10 thoughts for 2018

What would make Wales a better place over the coming year? A few thoughts…

1. It’s time to talk about the M470
The best way to transform the debate about transport infrastructure in Wales would be to commission first-stage research into potential for a new North-South road, rail and cycle route – the M470 corridor. Just start the ball rolling. How could we do it if there was a) the political vision b) the economic flexibility and c) public support.
Good work from Traws Link Cymru and improvements to our West-East links should not be deprecated in any way but the number one priority for ANY country should be first class internal networks, without which an internal market and cultural connectedness cannot thrive. We simply should not tolerate 4 hour rail/road commutes for 150 miles.

2. The Welsh media needs to up its game (for reals this time) and the UK media needs to be held accountable for its misreporting in and of Wales.
We have seen in 2017 the beginnings of new. Welsh, independent media. Many new podcasts and blogs have started to get serious traction and reframe conversations in and about Wales. Most strikingly, the excellent Nation.Cymru project has created a space for intellectual and cultural debates that rarely happen elsewhere and public interventions such as Michael Sheen’s Raymond Williams lecture have invigorated debate about Wales itself.
Many of the successes of 2017 have been built for little or no money and this will have to be the case for the future successes of 2018. We need to accept that and build on nonetheless. While we do so, we need to be active and vigilant and flagging mistakes and misreporting about Wales in the English media to the relevant editor/regulator. We shouldn’t accept, for example, that even a state broadcaster like the BBC reports Westminster policy announcements as ‘UK wide’ when they’re England-only.

3. Time to call the UK Government the English Government, too
The UK Government does indeed have legal responsibility for the whole UK in some policy areas but in others (agriculture, environment etc) it is clearly the English Government and, at times, the House of Commons IS the English Parliament once more. Calling Justine Greening a UK Minister is not simply misleading, it’s inaccurate. She is the English Education Secretary and we need to be proactive in promoting these descriptors so that the public (as well as the media) clearly understand the reality of devolution.

4. Time to reframe the debate on Brexit & successor arguments in Wales
It is with no little frustration that Wales has been broadly sidelined in the Brexit debate, vote and subsequent withdrawal processes.
It seems that there are two givens: The UK is going to leave the EU in March 2019 and that Westminster broadly considers the natural conclusion of ‘taking back control’ as a reassertion of its overlordship of the devolved administrations.
The Welsh Government has made some very sensible proposals in its series of publications on Brexit and the FM has described objections to the UK Gov’s approach as a series of ‘red lines’ without which no LCMs will be forthcoming. Time for the FM to stand up for Wales as he claimed his party would during the election campaign.
More pressingly, we need to have a national conversation about what Wales is and what we want it to be post-Brext (preferably neither a Cairnsian English appendage, a Thomasian ‘Principality’ or a Carwynian unheard voice in the UK). Steffan Lewis AM (who we wish the very best in his fight against cancer) suggested last year in an event hosted by Plaid Cymru Pontypridd that this would be the perfect time for national convention on Wales. Difficult not to agree.

5. Time to talk about disestablishing the Monarchy in Wales
Why 2018 and why disestablish? Firstly, 2018 will be a big year for the Anglo-Scots monarchy. Even without any unexpected events (such as the passing of a major figure) we are expecting at least the birth of one and the marriage of another core member of the family. It will be an interesting gauge for the relative popularity and relevance of the institution of monarchy in Wales, which has been dwindling since the 1970s.
Disestablishing the monarchy is the campaign that republicans should follow in the 21st century. Abolishment lines you up against the machine of the UK establishment and it is such a clear cut choice that the status quo effect would probably win out in any plebiscite.
In the era of  ‘choice’ in public services, disestablishment frames the debate on the monarchy’s future in a similar way to religious choice and religiosity. By removing the legal and constitutional functions of The Crown, there is scope for those who continue to believe in the divine right of the monarch to own and rule – and they can continue to contribute financially should they choose to. However, those (a silent majority) who believe that the royals should earn their wealth like any citizen, there would be no financial contribution and nationalised assets (the Crown Estate, royal estates etc) could be used for the public good. And heaven knows, Wales could do with every penny at the moment.

