Carwyn Jones’ government by instinct

Lee Waters says ‘standing up for Wales’ is not a delivery strategy

On his nine-month journey through the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville discerned the characteristics of a young nation with a clarity that few have matched. Surveying a society in the throes of rapid change, the young French aristocrat was planning a treatise to help his countrymen – who had just endured the trauma of a bloody revolution – to understand the dynamics of a new democracy.

The society he famously captured in Democracy in America – a work more quoted than read – was insulated from the intense ideological battles that shook Europe. Tocqueville admitted to some regret at the “low rhetorical temperature” of this young country gripped by materialism. As he weaved his way down the east coast of America he jotted the conversations he had, and the insights he gleaned. His notebook captures a conversation with a lawyer who told him, “In truth there are no parties now in the United States; everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.

When I read this observation recently it struck a chord. Our own young democracy is struggling to define itself during a period of change that is less dramatic, but perhaps just as profound as the times captured by Tocqueville. But what strikes me about the current state of Welsh politics is the ‘low temperature’ of it all.

Apart from those most closely engaged in the struggles of governing, most observers of the current scene seem under-whelmed by it all. And yet circumstances would suggest things should be much livelier: a Welsh Government with the power to pass its own laws for the first time; a Westminster Government of a different ideological complexion pushing through the most radical austerity programme in living memory; and the not inconsiderable fact that our First Minister is running a Government without a majority. Surely, taken together, these trails of gunpowder should trace towards a powder keg ready to ignite at any moment?

But modern Welsh politics feels anything but combustable. An oft repeated reason in the bars of Cardiff Bay is the weakness of the opposition in the National Assembly. Of course, it is seductively convenient for supporters of the Labour minority Government to point to the failings of others to excuse their own torpor. Their argument, however, is not entirely without force.

The unity of opposition party leaders in the last Assembly is noticeably absent, and the conditions which almost saw a non-Labour ‘Rainbow coalition’ take office have radically altered. The consensual instincts of Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nick Bourne, and their more united groups, have not been replicated by Leanne Wood and Andrew R.T. Davies. Moreover, the politics of Westminster now make it politically impossible for Plaid Cymru to form a coalition with the parties in power in Whitehall. In addition Leanne Wood’s own political strategy is clearly designed to play the long game. Her emphasis on community activism (an area in which she is perhaps most comfortable) and the decision to put the case for independence at the front and centre of her party’s platform, makes the prospect of a repeat of the ‘One Wales’ coalition in this Assembly seem remote.

The cumulative impact is to give Carwyn Jones breathing space. Whereas Rhodri Morgan’s Government had to be alert for Opposition attempts to trip it up – with Special Advisers at one stage packing up their desks in anticipation of defeat – his successor has had more luck. Even though he does not have an overall majority of AMs at his command, the First Minister isn’t worried about being defeated.

To date Labour has been able to pick off opposition parties to agree ad hoc deals to get its annual budget through. Despite sizeable in-year spending cuts expected this year, and an increasingly tough overall budget settlement for at least the next two years, the First Minister expects to be able to continue to agree annual deals with opposition parties. In exchange for the odd bit of pork barrel they seem content to let him carry on. If politics is about gaining and exercising power, they clearly have not read the memo. No wonder he seems so relaxed. For their disunity and the absence of hunger to seize control the opposition parties can be justifiably criticised. But there their culpability ends.

Conservative AM David Melding predicted in the run up to the last Assembly elections that if Labour won an outright majority, “Carwyn Jones is likely to resemble James Callaghan on a sleepy afternoon”. In the event he didn’t secure a majority and so can’t afford to nap but it does feel as though he’s coasting. There are grumblings of discontent on his own backbenches – echoed indignantly by opposition AMs – at his cavalier, and at times flippant, approach to the weekly First Minister’s Questions.

In 2006, when Chief Political Correspondent for ITV Wales, I wrote a piece for Agenda on the potential successors to Rhodri Morgan. At the time Carwyn Jones was Environment Minister but had his sights quietly, but firmly, fixed on the top job. In my assessment of him I wrote:

“He has shown little initiative with issues like sustainable development and fair trade that fall within his brief. Carwyn’s critics say all this is evidence of laziness. ‘He doesn’t put the work in’, according to a well-placed source, a sentiment echoed by civil servants and politicians with alarming consistency.”

