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.

18 thoughts on “Welsh Labour should supply its own opposition

  1. “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.”

    Timing in comedy, as they say, is everything.

    ‘Labour blocks Ann Clwyd assembly committee appearance’ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-26754300]

    Tragically, for all of us, Mr Holtham was deadly serious and was trying to make a constructive suggestion. I’d laugh but all I can do is cry.

  2. It always appeared to me that the formation of the National Assembly was more about ‘nation building’ than anything else; it was an attempt to coerce the population of Wales into a feeling of ‘one-nationism’.

    But Wales isn’t a nation, never has been and I doubt ever will be. It might emerge as some sort of federation of independent states, albeit very small states, but to what end? All we can be certain of is that further attempts to force the population of Wales to behave ‘as a cultural whole’ will also likely prove unsuccessful.

    As to the more mundane issue of health it is interesting to note that whilst the demand for private health care in England has fallen dramatically over recent years, here in Wales it is rising fast. Similarly so with education. Educated anywhere but Wales seems to be the new mantra!

    Perhaps it’s time we let Westminster have another go.

  3. The basic problem is that Wales is not in practice a functioning democracy. It is in effect a one-party state. The current constitutional arrangements were designed to make it precisely that: Labour have been quite open about their gerrymandering. As a result, like all one-party states, it is inefficient because it is effectively unaccountable.

    The solution to this problem is not to try to make the one-party state work better but to get rid of it.

    The most efficient way of doing that is to alter the constitutional arrangements – and get rid of an entirely superfluous level of government – but that is simply not going to happen.

    So the question becomes how do we turn Wales from a nominal democracy into a functioning democracy? A stronger Opposition would certainly help but blaming the Opposition for the failures of the Administration rather misses the point.

    Unionists certainly do not “attribute disappointment to some deep-seated inability of the Welsh people to organise a democracy”. Liberal theory says everyone is capable of organising a democracy, but it is also true that the civic culture necessary to sustain a functioning democracy is more developed in some places than in other. Many – by no means all but many – parts of Wales lack a strong culture of civic engagement. Mr Holtham asks the key question: how do we get people more engaged?

    The trouble is that answering that question means doing things like reforming the electoral system to lessen the role of the parties, reducing the size and power of the payroll vote, and correcting the organisational biases in the media and academia in order to develop a better informed electorate. These are just more things that are simply not going to happen.

    Yet unless something changes, more and more power will be given to a one-party state that has proved organisationally incapable of using even the limited powers it has to better the lives of its subjects.

  4. I think that in general all the points made here are on the right track. However I think the over riding issue with the lack of enthusiasm shown for the Welsh Government is that it never seems to represent Wales and the Welsh people. We never hear of a Welsh National interest.

    In many respects ordinary people have tried to engage with the Welsh Government through the myriad of campaigns about many issues all over Wales. However to my knowledge not one group or campaign has ever been successful in being able to even secure a genuine engagement and discussion about the merits or otherwise of any issue, let alone get a resolution.They are simply kept at arms length. I have seen many many examples of this. No comment is the always the response.

    Even within the Senedd at Plenary or Ministers questions, questions are never answered.

    Also in my experience a huge proportion of people know nothing about the Welsh Government or the Welsh political scene.
    Sadly I think that any enthusiasm shown in the last referendum is beginning to wane and I’m starting to hear the old refrain about getting rid of the Assembly again.

  5. Phil Davies says all he can do is cry. This isn’t strictly true – you can vote. Even greater, you can campaign, take part in consultations, attend debates, protest, converse and any number of other small activities that all make up part of democracy. I think that is a realisation behind the author’s conclusion – politics doesn’t begin and end with the ballot box. If we don’t like the Welsh Government, we can remove them, or ensure that our Legislature holds them to account for their actions.

    But we can also let them know that we are paying attention and that we will not let things slide. There is a current Europe-wide problem of young people not engaging with the electoral process and this has led to some pretty cynical ‘silver’ politics aimed distinctly to reward the older, more consistent voters. This problem is magnified on a Wales-wide scale, but instead of young people the disenfranchised people are a majority of the population across spectrums of age/gender/class.

    We can blame cynical politicians for the conditions which made the crisis, but the electorate has to take responsibility as well. The legislature is meant to represent you, it is not imposed on you and if you want it to change, you have to engage with it not just once every few years but daily. I can think of plenty of better ways to spend your energy than crying.