6. Time to build the new Welsh Parliament
The last parliament for Wales, made by the people of Wales, was created it was an ambitious centre of hope that planned the creation of institutions of state, of learning and of international status. It may have been short lived and of a truly different era but the Machynlleth parliament had aspirations for a free and successful Welsh state run for the benefit of its people. In 2018 Wales will have, once more, the power to design its own parliament (albeit within the straight-jacket of a new devolution settlement wound more tightly than ever before).
The Expert Panel on Assembly Reform have put together a thoughtful and well argued report that suggests some ideas for the future shape of the Senedd but it is with no little alarm that the Labour Party is wavering on whether to follow the panel’s suggestions. Next year’s conference season will indeed be interesting – especially if the gap between Corbynism and Welsh Labour grows further.

7. The non government parties in the Senedd need to bring something positive to the preparations for 2021
There is more pressure than ever on Plaid Cymru, rightly, to come up with the positive, visionary and inspiring policy platform for the next Assembly campaign. The only party ever likely to govern in place of the Labour Party needs to engage the hearts of the electorate with proposals that give hope and leadership for the future. The simplicity of the message will be the key factor on whether this breaks through. Wales needs a Welshquake.
The Tories in Wales are not known for inspirational visions of the future, particularly in their current position as an unloved outpost of Tory HQ in London. Theresa May’s party will never win in Wales. If Andrew RT Davies (or his successors) are able to create a genuine Welsh party (as in Scotland) that reflects a softened, more-Welsh version of conservatism things could change but conservatism and change cannot easily coexist.
For the minor parties (and it is a sad state of affairs that the Lib Dems are now officially a minor party) it will be very interesting to see how the electorate view them. UKIP have done little to justify their presence in the National Assembly (practically nothing in Nathan Gill’s case), the Lib Dems have a steep challenge just to be visible and for the Greens, perhaps Grenville Ham’s proposals to see them backing Welsh independence could gain them some new support. And who knows, we might even see new political parties in contention for 2021 and. no doubt, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party will re-emerge to campaign against the new parliament’s very existence.

8. The Welsh Government needs to get a grip on infrastructure
Almost a year ago to the day, the Welsh Government’s consultation on the creation of a Welsh National Infrastructure Commission closed. There has been little or no movement on it since.
Through 2017 we saw the failure to greenlight the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, the failure to electrify the Great Western main line west of Cardiff (let alone the Valleys lines and the rest of Wales’s railways) and, arguably most damningly, the continue failure to deal with the M4 bypass crisis in the South East. To add insult to injury, Wales was denied a Barnett share of the HS2 moneys (unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland) because it was alleged by the UK Government that North Wales’s tenuous connection to England’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ means that Wales benefits from HS2 directly. Although mostly a symptom of continued weakness of the Welsh Government, it also betrays the lack of infrastructure vision coming from the Labour Party in Wales. After Ken Skates’ invested so much time and misplaced enthusiasm for the Iron Ring sculpture in Sir Fflint, questions have to be asked about whether there is the talent in ministerial ranks to be able to lead, rather than follow, in terms of significant infrastructure projects.

9. Governing for the many, not the few
The Labour Party in Wales has shown little of the enthusiasm to address the fundamental inequalities in Welsh society that Corbyn in London and Leonard in Edinburgh are so keen to take on. This lack of ambition could be an election loser and, irrespective of who implements it, there needs to be an urgent and significant intervention to make the lives of the poorest in our country better. It’s a massive challenge that the leaders in the Senedd have to rise to.

10. We need more from those outside of politics
Michael Sheen has been widely (if not universally) praised for his truly excellent Raymond Williams lecture in 2017 and others such as Martin ShiptonSteffan Rhys and Carolyn Hitt have written strong pieces for Walesonline and there have been new faces and dynamics on television with The Hour and WalesLive but where are the other leading voices in our public sphere? Outside of the much maligned Pontcanna set of commentators, where are the non-aligned community leaders or high-profile voices of national sentiment and dissent? Where are our activist celebrities and civic leaders? We need them now more than ever.

Thanks for reading – best wishes for 2018.

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10 thoughts for 2018

Coterminosity

What was most striking about the Welsh Government’s (ie. Leighton Andrews’s) plans for redrawing the map for local government in Wales back in 2016 was that it harked back to something both very familiar and even more familiar to those old enough to remember the time between 1974-1996. Things are continuing to evolve as we step into 2018 and it looks like Alun Davies may be willing to look at new ideas for sub-national government in Wales while the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform has made some excellent proposals in its report to improve accountability and engagement.

