Consensus breaks out in the Bay

Huw Owen finds a surprising agreement amongst Welsh politicians of different persuasions across a range of issues

During March The New Political Centre, a political studies website run by students, conducted a series of interviews with Welsh politicians that reveal a remarkable cross-party consensus in Cardiff Bay.

The politicians chosen were Mark Drakeford, Labour AM for Cardiff West who was interviewed prior to being elevated to the Cabinet in the recent reshuffle; Peter Black, Liberal Democrat AM for South West Wales; Russell George, Conservative AM for Montgomery; and Bethan Jenkins, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales West. Each were asked the same questions and their responses are given below. 

How does the Welsh section of your party differ from its UK counterpart?

Peter Black: Well, for starters, the Liberal Democrats is a federal party.  Each branch is separate, but equal, with the main party.  The Welsh and Scottish Liberal Democrats have federal status, meaning we have the power to make our own policies and decisions within the arenas in which we represent the party and our constituents.  This means that the Welsh Liberal Democrats only focus on Wales and Welsh policy, meaning that we can produce what we see as the best policies for Wales and our constituents.

Mark Drakeford: Well, first off, there is a de facto constitutional difference.  Although Welsh Labour is part of the main UK party, Carwyn Jones is the de facto leader of the Party, and the party in the Assembly is similar to the UK parliamentary party.  However, despite this there is a large difference.  Welsh Labour organize their own constituency groups and parties, right from the candidate to the volunteers who help the party. Welsh Labour also holds its own conference, separate from the national party, although members are free to attend both!

The main difference however comes in policy.  Welsh Labour is free to set its own policy, sometimes differing from that of the central party.  This is probably due to the fact that Welsh Labour has always been more to the left of the spectrum than the central party.  This is due to the history and economy of Wales, with Labour growing up in the industrial areas in the Valleys and the North of the country.  We also have a greater ability to respond to the people’s wishes here in Wales as we are a smaller organization, allowing us more scope to change policy constituency by constituency.

Russell George: Well, the Welsh Conservatives are a separate party from the central party.  There is also the Assembly Group, which is again a separate entity to the main party and the Welsh Party.  This allows us to make policies that differ from the central party in Government in Westminster.  This means that the Welsh Conservatives can be a more policy diverse party from the Central Party.  The best way to sum it up I suppose is ‘same values, different policy.’

Bethan Jenkins: We put Wales first, every time. Being the only party that is solely focused on Wales, we are not hampered by the agendas that London-controlled parties have to contend with. That way, we can keep to our vision and stated aim.

I also think that as the only party that is consistently for independence, we operate as a devolution think-tank for all of Welsh politics. You only have to look at some of the features that dominate the latter-day Welsh political landscape to realise how much of it started with Plaid Cymru – from the full powers granted in 2011 to the Assembly itself. We’ve provided the cornerstones of modern Welsh political thinking.

What do you see as the biggest issue or issues in Welsh politics?

Peter Black: For me, there are two main issues. Firstly, there is Health.  There are major issues in the Welsh healthcare system, but for me the major ones are funding, outcomes and access.  People in rural Wales struggle to get to the services they require, sometime having to travel across the border in order to gain access to the services they require.  Outcomes in the Welsh NHS aren’t the best either.  People aren’t getting the follow up care they need and deserve.  Both of these can be fixed if we look at the third issue of funding.  We need to restructure the funding of the Welsh NHS, otherwise we will continue to stagnate.

The second issue I want to mention is education. Once again, I feel there are three main issues here, and two of them can be summed up by the third, investment.  Wales’ schools are constantly struggling, they are towards the bottom of the league tables, and we need to change this.  There is also the issue of free school meals.  We need to help parents everywhere we can at the moment, and we can do that by extending provision of these free meals.  Once again though, it all comes down to funding, and I believe we need to look at the way we fund schools in Wales in order to improve the education our children get.

Mark Drakeford: As I see it, there is only one main issue in Welsh politics at the current time, and that is the economy.  Austerity policies that are bad for the UK as a whole are disastrous for Wales as the country has struggled to recover from other downturns in certain industries. I feel that the austerity policies have trapped the UK economy, particularly in Wales, and have led to a stagnation of growth that really restricts the ability of this country to regenerate and provide jobs. I feel it is the job of the Assembly to try and rectify this as best we can as without the Assembly, we may struggle to bounce back from the economic difficulties.

