Hywel Francis says the Yes campaign should focus on bread and butter issues rather than constitutional arguments
Coming down to Cardiff for the count on referendum night in 1997 I was shocked by the early votes being reported from north-east Wales. It was immediately obvious that easy margin of victory that I had assumed from my experiences in the campaign was not going to happen. I ran into Tyrone O’Sullivan outside the Park Hotel and said to him, “You know, we could be about to lose this.” But Tyrone replied, “Don’t worry, we haven’t seen the vote from the Valleys yet.”
Of course, Tyrone proved right in 1997. Will the Valleys come good for Wales again in 2011? I think they will, but we shouldn’t underestimate the struggle we have in getting our message across.
In some ways it was easier in September 1997. We were coming off the back of a famous victory for Labour in the general election of that year and the momentum was with us. Labour was stronger in local government and we had authoritative voices, such as Noel Crowley, the leader of Neath Port Talbot, speaking out strongly for a Yes vote. Labour’s local government voice is more muted today.
There is a paradox, too, that the very success of today’s Yes campaign in pulling together broad-based agreement across the parties, especially in the Assembly, is making it more difficult to mobilise a full-blooded anti-Tory campaign.
But I think we can still tap into the strong combination of Welsh and working class identity that delivered such an overwhelming vote in the western Valleys in 1997. In that referendum Neath Port Talbot delivered the best result in Wales. Undoubtedly it also had much to do with the early preparations led by Peter Hain who asked me on Election Night to set up the broad based local Yes Campaign. This I did and Neath became the first local group in Wales. Very soon afterwards with the late Val Feld I set up a similar group in the other half of the County Borough in the Aberavon constituency.
In Neath we targeted local events such as carnivals and community organisations such as rugby clubs where young people met. My son, Dafydd made a special effort to encourage youngsters in Seven Sisters rugby club to vote Yes. At the count he was delighted that the first thirty votes in one Seven Sisters box were all ‘Yes’.
Early organising, strongly led by Labour, with strong local union and local government support led to the outstanding result. It was also underpinned by a parallel, specifically Labour campaign by the Labour party in Neath.
Today in Aberavon we are using a similar model. Labour took the lead to launch the campaign and it now involves Lib Dems, Plaid, trade unionists and those who are non-affiliated. It campaigns three days a week involving door-to-door leafleting, coffee mornings and other fund-raising events. Other Labour campaigns on a range of local issues are also campaigning for a Yes vote.
Inevitably leadership of the local campaign has now passed to Assembly Members or Assembly candidates who, of course, did not exist in 1997. However, there is emerging a common anti-Tory factor which was equally dominant in 1997, what Paul Murphy MP now calls “standing up for Wales against Tory cuts”.
As a campaigner for democratic devolution I know how important it is to take the argument beyond simply constitutional issues. That is what happened in the heavy defeat in 1979 and the close vote in 1997. On both occasions the challenge of linking the constitutional change to an improvement in the quality of life of ordinary people was not well made. Today we must emphasise more than ever that the referendum on 3 March is about:
- Giving Wales a stronger voice
- Standing up against the cuts being forced on us by the Tory-led government in Westminster.
- Building our economy by supporting both the public sector and the private sector.
As to the question on the ballot paper, Carwyn Jones, First Minister in the Welsh Government, has explained the issue very simply:
“It’s about using powers more freely. At the moment, the Assembly can make laws in the areas it’s responsible for, like health and education, but very often we have to ask Westminster for the powers to do so first. The question you have to ask yourself is this. Do you think that those laws which only affect Wales should be made by people that you elected as Assembly Members and who you can kick out if you don’t like what they’re doing? Which system is the more democratic and best for Wales?”
The National Assembly is ready to take on full law-making powers within such key areas as health and education, having gone through the learning experiences of the past five years. The Yes Campaign has made a good start with the four main parties within the National Assembly supporting it, along with such important bodies as the Wales TUC – a long standing supporter of democratic devolution since the 1970s. Broad-based local groups are also being set up all over Wales.
I am confident that we can again deliver a Yes vote for Wales. But we must be more ambitious than securing a narrow majority on a low turn-out. We can persuade a good majority of the people of Wales that moving the National Assembly forward to having more responsibility for our laws that are made in Wales makes sense, but only if we stress the bread and butter impact and not the constitutional niceties.
March will be an important month for the people of Wales. Voting Yes on 3 March will give Wales a stronger voice. It will also give a boost to the march in London on 26 March in support of the TUC demonstration against the cuts.