There has been an unfortunate history of local government reorganization in Wales, all of which, to date, has been motivated by political desirability for Westminster parties than the genuine interests of the people of Wales.

So, what should the first local government reorganization created in Wales, for Wales, actually look like? More importantly, what should be the guiding principles that underpin it?

The Welsh Gov’s approach was to follow the Sunderland report into improving local democracy in Wales with the  Williams Commission into public services. Despite receiving some cross party support in the assembly, the recommendations of the latter report remain unimplemented. The WLGA was unenamored and, in fact, wrote a brief but fascinating alternative proposal that mooted the idea of creating 4 combined regional authorities for Wales (North, Mid & Central, South West and South East) that states that the architecture of public services should follow the maxim that form follows function.

So with three options laid open for discussion (four if you include the status quo), we await the Welsh Government’s publication of what its somewhat vague regional cooperation plan might actually be.  In the meantime, a fifth option might be worth exploring.

Coterminosity

Such is the appetite to decry those who publish maps (apparently there’s nothing more dangerous than a General with a map), there is a great deal of value in looking at boundaries, particularly when Public Services are concerned. The Williams proposals looked like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 12.12.10

In an era where the the link between Westminster and Welsh Assembly constituencies could yet be removed, AMs will be unconstrained in future boundary debates and should be looking at redrawing any map of public services based on what they currently have responsibility for delivering (with one eye on the future responsibilities and opportunities). Form really ought follow function.

This could also be a golden moment to align hitherto ad hoc structures. Arguably, Andrew RT Davies was within touching distance of a genuinely good idea when he proposed a minister for North Wales. If a well mapped structure for large, strong, regional governments within Wales was formulated, could the Assembly not align its regional constituencies with the regional government structures?

One could envisage a Regional Government Minister chairing a Committee for each region that addresses the unique public service issues for that region as well as voicing a collective, powerful voice for that part of Wales. There you have a through line from local representation at council level all the way up to the Welsh Government, including all key public services (education, health, social care, emergency services – possibly others) along the way. With a bit of luck, it could even address even the deepest of regional issues.

As an example, a Dyfed Committee could feature (at least):

– The Minister for Regional Government
– The Governor of Dyfed
– The Chief Executive of Hywel Dda Health Board
– The PCC for Dyfed Powys Police
– The Regional AMs for Dyfed

If Committee hearings were held in the region itself, it may bring the work of the Assembly closer to the regions of Wales and enhance the perception of devolution.

Coterminosity used to its full advantage to improve public service delivery and amplify the voice of sub-national democracy.

Identity

If the model outlined above, or that proposed by the WLGA, was to be considered there would be a significant issue of local accountability to be determined. At present, such challenges land squarely at the door of the Welsh Government Minister. Would it not make more sense for truly local arrangements to be addressed at regional level rather than at national government level?

At the heart of ‘what is done at what level’ is the question of identity. Wales doesn’t benefit from long-established territorial divisions based on topography/geography as other small countries such as Denmark do. What it does have (in a similar fashion to the Republic of Ireland) is a lasting cultural influence of pre-English Conquest kingdoms – as per 1974 reforms – broadly Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed/Deheubarth and Morgannwg (along with Clwyd and Gwent, of course).

Whether these are still valid identifiers or whether post-industrial revolution demarcations such as ‘The Valleys’ have superseded them in public consciousness is an issue that really ought be considered as part of any reforms. In fact, larger regions could offer a way for smaller areas of strong identity (such as Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire or one of the many other little Englands in Wales) by defining administrative boundaries within themselves.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be controversial to propose that accountability, identity and the principles behind government structures should matter more than cost saving and equivalence of population size.

Too different, not different enough

In bars in Dublin, it’s not uncommon to hear the Welsh described in not entirely flattering circumstances as ‘The Little English’ and, when you look at the way the Labour Party has governed Wales since 1999, it’s not an entirely unfitting monicker. With centralisation of power in a capital in the south-east of the country and a perceived, if not actual, lack of regard for the country north of the motorway there are very strong parallels between the two. It’s also indicative of the fact that Wales is still part of England’s realm and, for many a year, the shires west of Offa’s Dyke were simply shires like those to the east.

