Is Labour throwing Wales under the bus?

If Labour are the party that ‘stands up for Wales’, now is the time to prove it, says Prof Richard Wyn Jones

With the post-Thatcher Scottish Conservative Party still a pale shadow of its former self, and with the Scottish Liberal Democrats facing existential crisis as a result of their coalition dalliance with the toxic Tories, Unionist hopes rest squarely on the Labour party. Labour is the only remaining political party with substantial support and elected representation across Britain. So anyone with any interest in the future of the state we inhabit, and Wales’s place within it, should take time to read the report of the Scottish Labour Party’s Devolution Commission, Powers for a Purpose: Strengthening Accountability and Empowering People.

Published exactly six months before the independence referendum (and after intensive and apparently fractious internal debate), Powers for a Purpose sets out a vision for the future of Scotland and the UK if Scotland votes No on September 18th. The report purports to base its recommendations on a clear and principled vision of the purpose of the United Kingdom:

The UK is a “sharing union”, with economic, social, and political aspects, in which risks and rewards are collectively pooled… The justification of each of these parts of the union is to a certain extent instrumental – what is in the interests of Scotland. However it is also principled – what is right for Scotland and the whole UK. It is also…founded on a moral purpose… In this union, we pool and share resources to ensure…those in need have equal economic, social and political rights throughout the entire UK. This is an idea – founded on solidarity, community and fairness – that is much greater than any notion of creating an independent state.

Solidarity; community; fairness: sharing resources in order to support the otherwise weak and disadvantaged. Stirring stuff. But also, unfortunately, hypocritical cant.

From a Welsh perspective, the detail of what Labour is promising in order to persuade Scotland to stay in the Union is nothing short of disastrous. Despite the fine rhetoric about the ‘moral purpose’ of the Union, Scottish Labour seem to have no compunction about throwing Wales, one of the poorest parts of the Union, under the bus to shore up their own position.

Scotland is one of the most prosperous parts of the United Kingdom. Though clearly home to pockets of deep deprivation, Scotland is nonetheless one of the few parts of the Union – London is the other, of course – to have proven economically resilient in the face of recession and austerity. For Wales it is, sadly, a very different story. Yet despite this, the Barnett formula – used to calculate funding for the Scottish and Welsh Governments – operates in a way that ensures per capita levels of public spending far higher for Scotland than for Wales. Broadly speaking, if funding were allocated on the basis of need – surely a sound social democratic principle – then Scotland is over-funded to the tune of some £4 billion a year; Wales is under-funded by some £300 million.

Since the first publication of the findings of the Holtham Commission in 2009, Welsh politicans have united to call for reform of the Barnett formula. Even the Treasury has accepted that Wales is hard done by. Yet to try to persuade Scotland to remain in the Union, Scottish Labour is pledging to retain Barnett. Indeed, the full version of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission report – weighing in at 297 pages – explicity and repeatedly rejects proposals for a needs-based alternative. In an interview on Newsnight Scotland, Labour’s Scottish Leader, Johann Lamont, claimed that ‘the Barnett formula works for the United Kingdom.’ This can only possibly be true if one’s definition of ‘works’ means sacrificing the interests of the least privileged for the benefit of the better off. So much for solidarity, community, fairness and moral purpose.

The United Kingdom is not a “sharing union”. It is rather a realpolitik union. Those with the loudest voice and (oh, the irony) a credible threat of secession, get to have most influence on how resources are allocated. The publication of Powers for a Purpose marked the moment when Labour sacrificed the long-term interests of Wales in an attempt to shore up an apparently faltering No campaign. According to reports in the Scottish media, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and the British Labour leadership have signed off on the report. One can only assume, therefore, that they are happy to concur that Wales is worth sacrificing for the cause of Union.

But what of Welsh Labour? It is surely inconceivable that the Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Smith, will have been unaware of the contents of Powers for a Purpose, and its pledge to retain Barnett while rejecting a needs-based replacement. Yet, thus far at least, he has remained resolutely silent in the face of this assault on the long-term interests of Wales.

At this week’s First Minister Questions, Carwyn Jones assured the National Assembly that he had told Ed Miliband that Barnett should to be reformed. It is not clear, however, whether this was before or after Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission published its report.  At any rate, Mr Miliband seems not to have taken a blind bit of notice.

