Laura McAllister challenges a few misconceptions about ‘The Compact’ deal struck between Labour and Plaid Cymru, arguing that Wales needs the confidence to do things differently to Westminster.
So the ‘deal’ is done. But we are not allowed to call it a ‘deal’. Still, it was an arrangement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru to allow Carwyn Jones’s name to go forward unchallenged as Wales’s new First Minister and then to form his first cabinet of a minority Labour government.
Now seems a good time to challenge a few popular misconceptions. The ‘Compact’ is very clearly not a coalition, so nothing like 2007 and ‘One Wales’ but it is a ‘deal’ nonetheless. That’s because ‘deals’ are what happen in politics where there are multiple, competing parties and a semi-proportional voting system that gives any party getting the support of around one in ten voters some parliamentary representation. Couple that with a creeping realisation that, in this context, the days of implementing a party manifesto in its entirety in a single, unchallenged government programme are long gone. Equally, proper respect for the official (and other) opposition is really quite a wise move if governments are serious about delivery. Nothing should be taken for granted when no party has an outright majority. At the same time, those parties not in government need to raise their collective games- the days of divided, unstrategic, frivolous opposition in the Assembly chamber and committees are numbered.
The details of the specific policy agreements between Labour and Plaid are insignificant in truth. Mindful that the Compact is for the first 100 days, it is inevitably based on policy areas where there is clear political consensus and manifesto congruence. As important in today’s statements are the infrastructural innovations set out in the Compact, since these have the potential for lasting shifts in culture -especially the three liaison committees around legislation, finance and the constitution. These should mean earlier sighting of potential problems with budgets and laws, and more informed scrutiny as a result. If we have learnt anything from the Draft Wales Bill, it is that pre-legislative scrutiny is a damn good thing. A brave politician not only uses it, but positively welcomes it in the spirit of iterative improvement. In the last Assembly, many of us expressed publicly our unease at the nervousness around proper scrutiny and a culture of suspicion for robust challenge. Aside from plenary, this was manifested in the committees, whose forensic approach felt a bit like being ‘savaged by a dead sheep’ to quote Denis Healey on Geoffrey Howe. The Compact references a specific commitment to improve this. Hallelujah! The Assembly is to behave like a proper parliament.
The Compact, and all that went before and after it, is really an outbreak of ‘real politik’, spurred on by the extraordinary (but ordinary elsewhere) events in the Senedd last week. ‘Extraordinary’ because we were all caught blind-sided by Plaid’s decision to put up Leanne Wood as First Minister against Carwyn Jones. But, it strikes me that for media and political commentators alike, being caught unawares is not an altogether bad thing in the overly cosy and intense environment where too much information passes hands informally in semi-public environments like the pubs and cafes of Cardiff Bay.
Several people have used terms like ‘shambles’ and ‘embarrassment’ to refer to events of the past seven days, and ‘grubby, dodgy deals’ and ‘climb-downs’ to those of the past 36 hours. Now, I understand that the public were understandably a bit baffled by what went on in the chamber last week, as well as what then didn’t happen in terms of forming a Welsh government. But, every cloud etc., I suspect that the Assembly website has had more hits in the past week than it ever did during its various admirable, but mostly ignored, public engagement campaigns. Because, in truth, this is a learning process for us all as we adjust to proper minority government, rather than the ‘majority-lite’ of the last Assembly when Labour’s job could scarcely have been made easier by its opponents. This means that we need to watch our language – body and speech – as we manage these political growing pains. We can all learn from this early salvo and there must now surely be a responsibility to better contextualise and report our new politics. Bitchy insults thrown at each other by party activists are not the basis for serious analysis and understanding. Forget the Twitter sphere, many mainstream broadcasters reported events as if they were witnessing a shrunken and less professional version of Westminster. Who’s ‘jumped into bed’ with who, which party committed the biggest betrayal, whose arrogance was to blame: it all sounded like the transcript from a bitter divorce case. In George Orwell’s words: “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
If the past week has taught us anything, it is that we can be different in Wales, but first, we need to be confident that different is ok. There was nothing wrong with the main opposition party putting forward its own candidate for First Minister, whether as a genuine attempt to form an ultra-minority government (admittedly, unlikely to have ever been the case here), or as a shot across the bows to signal political intent, especially around a change in the operating culture for the fifth Assembly. Equally, the fact that the ensuing talks were held quietly and, it seems, constructively between two respected figures from the parties and without leaks (note: not in ‘smoke-filled rooms or in a ‘clandestine’ manner) is a positive surely? Parliamentary and political interchanges in pluralist systems, i.e. where there are multiple parties involved, are always messier and less smoothly played out in public than in strictly majoritarian ones. So is this simply about the communication and representation of our new political realities? This was exciting because we genuinely didn’t know the eventual outcome (although we could speculate). And come on, neither was there any real risk to the citizens of Wales and their good governance in this instance. Ask the people of Ireland if they ‘managed’ without a government for 70 days after their General Election in February this year had produced no clear winner, or the people of Finland where governments take an average of 55 days to be formed post-election.
My point is that, if we report such ‘normal’ things as chaotic, shambolic and amateur, we are at risk of reflecting back to ourselves some long-standing misconceptions about how politics must always be done and missing the wind of change blowing around us.