It’s a national curse in Wales that all instruments of public service are compared to England. In an interesting BBC Documentary, Huw Lewis (Education Minister no longer) rightly responded to a question about why Wales hadn’t followed England’s lead with Academisation by saying that England’s wasn’t even the most successful system in the UK, let alone Europe – why should we follow them? The ‘too different, not different enough’ comparisons with England are endlessly problematic (see ‘GCSE’). Mr Lewis’s stated optimism that Wales has ‘broken away’ from England, with the best will in the world, still rings a decibel or two shy of true.

This is why one could look at the WLGA proposals for local government reform and see that two case studies from England (and none from elsewhere) smacks of Red Rose-Tinted Spectacles. Examples abound across Europe and the wider world of successful local/regional/provincial systems of governance. Where are the international case studies?

Stated Objectives

For all the brouhaha surrounding the creation of the 2017 Wales Act, the stated objectives of aclear, robust and lasting devolution settlement‘ have been agreed by all parties even if they ring somewhat hollow in the context of the subsequent legislation. Setting out clear objectives is helpful to all involved in a process but is anyone clear about what the real objectives for local government reform are? 

The principles of clarity, subsidiarity and democracy should be prioritised, with efficient, representative, good value governance the by-product. The intention should be to instate structures that will stand the test of time and retain sufficient flexibility to adapt.

Wouldn’t the most valuable result of a major reform be that public services and regional government are aligned in a way that makes them both more effective and more accountable?

Coterminosity

Polls vs. Plaid Cymru

UK General Election 2017 has been a rollercoaster for pollsters. We had the Strong and Stable Surge (peak May, early in the campaign) and we’ve since seen the Labour Fightback (shifting the inevitable loss from ‘catastrophic’ to ‘Millibandlike’). And polling is hard. It’s even harder in Wales, where this only ONE credible and regular poll, the Welsh Political Barometer.

It’s even harder for Plaid Cymru, a party with more Commons seats than UKIP and the Greens combined but, like the country whose interests they represent, they are almost invisible in the polls.  That’s not because they don’t poll well (though it’s fair to say, not spectacularly) it’s because Wales is so infrequently polled – well, that’s what the BBC says.

The BBC runs a Poll Tracker – a poll of polls. It features the big English parties (Labour, Conservative) the Lib Dems, territorially limited (the SNP) and also those parties with 1 MP or fewer (The Greens and UKIP). Its exclusion of the Northern Ireland parties continues the wilful ignorance of the ‘British’ media of, arguably, the UK’s most interesting country but it’s really the absence of Plaid Cymru that seems odd.

To repeat, the poll tracker includes parties with similar territorial footprint of Plaid Cymru (the SNP) and it includes parties with fewer MPs (UKIP and the Greens). And, also to be clear, it doesn’t clearly explain why some parties are included or excluded.

So I asked.

And the answer, according to the BBC, is that there simply isn’t enough poll data (full response below). How do we fix this? Well, someone needs to commission more polls apparently.

Dear Mr Martin

Reference CAS-4381636-W5LRKS

Thank you for contacting us regarding the BBC News website.

Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you have had to wait on this occasion.

I understand you are unhappy that figures for Plaid Cymru do not appear in our poll tracker.

The poll tracker is simply a collection of polls carried out by other organisations. Some pollsters canvass opinion on several parties, including the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Others concentrate on just the three main Westminster parties and UKIP.

For the tracker to offer meaningful information, it requires consistent polling, so it is presented to include those parties featured in all or most polls.

Nevertheless, I would like to assure you that we value your feedback. Please know all complaints are sent to senior management and news teams every morning and we have included your points in our overnight report.

These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the BBC and ensure that your complaint has been seen quickly, by the right people. This helps inform their decisions about current and future reporting.

Thank you once again for getting in touch.

Kind regards

BBC Complaints Team

 

Polls vs. Plaid Cymru

Binary Disadvantage

As I wrote previously both Carwyn and RT Davies have identified an advantage in presenting the Welsh General Election 2016 as a two-horse race between themselves. Those building the narrative around Plaid Cymru’s campaign ought take heed.

The benefits are obvious for Labour and the Conservatives – recreating Wales as a Little England with each election becoming a binary choice for the mainstream electorate leaving the minor parties to scoop up fringe and niche voters.
In this scenario the clear losers are Plaid Cymru for whom there is not an English comparison (they would certainly baulk at being spoken of in the same breath as the Lib Dems). They risk losing mindshare as a voters and the media can easily focus in on the simple left/right paradigm this creates. The engineers behind Plaid’s campaign should consider pro-actively intervening before this pattern becomes entrenched as, with the introduction of multiple Kippers and continued dwindling of Democrats, they risk losing ground.