Let us be clear that this is not an issue that can wait until after September’s Independence Referendum. In the context of Labour’s pledge to the Scottish electorate to retain Barnett, silence can only be interpreted as acquiescence. For if that pledge remains unchallenged, and Scotland does vote No, on what possible basis could Welsh Labour hope to raise the issue of Barnett reform in future? Barnett will have become nigh-on sacrosant. In the May 2011 devolved election, Welsh Labour presented themselves as ‘Standing up for Wales’. Here’s the acid test of that commitment.

Richard Wyn Jones is Professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University and Director of the Wales Governance Centre

16 thoughts on “Is Labour throwing Wales under the bus?

  1. For years the SNP has supported the retention of the Barnett formula while its sister party, Plaid Cymru, has campaigned for abolition. From Richard Wyn Jones and the rest of the Welsh commentariat? Not a squeak.
    Now, however, when the Scottish Labour Party re-affirms its commitment to Barnett, the language of betrayal could not be more lurid. What is sauce for the goose is not, apparently, sauce for the gander.

    Of course, the Labour Party can never win now matter how it acts as far as the likes of RWJ are concerned. If It acts as a unitary, pan-British force it is attacked for not recognising the realities of post-devolution Britain. When its constituent parts take different policy positions it is attacked for not acting with a unified pan-British policy agenda.

  2. These are the key sections on Barnett:

    “97. At the moment, such calculations are based on the Barnett formula, established by the Labour
    Government in the late 1970s. If the Scottish Parliament is to rely more on resources raised from
    Scottish taxation, then some adjustment will have to be made to that calculation. Under the Scotland
    Act 2012, the UK Government propose to retain the Barnett formula, but make an adjustment to
    take account of devolved tax income that is likely to be received. This seems a sensible approach.
    Proponents of “Devo Plus” argue for a needs-based formula, but do not set out how much Scottish
    public spending would be at risk as a result.
    98. Of course there is no objective, neutral, commonly agreed measure of spending need. That is one
    reason why the Barnett formula has survived for so long. Scotland does have a number of serious
    social and other problems, notably in relation to health and social deprivation – and, of course, an
    unusually large landmass which increases the cost of service delivery. Barnett nevertheless has many
    strengths, notably that it provides stability to levels of public funding, and so the public services
    and their management. No convincing alternative which meets this requirement has thus far been

    This is pure sophistry. The Holtham Commission did a rather good job, I felt, in demonstrating a fairly simple and workable needs-based formula, largely based on models already in existence within the English system (if I recall). And what’s worse, they quote Holtham elsewhere but fail to acknowledge his work on the formula. You couldn’t make it up…

    Note also the concluding comments on Income Tax:

    84. Income tax is clearly the best candidate for further devolution. It raises enough revenue to make a
    significant increase in the proportion of the Scottish Budget accounted for by the Parliament’s own
    resources (closing some of the “fiscal gap”). In our view, a strong case exists for devolving income
    tax in full, and we are minded to do so. We do, however, wish to consult widely on this issue. The
    advantage of devolving income tax – a revenue stream that provides a substantial, stable tax yield – is
    that it would provide a broader range of fiscal choices, enhancing accountability and responsibility for
    decisions made by the Scottish Parliament on taxation and public expenditure. It would also enable
    the Scottish Government to make the tax system more progressive. However, we would not want to
    devolve income tax in a way which would increase the administrative burden on employers, and indeed
    on individuals.

    Subject to further work and consultation therefore, Labour plans to devolve income tax in full to Scotland. Please note, “in full” – and that means allowances, thresholds, bands and rates.

    As I predicted here on this forum several weeks ago, Owen Smith’s infatuation with the lock-step and Westminster Labour’s mysterious defence of a constitutional principle of UK-wide tax progressivity, lasted all but 4 weeks before it was contradicted by his own party. The ink of Her Majesty’s signature will not be dry on the Wales Bill before the ‘constitutional principle’ which underpins its main failing will no longer be a principle at all.

