The One-And-A-Half-Party state

Adam Price gives a pre-election rallying cry that reverberates far beyond the confines of his own party

It’s time to state some inconvenient truths. Indeed, in Welsh politics, perhaps even the truth that dare not speak its name: devolution has failed. At least according to the terms it set itself.  Yes, we do have a functioning system of government – which, when we eye developments in Belfast, is something we should never take for granted. There have been plenty of praiseworthy initiatives and innovations, many of which have graced the pages of this publication – from the Welsh Baccalaureate to the plastic bag tax. Yes, the Assembly has sheltered us from the worst banalities of Westminster government – Tory, Lib Dem and Labour. But devolution was meant to be so much more than a dented shield.  When it comes to the fundamentals, improving our public services and our economy, the system has failed the people of Wales. And in this, our failing democracy, they are the only ones that can fix things.

The word crisis is bandied about too liberally in the political lexicon, of course – and on the streets, in the bars and cafes of any Welsh town there is certainly nothing like the air of popular insurgency that first swept the SNP to power and then brought a nation to within a 5% swing of freedom. Satisfaction with the Welsh Government is just above average – which is probably a fair assessment. Devolution has not been the unmitigated disaster that its detractors predicted. But neither has there been the devolution dividend – in health, education or the economy – that was promised.  In terms of the national mood, in culture and sport there has been plenty to cheer. But there isn’t that palpable sense, all-pervasive at the Assembly’s birth, that a democratic wave was going to usher in a new era of transformative change, that though a small country, we could dare to think big.

Let’s ditch the hyperbole and check the facts for those three core determinants of happiness, how well we learn, live and earn. Education is an area that we might have expected would flourish with devolution. Wales has a long history as a pioneer: the first to create local education authorities, a national system of inspection and the first comprehensive school. By the beginning of the Assembly, despite the added challenges that higher levels of poverty represented, Wales still had a record of pupil achievement at 15 years of age almost identical to that of England. Since then our level of pupil achievement, relative to England and other comparator countries, has gone backwards – so much so that a former Welsh Education Minister, was forced to admit a ‘systemic crisis.’

Because of differences in qualifications and changes in the way that education statistics are gathered it is difficult to compare Wales to the other nations of the UK consistently over the last twenty years. But using figures for the percentage achieving A* to C grades from 1998/99 to 2005/06 we see Wales swapping  a position of level-pegging at the start of devolution, to one of almost 6 percentage points by the middle of the last decade.

The gap in this set of statistics closed though the major reason is likely to be a widening of the definition of what constitutes ‘vocational equivalents’ to GCSEs in Wales from 2006/07 onwards. Using the slightly stricter data set of 5 GCSE A*-C grades, including English/Welsh or Maths we see the gap widening to almost 5 percentage points by 2012/13 (again differences in definitions following changes introduced in England make more recent comparisons difficult) (see Chart). A parallel gap in the proportions of students in Wales achieving A or A* grades at A Level compared to England and northern Ireland was noted by former Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy, as part of an inquiry into the steep decline in admissions to Oxbridge from Wales.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of all is the slide in the international rankings of Welsh 15 year olds abilities’ in Reading, Maths and Science produced by the OECD.  Wales has been tested three times since 2006 and we have slid ever further down the league table, now languishing well below the PISA average and significantly below the other UK nations. The Welsh education system is failing at both ends of the ability spectrum, according to the OECD, with ‘a high proportion of low performers and a low proportion of high performers.’ So much so that a country once synonymous with educational excellence has now become a laggard. If the Welsh Government was subject to the kind of rigorous assessment that schools and local education authorities are subjected to then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that its Education Department would long ago have been placed in special measures.

As the birthplace of the NHS, health is also an area in which we might have expected to excel. The picture here, however, is equally troubling. The ‘Gold Standard’ in comparing the effectiveness of national health systems worldwide is ‘avoidable deaths’ (i.e. those deaths that could be prevented through healthcare or public health interventions). The number of avoidable deaths continues to decline in Wales as is universally the case among developed countries. But the proportion of avoidable deaths in overall deaths remains significantly higher than England. The preventable mortality rate has also declined more slowly in Wales – 2% less overall over the period 2001-2013. If these seem like small numbers then it’s worth noting that if Wales had kept pace with the region in England with the most similar health profile – the North East, which has declined by 36% compared to Wales’ 28% over the same time period – then more than 800 people in Wales every year would avoid unnecessary deaths. As this is a cumulative failure, it amounts to thousands of avoidable deaths over the course of the last decade and a half.

Though many of the interventions necessary to save these lives are in the area of public health – an area where Wales, in the 1980s, was seen by the WHO as something of a world leader – it’s likely that Wales’ appalling record on waiting times is also contributory factor. By the end of July of this year, 27,313 patients had been waiting more than 36 weeks for their treatment, the highest number on record ever, and an almost fourfold increase since 2011. This cannot be so easily dismissed as Daily Mail propaganda. The Nuffield Foundation confirmed in a comprehensive study last year that waiting times for hip and knee replacements in Wales were on average 100 days longer than in England or Scotland – and waiting times for life-saving coronary bypasses or sight-saving cataracts had also declined. Figures provided by the Wales Audit Office in its systematic analysis of the problem earlier in the year showed that the median waiting time for a patient in Wales was about five to six weeks longer  than in England, but, for those waiting the longest – the 95th percentile – it was 33 weeks in Wales, compared to 19 weeks in England.