It has become a mantra for some unionists that “Wales is not Scotland” while others are working hard to make sure that it never is. There may be some truth in that but Wales is not England either and, politically speaking, the not inconsiderable presence of Plaid Cymru is the proof. The challenge for their strategists are to build a narrative around a Big Three in Wales – parties which can lead governments in the Assembly. In doing so, they willput clear  yellow-purple water between them and the Small Three who will never lead governments in Wales.

Binary Disadvantage

Coalition be Damned

After weeks of swirling coalition claims, counter claims and electoral pact failures it is timely to discuss the merits of considering the benefits and penalties parties may face should they entertain dealmaking after the 2016 Welsh General Election.

At the centre of coalition considerations in the Welsh context is Plaid Cymru. Apart from a brief dalliance with a rainbow alliance in 2007, all talk of Plaid’s position has assumed that it would be a junior member of any government coalition. In fact, this has reached the point where Andrew RT Davies has called on Leanne Wood to publicly rule out a post-election deal with Carwyn Jones.

Herein lies danger for the party.

The UK/English media, if not the public, does not treat junior members of coalitions well – as Plaid, themselves, should understand from first hand experience. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Welsh electorate is far more similar to UK/English in voting patterns than the Scots or Northern Irish and likely share similar sentiments on power sharing.
The question is: What would Plaid Cymru gain from a coalition as junior partner to either Welsh Labour or, even, the Welsh Conservatives? The prospect of ownership of a particular portfolio – and the potential for a Plaid minister to deliver significant changes in that role – is likely the main temptation.
This post will discuss two compelling reasons why Plaid Cymru will be damned to a minor role in future Welsh Parliaments, should they give in to that temptation.

Leave the Liberal Democrats to be the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are serial coalitionists and have, in recent history, provided stability to minority governments in Scotland, Wales and England (apologies for the repeated use of the UK/England allegory but it’s helpful and not entirely inaccurate, in the absence of an English Parliament).

It’s well known that the Lib Dems have taken (what would charitably be described as) an electoral pasting since coalition with the UK Conservative Party in 2010. This is a fascinating outcome for many reasons but, chiefly, the consequences have been far worse after a single Tory-LD coalition than the multiple Lab-Lib coalitions that preceded it. Whether that is because of working with unnatural bedfellows in the Tories, the reneging on pre-election promises or because of the slant of the English press’s view on any coalition in UK Government that was absent from Cardiff and Edinburgh coalitions, we do not know.
Is the truth, though, that the Liberal Democrats are a natural party of coalition? Considering their size and electoral reach since founding in 1988, they are wholly unlikely to lead any government across the UK in the foreseeable future, even with enthusiastic press backing. Despite this, they have managed to strike deals that commit ruling parties to enact Lib Dem policies that they might not otherwise consider. It may not reward them at the polls but Kirsty Williams’s team in Wales have over-delivered compared to larger parties in the Assembly. The Welsh Lib Dems are good at being the minority party.

We know a little about  Coalition from the inside, via Mark Williams MP, and that may shed some light on why the Lib Dems achievements in the 2010 UK government have been so well hidden under a massive oak bushel. However, in light of the UK Gov actions since 2015 where the Tories have had a free hand, it’s possible that history (as well as The Guardian) will judge Nick Clegg more kindly than the electorate.

In 2016 the main reason why Plaid should not take a turn down Lib Dem Alley is because the Lib Dems are already there and jockeying for the position of the plucky underdog really ought not be their ambition.

The Persuasive Power of Success

One doesn’t have to look further than Andrew RT Davies’s blog to see how much coalition speculation can be exploited by rivals. Tellingly neither Welsh Labour nor the Welsh Tories use these arguments against each other. Is that because they perceive themselves and their opposites as too big to be hurt by this kind of speculation?
In a Wales where neither the Lib Dems, UKIP or the Greens are ever going to lead a Welsh Government, Plaid should be positioning themselves that as one of the big 3 (instead of throwing in the towel as part of the small 3).