    As for the idea that we should ‘give Westminster another go’, that makes actually does make me want to cry. Is democracy so weak an ideal that people believe we have to defer our power further and further away from our lives, rather than closer? If you don’t like it, change it. If it doesn’t change, that is your fault, not the fault of scary nationalists or a Labour cabal. The Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly are two different things, (and incidentally Westminster isn’t a government, it is a legislature).

    There are Assembly Members who passionately persist in their criticism of the Welsh Government, and you do them and all people who think and act critically in Wales (as well as the untold numbers who will grow up in a Wales where they can be closer to the political process) a huge disservice by demanding that we do away with the instrument through which they can express themselves.

  6. I fear I am repeating myself again. Labour in all 4 Assembly elections have never won an overall election.Never. They get up to 30 and no more. There are only three other parties in Wales that regularly win Assembly seats two of whom are in coalition in Westminster. Here’s a radical thought [ I’m being sarcastic] how about the other three form a loose but competent coalition minority government next time around. It can happen and if it did and only lasted a few years it would certainly give Labour the boot up the backside it so desperately needs.

  7. I agree that Labour are making an utter shambles of things. But is politics supposed to be exciting, after all It’s not showbiz is it? I wouldn’t mind if they were boring and did a good job, but they’re even failing at that.

  8. It is worse than Gerald Holtham describes. Not only is there very little Welsh intra party debate for most of the last decade there has been scant inter party disagreement. Three of the four Assembly parties have generally been in consensus on most service delivery in Wales and in opposition to policies which challenge producer interest. As the fruits of this strategy become more evident party policies will presumably begin to diverge. For a decade Labour governments in Wales and at Westminster behaved very differently and we should now be able to judge their relative success.

  9. Wales is neither a fully functional nor a dysfunctional democracy; it is a fledgling democracy barely 15 years old. It takes more than a democratic assembly to make a democratic society. It requires an economy that benefits those who work in it; it takes a media that acts as the watchdog on behalf of the public and it takes an education system that benefits its students and the wider society as a whole. It also takes a lot more than those three examples I have mentioned.

    Looking at the issue of Wales being a one party state, the history of the Assembly suggests otherwise.

    The 1st National Assembly was run by a Lib-Lab coalition and the 3rd National Assembly was run by a Lab-Plaid coalition. Therefore Labour has been the sole governing party only 50% of the time and have never achieved an overall majority. In the 2016 election, it will only take the overall loss of one seat to be back looking for a coalition partner again.

  10. Jack,

    There’s no way you could have known this, but I’ve done far more of the things that you mention above than the average Cymro or Cymraes, and so I’m afraid my tears are rather more those of the failed night club singer than the wannabe teenage rock star who’s never left his bedroom…

    I suspect JWR and my politics are poles apart on just about everything that is important to us (though I don’t discount the possibility that we might violently agree on all sorts of things that are delectably trivial), but I do agree with his directness about the reality of our situation here in Wales. We live in a one-party state and that one-party state is protected and nurtured by inadequate constitutional arrangements and failure to recognize, much less do anything about, underlying aspects of the Realpolitik.

    Unlike John, I suspect, I believe in making those positive changes and setting Welsh democracy on the right footing before abandoning all hope that ‘poor little Wales’ (Gladstone’s phrase) could possibly manage its own affairs and be prosperous. For example, things would improve dramatically if:

    The Assembly were genuinely accountable for determining the overall Welsh tax burden at the margins – a system where there is transparency between what you receive in services and what you pay [Silk 1 flirts with the idea but The Labour Party simply refuse to go there]

    There were genuine commitment by the BBC, ITV, C4 and C5 to report domestic Welsh politics equitably (and accurately) [The Labour Party refuses to consider devolution of broadcasting – which the only way you could ensure that the public service commitment of terrestrial broadcasters was adequately applied in Wales]

    We had a proper system of proportional representation which actually reflected the popular vote.

    We had a properly sized parliament (Changing Union’s figure of 100 members makes most sense up to now) where backbenchers (including those of the Labour Party) were of sufficient numbers to enable them to challenge the Government properly every now and again…

    I cry because we seem as far away from some of these things now as we were in 1997 when I trudged the streets of Flintshire to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote…

  11. At the moment there is a general lack of enthusiasm for all political institutions. How anyone in their right mind can possibly advocate going backwards and allowing direct rule from Westminster is beyond me. Devolution can work better, one only has to look North to Scotland to see how things could be. The big difference is that the Scottish government is a real Scottish government not the regional version of a Westminster party so they are not hamstringed by having to o.k things with HQ.

