The silly season story with serious implications

Lee Waters considers voter alienation in the current political climate and how that might impact on support for the Welsh Assembly.


“Posing questions over our legitimacy is a dangerous place to go” Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins tweeted over the weekend; “Our Nation is stronger for having the @AssemblyWales”.

She was responding to an essay in the name of Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies, in which he argued that Carwyn Jones has misread the lessons of the European referendum, and if there was a fresh vote on the future of the Assembly it would be lost

It has generated some excitement – as, indeed, it was meant to: the Tory Leader’s press office has form in generating eye-catching stories during the recess period; most disappear without trace. The message has been reinforced by a paid-for advertising campaign by the Welsh Conservatives on Twitter and supportive messages from Tory MPs – Vale of Clwyd MP (and English GP) James Davies tweeted ‘No political institution is popular, but constituents keep telling me they have no faith in the Welsh Assembly’.

RT’s argument in itself is something of a non sequitur, and is primarily concerned with Brexit, not devolution. As the News at 10 anchor Huw Edwards tweeted – in a rare foray into the political debate – “Logic fail: 2016 #Brexit referendum must be honoured, but 1997 #Wales referendum result can still be ‘questioned’.”

It is undoubtedly the product of a new political strategy to appeal to UKIP voters – and to try and peel off UKIP AMs to leave their chaotic group in the Assembly and cross the floor to augment the Tory group, and in doing so give it enough members to make it the official opposition in the Senedd.

It’s an unhelpful intervention because it diverts attention away from a matter of substance (which I’ll come to in a moment). But just as even a broken clock is right twice a day, Andrew RT Davies does have a point when he warns that in this mood of voter alienation no institution is safe.

It was a point made with force in the piece by the former Labour Police & Crime Commissioner candidate for North Wales , David Taylor, which set the line of argument in the first instance.There is no such thing as the ‘settled will of the people’”, he wrote; “The argument about where power should lie is never settled, and never won”.

In a follow-up piece to Taylor’s original article my colleague Jeremy Miles and I tried to develop the argument on the BBC Wales politics website.  We have to be on our guard, the Neath AM rightly pointed out. The Brexit vote was won by tapping into a disillusionment that is likely to become more intense as the vision of what Britain outside the EU looks like shapes into a different form to that which people thought they’d get. It’s the mirror argument of Andrew RT’s in a way – the Tory leader is saying that unless the Welsh Government get on board with implementing Brexit with gusto the public will turn on the Assembly, whereas Jeremy Miles is arguing that it is disillusionment resulting from the reality of the policies which flow from Brexit that we need to be most concerned about. And if the Assembly isn’t careful, that could contaminate people’s views of devolution.

Bad Generals, famously, fight the last war – so we must be careful concluding too much about the future of Welsh devolution from the rejection of the EU by the majority of people in Wales. There is no evidence that the feelings of alienation towards the European project cross-over to feelings about the devolution project. Indeed, in his only response to Andrew RT Davies First Minister Carwyn Jones tweeted “Hostility on the doorstep directed to Whitehall more than NAW. No complacency though”.

But there are parallels between the two issues. Devolution, like the EU, has primarily been an idea bought into by the elites, with public opinion lagging behind. For generations ‘thought leaders’ on both issues were content with the fact that those ‘in the know’ understood the benefits and the rest would follow, but June’s referendum showed the folly of that approach.

Public support for devolution has grown steadily since the Assembly was established in 1997, and a second referendum in 2011 confirmed that most people in Wales are behind it. Only 13% of people currently support its abolition. But the populist backlash towards everything resembling the establishment that has been unleashed by austerity is an unpredictable force. To date the Assembly has been seen to be on the right side of public opinion, but complacency could change that.

“If Wales rejected the collective establishment view on Brexit and took the seismic leap to support leaving an EU that brought in so much cash, rejecting devolution would be an effortless hop” David Taylor wrote. “Wales’s Assembly too often seems preoccupied with augmenting its own power and prestige at the expense of focusing on the serious structural problems in public services, and addressing long-term economic decline. A change of focus is required. If political leaders fail to grasp this, they should not be surprised if voters one day decide that their institution has become redundant”.

I agree with that.