In the 2010s it seems extraordinary to think there was a time (1966 to be precise) when the SNP and Plaid Cymru marched in lock-step, as equals, to Westminster. The obvious divergence in their fate seems vast at present but it wasn’t that long ago that the Tartan Tories were working with Thatcher and had electoral divisions and underwhelming success of their own. It took years, if not decades, of divisions, revisions and leadership changes until they were ready for their surge.
Just like the SNP, Plaid Cymru should hold fast. Political success and failure comes in waves. The Tories are riding high at the moment (we’ve been there before and we know how that ended) and Labour are facing a purple-collar revolt in their heartlands, unprecedented in their history. In post-EU Referendum Wales after two-terms of Tory Governments in Westminster there is the distinct chance that normal service will not resume. No-one knows what might happen and the Welsh public can surprise everyone – remember that the the Rainbow Coalition, led by Plaid Cymru and supported by the Welsh Tories & Lib Dems was actually the popular choice for the public.

The first party to break Labour rule will reap considerable mind-share in the county and instantly be perceived as the real opposition to the Labour in Wales. That should rule out Plaid becoming a junior partner to the Tories and handing them a platform for decades to come (though, as we know, there’s little enthusiasm in the Plaid Assembly Group for such an agreement anyway).

The Ideal Scenario

There are many specific policies that Plaid might be able to implement in a portfolio area that may well be of benefit to Wales in the short & mid term but the opportunity for the elusive big win will come – though it will require hard work & good fortune.

For this day to happen, breath should not be held.

If and when it does come, we ought hope that the Lib Dems will be there too – doing what they do best.

Coalition be Damned

Welsh Grand & Undrawn Lines

In a week that has seen the first Welsh Grand Committee in years, it’s interesting to review the positions of the Welsh representatives of political parties in Westminster. The reason it is so useful to do at the present time is that we can compare (and in the case of the Conservatives and Labour) contrast the policies of their Welsh Party affiliates between the UK Election of 2015 and ahead of the Welsh Election in 2016.

The chief reason for the committee being called at this time was, of course, to discuss the Draft Wales Bill, the latest entry in an unloved lineage of Welsh constitutional redesigns. As a constitutional nerd, I could write almost endlessly about the genesis, development and implications of implementation of this draft bill. However, there is simply no need as the Senedd Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee and the Wales Governance Centre/UCL Constitution Unit have covered this ground so comprehensively. In fact, this Welsh Grand was preceded the previous evening by the Westminster Launch of the WGC/UCL report. To say that it was referred to throughout the debate would be understating to the same extent as Richard Wyn Jones did when he described the draft bill as ‘problematic’.

Of course we await (as of Feb 8th) the publication of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report on the draft bill. This is as much of a reflection of the diversity of views on that committee and a test of David TC Davies’s diplomatic skills (as chair) than anything else. There is unlikely to be anywhere near the level of consensus as David Melding was able to achieve in the Assembly. Having reviewed all the evidence they have heard (and discounting the somewhat derivative contribution from the anti-Assembly ‘True Wales’ group), the report is likely to be a rounded-off echo of comments already expressed elsewhere.

In putting the discussion of the draft bill’s content to one side, we are left with the opportunity to look at the broad positions of four UK (dare I say ‘English’ in the style of Carwyn Jones, to much mocking in this debate) in relation to their Welsh equivalents.

UK Conservatives: The Cairns & Crabb position on the Draft Bill remains, somewhat admirably, robustly defiant. Behind the scenes, I’m sure that they are exploring alternatives to present a more palatable second draft but we ought not expect the Secretary of State to make serious structural adjustments that address the fundamental flaws of the draft bill. Stephen Crabb has clearly stated that (outside of tax & self-government of the Assembly structures/procedures) he is not in the game of further extending Welsh devolution. One could consider his main intent being to lock down the current devolution arrangement for Wales not as it currently is but rather as the UK Government want it to be. Does that mean rolling back powers? Yes it does. Does that mean converting ‘silent’ subjects to reservations? Yes, clearly. Does it, through the adjustments to Crown Consents, give a UK Ministerial veto of a large slice of Welsh Government policy? Yes, indisputably.
So what should we make of this? Well, devo-sceptic Tory is, as devo-sceptic Tory does. This is exactly what we should expect from a Tory UK Government with a parliamentary majority and to argue that they ought act differently is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Much as we might find this objectionable, it is worth remembering that the Assembly’s creation and previous modification were driven by perceived benefits to the then UK Government of the Labour Party. This is the first opportunity the UK Tory party has had to shape the settlement in a way that expresses its values (we see this crystallised in the expeditious partial devolution of income tax) and we should not see its restrictive agenda as a gaffe but I agree with Phil Davies that it would be far more agreeable if the SoS would openly describe this as their intention.

