What to do the morning after the Assembly election

Wyn Hobson looks back on the 2007 coalition negotiations and suggests some principles for expediting the process following 5 May

This may not be the most auspicious of times to discuss the prospects for a renewed coalition government in Cardiff Bay. The public’s attention is drawn almost daily to accusations that at least one of the participants in the present Westminster coalition has effectively reneged on its principles and promises. Moreover, as the shape and extent of the forthcoming public spending cuts become clearer, the revulsion against the administration that is executing the task will inevitably spill over, in some minds, into antipathy towards that administration’s form of governance, given that it is still a rather unusual one at the UK level.

It remains to be seen, however, to what extent such a reaction will modify public opinion in Wales. Here the Additional Member system of proportional representation makes a majority for any single party in the National Assembly the exception rather than the rule. But what are the prospects for the new Assembly that will be elected in May? Will the outcome be another coalition government— or do the present circumstances present an opportunity for the Labour party to achieve an overall majority?

There are several factors that make the latter result conceivable following the Welsh election on 5 May. The Westminster coalition’s decision to make deep public expenditure cuts at an early date was plainly influenced by a calculation that the worst will be over, and the hoped-for benefits of economic reconfiguration beginning to show themselves, by the time of the next UK parliamentary election in May 2014. However, next May will represent the worst possible timing for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups in the National Assembly. The first major cuts only a month old and a sharpening public understanding that worse is to come.

Labour and Plaid Cymru may be expected to be the main electoral beneficiaries of this state of affairs. But on top of that, the Westminster government’s decision to go for tough medicine immediately — and the disillusion of some Liberal Democrat party members at their MPs’ participation in this — appear to have gifted Labour, in particular, added public support and new members, and consequently an enhanced ability to fight off opposition in its Assembly marginals. As 11 of the 15 most marginal seats in the current Assembly are Labour held, this represents a substantial strengthening of Labour’s position.

However, it does not necessarily follow that this boost in support will be enough to ensure that the party will be able to do without a coalition partner on 5 May? In his ClickonWales article yesterday, John Osmond speculated that the outcome might be Labour 30, Plaid Cymru 14, Conservatives 12, and Liberal Democrats 4.

The latest ITV Wales/YouGov opinion poll of January 2011 suggested that Labour will win 45 per cent of the vote in the constituency seats, and 41 per cent in the regional list seats. This is unlikely to translate into an overall majority of seats — not only because of the provisions of the Additional Member proportional voting system, but also because of the long-term decline in two-party politics that has been discernible in the UK as a whole, and in the devolved nations in particular.

It has been suggested that last week’s Yes majority in the Assembly powers referendum will reap more electoral benefit for Plaid Cymru than for Labour. And though new funds are currently flowing into Welsh Labour’s coffers, it also remains to be seen how successfully it can rebuild its electoral machine, From 2007 the party has suffered enforced staffing and expenditure cuts, compounding a loss of experienced constituency activists during the years of disillusion with the party.

If, as a result of these and no doubt other factors, an overall majority is not achieved, there remains the possibility of Labour’s forming a minority government in Cardiff Bay, as it did in 1999–2000 and 2003–07. However, the memory of the instabilities of those periods, and in particular the government’s difficulty in getting budgets passed, proved a deterrent to continuing with such an arrangement after the 2007 elections. The success of the One Wales coalition since 2007 doubtless makes a return to minority government even less attractive. Indeed, in recent weeks First Minister Carwyn Jones has publicly set his face against setting up such a government.

What, then, is the most likely Assembly coalition configuration after 5 May? However much or little the Welsh Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are left electorally weakened by public reaction to the Westminster coalition’s policies, Plaid Cymru would surely be less likely than in 2007 to consider an alliance with the Welsh arms of the Westminster coalition partners, given the latter’s strong pro-cuts and anti-statist stances.

Moreover, if the May election were to produce a collapse in overall Liberal Democrat support so severe as to enable UKIP to pick up regional list seats — even without any significant increase in its own share of the vote — any idea of going into a right-leaning coalition (which would have to include UKIP to be viable) would be even more unpalatable to Plaid Cymru’s membership.