    I seriously wonder whether the Labour party are somehow pumping some form of opiate into the environment making the Welsh populace compliant to their will. It will take a seismic change to get the Welsh electorate to re-engage and find the will to seek change. As others have mentioned democracy only works with viable alternatives and a electorate willing to think before they put their cross on the ballot paper. I think we all know the problem it is the solution that is proving problematic.

    For sure if we continue electing this moribund Labour government we are not going to have the innovative policies needed to take Welsh society forward. Whilst I have no doubt devolution has been a huge step forward for the Welsh Nation we need to breech the current log-jam. Maybe a YES vote in Scotland or even a close no might prove to be the catalyst.

  12. Gerry you’re an excellent economist, but you need to brush up on your Welsh political knowledge.

    John Winterson Richards is right the dullness you rail against in the article is because Wales doesn’t have a properly functioning democracy that enables an alternative to the current Government in Cardiff Bay to get elected.

    The bottom line is that what the Welsh Assembly needs as an Institution to grow and what welsh democracy needs to function, a more pluralistic policy debate, electoral reform, a stronger media under full editorial control in Wales, stronger civic society, a political educated and aware electorate and a more engaged academia to name a few run contrary to Labour’s interest as a party to keep it in power making meaningful change virtually impossible.

    Tthe example you give of multi members constituencies would mean changing the voting system to dual members or even PR which would need Labour backing, except Labour in Wales and the UK has never supported it and fought tooth and nail to keep the First Part the Post voting system for Westminster elections because it benefits them. Add in that many Labour members still resent the current Additional Member System that the Welsh Assembly uses because it benefits the other parties and you start to see a pattern.

    Meaningful reform is need, but few believe it will happen and worse after only 15 years of the Assembly’s existence if the continuing patterns of disengagement of even politically interested and active people like myself and others who comment here then sooner or later the very notion of welsh democracy will be called into question, is that what our politicians legacy to Wales future generations will be?

  13. I agree with Jack. You’ve got no business moaning if you won’t get off your backside and get involved.

  14. It is not unprecedented for parties to dominate sub-state governments/parliaments for long periods of time. Depressing but true. On a smaller scale you see the same thing in local government. Considering how local government still delivers a lot of services (for the time being!) we should really be moving to STV at that level. It has resulted in one-partyism being broken in Scotland at the council level and coalitions of previous sworn enemies being created (SNP-Labour and Labour-Conservative coalitions).

    At the national level the electoral system we have isn’t as proportional as Scotland or Northern Ireland and a change towards the Scottish ratio would reduce the perception of “one-partyism”. It’s hard to really explore this though without being accused of “being obsessed with electoral systems and not service delivery”.

  15. A lot of the arguments here assume that the Welsh Labour consists entirely of like-minded machine politicians concerned only to maintain their own position and nothing else. If that is true then Gerry Holtham is being naive and wasting his ink. But that is perhaps too cynical a view. There are patriotic Welsh people in the Labour Party as concerned as anyone about our failures in education and health. Putting those right will involve taking on reactionary elements in the NUT and persuading the public that reforms are needed in the NHS. Politicians are currently bottling those challenges. To take them on they need public interest and support so they should be interested in thinking about how to engage with the public.

  16. The problem for Wales, the Welsh Aseembly, the Welsh Government and Welsh politics in general is the lack of any real media in Wales. If we had a functioning media, that held the government and politicans to account, we might have seen things go different for all parties in the Assembly. Including Plaid’s splits on nuclear power, and prolonged civil war that has wrecked the Tories in Wales, the AWEMA scandal might have done some serious political damage to Labour, as would the issues affecting public services.

  17. My overall reading of matters here is that the Assembly has more or less had its day. The granting of new powers or otherwise will do little to revitalise this moribund institution.

    We should not have any qualms about admitting failure. The initial idea and overarching concept was flawed and the execution thereof even more flawed.

    ‘Wales’ is just a collection of disparate regions, much like the collection of regions in the ‘north’, the ‘midlands’ or the ‘west country’ in England. By all means take steps to redefine Wales, meaning the land mass now commonly referred to as Wales, as a whole as a separate country. But understand that this brings comparative disadvantages that most of the population of Wales are unwilling to accept.

  18. Yvonne, the Welsh never have a problem in admitting failure. In fact we have a number of grade-one moaners who absolutely revel in it. You are in good company on this site among people who are Job’s comforters who are frankly disappointed when things go well in Wales. However, I am an optimist and I firmly believe that the positive people will overcome the life-denying, miserable strain in Welsh culture and we shall go on to improve and develop our society and community. The Assembly and the language will survive and Wales tomorrow will be better than Wales today.

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