The contribution from the Tory backbenches demonstrate a modest variation on the theme. There continue to be those who believe further devolution of anything substantial to be ‘potty’ and more constructive thoughts were contributed from the not-quite-devophillic David TC Davies about how scrutiny of Assembly legislation could be improved. It would be remiss not to mention Craig Williams MP’s wilful blindness on the issue of variation between the Law of Wales and the Law of England. It has been notable that in WASC scrutiny he referred to not having heard mention on any doorstep in his constituency that voters were unhappy with the unified legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. One may have expected at least one of the pro-devolution voices to answer by suggesting that few voters in the Assembly election have voiced enthusiasm for constraints on the delivery of health and education in the name of preservation of the single jurisdiction.

Welsh Conservatives: It is difficult not to applaud the hard work the Welsh Conservatives have been doing recently to boost their profile in Wales. There have been a tranch of news releases, FOI requests and public statements that suggest that the professionalisation of their organisation is clearly progressing. Andrew RT Davies is clearly growing into the role of Welsh Conservative leader, though doubts must surely remain about how deep his understanding of the legal groundings of the draft Wales Bill actually is.
It is in light of this strengthened position and, perhaps with whiff of Welsh Labour blood in the air, that the party has seen fit to back the CLAC committee’s motions criticising the draft Wales Bill across the chamber. The swift (potentially unplanned) announcement that they would use tax-varying powers to cut upper and lower tax bands in the unlikely event of being elected into government in Cardiff Bay demonstrates the kind of ambition for government that his predecessors rarely mustered. Divisions clearly remain (Nick Ramsay, in particularly, is unlikely to be on RT’s Christmas card list) but success soothes all sores. On that back of a very promising GE2015 result, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Tories could ride out the UKIP storm and strengthen their position in the Assembly chamber. In trying to goad Leanne Wood into ruling out coalition with Labour, it would appear that the Welsh Conservatives are in rude health.
It did seem somewhat unfair that, in the Welsh Grand, David Melding was being held up as being a voice running contrary to his own party. As chair of a cross party committee he had a very difficult task and duly reflected the evidence presented to him and authored a commendable report. Only the most deeply partisan would consider him less than committed to his party or to Wales.

UK Labour: Undoubtedly the least coherent party in the Welsh Grand, the Welsh MPs in the UK Labour Party looked more like a loosely aligned group of individuals and rarely spoke with a single voice on any issue. This may be symptomatic of a greater malaise in the the party prompted by the controversial leadership positions of Corbyn and McDonnell and not without reason. The peculiar choice of Nia Griffith as SSoS for Wales had a direct impact on this session. She faltered, stuttered and wandered before finally completing a pre-prepared statement without convincing anyone of her point. To make anyone long for Owen Smith to be in the chamber, as she did, is quite extraordinary, particularly given his collaboration with the Tories on scuttling further devolution to Wales. However, he is a polished and robust performer and would have been happy to joust with Crabb and Co. rather than meekly insult them as Griffith did. Of course, his Kinnockian unionism is probably (if not definitely) closer to Stephen Crabb’s than Carwyn Jones’s. In his absence, it was the very scion of Kinnock that picked up his mantle by casting murky allusions to the privatisation of Milford Haven while Kevin Brennan picked a somewhat incidental line attacking the EVEL procedure.

If someone were to try and define the UK Labour policy on devolution to Wales from this session, they would be left hunting for scraps. Despite the SoS’s repeated attempts to get a clear line from Nia Griffith, it was clear that they wished to say nothing, loudly. With Smith, Kinnock and Brennan among the clearer (and more ambitious) voices on the opposition benches, one might infer that their philosophy might be to blankly oppose Tory policy for Wales, despite being broadly in agreement with them behind the curtain. The suggestion that the wave of obfuscation was caused by a reluctance to accept (or simply delay) the devolution of income tax to Wales may have been looking too deeply for motives that are more likely to be incidental or consequential to other ambitions.