The case for the Assembly was initially made on the back of devolution’s ability to transform the Welsh economy. On that test it has so far failed to fulfil its potential.  Despite continued efforts our basic economic state is the same now as it was then – weak compared to the rest of the UK. And the British economy outside of the EU could well shrink further. The head of the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, has recently written that we face “a seriously rocky period’ with a ‘significantly smaller’ economy in 15 years time as a result of Brexit (his piece is sobering, and worth reading in full).

It may well be that the economic storm won’t impact on people’s view of the continued need for the Assembly, indeed support may grow in troubled times. But the reverse is equally plausible, and I wouldn’t risk it. We need to fight like the future of devolution depends upon it, and come together – cross-party – to agree an economic plan that can silence the doubters and deliver on devolution’s promise.

Far from it being dangerous to point out the risk to the Assembly’s legitimacy, as Bethan Jenkins charged in her tweet, I think it is dangerous to ignore it.

Lee Waters is the Assembly Member for Llanelli.

17 thoughts on “The silly season story with serious implications

  1. This blog post is understandably keen to suggest that devolution has failed to transform the Welsh economy, considering that the author belongs to the party that has been at the wheel throughout the last 17 years – Labour. The penultimate line seems like an attempt to suggest that all parties are equally at fault.

    Before abolishing the Assembly, how about the people of Wales try the less destructive and expensive option – a change of government? The other option is that Labour in Wales stop resting on their laurels and implement radical change.

  2. If the Assembly has less support from the Welsh electorate than we would like that is squarely down to the unenthusiastic attitude and non- performance of the Labour Party. That would be the local reps and their bosses in London.

    An article by a Tory AM seeking to blame the Assembly for the consequences of Brexit, now a Labour AM pleading for opposition AMs to join them and contaminate themselves with the Labour Party’s unpopularity and accumulated mess.
    As in Westminster our elected Tory and Labour politicians think Party first, Wales third. Second is the overwhelmingly England centred UK. Won’t be any change while voters continue to do the same.

  3. For a ‘silly season’ story, it has certainly touched a raw nerve!

    The Huw Edwards ‘tweet’ is in fact typical BBC, and is itself a ‘logic fail,’ attempting to equate trying to get out of implementing a decision taken a few weeks ago with openness about revisiting a decision taken a whole generation ago, and duly implemented – and which has, as even its proponents admit, not lived up to promises made at the time.

    The whole notion of a ‘settled will’ of the people is inherently anti-democratic, and the EU referendum has proved what nonsense it is in practice.

    The current low polling figures for abolition are no great surprise, given the lack of a proper focus of opposition to the Assembly, nor are they much of an obstacle. Another of the lessons of ‘Brexit’ is that a properly funded and organised campaign can turn a minority obsession into a popular revolution very quickly indeed.

    It is the lack of money and organisation for such a campaign is what preserves the Assembly. Its lamentable failure over the last generation to build a strong business sector and civic culture means that there is no prospect of a real opposition developing for the foreseeable future.

    It is thus saved by its own mediocrity.

  4. Perception counts for a whole lot, and as long as the assembly is seen as an ‘additional’ layer of government (a sort of super county council) then its ability to grasp problems by the scruff of the neck and shake out a solution is not often credible. When the people of Wales perceive its parliament as a bulwark against austerity, inequality and the insidious resurgence of imperialism, then it will become effective.

    Whatever people’s views on the political union of the nations of the UK, Wales’s Parliament – as it will shortly become – must be seen as Wales’ supreme democratic body. It is, currently, only able to legislate in those areas that it has (graciously) been allowed to, but it can have an opinion (and act on it) in ANY area that it perceives will affect its population politically, economically and strategically.

    A month before the EU referendum I was content that the new Assembly, with an injection of new blood and a shake up of the old complacencies, would be quietly protecting us against the (at the time, unimaginable) negative result should it occur (secretly so as not to give any credibility to the leave campaign), so that when the unthinkable happened, I was looking forward to seeing the well thought through plan swing into action, advantage being taken of the UK state’s weakness and our situation being improved. In the event, of course, we’re still waiting. That missed opportunity lets the world see the UK’s “most powerful elected Labour politician” as being the Mayor of London, and what sort of a signal does it give that the largest group of AMs (currently transfixed by the ultimate irrelevance of Corbyn vs Smith) do not even belong to a party. Can’t be bothered. So why should the electors be bothered?

