Time for political parties to grow up

Richard Thomas says greater party autonomy is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that political parties deliver for Wales.

The advent of devolution in Wales brought with it a rapid transformation in the ways the political parties presented themselves. Each UK party has emphasised its Welshness. Nick Bourne rebuilt the Tories in a Welsh mould, Rhodri Morgan dug a moat between himself and Tony Blair and filled it with ‘Clear Red Water’ and the Liberal Democrats quickly opted to elect a Welsh party leader from the Senedd rather than Westminster.

More recently, UKIP – a party that just a few years ago wanted to abolish the Assembly – felt obliged to rebrand for a Welsh audience (and were mocked for gaffe after gaffe in so doing).

The Green Party too brands itself as the ‘Wales Green Party’ but does not enjoy the independence of the Scottish Greens – forming part of the anachronistically titled ‘Green Party of England and Wales’.   

In addition to brand distinctiveness, parties have increasingly devolved their policy making too.  Ten years ago, the Western Mail was writing that:

“One impact of devolution has been the ‘Welshification’ of the Labour and Conservative parties, with both organisations becoming policy creators rather than branches of a London-based operation.”

But branding and policy aside, the devolution journey is remarkable for how little organisational change there has been within parties.

The Conservatives remain a resolutely Unionist party with their command and control structure based in London.  Remember how the party in Wales was powerless to prevent their London HQ cancelling their Welsh conference in 2012?

Despite being the most senior Labour figure elected to public office in the UK, Carwyn Jones was unable to stop Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Owen Smith, frequently using his veto during the negotiations that led to the St David’s Day agreement.  

Now influential Labour voices are calling for a new ‘federal’ structure – focusing on organisational matters such as candidate selection, committee membership and disciplinary matters.  But would it make any difference?

The biggest problem for all parties in Wales is that Welsh people get their news from the UK media.  So whilst journalists, academics and politicians like to strategize about the impact of decisions made here in Wales, the reality is that it often makes little or no difference.

After the formation of the 2010 Coalition Government, there was intense pressure on the Welsh Liberal Democrats to put ‘clear yellow water’ between us and the UK leadership.   We didn’t because we knew that the public’s view of the party was defined by UK events.  We could try to distance ourselves but all we would do is confirm the views of those who hated the coalition whilst confusing our own supporters about where we stood. The substantial autonomy afforded to our party in Wales did nothing to delineate us from what was happening in Westminster.

The solution now being touted for Labour is a federal structure with more autonomy for the Welsh party. It’s more or less the structure the Liberal Democrats have operated for decades, so I’d like to offer a word of caution based on my experience as Chief Executive of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.  

Lloyd George founded the Welsh Liberal Council in 1897.  As far back as the 1960s Emlyn Hooson established the Welsh Liberals within a federal structure.  This now provides a high degree of autonomy: The party elects its own leader, runs its own conferences and makes its own policy. It is charge of its own constitution, membership, discipline, and candidate selection. It has guaranteed representation on key UK ‘federal’ committees. The Welsh party certainly had enough autonomy to respond quickly to events and benefitted from not requiring ‘permission from London’ to agree and communicate a line.

No Westminster figure ever tried to dictate what we should do in any Welsh manifesto. In 2011 when I told Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, that he would be a warm up act for Kirsty Williams at our Welsh Conference, he gamely agreed. It’s hard to imagine either a Labour or Conservative leader doing likewise.

But despite all that, the influence exerted from London is very real:

Candidate selection and approval is devolved but with no resource to run it, Wales lags behind the service offered in England.

Campaign staffing is managed from London with the same structure created in the 1990s; decisions are made with a focus on Westminster elections.

Membership is a matter for the Welsh Party but I lost count of the times an email about an English matter was sent to our members despite being entirely irrelevant. Even in an Assembly election year, our members were targeted with requests for cash from HQ that undermined our own fundraising efforts.

The Welsh party benefits when the UK party makes big spending decisions.  In recent years we moved to use the same voter identification package as Barack Obama, re-vamped our web campaigning and bought a new membership database. All serious investment that made the Welsh party stronger – but also ever more reliant on federal HQ.

Above all, the money stays in London – let go only when it is in Westminster’s interests.  The UK general election is everything.  Bums on green seats are the great driver of UK party activity. The support, funding and training available during the General Election dries up once the Assembly elections come around. That is bad news for Wales because with less media attention and lower voter turnout, we need political parties to be more energetic and able to motivate voter participation.

Frustrating as this was, I strongly suspect that the Welsh Liberal Democrats retain greater freedom and autonomy than any of the other UK parties.

As the journey of devolution has continued the Assembly and the Welsh Government has gathered more powers. This needs to be reflected in the political parties.  

As part of a United Kingdom dominated by larger nations, we need Welsh parties to deliver in Westminster too. Welsh MPs are always in hoc to the whips, with Welsh interests swamped by the sheer numbers of their party colleagues from elsewhere in the UK.  Only by sticking together can Welsh MPs garner enough collective clout. In years past this was achievable for Welsh MPs through the Liberal Party and then the Labour Party. But as the number of Welsh MPs are cut to 29 this will become less easy.   If they were answerable to distinct Welsh political parties, I suggest we would find Welsh MPs working across party lines much more effectively to represent Welsh interests.

Wales’ political parties need to catch up with the devolution they have delivered for the country.  So to those within the Labour Party (and other UK parties) pressing for greater autonomy; I wish you well.  But whilst greater autonomy is a necessary step, I don’t believe it is sufficient.

Our present relationships with UK HQs are dogged by a parent-child dynamic, too reliant on ‘special pleading’.  

Those involved in running political parties in Wales might ask what a truly adult-adult relationship would look like.  And then how on earth would we pay for it.

Richard Thomas is Manager of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre. He was Chief Executive of the Welsh Liberal Democrats from 2011-2016.

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