Add to this the fact that Labour and Plaid share an avowedly socialist orientation, and that the One Wales coalition has not only stayed the course for a full term, but also done so with a degree of smooth collaboration that many thought unlikely in 2007, and it seems clear that a renewed Labour/Plaid agreement is by far the most likely option for coalition in the Assembly after May.

Of course, other possibilities cannot be altogether discounted. The evolution of events is always vulnerable to disruption by the remotely conceivable or the completely unforeseen. An example of the former would be the collapse of the Westminster coalition at some point between now and early April, as a result of the Liberal Democrats’ making a stand on an issue of principle. Depending on the particular circumstances, the effect might be to reverse some of the Liberal Democrats’ loss of electoral support, and make a coalition that included them more palatable to other parties.

With such possibilities in mind a set of principles can be envisaged, to help in providing long-term vision for forming coalitions between any combination of the four major parties in the National Assembly. By way of a preamble, it is worth considering certain practical lessons of the series of negotiations that issued in the formation of the One Wales coalition in July 2007.

The parties were poorly prepared for undertaking negotiations on coalition after the May 2007 election result. British political parties base their election campaigns on a supposition that they can win an overall majority, and are reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that they may not do so. Certainly, the initial discussions on coalition in Cardiff Bay in May 2007 were slow in starting. In different ways, the first two attempts at a coalition agreement reflected the haste with which they had to be put together.

This was most evident in the first of the three coalition proposals, the Labour Minority Government Stability Agreement with Plaid Cymru. When presented, it included three major areas (Assembly funding, a new Welsh Language Act, and NHS reconfiguration) on which agreement had not yet been finalised. Each of the five Pillars which formed the core of the Agreement consisted of two lists of objectives (Priorities and Additional Actions) taken from the election manifestos of the two parties. In fact, however, the bulk of the document consisted of details of the mechanics of cooperation between the parties, and of the legislative procedures by which the objectives would be achieved. Nowhere was there any comprehensive statement of aims that could provide a strategic context and direction for these objectives, even over the four-year life of a single Assembly government.

The next proposal, the ‘Rainbow’ All-Wales Accord between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, began with a Foreword that discussed the context of the proposed move away from political dominance by one party, and towards a more consensus-based politics. The following section, entitled ‘Our Common Ground’, and the introductory paragraphs to each of the Accord’s seven Pillars, presented brief broad-brush visions for the long-term development of Wales.

During the ten days of negotiations that produced the Rainbow Accord two different approaches to its construction emerged. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives favoured concentrating on establishing common policy principles, concisely stated. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats aimed to include as many detailed commitments as possible. The result was a series of densely packed lists of policy objectives (divided into High-level Commitments and Supporting Actions) taken from the election manifestos of the three parties — the Liberal Democrats were able to identify more than 100 items from theirs.

The document is consequently a programme packed with action points that mostly extend no further than the next election — and which also raised questions at the time as to whether the programme was too large either to be delivered in the available time or to be affordable.

The third proposal, One Wales: a Progressive Agenda for the Government of Wales, which became the basis for the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition government of 2007–11, was a synthesis of the policies of the two parties drawn evenly from their election manifestos. The Foreword first reflected on the practical processes of coalition that were about to be instituted. Then the ten detailed sections which followed maintained a better linkage between aims and objectives than had been achieved in the two previous agreements.

In each section, broad principles (for example ‘social justice, sustainability and inclusivity’ in Section 1) were laid down concisely in the opening paragraphs. The specific proposals which followed laid more emphasis on constructing a strategic framework for change — for example, in Section 2  the announcement of the All-Wales Convention, a Commission to review Assembly Funding, and a Strategic Capital Investment Board. Even the more detailed bulleted lists of objectives, for instance in relation to the NHS, made references to ongoing recourse to evidence — propositions that went beyond the cut-and-dried promises of an election manifesto — and there were numerous proposals for reform and development that extended beyond the next Assembly election.

It took two months to arrive at this balance between long-range thinking and detailed measures. Indeed, the process had run on past the statutory deadline for the formation of a Welsh Government following an election. As the deadline approached, the Assembly’s Presiding Officer set in motion a procedure which issued in the formation of a minority Labour administration — which then had to be reconfigured within weeks, when the Labour/Plaid coalition was formed.