    The mission of all AMs (in all parties) is to promote the Welsh parliament as the upholder of our rights, to support our society and to protect us from unacceptable political choices (e.g. austerity, Trident and Tory cuts) until such time as we decide, by ballot, that we choose to have them. Something is needed to challenge the perception of an institution meandering towards a nice fat pension, and maybe Andrew R.T. needs to be acknowledged for that at least.

  5. The Welsh Conservative party originally voted to,” Just Say No ” in the Referendum for a Welsh Assembly.
    Rod Richards was elected on a Vote of the whole Welsh Conservative Party to lead their Group on the assembly with a large majority over Bourne .
    Subsequently Richards had to stand down for personal reasons.
    Bourne persuaded all his fellow members ( Seven ) except two to elect him as leader. He then later without consulting the Welsh Conservative Party membership went further and announced that he had become converted to believing that the Assembly should remain.
    I am a member of the Welsh Conservative Party still awaiting for the Conservative Party Membership to be asked whether we agree with Bourne’s “change of mind ” After 16 Years I think it is time we were formally consulted by our elected members.

  6. Let’s be honest Lee political forecasting isnt your strong point. As i recall you were doubtful the ‘powers’ referendum in 2011 could be won. In fact the prospect of a vote on a ‘cold wet day in march’ seemingly ‘terrified’ you. Well of course March 3rd 2011 wasnt a ‘cold wet day’ – voters went to the polls in glorious sunshine and delivered a comprehensive yes on the question of primary law making powers.

    And as a fellow veteran of the 1997 devolution campaign I do have to take issue with you when you say “The case for the Assembly was initially made on the back of devolution’s ability to transform the Welsh economy”. From my experience among the strongest reasons for people voting Yes in ’97 was the long time ‘democratic deficit’ Wales had endured ie every major political decision affecting wales was made by conservative government’s at westminister most people in wales didnt vote for (and in two infamous instances by MPs who didnt even have a constituency in wales).

    And two decades after the vote that brought the Senedd into existence – and a right wing tory government at westminister busy privatising the NHS in england – welsh devolution is needed more than ever. And the fact that health is devolved and the NHS in Wales is protected by the Senedd from the clutches of James Davies’s privatising colleagues at westminister is a fact which isnt lost on most people in wales im sure.

    And – with the aforementioned ‘democratic deficit’ Wales suffered during the 80s and 90s seemingly set to return with a vengeance in the coming years – far from support for the senedd and welsh devolution falling away i would expect it to grow in the coming years. Indeed the grim prospect of perpetual tory rule at westminister – the result of boundary changes and scotland’s likely departure from the ‘union’ – could even put the ‘I word’ firmly on to the welsh political agenda in the coming years.

  7. What support for devolution? It is a flawed and failed model. In all key areas Wales has failed under devolution: education; health; economy. Oh, and democracy – how many people actually engage with the Shower in the Bay?

    It is a sham.

    Time for a referendum. But the political elite (Walters et al) would not like the plebs to give them a response (a la Brexit) that they do not want or believe.

  8. Not much to disagree with Lee, but noticed this is the second time in recent past that you appear to be at odds with our ‘Dear Leader’ the Rt Hon. Carwyn Jones and on some major policies too!

    As I see it’s a welcome change, but it begs another question: Are we likely to see the long overdue Welsh Labour Party leadership challenge anytime soon?

  9. The justification of there being only 13% in favour of abolition is seriously flawed for two reasons.

    The poll was taken prior to both the last assembly election when six men and a dog managed to get a measurable percentage when the electorate was for the first time offered the option of abolition without any meaningful publicity. If they all had a dog, perhaps the result would have been an even higher percentage voting for that option!

    The electorate that has been seriously let down by the Labour Party, Assembly Members, the institution of The Assembly itself since it’s inception and politicians in general have now tasted blood, which they appear to like! This is only the start of the changes to come.

