CONVENTION SPECIAL 2: Winning the Public

Geraint Talfan Davies says winning the argument should be a prelude to winning the public for the case for more powers for the Assembly.

Geraint Talfan Davies

There is absolutely no doubt that the intellectual argument for wider, more clear-cut powers for our National Assembly has been decisively won. First the Richard Commission five years ago, and now the All Wales Convention under Sir Emyr Jones Parry, have both come to unanimous and unequivocal conclusions that democracy and effective government require constitutional clarity.

Both reports are powerful documents, heavy with sound evidence. If the Convention report sounds more tentative in places, that is largely the consequence of its narrower remit. The clarity that both the Commission and the Convention called for was not there before the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and it is not there now.

As the Convention points out, confusion between the Welsh legislature and the Welsh executive is perpetuated by the term Welsh Assembly Government. The Convention members would like to see that middle word ‘Assembly’ dropped. Civil society in Wales could make that happen simply by altering its own usage. The IWA will make a start on that.

But the issue is far from being cosmetic. Piecemeal change, double scrutiny of LCOs in Cardiff and Westminster by politicians with separate mandates, transfers of power in UK bills that are subject to hardly any scrutiny at all, the lack of a single authoritative source of information on Welsh law, all contribute to muddle and confusion for politicians and public and for all those organisations that try to mediate between the two. Politicians may be able to take this in their stride, but it wastes time and money and energy for civil society as a whole.

But, to state the obvious, it is no use winning the intellectual argument, unless one can also win the referendum that is needed to facilitate further change. The Convention’s statement that “a yes vote is obtainable, but is not a certain outcome” hardly has a ring of confidence about it. Its research showed 47 per cent willing to vote yes, and 37 per cent intending to vote no. Yesterday’s YouGov poll for ITV Wales made it 51 per cent yes, and 30 per cent for no, a rather more encouraging majority (fuller details of the poll – the question asked and breakdown by party responses are given below).

However, the Convention is right to say that a victory should not be taken for granted. Poll majorities can easily vanish in the heat of battle. Wales knows that in constitutional debate, the devil has some catchy tunes. But that is no reason to shy away from referendum. This is not to counsel recklessness, merely to point out that waiting for favourable circumstances to turn up is to hand the initiative to the begrudgers, and to deny the benefits of change to the Welsh public for an indefinite time. Our politicians are going to have to make their own weather on this issue, and make it quickly.

The Convention has made plain that a referendum is not going to be won on the arcane ground of whether Part 4 of the Government and Wales Act 2006 is a better bet than Part 3. The public would glaze over. More powerful are the arguments about equity and effectiveness.

On equity, comparisons with Scotland and Northern Ireland will have a more powerful effect. Are we a lesser people than the Scots, less capable of ordering our domestic affairs? Are three million Welsh people, with much lauded democratic instincts, less capable of handling full law-making powers than 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland, with all its community tensions and an area no larger than industrial south Wales? Recent polls have shown that nearly two-thirds of Welsh people see no reason why we should not have the same powers as the Scots.

The Scottish example also speaks to the argument about effectiveness. In IWA research that was commissioned by the Convention we were able to demonstrate that comprehensive powers across a wide range of policy areas, enables government to think strategically and holistically and to legislate in that way. This is infinitely preferable to the search for policy nuggets that can be encapsulated in an LCO.

In our report Putting Wales in the Driving Seat, pubpished in March this year, we were able to contrast narrow LCO bids in, say mental health, with much more comprehensive Scottish legislation passed in less time than it took to consider the Welsh LCO itself. We pointed out that under the Scottish system Government can respond more quickly to public need, there are fewer boundary disputes and misunderstandings with Whitehall departments, and the focus is on outcomes not process.

The Convention accepted this argument and cited a further good example on climate change. Where Scotland would have no problem preparing and passing wide cross-cutting legislation, a rational policy from the Welsh Government would ‘require drawing down powers from at least six fields, through six different LCOs in order to be able to table a draft Measure’. Even then, the Convention observed, during the passage of that legislation a Welsh Government could easily be tripped up if it was found that a particular power was not sufficiently widely drawn.

Campaigners for a yes vote will also have to be convincing in creating a sense of what wider law-making powers can achieve. There was no shortage of ideas in evidence presented to the Convention: wider legislation on mental health reform, integrated transport, public health, education reform and landscape management were just a few of them.

This is something on which the Welsh Government could build quickly if it were to establish a series of independent policy commissions charged with drawing up policy proposals unconstrained by the Assembly’s current powers. This could create an attractive agenda for radical policy reform that could be crucial in persuading the public of the value of further constitutional development.

The time and effort would not be wasted even if a referendum were lost, as, in that sad circumstance, it would still provide a valuable way of prioritising further LCOs and other limited transfers. It would fill the dangerous empty space up to the day when the referendum starting gun is fired, and might also be a spur to the radicalism that we will need in order to get Wales out of the deep economic hole in which it finds itself.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

ITV 1 Wales YouGov Poll, published 18 November 2009

If there were to be a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales increased law-making powers, how would you vote?

Answer Percentage
I would vote Yes ( that is, in favour of giving the National Assembly increased law-making powers) 51%
I would vote No (that is, against giving the National Asembly increased law-making powers) 30%
I wouldn’t vote 6%
I don’t know 14%

Voting Intention by party affiliation

Yes No Wouldn’t Vote Don’t Know
Conservative 41 47 3 10
Labour 57 27 2 14
Lib Dem 48 26 7 19
Plaid Cymru 93 7 0 0

When should a referendum be held?

Answer Percentage
The same day or before the Westminster general election 26%
The same day or before the National Assembly election, May 2011 22%
At some point but not until after the National Assembly election 19%
Opposed to holding a referendum 18%

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