Devolution genie spooks London parties

John Osmond says it won’t be long before Welsh Labour wants more than the name

Back in 1999, when it all started, Ron Davies famously said “Let no-one think that now the devolution genie is out of his bottle he can be forced back in or that he won’t want to stretch his muscles.” Its taken more than a decade but at last the genie is beginning to put the frighteners on the London-based (they hate that expression) political parties.

He started crawling out of the Scottish Conservative bottle a couple of weeks ago. Front-runner to lead the Scottish Conservatives, MSP Murdo Fraser, said that if he wins the election next month he will set about creating “a new progressive centre-right party with a Scottish identity”.

Now he’s jumping around in the Welsh Conservative bottle as well. Warning against the complacency that has afflicted Scottish Conservatives this week David Melding, AM for South Wales Central, followed suit, saying that a new brand for his party would signal “a new and greater ambition”.

However, all this pales into insignificance with the way the devolution genie is crawling around the Labour party in Scotland. Following its massive defeat in the Scottish Parliament elections in May the Scottish Labour Party set up a review of its organisation which came up with some remarkably radical proposals at the weekend. The result will be create a much more autonomous party, with UK leader Ed Miliband no longer in charge north of the border.

The review was carried out by Sarah Boyack MSP and a former Minister in the Scottish Parliament, and Jim Murphy MP, Secretary of State for Scotland until the May 2010 election and now shadow defence secretary. As Murphy put it at the weekend:

“This is about turning the Scottish Labour Party into Scotland’s Labour Party. Today we are completing the devolution of the Scottish Labour Party. From now on whatever is devolved to the Scottish Parliament will be devolved to the Scottish Labour Party.”

However, other Scottish MPs at Westminster are not so sanguine. For instance East Kilbride MP Michael McCann said the proposals were playing into the SNP’s hands. Asking why the party was “moving on to Tory and Nat territory” he argued that by adopting a federal system Labour would be accepting Alex Salmond’s Plan B for fiscal autonomy, which the Scottish First Minister is proposing to put into a multi-option referendum.

The proposals will need to be ratified by Labour’s UK Party conference next month, followed by a special Scottish Labour Party conference soon after, but this appears to be a formality. The proposals were approved by Labour’s Scottish Executive on Saturday and have also been cleared with Ed Miliband. Labour press release on the changes (here), which says they mean the “full devolution of the Scottish Labour Party”, lists them as follows:

  • Create, for the first time, an elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
  • Open that position to all Labour parliamentarians elected in Scotland, provided they commit to seek election as an MSP and First Minister.
  • Fully devolve the Scottish Labour Party in all Scottish matters, including the rules for the Scottish Leadership election, local government processes and selections, and Scottish parliament selections.
  • Begin the process of restructuring local parties in Scotland on the basis of Scottish Parliament seats, not Westminster seats.
  • Establish a political strategy board, meeting weekly, to develop and co-ordinate political strategy with the Leader, Shadow Secretary of State, the leader of the COSLA Labour Group, a representative of the MEPs, the party chair, and the Scottish General Secretary.
  • Establish a new political base in Edinburgh.

The question now is, of course, how long before this particular devolution genie travels south of the Border and west of Offa’s Dyke? Until now Labour in Wales has been content with the appearance but not the reality of autonomy, and very successful it has been with it, too. Rhodri Morgan’s rebranding of his party as neither New nor Old Labour, but “Welsh Labour”  did the trick for the first decade of devolution.

I fancy, however, it won’t stand the test of the second decade. This Scottish genie will be advancing on a branch or constituency party of ‘this great movement of ours’ near you, very soon.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

8 thoughts on “Devolution genie spooks London parties

  1. Read the article in the Scotsman where it is clear that not all Scottish Labour MPs agree with the suggestions in the report. As a Nationalist you obviously see changes such as those suggested by the Murphy/Boyack report as a positive step towards at least a more federal UK. Separate Social Democrat parties in Scotland and Wales affiliated to a UK party might work as can be seen from the development of the right in Germany since the war with the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in the rest of Germany. Whether all of this helps or hinders the UK Labour Party’s attempt to become a majority party in the UK Parliament is another matter. It is a development which it could be argued is yet another example of Labour politicians reacting to events rather than setting out a coherent approach to the shape of UK politics in the 21st century. I doubt, for example, that we will ever see a Scottish Labour MP or for that matter a Welsh Labour MP ever being seen as a potential UK Labour leader in the future if this trend continues. The UK isn’t a federal state and it would require major constitutional change confirmed by a UK wide referendum for that to happen in my opinion. There is instead a real danger of both Scottish and Welsh Labour with the proposed reduction of UK Parliamentary representation in 2015 becoming increasingly marginalised in the context of UK political influence.

  2. As a floating voter in Wales, I’d like to see the Welsh arms of all the London based parties split completely from the London parties and become entirely separate parties (ie go much further than labour are suggesting in Scotland). I’m finding it harder and harder to even consider voting for parties that are clearly taking orders from London. Just changing names and introducing some devolution into their internal affairs is not enough. A complete split could lead to much more Welsh influence at Westminster when coalitions are being formed – our politicians seem to have little or no influence in Westminster at present whether its the same or opposing parties in power in the Senedd/Westminster.