The phrase which survived that piece was ‘lazy’. However, reflection, it is the lack of initiative or policy drive that is the more lasting concern. When challenged Carwyn Jones can show his innate ability. But he is not often challenged externally, and he doesn’t encourage challenge from within: not from his Ministers, his advisers or from wider circles.

Instead, he relies heavily on his instincts, which to date have served him well enough. His early call for a Constitutional Convention to discuss the future shape of the UK is a good example of where he has gone with his instincts to good effect. It can go wrong, however. Notable examples were his fff the cuff forays on the merits of welcoming the nuclear fleet from Scotland in the event of a referendum Yes vote; and the bizarre demand for S4C to pull a repeat of the Welsh language soap opera Pobl y Cwm that criticised the Government’s badger cull on the grounds that there was a council by-election being held on the day it was due to air.

But perhaps the biggest test of the value of his instinct will be the fate of Cardiff airport. The gamble of taking the declining facility into public ownership is in many ways a classic example of the First Minister’s approach. It shows a keen understanding of popular feeling – shoppers at Tesco in Bridgend would readily agree that something must be done about the state of the airport. It fits into a patriotic narrative that every serious country has an airport, and in similar terms responds to the echo of the business community. But – and it’s a big ‘but’- there is no sense that it forms part of a wider strategy or plan.

Rhodri Morgan, who is known to have had his doubts about Carwyn Jones, wrote a typically coded assessment in his quirky Western Mail column when the intention to buy the airport became clear. He said:

“If he can drive the purchase price down low enough to create a bit of headroom for improvements at the terminal; if he can find a savvy airport operator who can organise the turn round (and the catch up with Bristol), and finally if he can find the right low cost airline as a partner, it could turn out to be a master stroke. It will help to define his First Ministership.”

Three big ifs – and he’s right. It is risky ground. Whereas the First Minister’s other missteps attracted little attention beyond the political village, his bold move on the airport has cut through. There will be a reward if it goes well, but if not the failure will be remembered and be quoted on the doorstep.

Good instincts are a great asset in a leader. But though necessary, they are not sufficient. They are by definition reactive reflexes. What is still not clear, more than three years into his leadership, is what Carwyn Jones’ narrative or strategy is. “Standing up for Wales”? Fine. “Delivery”? Yes, but of what, when and to whom is unclear.

There is no clear articulation of what the Welsh Government is trying to achieve. As Tocqueville noted of 1830s America, “Everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.

Commentators and analysts can quickly come up with a list of Ministers and sketch out their personal agenda or personality traits, but defining how their approaches come together is more difficult. For example, Leighton Andrews and Carl Sargeant’s directive approach to local government doesn’t easily complement Leslie Griffiths or Mark Drakeford’s attempt to shift decision making for hospital closures to the local level (that is unless they come up with the wrong answer). John Griffiths’ commitment to sustainable development doesn’t naturally fit with Edwina Hart’s support for deregulation in planning, or her renewed support for large road building programmes– in contrast to her predecessor.

Policy shifts whenever there’s a change in Minister. Edwina Hart is currently reexamining all the road schemes approved by Carl Sargeant, who in turn had re-examined all the schemes approved by Ieuan Wyn Jones, who when he became Transport Minister examined all the schemes approved by Andrew Davies (Brian Gibbons didn’t stay in post long enough to make any decisions).  Add in the fact that the department has had five senior civil servants in charge over the last six years and it adds to the sense of incoherence.

The current cabinet is a collection of Ministers who have their own agendas, but it is not apparent that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Carwyn Jones has emphasised ‘delivery’ but has shown fitful concern with the ineffectiveness of the government – creating a little understood ‘delivery unit’, and sponsoring a new public policy research institute – but has not demonstrated a consistent drive to get a grip of the machinery of government or set a coherent framework for the diffuse agendas of his Ministers. The creation of a ‘Treasury function’ has been much trailed as a way of strengthening the centre, but that too is undefined.