Russell George: As far as I can see it, the biggest issue is devolution.  Scotland has their independence referendum coming up next year, and Wales has to respond to that. Wales needs to formulate plans in order to move forward off the back of both outcomes in 2014.  Then, there is the question of more powers, do we devolve deeper along the lines suggested by the First Minister and the Silk Commission or do we take a different route.  Whichever we choose, it is clear to me that Wales needs to make local decisions. We need to take decisions in both Cardiff Bay and in councils across Wales, and this locality is the one of the biggest things for me.

Bethan Jenkins: In my opinion, there are three – the economy, the health of the nation, and education, all of them are interlinked. The economy comes first – we need wealth creation in Wales. Trickle down and the plethora of right-wing economic theories that have been discredited one-by-one since 2007 have never benefitted Wales and in some instances have also proved disastrous.

But to build a successful economy, we must have a fit workforce and a well-educated workforce. That plainly will not happen under Labour, which seems intent on dismantling the NHS in Wales after presiding over a decade of declining educational achievement. Plaid would rebuild our education system and invest in the NHS so that we have fit, well-trained and happy people that are attractive to investors and entrepreneurs both inside and outside Wales.

As Welsh politics evolves separately from politics in England and Scotland, where will things be in ten years’ time?

Peter Black: I’d like to see Wales having a bigger Assembly. Eighty members with a 40/40 split is my preferred system, and I’d also like to see a change in the voting system, from the split first past the post and list system to a Single Transferable Vote like they use in Northern Ireland. I’d also like to see Wales getting more powers, along the lines of the Government of Wales act, the First Minister’s recent statement about devolved policing and crime powers and the Silk Commissions recommendations about taxation.

Mark Drakeford: Welsh politics is evolving as you say, and as far as I see it, there could be no end to devolution. The First Minister recently referred to the devolution of criminal justice powers, and there is constant debate about the devolution of tax powers as well. These are good, achievable goals that we could see Wales gaining, and benefitting more from the devolution of these powers. I feel there is a need for wider and broader responsibilities, certainly in tax areas and possibly in criminal justice as suggested by the First Minister.

We can also look at the example of Scotland. They’ve flourished under devolution, and have similar powers to those being called for in Wales. This is an avenue that has to be explored, particularly with the Scottish Independence vote coming up in 2014. As a country, we must look to investigate our options in the wake of the result, be it positive or negative.

Russell George: I may have answered this question with my previous answer! But just to reiterate, Wales needs to look at the result from Scotland and respond appropriately. We need more local decision making, and whether that is in Cardiff Bay or in local councils remains to be seen.

Bethan Jenkins: I see us being further down the devolution road. I wouldn’t be surprised if responsibility for the criminal justice system were devolved at some point, along with some tax-raising or varying powers. But it is important that the government of the day can deliver the services that come with those extra powers.

Plaid Cymru doesn’t want independence – or devolution before it – for its own sake. We want these things because we believe they are vital to building a successful country. With those powers come huge responsibility, and we must take them seriously.

Should Welsh MPs be barred from voting on English-only issues?

Peter Black: In my opinion, it’s impractical to stop Welsh MPs voting on cross border issues.  Look at tuition fees for example, there is a lot of cross border transfer between students with Welsh students going to English University’s and vice versa. How then could English MP’s only vote on this issue, when it affects Welsh students?  It simply isn’t practical. What could happen is we could reduce the number of Welsh MP’s as the Assembly grows, as per my idea earlier. This would still give Wales a vote in cross border issues, as well as allowing us to expand the range of the Assembly.

Mark Drakeford: It’s a complicated question. Is there such a thing as a solely English issue? Anything that is passed in England has a direct effect on Wales, for example, anything passed in Parliament to do with the NHS will affect constituencies on both sides of the border. English people using Welsh services will have a different experience to Welsh people using English services. There will always be some effect. Would stopping Welsh MP’s voting on these issues change this? It wouldn’t, so there has to be some sort of compromise. With devolution, there is a possibility that the UK will evolve into a federal state, with Parliament having control over things like defence, and the regions will control most other things. The problem is, we have to be careful about picking a system as British politics has evolved differently from states such as Germany and the USA.  If anything is to change, it must happen the British way, that is to say organically.

Russell George: There certainly is some adjustment necessary. I think we should honestly look at a federal UK, with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland still in the UK.  Westminster would have responsibility for the major issues, things like defence and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland having responsibility for other issues. This would mean having powers similar to what we have now, but some additions for all three nations.  A federal system, like Germany or the USA seems to be the natural progression for me, with all four nations of the UK linked by a central government in Westminster.