Welsh Labour: For the many things that you can criticise the Welsh Labour Party for, Carwyn Jones’s clarity of opposition to the substance of the draft Wales Bill is not one. The Welsh Labour line has surprised many, not just in vehemence but in tone.
The Welsh Labour Government may (or may not) have the backing of the Welsh public in opposing the UK Tory government’s constraints on devolution to Wales but they are undeniably feeling the pressure of hitherto unchallenged government in Wales.
It might be that the WG see potential electoral benefits in a ruckus with UK Government ahead of the election and/or it might well be the case the Carwyn Jones is indeed leading an increasingly-less-soft-nationalist party in Welsh Labour. One suspects that neither of those factors will have one iota of effect upon the UKIP surge in the Labour heartlands of the SE Wales valleys. The impression is clearly that the foundations that have become less stable without a bogeyman (in Thatcher), and were further undermined by the metropolitisation of New Labour under Blair, are deteriorating to the extent that voters are decamping to the sure-footedness of UKIP’s island nation ideology. This is a Labour problem for Labour to solve as the Plaid Cymru & Conservative vote has a unifying theme that hardens their message against the UKIP siren’s call. The question remains in Wales, as in England and Scotland: What is Labour for?

Liberal Democrat: The ‘last Liberal standing’ Mark Williams continues to grow his reputation as one of the most capable constituency MPs in Wales. His party’s depleted presence in Westminster has greatly diminished the Liberal Democrats influence on the draft Wales Bill. However, he has been both diplomatic and honest about the St David’s Day process, particularly its Westminster-centric approach. The Liberal Democrat position of ‘Home Rule’ has remained unwavering at UK and Welsh level and is a rare example of UK and Welsh party singing from the same sheet.

Welsh Liberal Democrats: Facing a potential wipe out, if not further reduced presence, after the 2016 Welsh Election, Vaughan Roderick described their 2016 conference as the ‘Welsh Liberal Democrat Memorial Conference’. Their greatest asset, Kirsty Williams, would be a great loss to the Assembly should she not be re-elected but that is not beyond the realms of possibility. Their position on ‘Home Rule’ and a coherent approach to devolution (clearly espoused by the excellent William Powell on the Senedd CLAC) has led to them clearly denouncing the draft Wales Bill. We wait to see if they have any AMs in the chamber when the final bill reaches the Assembly for legislative consent.

Plaid Cymru: As one might expect, the draft bill greatly offends MPs and AMs alike. In fact, the SoS has repeatedly applauded the consistency with which Plaid Cymru have approached the debate, albeit with a diametrically opposite viewpoint than his own. It continues to be seen whether the Plaid team can avoid what would be an embarrassing 4th place behind UKIP in the upcoming Assembly Election.
Carwyn Jones’s ‘Nationalist Tone’ (unpleasant or not) continues to steal some of Plaid Cymru’s thunder. They must be longing for the days of Alun Michael’s branch office approach and a smaller body of red water between UK Labour and Cardiff Bay.
In particular, the legal acumen of Liz Saville-Roberts has proven particularly useful in untangling the individual elements of the draft bill which the party can oppose. The biggest challenge remains winning the hearts and minds of enough of the Welsh public to substantially shift the tectonics of the Senedd. One thing is for certain, another role as a junior member in either Welsh Labour or the Welsh Conservative coalition would be fatal to long term success.

One mention was given to a rumour, during the Welsh Grand, that there was an ambition to publish the final bill around St David’s Day. Even if that (ambitious!) target is hit, it will be unlikely to be in a state that the Welsh parties will accept so it looks like these debates will rumble on before the trench warfare in the House of Lords even begins.

Two questions that remain unanswered but could prove pivotal are:

Will the UK Government pass the bill even if, as the First Minister has suggested, the Assembly refuses to give consent?

Will the UK Labour party publicly state their policy on Welsh devolution and is it in line with what the draft Wales Bill proposes?

Just as an aside, Prof Richard Rawlings covered much of the interesting constitutional conflicts presented by the draft Wales Bill in his recent lecture at the Pierhead – as well as covering the Kilbrandon report, which Alan Cairns referred to in the course of the Welsh Grand. Well worth a watch.

Thanks for reading this unexpectedly long post, please share your comments on Twitter. The next post is going to be about local government and where I think the Welsh Tories have (almost) got the right idea.

 

Welsh Grand & Undrawn Lines