Perhaps the clearest attempt to articulate an over-arching vision came from one of the cabinet’s newest entrants, the Natural Resources Minister Alun Davies. He told a recent breakfast seminar in Cardiff Bay: “Tackling poverty, equalities and sustainability are the three things that underpin everything”. Well, it’s a start…

In the Welsh Government’s defence it faces enormous external challenges.  The early stages of the Westminster Government’s austerity programme, and its accompanying suite of welfare reforms, present multiple problems. And they are problems which will get worse. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report for the Welsh Local Government Association suggested that local authorities face an overall cut of 18 per cent. Assuming that reductions are limited to 9 per cent in key areas – social services, environmental services and refuse, and education – will require cuts of 52 per cent in spending on all other services.

Given the political pain of achieving cuts in the order of 5 per cent in the NHS, the scale of cuts to local services has the potential to provoke a considerable backlash.

To date Carwyn Jones has had a well defined, and successful, political strategy: to blame the UK coalition. But even assuming he can continue to manage the politics, the implications for how he governs will be profound.

For example, in a very badly handled episode in the days before Christmas, AMs were recalled from their break to approve changes to Council Tax benefits to mitigate the impact of cuts being made in England.  After initially saying they couldn’t afford to do so, the Welsh Government found £22 million to delay a cut in housing benefits. But that is only for one year. They now face a dilemma this autumn on what they will do next year – in the context of a further reduced budget – without the same ability to blame the knock-on consequences of Government policy in England. When pressed by a Labour backbencher in an Assembly committee on whether there was a “clearly thought out strategy” to respond to the welfare changes, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Huw Lewis, floundered and plaintively replied “We cannot say what it will be”.

Instincts will only get the Government so far.

Having lived though the French Revolution Alexis de Tocqueville had a residual attachment to intense ideological battles. He wrote, “What I call great political parties are ones that attach themselves to principles and not just their consequences, to generalities and not just particular cases; on the whole they have nobler features, more generous passions, stronger convictions, and a franker bolder style than the others”. The America of 1831 did not meet that test, and it is unlikely that he would have been much impressed by Wales some 180 years later.

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA. This article appears in the current issue of the welsh agenda

9 thoughts on “Carwyn Jones’ government by instinct

  1. This is a perceptive article, in that it identifies a fundamental problem with Wales, but we need to go deeper to identify the causes. The most fundamental is that Wales lacks a proper ‘civic culture,’ in which citizens feel it is their duty to participate in public affairs. Much of the blame for this must lie with the party system, which has turned our nominal democracy into an oligarchy. It is cemented into place by superficial and one-sided media, and by electoral law. The peculiar electoral arrangements for the Assembly seem designed to ensure that one particular party – the party that devised them, as it happens – will almost inevitably be in power or, like the Christian Democrats in post-War Italy, the dominant force in any coalition. In practical terms, voting makes little difference. It is not surprising that the unsubstantiated promise made at the time of the 1997 referendum, that the Assembly would attract a ‘higher calibre’ of politicians, has not come to pass. It is fair to say that Carwyn Jones ‘stands head and shoulders above most other Assembly members,’ in more ways than one, but that is hardly a great compliment. None of the four parties has a real vision of what it would like to do with the Assembly with its current powers, let alone with greater powers. So we end up with the formulation of major policy recommendations being delegated to a string of commissions of the ‘great and good’ – Richard, Hotham, Silk – in effect government by quango. The latest, the Williams Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, may be necessary to address underperformance in key areas in Wales that has been apparent for some time, but in a true democracy that underperformance should have been publicised long ago and proposals for change forged by the clash of ideas in the public forum.

  2. It is not difficult to see why Lee Waters has been appointed as the IWA’s new director with an article as intelligent, perceptive and well-informed as this one. It certainly sets a benchmark to which we should aspire in terms of public discourse in Wales.

    Lee’s point about the lack of clarity in what is trying to be achieved strategically is well made. I have two comments regarding this, one of which has already been made by Lee previously. The first is that the time has come for political discourse in Wales to be more intellectually informed. Each political party should be underpinned by a set of principles if it is not simply to be rationalised opportunism. But each party should be seeking to develop the intellectual basis for their policies. By this, I do not mean that politics in Wales should just be about advancing opportunities for idealogues. Politics is about practical policies that improve the quality of life for its citizens. But they should be intellectually supported and evidentially based.

