The day Labour became Welsh

John Osmond reads an account of 24 November 2009, finest hour of departing Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones

As Ieuan Wyn Jones prepares to hand over the baton of Plaid Cymru’s leadership this Thursday it is a good moment to look back on his finest hour, the moment Labour became finally Welsh. The day was 24 November 2009 when the coalition Government was due to give its response to the report of the All-Wales Convention that had declared a referendum was winnable. It was also the day when those inside Labour who were opposed to the coalition’s commitment to hold a referendum before the forthcoming Assembly election sought to play their last card.

A full account of these events, which proved to be the only real crisis that threatened the One Wales Labour/Plaid coalition government, is reported in a recent book on last year’s referendum, Wales Says Yes, which I discuss here. The book traces the debates over more than fifty years before last year’s vote. In particular, it follows the internal arguments within the Labour Party that caused the debate to be so convoluted and why, when the Assembly was eventually created, its structures were so unsatisfactory. This was because for most of the period anti-devolution forces inside Labour had the upper hand and were able, if not to stop the devolution process, then to frustrate its fulfillment. As I say in my review, “It was only at the very end of the fifty years – actually in November 2010 – did the pro-devolution wing of the party, now led from within the National Assembly – finally assert itself in a definitive way.”

The day began with a meeting between First Minister Rhodri Morgan and his Deputy, Ieuan Wyn Jones, when they agreed to a statement that would promise an Assembly debate on the Convention’s report. This would result in a vote that would trigger a referendum on full legislative powers before the end of the Assembly term.

However, later that morning a joint statement that contradicted this understanding was issued by Rhodri Morgan, Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, and Gary Owen, the Chair of  Welsh Labour. It stated that “wider Party consultation with AMs and MPs, councillors, trade unionists and members” on the Convention’s recommendations and the timing of the referendum would not begin until after the forthcoming UK general election.

The implications were clear. In the 2006 Wales Act, a two-thirds vote in the Assembly was necessary to trigger a referendum. The request would then pass to the Secretary of State for Wales who would have 120 days to consider whether to pass the request to the UK government. If (and only if) the Secretary of State was willing, an order permitting the holding of the referendum would then go before both Houses of Parliament, requiring the support of a simple majority in both.

Leaving Labour’s consideration of the Convention report until after the UK election, expected in the Spring of 2010, would mean there would be no time for all the necessary procedures to allow a referendum to be held before the Assembly’s own election in May 2011. There was also the complicating likelihood of a Conservative victory in the UK general election which added to the uncertainty.

The Labour statement, undoubtedly orchestrated by Peter Hain, was a direct contradiction of the One Wales agreement. Moreover, it was in clear breach of a ‘No Surprises’ clause in the agreement as well. As the authors of Wales Says Yes Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully say, the Plaid leadership was livid. Ieuan Wyn Jones’ request for an urgent meeting with Rhodri Morgan was stonewalled. He was told the First Minister was resting and would later prepare for Questions in the chamber. He would not be able to see his Deputy until much later in the day.

Wyn Jones then raised the stakes dramatically. He authorised his special advisers Simon Thomas (now AM for Mid and West Wales) and Rhuanedd Richards (now Plaid’s chief executive) to brief journalists that the coalition would collapse unless Rhodri Morgan backtracked immediately. They demanded that he make a statement confirming the coalition government’s commitment to hold a referendum during the Assembly’s current term. They said the Hain orchestrated statement was “a serious breach of trust” and “completely unacceptable”.

The row hit the airwaves, as can be seen from the reporting of these comments in the blog of BBC Wales’ political editor Betsan Powys. Later she passed on a further comment she received from a Labour AM:

“People are furious and this morning’s group meeting was both shocked and angry. Rhodri cannot bind his successor. We could again be seen as being on the back foot and losing public confidence. This cannot be allowed to stand.”

Faced with the collapse of his coalition government Rhodri Morgan issued a more emollient statement in the afternoon:

“The Assembly Government intends in the New Year to bring forward a motion for a full debate on the Convention’s report. I am reassured that the Convention believes that our One Wales government agreement to hold a referendum during this Assembly is both practical and achievable, but I must leave the details  to my successor as First Minister.”