  3. Too many navel gazers in Wales are obsessed with processes not policies. The process is succeeding, if separation is your ultimate goal… Llafur’s policies have failed at almost every stage, aided and abetted by the other three pro-devo parties which also seem to have become obsessed with ‘process by consensus’ rather than with acting as an effective opposition against defective policies.

    The result – Wales is broken and the people have pronounced a plague on all your houses. This is why UKIP will do so well in the next few elections – not because they have any thought through policies but because they are not seen to be part of the failed-four.

    The Wales Governance Centre appears to be part of the problem not part of the solution.

    The solution is to be found in changing policies not changing processes. The question is – how to overcome the damage done so far without the solution turning into a pile of burning tyres?

  4. If we have to resort to a dead head party like UKIP for the solution then that in itself is an admission of failure. It is the British state that time after time has shown itself solely interested in the best interest of London and the South East of England. In Scotland we have the exception to the rule because they are willing to fight their corner. I do not blame either the SNP or the Scottish Labour party for wanting the best they can for their people and Country, would that we had the same sort of courage and sense of purpose from Welsh politicians. But it does make a complete mockery of the idea of a party of “one nation.”

    The fact is the Welsh Labour party is full of career politicians using Wales as a stepping stone for to better things at Westminster. They have been the dominant party in Wales for the best part of a century and must accept responsibility for the appalling mess that our economy and Society is in. I would love to see the Welsh electorate hold them to account but like someone in a abusive relationship they just come back for more. I fear that until we can learn to at least act as if we have a working democracy things will not change and Wales and its people will be used like the soldiers in the trenches of WW1. Yet another example of lions led by donkeys.

  5. As the American idiom goes
    “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”
    On our behalf surely Carwyn Jones and Owen Smith can summon up a squeak between the two of them.

  6. Adam Higgitt, the erstwhile defender of the Labour party speaking from Hertfordshire, gives a typically aggressive rebuttal, which would be of value if it wasn’t for the fact that it suggests that he hasn’t even bothered to read the first few paragraphs, let alone the article, rendering the rebuttal laughable.

    Powers for a Purpose: Strengthening Accountability and Empowering People is an UK Labour document in defence of the Union. It’s not ‘Scottish’ Labour that reaffirms its commitment to the discredited Barnett formula but rather the UK Labour party, signed off by MiliBalls. Whatever Adam says about the status of the so called ‘Welsh’ & ‘Scottish’ Labour Parties (is he seriously suggesting that there are three political parties called Labour in the UK?!) Carwyn Jones is but a marginal figure, and a bit of an embarassment to UK Labour and has no authority or power there.

    Wales is weak, marginalised, and given scant regard by the UK and her political parties. We deserve to be treated in this dismissive way because we show so little back bone. Scotland on the other hand is treated like Royalty – and good for them! They’ve shown that in order to get even the smallest amount of respect from London you have to stand up to them.

    Alba go braith!

  7. This is really astonishing! I am amazed to learn that we in Wales are losing out to the tune of £300 million. Thanks Dr Richard Wyn Jones for bringing this to the public’s attention.

    Carwyn Jones must know all about this but it seems he hasn’t lifted his little finger to help. Imagine what an extra £300 million would do? Maybe then I wouldn’t have to run a raffle to buy new computers for my children’s school!!

  8. JRW: when you say UKIP will do well in the next couple of elections, what did you have in mind? How many seats in the European election do you expect them to win in Wales? Do you think they will win any seats in the general election in Wales? I am asking, not disputing.

  9. There is a difference between two separate parties (SNP & PC) taking different views and two parts of the same party (Labour) doing so. It is perfectly legitimate for Labour (Scotland) and Labour (Wales) to take different views but both cannot prevail within Labour (UK). Scotland’s view, for lots of reasons, is likely to carry more clout within UK Labour.

  10. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to suggest that the Labour Party can resist having one unified policy on Barnett and retain its credibility… It may have many different opinions, but sooner or later the electorate can rightfully expect the ‘Party’ to have one policy. And I don’t think it is unreasonable for the electorate to expect that policy to be clearly articulated before the Scottish referendum.

    As far as I remember the Labour Party is not a confederation of national Labour Parties, or even a federation for that matter. Whilst it enjoys the benefits of a unified structure (and exploits the rhetorical opportunities that brings in political debates) they must also take the responsibilities.