    This brings me to my second point which is a repetition of Lee’s. We need to seriously consider the way in which policy is formulated in Wales. The current difficulty is that policy is, as Lee puts it, being decided on an instinctive basis whereas considered policy formulation has a longer timeframe. It’s clear that the latter process has to catch up with current politics in order to have the impact it seeks. But it has one important advantage. Research-based policy formulation is capable of being comprehensive and offering depth. This can bring both stability and sustainability to policies so that time is not wasted on having to re-visit ad hoc decisions in order to make other ad hoc decisions. Once the wheel is invented, it does not need to be re-invented, however sophisticated the development of the vehicle in question.

  3. The problem that Carwyn Jones and his government faces is that a perfect storm is coming and they really haven’t got much room for manoeuvre. You can only get so far with repeating the excuse that it is all the fault of the UK Coalition . After 2015 who do you blame if it is a government led by your own party that runs Westminster? Most people might not have bothered to vote in the last referendum but many of those who did vote’ yes’ particularly in Labour areas were influenced by the idea that somehow law making powers would make a difference with a Tory led Coalition in Westminster. ‘Give us the tools to finish the job’ might have been rhetoric but it was rhetoric that many of those who voted ‘yes ‘ believed. Like the NHS in England the NHS in Wales is facing a black hole which requires radical innovative action when it comes to service delivery. Yet Labour AMs and MPs still seem more interested in their political future than producing an effective and efficient health service. Education in Wales still needs radical change as the PISA results will probably confirm. Who knows how a separate Welsh examination system will be seen by employers and the rest of the UK? Will, for example, Airbus which recruits apprentices from both sides of the border treat a Welsh Maths or Science qualification as being of the same academic validity as one gained in England? Has anyone in the tiny civil service even worked out the financial cost of a separate examination system and where will that money come from? As for local government Lee’s comments are entirely right regarding the possible effects of any ring fencing. Carwyn Jones ‘ own authority has already outlined the need for £24 million in cuts over the next three years. Some of us have argued for along time that this was a fantasy figure which had no real relation to the financial situation that local government would face. Council Officers I along with other Labour Party members were told last week are now looking at £49 million in cuts. The authority according to the budget monitoring report for the first quarter is already looking at a £1. 4 million overspend this year. When senior local government figures talk of ‘meltdown’ they are not crying wolf I’m afraid. I wonder how someone in Tescos in Bridgend will view the £52 million spent on a regional airport when they see the effects of a £49 million cut in local services.?

  4. @ Jeff Jones

    These are all interesting and relevant questions and you demonstrate an understanding of the complex ramifications involved in Government decision-making. Out of interest, do you have any thoughts on how those questions might be answered.

    Let us take the £52 million spent on the purchase of the airport. Many commentators are suggesting that this will be a defining moment for Carwyn Jones as First Minister. If he succeeds, then his judgment will be lauded; if he doesn’t, then he will have to face the flack.

    And your remark about the view of the shopper in the Bridgend Tesco only points up that every decision has an opportunity cost. However, the decision itself was made in the face of a declining usage of the airport and an unwillingness on the part of the owners to make the necessary investment to reverse the trend. I’m genuinely interested to know what you consider the other options to have been and which you would have preferred.

  5. I don’t think the problems described in Lee’s article, or in other respondents’ pieces, are specifically Welsh problems.

    There’s a myth perpetuated by both the Labour Party and Conservatives that they are the parties of Government who know what they’re doing, whereas the others are merely protest movements. The truth is that all parties are organised for opposition and protest NOT power. The “Parliamentary” system dictates it.

    Whether in Westminster or the Bay neither the Labour Party nor Conservatives have many people, if any, who have the technical knowledge, or skills, to manage Government portfolios. The AMs/MPs are elected as representatives not as managers of certain skills. Over many years the Ministers no longer set policy for the Civil Servants to manage but have become the managers themselves. This is not going to work because constituency elections are a haphazard method of gaining a pool of potential Ministers. Even in Westminster, with a couple of hundred members to choose from, the chance of finding a “qualified” minister is extremely thin. Even if there was one the PM would probably give them a different dossier to make sure they weren’t a threat to him or her.

    Both Labour and Conservative have another trait in common; they hate fellow politicians, in their own parties, much more than they hate anybody else. This is because they see themselves as being in a battle to exert authority, or their Alpha maleness, but they don’t know how to be an Alpha male. They think it’s a question of being a bully. Thatcher was a good example of this as are David Cameron and Carwyn Jones, but not the only ones.

