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.

7 thoughts on “Was a ‘New Politics’ just a pipe dream?

  1. 17 years in and the great political victories of free swimming and bus passes is still being cited – I think the people of Wales had hoped for something more radical !

  2. Like Jocelyn Davies I was very sceptical about the assembly and voted against it. Then as it was set up I decided to give it a chance. I like most people was very impressed and hopeful that real change would now come about. After dealing with it and the council for twenty years in a community capacity i became increasingly dissalusioned, and now getting angry and bitter about it all. All we have done is swap the stagnant going no where policies of the belligerant posturing plastic politicians of westminster with a new crowd in the bay. We have never had real change for the better. Indeed its all getting worse. They are all obsessed with control and making laws. I am surprised this island of ours has not sunk with the weight of legislation from the bay,westminster and most of all the utterly dictatorial eu.
    We need to scrap an awful lot of this structure that is crushing human enterprise for good. I am no tory by the way, i view them all with distrust. In Wales i will give you this example, Wales employment depends very heavily upon the automotive industry, yet by some cruel unthinking irony the assembly, eu and belligerent councils like cardiff are very anti car and are doing everything they can to ensure they bring the roads to gridlock. Then they waste money wanting a bypass for the M4 tunnels at Newport. Instead of concentrating on developing brilliant public transport system. They the assembly then also give some £10m of our money to a private waste incinerator company to burn all the waste in the middle of the capital city and in the process massively increase

  3. Our polution and increase por health with this incinerator. The incinerator will in time bancrupt all the councils involved in it as is happening elsewhere in the world. Some major american cities have done just this with waste management.

  4. “Like Jocelyn Davies I was very sceptical about the assembly and voted against it.” If that’s the case, she would have been the only Plaid Cymru activist to take such a position!

  5. We’ll see how well Jocelyn Davies “pally pally” style of cwtchie politics goes down with the electorate in May when they vote in frighteningly large numbers for UKIP! There’s too much cosy shoulder-rubbing down Cardiff Bay and it just feeds the wider perception that all we’ve created is another incestuous political elite. Let’s not be surprised if the ordinary joe on the street opts to stick two fingers up at this cosy arrangement – either by voting for right wing lunatics or not voting at all!

  6. Without first-hand knowledge, I have the impression that Jocelyn Davies is one of the better and more thoughtful AMs and it is a shame she is standing down. We need better AMs but the truth is in any case they just can’t win. The public doesn’t like the juvenile bear-garden nature of political debate in the House of Commons – with good reason. Yet when the Assembly is different, it is described as boring, comatose etc. That said, it is developing one very bad habit – passing aspirational laws with no delivery mechanism, like the infamous Future Generations Act. It makes everybody responsible for everything with the predictable result that no-one is responsible for anything but everyone wastes time ticking boxes. Vague laws are no substitute for properly resourced policies to tackle specific problems.

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