    The isolation and greed shown by the political class in general and Jeff Cuthbert in particular when leaving the Bay of Plenty for another Gold Plated “Old boys Job” only fans the flames of an already angry electorate. The Labour ability to get AM’s elected whilst taking the electorate for granted will not last for ever, indeed the change is coming and soon, as the isolation of Labour Westminster MP’s from the rest of the party illustrates clearly.

    Given the electorates taste for juicy red meat, the overfed AM’s with the almost obligatory “Assembly Stone” look a sitting target and may well end up like that other slow moving simple being………The Dodo!

  10. I also note that the main proponents in this debate reside in North Wales. Could it be the lack of adequate coverage of Senedd politics in the North Wales media is also a considerable factor?

  11. There have been a myriad of post-Brexit positions taken as to what it all means for the future, most of which is speculative nonsense. But Lee offers a way through the woods in his article above. He recognises the disillusionment that has led to the Brexit vote here in Wales and across Offa’s Dyke and also the reality that the Assembly is not immune to being the victim of post-Brexit disillusionment.

    Quoting David Taylor, there are two key areas which need to be addressed: structural problems in public service provision and long-term economic decline. It is also the case that, at the end of the term, the Government should be able to point to publicly perceptible changes in circumstances. There are a number of recent headlines which indicate a green shoots view of this: the increased usage of Cardiff Wales Airport which showed a 28% increase in growth over a 12 month period from June 2015, demonstrating how government intervention can turn around a failed private sector institution. The second is the news today, courtesy of Barclays Wealth Prosperity Map, that Wales within the UK has moved up from 11th out of 12 to 10th in the league table and that Cardiff has moved from 7th to 6th in the cities prosperity index.

    Now this is not exactly the equivalent of reaching the Euro semi-finals but it is a step in the right direction. Whether this continues to be delivered by a Labour Government or another party is a matter for the electorate. There are also further debates to be had on strengthening the Assembly’s powers; I for one would like to see employment law transferred to Cardiff as I don’t trust a post-Brexit Westminster to safeguard the protections we enjoy under European law.

    But Lee, together with Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, are right that we now have to start trading our way towards prosperity and measuring the Assembly’s success in terms of its contribution towards that. If the political debate over the next 5 years can be about Wales’ improving economy, and not just Cardiff’s, then headlines about abolishing the Assembly will soon recede.

  12. It is reasonable to seek consensus on any serious plan to invigorate the Welsh economy but it is the responsibility of the Welsh government to come up with the first draft of such a plan. You need buy-in from business and the electorate but they need to have something to buy into. The Welsh economy is not in such a bad shape as people seem to think but it is too small to serve the population of Wales. To get radical expansion will take more than another glossy brochure of fine words. It will require real policies sustained for many years, not chopped about with every change of Minister; it will require taking risks and raising the rate of public investment. It may well require new institutions. If Messrs Drakeford and Skates are working on such a plan they are keeping very quiet about it.

  13. Leigh, I was sceptical of the need for a referendum in 2011 but once it was announced I worked my socks off to help achieve a successful Yes vote. As a key campaigner in that vote I would have hoped you’d have acknowledged that

  14. Only too pleased to acknowledge your tireless work for the Yes campaign in 2011 Lee. I see Nigel Bull is still peddling the same line that paid such dividends for true wales in the 2011 referendum 🙂

    The only ‘greed’ i see on show in the senedd Nigel has occured in the shape an elected UKIP AM retaining his job as an MEP despite apparently promising his constituents he would stand down as an MEP if elected to the Assembly.

  15. I don’t know what the history is between Lee and Leigh and frankly it’s none of my business but I think there are some points that require clarification. I was involved in the Campaign for a Welsh Parliament which preceded the Referendum vote in 1997 and it is my firm recollection that what united the politicians from different parties around the table was the lack of democracy, especially in the context of being governed from Westminster by a political party of one colour while the Welsh electorate voted for parties of a different hue. It was a rallying cry of the 1997 general election that Wales should be a Tory-free zone to demonstrate the lack of a mandate that Westminster had in Wales.

    However there was a background discussion to this focus on democracy and that was the poor performance of the Welsh economy especially in the light of the decimation of the mining industry and the way that the Tories had turned their backs on the post-industrial communities that had been left behind.