    The Labour Party is much more at ease in opposition than power and so was David Cameron before them. Once in power ministers are in their own kingdoms and are “doing their own things” specifically to advance their own power in the party at the expense of everyone else, including us – the electorate.

    People play the system, any system, to their own benefit. Unless their benefit can be aligned with ours we will always be the losers.

  6. Jon Jones – you make some good points, but I think the issue of different exams for Wales and England is a diversion. After all, businesses in Wales and the UK employ thousands of workers from Poland, China, Singapore, USA, Pakistan etc. I’m guessing they didn’t sit the GCSE exams! We’ve also had different exams between Scotland and the rUK since the very beginning which has had no effect. It really is a non-argument.

    This argument is further undermined by the simple question of who really takes much interest in which GSCEs the potential employee has. That is, the pupil either goes on to do A Level and it is on the basis of that criteria that they will be given a university place – GSCE will only be of background interest. After degree – well, put it like this, nobody’s ever asked me how many O Levels I have. In fact, having a Uni degree, nobody has ever asked my what A Levels I have.

    If the pupil leaves school at 16 following GSCE the likelyhood is that they will seek local employment or apply for a local tertiary college. In either instance they will be well aware of the value and content of the Welsh GSCE.

    You make many good points, but this exam issue this really is getting to the realms and scaremongering of ‘you won’t be able to watch Coroniation Street if we get devolution’.

    Even as a nationalist I don’t see any merit in being different for the sake of it. The important thing is the content of the exams not the labelling. In that respect the ball is firmly in Labour’s court here in Wales and in Gove’s wish to follow a different course in England. This is a related but different issue. That is, we should be concerned about the content rather than whether it is different (or not) to England.

  7. Regrettably I believe this can all be attributed to one underlying problem -a lack of public awareness of devolved politics because of a ‘UK’ dominated media in Wales. All players in devolved politics know that they are essentially operating in a vacuum and can do more or less anything, or more’s to the point, more or less nothing and still be re-elected with a plurality of seats the next time round.

    Literally there is no carrot and no stick to do anything more than ‘manage’.

    Lack of radical public sector reform – why risk upsetting your core supporters when nobody’s really asking you to?
    Lack of strategic vision – why commit yourself when you don’t need to?
    Disunity in cabinet ideology – why risk creating enemies in your own party when you don’t need to?
    Laziness – why work hard when you’re not being asked to?
    Lack of unified opposition – why compromise your ideological position when the public is not demanding you to join together and take over?
    Etc., etc., etc.

    The Welsh public (in any meaningful sense) is not watching and doesn’t care. Indeed, the wider British public hardly give a damn about Westminster politics but at the very least they are ‘made’ to care on certain things and at certain times by the media. That media prod is entirely absent in Wales. half a dozen broadcast hours a week by BBC Wales and ITV Wales and a 50k circulation national newspaper cannot do the job of an entire media network and framework such as that which London performs for UK and nowadays ‘English’ politics. Even entertainment programmes, or magazine programmes like the One Show, reference political issues and generate a certain amount of engagement with the politics of the day. But all of that messaging, of course, is directed at English politics or UK politics; none whatsoever on Welsh (or Scottish or Northern Irish) affairs.

    Lamentably I can’t really see an end to this dire situation without some sort of forced reconfiguration of (say) terrestrial television. The market solutions will just never work (and believe me I wish they could) given the demographic imbalance. What price democracy? Do you surrender democratic accountability to market forces entirely?

    I suspect that devolution of the overall Welsh income tax burden through variation would help in some ways, obviously if it is used in one direction or another, but also in simple accountability terms, and devolution of the criminal justice system, particularly every-day criminal law and sentencing. But, as attractive as those things are, it shouldn’t have to be the case that the right levels of public awareness and engagement with the political system can only be achieved through further devolution. The converse should be true.

    The sooner we genuinely accept that we have a completely dysfunctional media in Wales and have the political will and conviction to do something about it, the sooner we can get on with politics as normal, and can perhaps, heaven forbid, say we have a democratic system.

    The elephants in the room of Welsh politics are beginning to resemble a parade at the moment, but this is surely one of the biggest?!

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