Bethan Jenkins: If there is such a thing as an English issue, yes, although I’m sceptical that there is. In the greater scheme of things, those issues are likely to be small things, anyway. What is more important is that we are not excluded – while it is still in force – from Barnett formula consequentials. [The Barnett Formula decides how much funding Wales and Scotland get from Central Government.] As witnessed during the Olympics, the Treasury is remarkably fond of playing to the exact letter of the formula as it stands. We are currently making an argument that we are owed such monies through the implementation of High Speed 2, too. Our argument is simple – we don’t like Barnett because we believe it disadvantages Wales. But while we have it, don’t further disadvantage us. Give us what we’re due.

What role and profile should Wales start to build in the EU?

Peter Black: It’s crucial. The EU has the ability to help Wales and the Welsh economy get back on its feet.  The EU has the resources and the market to help the Welsh economy expand, and I feel that this is crucial to growth in Wales, particularly in terms of agriculture.  However, it is also my opinion that we need to look at restructuring the way Wales receives the EU’s funding.  Are there too many restrictions on the Welsh European Funding Office? Have we failed to spend the funding supporting the right infrastructure projects? And have we failed to support the right private businesses and growth projects? What Wales needs is a clear and solid funding strategy to spend the money given to us by Europe and we also need a clear voice and presence in order to further the ability of Wales to make the most of European funding.

Mark Drakeford: With Wales, there is a consensus on the need for a voice in Europe; unlike in Scotland where there was, and still is some debate on the issue, especially in regard to the upcoming independence vote. An active and distinct voice for Wales in Europe is very important.  We need to make sure we get a fair deal in Europe and developing a voice within the EU is exactly the way to do that.  In regard to the upcoming Scottish independence vote, if they and subsequently Catalonia leave the UK and Spain, it will have a profound effect on the EU. It will enable smaller nations to have their say more effectively and could see Wales having to change the way it deals with the EU. In this regard, an independent voice is very important.

Russell George: I think that Wales shouldn’t really look to develop a bigger voice in the EU as a stand-alone nation, or region, and that Wales should look to benefit from the EU in the same way that the UK does. In my opinion, there are more negatives than positives to an expanding EU, and Wales would be better off staying as part of the UK delegation as Wales will have a better chance of not being drowned out by other similar nations and more voices. I admit that going it alone with regard to the EU could lead to better strategy but Wales would be better served as part of the UK.

Bethan Jenkins: I think it is incredibly important. It still remains a vital market for Welsh businesses. But, beyond that, it is crucial that Wales remains embedded as an important part of European culture. As it stands now, it is able to promote smaller, culturally individual countries like Wales. I understand the concerns over the way the EU is run, and Plaid believes that there should be reform. But you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater to make that happen, and we remain better off in than out.

How important is the Welsh language to Welsh politics?

Peter Black: Yes, I certainly think the language is important, but it is not based on the future of Welsh Politics.  We need the language in order to encourage businesses to Wales; it is a Unique Selling Point. In my opinion, it is also crucial to the future of Welsh education, we need more Welsh speakers in this country. I also think that the more Welsh is spoken, the more companies will value the language, and the more Welsh talent will stay in Wales in order to work for some of the best companies.  The language is very important to the future of Wales, but it is not intrinsically linked to politics in my opinion.

Mark Drakeford: The Welsh language is a hugely important asset to Wales. It plays a role in culture and economics. The diversity of the country is very attractive to businesses, and the language plays a huge part in that. However, the same may not be said of politics and the language. In terms of safeguarding our cultural and economic heritage, then politics has a role as without it, Wales would be lost. However, language may not play the role in politics that some say it can and does. What cannot be disputed however is the importance of the language in terms of Wales’ economic and cultural development.

Russell George: The Welsh language is obviously very important, but is it important in terms of Welsh politics solely? Not in my opinion. However, the Welsh language is a very important culturally. I’ve become more patriotic towards Wales as I’ve grown older and the more patriotic I become, the more I see the language as a massive cultural device that can help Wales preserve what is a very distinct and unique culture, one that needs preserving. This is indicated to me by the fact that UK organisations are opening Welsh branches, with a focus on serving Wales in both Welsh and English. Therefore, I think Welsh is massively important culturally, but not solely in terms of politics.

Bethan Jenkins: I think the question needs to be turned on its head. The purpose of politics is to serve. As such, it has a big part to play in preserving and enhancing the language. It’s important that Welsh speakers like myself use the language publicly so that more and more people feel at home with it. And I think that to a degree that has worked – both in Wales and further afield. You’ll hear Welsh spoken, albeit very briefly, at events like the Baftas, for example.

Look at this in the round. Half a million people speak the language. That is a sizeable minority. If it is politics’ role to delivery diversity, then it is the job of politics to protect and enhance the language.

Huw Owen is a recent graduate from Aberystwyth University where he completed a Masters in Welsh Politics

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