Was a ‘New Politics’ just a pipe dream?

Jocelyn Davies considers whether a new sort of politics has been delivered through devolution.

I feel incredibly honoured and privileged to have been among those to take a seat in the first Assembly in 1999. As I stand down at this upcoming election, I can look back with incredible pride at my contribution to the growth of our institution. I feel genuine affection for my colleagues from all parties, and will be sorry not to be working with them anymore.

The end of the fourth assembly

As the Assembly breaks for May’s election, a range of assembly members offer personal perspectives of their time in the Senedd.

One of the main claims for creating the Assembly was to address the democratic deficit that existed in pre-devolution Wales. The aspiration was to usher in a new politics with a more consensual culture. The promise was that there would be greater co-operation between the parties, with increased transparency bolstered by more inclusive procedures that would bring decision-making closer to the people and respond to their needs.

We knew the new institution had only tentative public support and would need to prove its worth. But looking back, we had unreasonably high hopes of a fledgling corporate body with feeble powers led by a minority Government that needed, in the very least, the permission – if not the support – of opposition parties being watched closely by a sceptical nation.

Most AMs want distinctive Welsh policies to improve the lives of those we represent. But disputes with Westminster about the extent of Assembly powers surfaced almost immediately, stunted policy ideas and increased frustrations and tensions.

The machinations and disappointments of the very early days got us off to a shaky start. But given the circumstances and personalities involved all of it was probably inevitable. “New politics” requires careful and mature handling and I think we were ill-prepared for it.

Business was conducted on an ad-hoc, deal-by-deal basis and the short-lived leadership of Alun Michael was not a glorious one. He was constantly hounded by the failure to secure match funding for European Structural Funds and his dictatorial, Secretary of State style of leadership was unsustainable.

Rhodri Morgan was, of course, more pragmatic, opting sometimes for Coalition Governments for stability and safety. This created the space where collaborative, distinctly Welsh policies could win over public support for the institution itself. Although we were not helped by frequent disputes with the UK Government over the limited powers of the Assembly.

In the absence of the drivers needed to address Wales’ most persistent problems, like poverty and a weak economy, the temptation has been to focus on ideas that alleviate the effects of those problems, rather than addressing the root causes. Policies like free prescriptions, swimming and bus passes, the tuition fee grant and the foundation phrase are worthwhile and helped to build the public’s trust in the Assembly, but can only ease, not eliminate, the problems Wales faces.

Since 1999, there have been constant calls for more powers for the Assembly and our devolution journey has been marred by three deeply flawed settlements. The referendum result in 2011 was an endorsement of the Assembly’s work, but with a low turnout, it cannot be considered a ringing endorsement. But it granted us the legislative powers to begin to consider ourselves a proper parliament, a mini-Westminster, without the need to ask the UK Government’s permission to legislate. Although it left us with the ongoing problem of the Supreme Court’s challenges and despite the practical problems that we’ve had along the way, our institution has grown in confidence.

But as the Assembly continues to settle into its new role, we have to remember that how we do business is also important to the public. As we look forward, the Assembly should remind itself of its first principles of being open and inclusive, transparency, addressing the democratic deficit and giving everyone access to the decision making that affects them. We must continue to listen. The separation of the Government from the legislature is not a reason for them to become distant from each other.

The Assembly now has the powers to deliver meaningful benefits and to govern well. So it is more vital than ever that the next generation of Welsh politicians avoid lazy yah-boo politics, despite how tempting it can be. Looking for differences is easy, looking for similarities and collaborating can be hard work, but it is worth it.

I feel a growing sadness about the loss of the radical edge that originally characterised the first intake. Maybe I was naïve initially, but I still think it will be regrettable if the Assembly loses its ambition to create the sort of country that we want to see.  I hope that the “New Politics” wasn’t just a pipe dream. Let’s hope the institution is mature enough now to deliver it.

Jocelyn Davies is an Assembly Member for South Wales East.

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