The references to Morgan’s successor are important for understanding what was happening. The Labour leadership election between Carwyn Jones, Edwina Hart and Hugh Lewis that was then underway and due to be announced on 1 December, had put exceptional political leverage into the hands of Welsh Labour MPs. The electoral system used by Labour in which, together with AMs, MPs made up a third of the electoral college, rendered them important figures, if only temporarily. As such they were being assiduously courted by the three contenders who, Wyn Jones and Scully say, had tended to downplay the prospects of an early referendum vote.

In turn this fed a general atmosphere of distrust between the partners in the coalition. Following Morgan’s statement trying to ally fears, there ensued a difficult face-to-face meeting between him and Ieuan Wyn Jones. This resulted in a further statement which reaffirmed the commitment to the One Wales referendum pledge and also held open the possibility that it might be held as early as the autumn of 2010.

So how was it that Rhodri Morgan allowed the earlier statement to go out in his name along with that of Peter Hain and Gary Owen in the first place? An explanation is to be found in a footnote in Wyn Jones’ and Scully’s book:

“The events of 24 November represent one of the few moments at which the often-difficult relationship that existed between Hain and Morgan emerged into public view. Herein, surely, lies the origins of Rhodri Morgan’s otherwise utterly inexplicable decision to sign the joint statement. Informants report that meetings between the First Minister and the Secretary of State were characterised by a tendency to talk past each other. With Morgan also tending to shy away from direct confrontation, it is suggested that he signed the statement without realising its full implications.”

More generally, the significance of the episode is that it marked the moment when efforts by Welsh Labour MPs in Westminster to slow or even stall the devolution process were overridden by Welsh Labour AMs in Cardiff Bay. The importance of Plaid Cymru’s insistence that the terms of the One Wales agreement be adhered to is demonstrated by the revelation that later, once he had succeeded Rhodri Morgan, Carwyn Jones asked Ieuan Wyn Jones if the referendum could be put off until after the May 2011 Assembly election. They comment:

“Once it became clear that the terms of the coalition agreement were not (re) negotiable, he determined to use the ‘political capital’ he had accrued through his comfortable victory in the battle to succeed Rhodri Morgan in order to ensure that his own party adopted a more unified and positive approach to the now inevitable referendum.”

So why did Peter Hain put together the ill-fated statement that led to the albeit temporary breakdown in trust between the One Wales coalition partners? There seem to be two elements to his intervention. The first is that he had made consistent warnings for some time that a referendum held too early would be premature and in danger of being lost.  He was calculating that the Conservatives would win the 2010 election but that it would need more than a year for disillusion with the new government  to set in sufficiently for Labour to be able to effectively deploy the anti-Tory message in a referendum on more powers for the Assembly. But secondly, during the passage of the 2006 Wales Act which he was responsible for putting through the House of Commons, he persuaded many of his Welsh colleagues to fall into line in support by persuading them that there was no chance of a referendum taking place earlier than 2014.

With its commitment to a referendum before May 2011 the One Wales agreement had unravelled that promise. As Wyn Jones and Scully observe, Hain’s continuing resentment at this turn of events was made clear only a few weeks before the referendum in March last year, when the BBC reported him as saying, “Clearly the Paid Cymru insistence on holding the referendum before May 2011 is the reason we have a referendum on March 3rd. We wouldn’t have had one otherwise.”

As for Ieuan Wyn Jones, he can look back on  24 November 2009 as marking the zenith of his political career, when he stood his ground and ensured that the referendum, the price of his going into coalition with Labour in 2007, rather than pursuing the alternative that was potentially on offer, of leading a Rainbow coalition of Plaid, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully conclude that the day provided a good example of how well Plaid Cymru had adapted to being in government for the first time:

“Having given their coalition partners considerable time and space with which to deal with the referendum issue, Ieuan Wyn Jones and his team nonetheless held the line with great firmness when faced with direct attack on the terms of the coalition agreement. This was subtle and mature coalition politics. By seeking to undermine the terms of the One Wales agreement in such a crude manner, the signatories of Labour’s joint statement overplayed their hand. Once Plaid Cymru responded, as was inevitable and entirely predictable, by threatening to bring down the government, Labour had little option but to cave in. The referendum then moved from probability to certainty.”

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