  11. Ross Tredwyn

    UKIP will win an MEP in May and then they will, hopefully, get organised with a party office and a researcher based in Cardiff and start ‘doing politics’ in front of an open goal. They failed to do this in 2009 because John Bufton wasn’t a well man and I doubt if he even expected to get elected. This time they should hit the ground running. Nathan Gill already knows the ropes… They have NO excuse for failing to engage again! If they fail then UKIP’s support will leave as quickly as it came – and then what?

    Hopefully, Plaid will also lose their MEP – I had to say that.

    UKIP probably won’t win any MPs in 2015 outright, unless they can find a good high-profile local candidate somewhere, though they may gain the odd defection from other parties afterwards. UKIP should win enough list seats in 2016 to hold the balance of power in the Cardiff Bubble. Then we will really find out if they will live up to their repution for being the ‘awkward squad’ or whether they will join the existing consensus.

    The other interesting question is where UKIP’s votes will come from? All the available evidence says UKIP does best in old Labour country – like Barnsley – so South Wales and NE Wales could see some disillusioned Llafur voters jump ship. Llafur’s policy failures in Wales are now spread all over the UK media – they have nowhere left to hide. Nor do they have any solutions to their policy failures which can only get worse between now and 2016. The Llafur ideology has failed – Wales is already under a bus!

    But will UKIP success be enough to change the existing dynamic? Only time will tell but society in Wales is rapidly running out of time.

  12. The squeaky wheel metaphor is inappropriate since oiled wheels do not squeak. The Scottish wheel is well oiled and it is the oil that both sustains the SNP and an “unfair” Barnett. Yes Scotland gets more money from Westminster than its needs justify, but then they would argue that they are only getting some of their oil money back.

    In theory every part of a unitary state contributes according to its abilities and benefits according to its needs. In practice distributing resources from one geographic region to another is always the art of the possible. It is always political. With the exception of the unification of Germany there are few examples of states which move serious money from wealthy areas into poor ones. Generally they prefer to move people.

  13. @ Jon Owen Jones
    I think there’s a danger of confusing petroleum products here, both idiomatically and literally.

    Oil revenues also sustain Unionist politics and parties, Labour more so than the Tories.
    The cost of the idiomatic grease Scotland gets for the oil is a bargain for those that wish to maintain the Union and for a Labour party that would, without it’s Scottish MPs be deprived of it’s turns in government at Westminster in perpetuity.

    I can understand why the Labour party in Wales would follow a Labour party line of maintaining this “greasing” of Scotland (greasing wheels is not a one off event put part of regular maintenance- it’s a C19th idiom after all).

    But it’s more than disappointing if the Labour party in Wales stays silent and accepts that Wales not getting the amount of “grease” it needs is a price Wales pays for Unionism and the UK ambitions of the Labour party.

  14. Since Ed Miliband has signalled he is not for Barnett reform but he will assuredly look at ‘the case for Wales’, we can be sure that RWJ’s fears are partly valid. A deal has been done. £300m aka Holtham is no longer on the table. Owen Smith did not raise a finger to help when we were being pushed off the pavement but, be not afraid, we are not for under the bus. This is the realpolitik. Scotland is being saved and Wales is no sense being shafted. Just a bit, er, used. Losing out on a potential opportunity is not the same as being really hard done by. The Labour party has to rescue the union to rescue its own future: their decisions are not unreasonable. Carwyn knows the terms of the unspoken contract.

    And if we get £100m more (and we need Labour to prevail to stand a real chance of getting anything at all), the battle, let alone the war, is not won. That battle is the one that counts, the internal struggle to spend our gotten gains better under our own now extensive self-rule. Need I mention Objective One?

    As Cavafy’s great poem reminds us, post September, the Scots (nor the English for that matter) are not really our root problem:

    “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

    We are our own solution. That’s called devolution. Let’s downsize national insecurity. Imagined hostility is just another excuse in the realpolitik of the asymmetric union favoured by Labour (and me).

  15. Terry Mackie says:
    “And if we get £100m more (and we need Labour to prevail to stand a real chance of getting anything at all)”
    That’s what they used to say in Scotland, until they got an SNP Government.

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