Turning to Wales’ dismal economic performance, it is fair to say it has been referenced so often in these pages there’s little need to dwell on it again.  But given the emphasis in Labour’s case for devolution in 1997 on the economic dividend it is at least worth pointing out that relative to the EU and to the UK, we are worse off now than we were then – down from 85% of the EU-28 per capita GVA in 2000 to 74% in 2011, and from 73.8% of UK average income in 1997 to 72.2% in 2013 (see Charts). The payback for Welsh voters’ twenty-year-long loyalty to Labour it seems has been a decidedly negative return on their investment.

It’s important to remember that behind these statistics lies the human cost of reduced earnings, lower grades and shorter lives. Individual explanations of failure will differ according to ideological prejudice. Is the failure in education due to an accountability gap – the decision not to test and publish league tables, or the lower amount of school funding per pupil? Is the failure in health the result of shutting out the private sector, or the decision post-austerity to cut health spending in real terms? I think if we really want to understand these multiple failures (which are repeated across other areas of policy not covered here) then we have to look for a deeper, more systemic cause.

By the time of next year’s Assembly elections the Labour Party will have governed Wales at a national level for an unbroken nineteen years.  This makes it the longest serving administration of any country in the whole of the European Union. It’s not hard to realise why this might lead to problems. Every democracy needs the genuine possibility of political change. The pendulum swing of an alternative government brings with it new ideas and new leadership, the lifeblood of renewal.  The opposite is stasis, inertia, fatigue.  Croeso i Gymru.

Welsh democracy is a ‘one-and-a-half-party state’ as the Labour Party is perpetually in government – though never yet as a majority government.  A dominant minority-party may sound like something of an oxymoron, but it uniquely describes the peculiarities of the Welsh political system. It also perhaps represents the circuitry of power in Wales, neither fully closed nor fully open and always eventually leading back to Labour. It’s a lesson that coalition parties – the half-parties co-opted through necessity – have had to learn to their cost.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of one-party dominated democracies – Gaullist France, LDP-led Japan or Swedish social democracy – that proved very successful, for a time. One of the reasons for this was that they created key institutions beyond the central state: France’s ENA training ground for technocrats or Japan’s MITI industrial policy powerhouse, for example. In Wales, we did the opposite, shutting down one of the few capable institutions we had, in the form of the Welsh Development Agency, in a fit of political hubris.

Even the smartest of single-party hegemonies eventually run out of steam.  Starved of the oxygen of new ideas, dominant parties become sclerotic, an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon: the furring of the arteries of a political system. I don’t think it’s uncharitable or sectarian to suggest that we are long past that point in Wales.

The problem has not been, as is sometimes said, a lack of ambition. The targets that have been set from time to time have been bold and laudable: achieving a GVA of 90% of the UK average by 2010, being among the top 8 European countries for cancer survival by 2015 or the top 20 worldwide in the PISA education rankings by next year. The problem was not the aim, but the lack of a coherent vision and the kind of collective leadership necessary to achieve them. When ministers and priorities changed, the targets were quietly dropped.

Those with a sentimental attachment to the Labour Party may hold out hope that it will be possible to renew Welsh Labour from within. I genuinely wish them luck, but political history suggests this can only be done seriously in Opposition. It’s precisely that opportunity for reinvention that Jeremy Corbyn has grasped at the UK level. But it’s difficult to see Corbynism as a constructive challenge to the policies of Welsh Labour. Indeed, the new Leader has gone out of his way to praise Carwyn Jones’ government as a model for the UK. Neal Lawson of Compass has described the big divide in modern politics being between incumbent Black Cabs, the mainstream establishment in power for years, fighting off the challenges of insurgent Ubers.  When Jeremy, the Uberista, pitches up at Cardiff Central, it’s a Black Cab he’ll find waiting to take him to down to the Bay.

As a Plaid Cymru candidate for the Assembly, it’s no surprise that my hope lies in the kind of ‘velvet revolution’ we saw in Scotland in 2007. Nothing would shake up the complacency of our policy and political establishment that, let’s face it, have failed to deliver on so many fronts, than these four words: First Minister Leanne Wood. If you think this is a little optimistic then take a look at Alberta, which in May this year, saw a 44-year unbroken term of office by the Conservatives overturned by a New Democratic Party caucus that went from four seats to 53.  Change sometimes comes like an avalanche.

That’s not to say we should replace one party’s dominance with another.  Part of the very essence of what we were meant to be creating in the National Assembly was a new way of doing politics – open and collaborative, inclusive and diverse. There were signs of that in the first Assembly – the inter-party collaboration that despatched Alun Michael, the power of the Assembly Committees, the first coalition. But the adoption of a Westminster-style system of Government and Opposition has meant importing its values and its culture.

Two scenarios that cannot possibly deliver the change we need we can comfortably take off the table: a simple repeat of the One Wales government with Plaid as a junior partner or a Rainbow Coalition with a Conservative Party that has moved far and fast to the right. Either of those options would simply entrench the political establishments in Wales and Westminster. But other forms of cooperation between and beyond party should be explored to the utmost. In Wales such is the extent of the challenges we face, we need a ‘government of all the talents’ like never before.  We need to press Ctrl-Alt-Del in Cardiff Bay and create a new high bandwidth democracy. One that recognises that no single party can have a monopoly on the truth, and that our collective intelligence consists of three million citizens, not sixty.

Adam Price is Plaid Cymru candidate for the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr seat at the next assembly election, in 2016. This article was first published in the IWA's magazine, the Welsh agenda. To get a copy of the magazine, please join the IWA here:

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