    Leigh demonstrates a little of the complacency referred to in the article when he states that:

    ” … far from support for the senedd and welsh devolution falling away i would expect it to grow in the coming years …”

    Well I hope that will be the situation too. But let us look at the evidence that the 2011 Referendum result gives us.

    In terms of votes cast, the result was an encouraging one:

    In favour of legislative powers – 63.49%
    Against legislative powers – 36.51%

    A healthy lead of 27 points give or take.

    But if we look at the turnout figures, a different picture emerges – 35.63%

    That means that just under 65% did not participate in that vote. Now one cannot impose an interpretation as to the meaning of a non-vote but it is possible to say that two thirds of the population did not feel strongly enough, for whatever reason, to express their support or opposition for such an Assembly.

    Let’s turn to the turnout figure for the 2016 election – 45.3%. Again this means that just under 55% of the electorate did not consider participation in the election worthwhile, whatever the reason.

    So as things stand, the majority of the electorate appear disaffected from the Assembly. This means that there is a political opportunity to tap into that majority and turn it into a campaign to abolish the Assembly. How realistic is that? As Professor Scully points out there is no evidence of any dissatisfaction post-Brexit aimed at the existence of the Assembly. But RT Davies has been on manoeuvres suggesting that proper democracy means local democracy thus suggesting that a national level of government in Wales is unnecessary.

    It is a rule of life, let alone politics, that what is ignored flourishes. To that end, Lee is right to point out that we cannot take the existence of the Assembly for granted until we see the evidence to support that view. A significant increase in the prosperity of the country, both nationally and individually, would go a long way to kicking that potential threat further down the road and perhaps even seeing a turnout exceeding 50%.

  16. Forgive for peddling, but what great success has occurred to prove our points in TW incorrect…………sprinklers perhaps!

    From immediately above, I take it with amazement that you agree with J Cuthbert taking his parachute payment. It was intended to help defeated AM’s get back into the jobs market and to improve the desperately needed quality of AM’s standing by enabling candidates to come from a background of success, rather than the current mediocrity.

    I have no wish to defend Nathan Gill or any others taking an unwarranted salary. The fact remains however that he is not taking a double salary and the dubious role of a MEP is now redundant post Brexit, so what value is there in a meaningless election. UKIP taken on the whole in The Assembly are, however, a shabby bunch who have dragged it lower and irrelevant to even more people. There was an opportunity for some badly needed real opposition that has not been seen since the very early days when Rod Richards gave that unpopular First Minister a genuinely hard time. Governing form the Vale and Penarth is bad enough, but opposing from England even worse.

    As has been raised by others above the only thing keeping The Assembly from serious threat is the lack of a financed opposition. The turn outs have been a terrible reflection of the democracy that we have in Wales. There was in 2011 as now no majority in favour of what we have, as opposed to a different majority who felt the need to vote. Given the turn out for one view from Plaid was probably nigh on 100% you can see the estuary sand that the glass wood and stainless is built on

    For myself, I can see a role for an assembly in power taken from westminster and devolved closer to the people. The trouble is that the lack of success in anything other than the square mile of that glass and stainless steel means that unless there is real change from within, which is most unlikely, what will occur is a lottery and is unlikely be the best way forward.

    What nearly all politicians at all levels fail to understand is that for years they could sit with little scrutiny. Now with FOI’S and Google the reality is there to be found and distributed. The BBC tries it’s best to keep a lid on this, but as they too form part of “”The Establishment” it is all too easy to see what is happening. Try looking at RT, Aljazeera or even Penarth Dailly News sometime to get another view of the world. Whilst I accept that Putin with Qater have their own agendas, and there is bias, you will find there are many truths out there that make up The Truth of the whole picture.

    I find it quite boring educating the unenlightened from the left who prop up our own comfortable establishment Jack! Having never seen any passionate arguments at any IWA events that I have attended, I am probably wasting my time too, as the comfort regarding the life of many in Wales is palpable.

  17. Most contributors miss the point also deliberately avoided by Lee. No one asked during the 80s nor the 08 recessions to abolish the institution – Westminster. People just criticised the incumbent government. In Wales we drone on about the institution but not the incumbent government – Labour (since the start of the institution) this is where we are both immature and uninformed

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