A two-month near-standstill in policy execution is a not insignificant hiatus in the four-year life of a Welsh Government. If, in advance of an Assembly election, the political parties likely to be represented in Cardiff Bay after that election addressed themselves to the question of what principles and broad aims they could agree on with possible coalition partners, the process of forming a new coalition government could be expedited to the benefit of all.

As the example of the May–July 2007 negotiations shows, coalition agreements based largely or solely on election manifestos tend to be objectives-oriented. As a result they fail to achieve sufficient clarity on long-term vision and aims. The principles set out below offer a vision that might help give direction to the discussions involved in arriving at agreed long-term aims in the policy areas over which the National Assembly has administrative and legislative control — and then of deriving detailed medium- and long-term objectives from them.

Of course, a danger in undertaking such an exercise, is ending up with a set of general statements with which no-one disagrees and is therefore hardly stimulating. Accordingly, the proposals below include the potentially more contentious aim of working towards economic self-sufficiency for Wales in the long term. The intention of this policy aim would be to seek to reduce Wales’ present economic vulnerability, particularly during periods of recession, to retrenchment decisions by industrial, commercial and other organisations headquartered outside Wales.

If, however, one or more of the political parties were uncomfortable with this or indeed any of the other suggested principles they would, of course, need to allow sufficient time for their internal discussions on possible coalition agreements in advance of the election. Even a rejected idea can be of value if it helps focus thoughts on where common goals are to be found.

I drafted the original version of these proposals in the spring of 2007, when the possibility of what came to be known as the Rainbow Coalition between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats began to be seriously discussed by the commentariat (who appear to have woken up to the possibility sooner than the politicians did). That draft has now been overhauled to take account of the negligible prospects for such a coalition in 2011, and the near-certainty that any Welsh coalition government formed after 5 May will include the Welsh Labour Party.

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Unifying Principles for Governmental Coalition in Wales

Mission Statement

To work towards the creation of a society that is just, responsible, economically strong and self-sufficient, and proactive in the promotion of health, well-being and education in its citizens, and which harnesses and deploys all its resources in an equitable and environmentally provident manner for the benefit of all.

What a Welsh Coalition Government might seek to achieve for the citizen

1. To work towards ever-increasing and responsible cooperation between individuals, groups, and bodies corporate, with a view to promoting:

  • The prudent use and equitable distribution of resources in the face of economic and climatic change.
  • Equitable access to services and opportunities.
  • The reasonable protection and support of those who are disadvantaged economically or physically or in terms of health.
  • Social relations built on mutual respect.

2. To combat all forms of activity that undermine individual relations and social cohesion.

What a Welsh Coalition Government might aim to achieve for society and the economy

  • To champion the best of what Welsh society has produced and achieved in the past, and to promote its continuing further development into the future.
  • To work towards a long-term position in which the economy, economic infrastructure and public services of Wales are managed and largely financed from within Wales, and perform at a level that is at least on a par with European Union averages.
  • To work towards a Welsh economy grounded predominantly in indigenous industries and enterprises that are viable in the long term.
  • To give priority to innovation and wealth-creation, and to the release and stimulation of the energies and creativity that will achieve this for Welsh society as a whole.
  • To ensure that the financial, social and cultural capital thereby created becomes structurally embedded in Welsh life, rather than being largely exported.
  • To ensure equitable distribution of resources, and equitable provision of facilities and services, among the different regions and areas of Wales.
  • To ensure that the people of Wales benefit fully from the exploitation of Wales’ natural resources both within and beyond Wales.
  • To work continuously to improve the position of those citizens who are materially and culturally disadvantaged, while aiming not to impair unreasonably the position of those whose material and cultural interests are currently dominant at any particular time.
  • To work continuously to improve economic and social opportunity for the least advantaged, and to ensure that those who are more advantaged are not enabled to use their advantages to control the course of public policy to their own benefit.
  • To ensure the conservation, and where possible renewal, of capital and natural resources and the natural environment, in such a way that each future generation is enabled to maintain a quality of life at least as good as that of the previous generation.

Wyn Hobson is a freelance professional translator and interpreter in local government.

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