  3. I do agree – it is now time for the London parties to devolve / reform on national lines. As Scotland and Wales’ presence diminish in London, their parties in Edinburgh and Cardiff need to look outwards from their respective nations, not inwards, awaiting orders from Westminster. This would also be healthy for Plaid as it would oblige them to stick to the positive side of politics rather than retreating to the comfort zone of opposing things while at the same time, meaning that Welsh-centred political discourse would be able to take place in a calmer atmosphere.

    Nationally based parties will also be healthy in reflecting new realities. The Labour Party in Wales will ultimately benefit from becoming a party focussing on the concerns of Wales and its place in the world rather than being somewhere which offers safe seats and gets little in return.

    Likewise, I am pretty sure there are a lot of people on the centre / centre-right who currently feel they do not have a voice in Wales.

    Oddly enough Medling’s ‘Ymlaen’ idea was quite a sensible suggestion for Welsh Conservatism, since in the 1970s the pre-Thatcher Conservatives motto was ‘Onwards’.

  4. The ordinary Welsh person like myself seem to be taken along in a process to which they have very little interest/involvement as the “agenda” is being driven by people who clearly wish to see the destruction of the UK as a political entity as we have known it for generations. Whilst not being perfect it was a structure that allowed political changes at centre, when probably needed and also provided a standard of living that was perfectly satisfactory for most people. It played a full part in the world and was recognised as a stable democracy/constitution that was envied by many people. The desire by the Nats to separate little Wales from UK and England in the main is pure “fool’s gold”. However one has to admire their determination/persistence and wish all opponents had the same attitude, and not the “quisling” mentalities now operating in Conservative/Labour Parties. The current FM, and his predecessor seems to be happier with PC than his own anglo based party, and the drift towards seperation seems to be the new focus of the Welsh “chattering class”, whilst the rest of us worry about children’s job’s/pensions (not public sector) etc. The “English” people I’ve recently spoken to would be happy to see the back of an ungrateful and increasingly irrelevant celtic fringe, so we had better be clear about our future.

  5. It is remarkable how quickly this realignment of Welsh politics – indeed, the forging of a brand new Welsh Body politic – has become a topic of debate following the SNP victory in May. It may not happen immediately – but like devolution, it is not a genie that will go back into the bottle. It is a sign, I think, that the intelligentsia in the Welsh branches of the London parties have realised that, after the Scottish referendum, whatever the result, the UK of old that turns so many unionists dewy eyed with nostalgia – will no longer exist. A new politics has to be formed, along with a new settlement for whatever remains of the United Kingdom.

    Of course, more autonomous, independent minded parties dedicated to the interests of Wales could well attract many Plaid members, especially following an unsatisfactory leadership result, so that could also be playing a part in their calculations.

  6. It is not just political parties that have to address the issues that devolution throws up. Charities too seem thrown into confusion. Do they set up a federal system? Do they have a Welsh sister charity? Do they have a Welsh named office still very much part of the overall system?

    How much control will they give to the Welsh set up? Total control or nominal? Do the trustees of a federal system understand devolution and how it affects the aims of their charity? Or do they assume that what works in England will automatically work in Wales too?

    Do the staff based in England instruct the staff in Wales on policy, when actually the situation in Wales may be so different that the instructions simply don’t make sense within the Welsh framework?

    Much still to be sorted in fully implementing devolution and many challenges to be met. But good to be, at long last, struggling with the practicalities of delivering devolution properly.

  7. People always pay too much attention to the latest news rather than looking at the longer run picture. There is nothing inevitable about Scottish independence or even devolution max. The best bet is that Scotland becomes to the UK like Quebec to Canada, a long-lived soap opera, grumbling appendix and all-round pain in the neck. Given the certainty of austerity and the inability of the SNP government to do much about it, they are quite likely to lose a lot of ground in the next election. That will give the UK government grounds to stall its response to any referendum vote for devo max by haggling about what exactly it means. (The referendum will probably reject independence anyway). We could be near the high water mark of the nationalist tide for all anyone knows. But if Howell Morgan regards the modest degree of devolution that we now have as “a drift to separation” what on earth does he make of constitutional arrangements in the US, Germany, Canada, Australia etc etc where individual states have far more power than the Welsh Assembly or government. Does he think Germany is in the process of breaking up?

  8. I find it quite bizarre that this discussion is solely focussed on the UK or even England. Your contributors need to get out more. They are much too insular, in both senses of the word. We are also part of the European Union which, many British nationalists tell us, is taking over UK sovereignty. Instead of the myth of “separation”, we would actually get direct representation within European institutions and join the flotilla of other sub-state nations – Catalunya, Flanders, Scotland, etc. – also moving in that direction.

    In a revealing phrase, arch-Brit Jeff Jones writes, “Separate Social Democrat parties in Scotland and Wales affiliated to a UK party”. Labour does not operate in the UK’s Northern Ireland. If there are ‘separate’ parties here and in Scotland, the residual party to be affiliated to is English. Yet he can’t even contemplate that word. How tellingly Anglo-centric is that? And how sad.

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