Will Henson and Harry Thompson look at the potential implications of the Welsh Government’s Co-operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru.
Our Senedd is a place of coalitions, deals and co-operation agreements. We can thank La méthode d’Hondt for that. Despite Welsh Labour advances, the 2021 Welsh general election once again returned a Welsh Government short of an overall majority. The resulting reality led to pre-election rhetoric morphing into cross party negotiations between 30 seat Welsh Labour and previous bedfellows Plaid Cymru.
After protracted talks a wide ranging agreement has been reached, taking us through to 2024 and beyond the expected retirement of the First Minister, Mark Drakeford. It is welcome to see a higher level of ambition for devolved policy-making. The Welsh Labour manifesto and resultant Programme for Government contained welcome measures, some of which would undoubtedly improve some lives. However, both the manifesto and programme for government were thin, fitting in with a previous pattern we have seen from the Welsh Government – more at comfort fiddling around the edges than seeking systematic reform.
This deal feels like a first step on a road to a Wales where decision-makers feel truly emboldened to make decisions that change lives.
After twenty years, devolution has clearly been of benefit to Wales – but many areas of day-to-day life feel much as they do in England. Partially this is due to a lack of devolved powers, with many of the most significant powers such as large-scale government borrowing (which could fund truly transformative infrastructure, as the UK Government has the power to for England), employment regulation, the welfare system reserved to a Westminster level – not to mention the ultimate decision on whether to pursue periods of strategic investment or austerity, with the UK Government essentially responsible for choosing Wales’ budget.
But the facts remain clear – after twenty years of devolution, someone in Wales will largely have the same experience as one in England. Despite Wales consistently voting for parties of the left and England voting for parties of the right, Wales’ economy and society still match England much more closely than the European social democracy that Wales’ voting patterns would imply. An individual coming to Wales from the north of England would probably find much unchanged. Similar rights at work and working culture, similar housing rights, similar schooling systems, and so on. As well as limited powers, this can be explained by a lack of ambition or self-confidence from the Welsh Government. Perhaps this is a result of the slim majority in favour of devolution in the 1997 referendum. Now, however, proposals to increase the size of the Senedd, explore introducing rent controls, reform council tax, end homelessness, introduce tourist taxes, and introduce universal free school meals are policies that, at last, speak to a self-confidence in Welsh decision-makers to change the lives of people in Wales rather than attempt to disrupt the present system as little as possible.
That is not to say that the IWA would endorse without limit every policy in this document – we are a think-tank independent of political party and government. Voters should feel that their decisions mean something. Whatever the colour of government elected, democracy and people’s voting choices should result in change if it is promised. This deal feels like a first step on a road to a Wales where decision-makers feel truly emboldened to make decisions that change lives. It is only that – a first step – and a clear and forensic focus on delivery will be essential. But first steps should be welcomed all the same.
It now looks likely that the seventh Senedd will look significantly different to the sixth.
The Co-operation Agreement proposes to grasp a number of nettles including social care reform, council tax and Senedd expansion. That said, the agreement is more than legacy building, addressing a number of immediate issues as well as the usual smaller, but reputationally important, products of political horse trading.
Headline pledges such as free school meals for all primary school pupils and extending funded childcare to two year olds are significant wins from Plaid Cymru’s 2021 manifesto. Whether or not they will be seen as such by Welsh voters is yet to be determined. Funding issues aside, it’s unlikely that many in Welsh Labour will have felt strong opposition to such proposals, given their redistributive nature and the economic stimulus delivered by parents, particularly women, being enabled to re-enter the workplace earlier.
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Gender equality features further, with agreement to support gender quotas in the Senedd as part of a wider package of possible electoral reform including addressing the long standing lack of capacity amongst Members of the Senedd. The IWA have long supported action towards gender equality in politics, including as part of the Diverse 50:50 campaign. There is much more to be done before all levels of government in Wales reflect the people they serve.
Since inception in 1999, our legislature has consisted of sixty elected members with expansion a third rail issue despite the significantly widened and deepened powers those relatively few members now have responsibility for (the Scottish Parliament has 129 members, for comparison). Such issues should only ever be addressed on a cross party basis, with the Co-operation Agreement forming the foundations of such. It now looks likely that the seventh Senedd will look significantly different to the sixth.
The Agreement proposes exploring the potential of reaching net zero emissions by 2035, more than halving the timeframe currently set for doing so.
It takes far more than additional politicians to strengthen democracy. The historical paucity of Welsh based and focused journalism has been increasingly exposed as the Senedd and Welsh Government have gained increasing control and influence over our lives. There are encouraging signs of renaissance, with the likes of The National, Voice.Wales and Nation.Cymru pouring additional scrutiny onto Welsh political institutions, but English centric media remains dominant, with 18% of Wales reading the Daily Mail in print or online in 2021, double the readership of the Western Mail. For these reasons, the proposals to both take practical steps to make the case for devolution of media regulation powers, and to increase support for new and existing Welsh media outlets are very welcome indeed.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Co-operation Agreement is relatively light on detail when it comes to tackling climate change, given the recent release of Welsh Government’s Net Zero Plan. Another explanation may be Plaid Cymru’s rural base and the friction between the actions needed to lower carbon emissions and those on the frontline of their delivery in the Welsh countryside. However, where detail is lacking, ambition is not. The Agreement proposes exploring the potential of reaching net zero emissions by 2035, more than halving the timeframe currently set for doing so. Such ambition is laudable, but it should not be at the expense of focus on the actions, structures and funding required to deliver the current stage of the existing Net Zero Plan. Crucial to this is the development of renewable energy in Wales, as laid out by our long running project, Re-energising Wales.
The Co-operation Agreement covers an expansive range of areas of policy and public service in Wales with one exception, as raised by critics. It could be argued that many of the pledges made are designed to, and would, provide stimulus but the lack of proposed action on the economy has been read as lacking vision by the opposition. We cannot expect every aspect of government to be covered in this agreement, it is not a programme for government or budget document, but it is inevitable that the headlines will be seen as public relations priorities for the two parties.
It could be that the economy is simply too nebulous for a supply agreement. We will await the draft Welsh budget this December to find out. In the meantime, the IWA are hosting our inaugural Virtual Economy Summit on 30th November-1st December. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity to gain an insight into the thinking of both UK and Welsh government thinking with both Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething MS and Neil O’Brien MP, Minister for Levelling Up, The Union and Constitution answering your questions on the day. Book your tickets now.