Welsh Labour should supply its own opposition

Gerald Holtham argues we need to rekindle some excitement in Welsh politics if the National Assembly is to grow

The Silk Commission’s second report on extending devolved powers reflects a lot of careful thought and analysis. How much is implemented, though, will depend on politics. Securing change from Westminster may well require demonstrating that Welsh public opinion is actively demanding change.

Now public opinion does seem to have shifted over a decade or so to a firmer acceptance of the National Assembly. Yet my impression is the public views it a bit like the Welsh soccer team: we’re glad we’ve got one, like other countries, even though rather few of us go to the matches. And judging by some of the results it doesn’t seem to be playing particularly well. Although soccer is a more popular game than rugby in Wales, much less emotion is invested in the national soccer team than in the rugby team – probably because the latter wins more often.

That suggests that greater interest in the National Assembly and greater enthusiasm for extending its responsibilities might follow if it was seen, or believed, to be more successful. Much of the indifference to any further devolution and reservations about Silk seem to be based on the thought:  “shouldn’t they sort out some of the problems we’ve got for which they are already responsible before they take on many more”.

The general perception is not that the Welsh Government has made terrible errors. Labour, after all, has been in government continuously and still does well in the polls and Carwyn Jones has some of the highest approval ratings of any UK politician. But the feeling is rather that devolved government has not succeeded in changing important things for the better. Comparative education statistics from PISA and more anecdotal evidence from the health service suggest a continued falling behind. The Welsh Government even gets the blame for the Welsh economy growing more slowly than much of the rest of the UK, so falling back in relative GDP per head. Some of that is a bum rap. How a subordinate government with highly restricted powers and no control of fiscal policy is supposed to have caused long-established relative economic decline is not clear.

Enthusiasts for more devolution right now will argue that the performance of a government should not change views on the constitutional settlement in any case.  You can’t chop and change the constitution with every twist and turn of a government’s fortunes, they argue, and we need a sustainable settlement. Accept for the sake of argument, they say, the Welsh Government’s performance has been disappointing. To use that to oppose further devolution is to suppose that the performance is not down to the difficulties of one administration. It is to attribute disappointment to some deep-seated inability of the Welsh people to organise a democracy.

Any such inability cannot be down to size considering that there are smaller countries than Wales in Europe that manage a much greater degree of self-government fairly successfully. Do we think so little of ourselves? Must we be fatalistic about the capabilities and capacities of devolved government? Why can’t they improve?

That argument has a good point but it does not allay the concerns of many people that responsibility should not run far ahead of capacity. If the soccer team wins more matches the crowds will come; score more policy successes and the active demand for further devolution will grow.

I am not sure that success is just a matter of devising clever policies and building competence in the civil service. In the long run, in a democracy people get the government they deserve. Bringing the government closer to the people was supposed to increase public interest and attention and generally to release energy in the political system.  Oh dear. Even the biggest friends of devolution cannot plausibly claim that has happened. To improve government and its perception among the public, we have to revitalize our politics and get people more engaged. How on earth do we do that?

A revitalized politics poses a particular dilemma for any Labour Party supporter in Wales. Revitalization surely requires a bit of suspense, the possibility of change. Doesn’t that means Labour is supposed to lose office from time to time? You can’t expect Labour folk to work for that but there is an alternative, namely a much greater degree of intra-Party open-ness, more public discussion, even policy disputes. Labour, like any political Party, contains different views.  Instead of covering these up in the interests of Party discipline, perhaps they should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to hang out.

Spin and news management in the interests of securing electoral advantage have undoubtedly reduced the quality of political debate in the UK as a whole and served to turn off many of the public UK-wide.  But in Wales, the Labour Party is electorally strong enough not to need those techniques. It does not need to be so defensive. If it debated differences of view in public and acknowledged difficulties openly and honestly, there is no Welsh Daily Mail to run tendentious headlines about ‘splits’.

It comes down to this: Welsh politics is predictable and a bit boring. Given the enduring impotence of the opposition, if Labour is to rekindle political interest it must provide its own opposition – or at least its own political and policy debates.

Unlike their London counterparts Welsh Ministers show a marked reluctance to appear on television to be interviewed.  That is the hallmark of the cautious incumbent who can only see a downside to public exposure. But their job would be easier if the public understood the real difficulties they face. And in Wales the media, such as it is, is not particularly hostile. The difficulties can be put over and the options debated.

Just imagine if a Minister came on and said “We’re sorting out A and B but I’m at my wits end over C; our policies don’t seem to be working and the opposition’s ideas are no good either. We’re considering this and that and we’d welcome public input”. Would he or she be an object of derision or would people think they were hearing something real from a politician – and respect them more? In any case, our politicians don’t have to pretend to be perfect and know-it-all; the public wouldn’t believe that anyway.

A change in political culture is needed to make our people relate more to their government. Such a change in culture cannot happen easily. Does it need some institutional stimulus? Perhaps we need to revisit some of the ideas for electronic consultation and public involvement that were around when devolution was brand new but which evaporated as the Assembly settled down to business as usual.

A possible stimulus could come from multi-member constituencies. Suppose we reduced the number of Assembly constituencies and elected three members for each. Each Party would have to put up three candidates per constituency and the public would express their preference by voting 1,2,3…. Different views within the same Party could be judged and endorsed by the public, reflected in the order in which it voted for a Party’s candidates.

If people in Pontsticill are determined to vote Labour, they can at least ask ‘which Labour’. Yes, that would result in a degree of intra-Party competition, traditionally anathema to UK politicians, but it would give the public more influence and the public would like it. For proof, look to the Republic of Ireland where such a voting system has long been in place. From time to time politicians have urged changing it and set up referenda to do so. Every time the public has refused and clung to the system. Admittedly a degree of selflessness is required of our politicians to move to such a system. What an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not ‘just in it for themselves’, as cynics claim.

This is not a new idea. The Richard Commission recommended such an electoral system for Wales long ago. Perhaps we need to implement the proposal of that Commission before we tackle the proposals of the latest one.

Gerald Holtham is an IWA trustee and chaired the Commission on Funding and and Finance for Wales. He left the country on 19th March and is now believed to be somewhere in Brazil.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy