Plaid Cymru 14, Conservatives 13, and Liberal Democrats 4. A wild card will be the performance of independents on the List. There could be a victory for UKIP in one of the regions, perhaps in south west Wales, or the Greens, possibly in South Wales Central. There seems little doubt, however, that we’re in for another spell of coalition government, with Labour and Plaid Cymru forging a second One Wales agreement. If there is a No vote on 3 March its centre piece will have to be another referendum. Surely, no one wants that, do they?

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

One thought on “Political lights set to turn amber to green in 2011

  1. It’s nice to see that you recognise that a yes vote will not lead to a dramatic transformation of the Welsh economy as some continue to be suggesting all be it for obvious reasons. Your list of potential laws is hardly llikely to see voters rush to the polling booth to vote either way.

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