Monday, 25 July 2011

Challenging a culture of mediocrity

Here is the unedited version of an essay published in the Summer 2011 edition of the IWA's journal, Agenda:

Rachel Banner was right. Well, about some things anyway.

Much as I disagreed with the arguments she marshalled to make her case for a No vote in the devolution referendum, there was more than a grain of truth in some of her central charges. As depressing and hypocritical as I found her anti-politics tone, there is no denying that there was much in her analysis of the challenges we face. The No campaign’s assaults struck a nerve in three areas: capacity, scrutiny, and quality.

It is only human for those of us who campaigned for a Yes vote to have basked for a brief moment in the satisfaction of a well fought campaign. But it is incumbent on us now to examine the weaknesses in the case that we presented and seek solutions, however uncomfortable they may be.

From the vantage point of the engine room of the Yes campaign Wales looked small. Of course, not literally. The task of creating an infrastructure across the towns and cities of Wales in a matter of months was an awesome one, and one I left to the formidable organisational skills of Cathy Owens and Daran Hill. But the challenge of engaging Wales’ civil society and media was one I helped take on, and it was a sobering exercise. To be brutal, there wasn’t much to work with.

Though non-governmental organisations have grown significantly in Wales since 1999 they remain a weak force. Most proved themselves either unwilling or incapable of persuading their UK head offices of the merits of engaging in the referendum campaign. Otherwise, they were too reliant on Welsh Government grant-in-aid to risk taking sides. Of course, as individuals most of the people engaged in Welsh civil society supported the reforms, in some cases actively. However, the small civil society to which they belong has developed a culture of risk aversion when it comes to political engagement. The rules of the Charity Commission do not help, although they are too often a convenient excuse to fall back on to justify the new credo: don’t upset anyone!

The tale of the ‘media war’ is another tale for another day, but the salient point for the purposes of this essay is that Of course, it is difficult to run a campaign in which few are taking much notice. A declining Welsh media, allied to a metropolitan corps of journalists disinterested in developments that do not fit into a Westminster narrative, made the telling of our own story very difficult. The frustration was only added to by having the disengagement played back to us as evidence of a disinterest in the devolution project amongst the people of Wales.

There’s no use railing against it, it’s a reality. And that reality presents enormous challenges to the future viability of Welsh politics. As Rachel Banner herself said, in an essay on the Wales Home website:

“The serious lack of plurality in the Welsh press means that it is much more difficult for a unicameral Assembly with the greatly enhanced law-making power... to be held accountable”.

She’s right, but of course her solution was to campaign against improving Wales’ law making powers. So how do we address the problem of accountability and scrutiny in a more autonomous Wales?

Cymru Yfory have an answer to this question, and they’ve been perfectly consistent in making the case of the Richard Commission. They say the number of Assembly Members needs to be increased from 60 to 80. Their position seems to have has support from unexpected quarters. In a letter to the Western Mail in the aftermath of the vote the former Labour leader of Bridgend Council, Jeff Jones, wrote that “one of the problems with our Assembly is that it is actually quite a tiny institution with not much depth of talent”. He drew the comparison between the size of the Assembly with the Parliaments of Estonia (which has 101 MPs with a population of 1.3 million), and Ireland (166 TDs and a population of 4.5 million). He might have added that it is also smaller than the House of Representatives in the US states of North Dakota (94), and Vermont (148) – all of which have smaller populations than Wales.

Yet, while there may be an intellectual case for increasing the number of AMs, it is politically difficult impossible to justify in the aftermath of a referendum campaign that was fought on the premise that the number didn’t need to rise.

That said, the question of how we apportion elected representatives to our various levels of Government has been reopened by the decision of the Westminster coalition to reduce the number of MPs from Wales by a quarter. The precise calibration of how many politicians we need at each level of government is a question that will come up again when the time comes to re-examine the number of Welsh councils. By then we will have had some experience of operating a legislative Parliament with 60 AMs. At that point it may be possible to recalibrate and increase the number of AMs, providing the total number of politicians in Wales does not rise overall.

In the meantime, how do we strengthen the Assembly’s ability to scrutinise the Welsh Government? Professor Laura McAllister from Liverpool University has analysed the devolved legislatures across the UK and believes there is a weakness in scrutiny capacity in general, and in Wales in particular. She points to the small scale of the Assembly and the weakness of civil society as the main causes, and argues that the coming of primary powers is likely to stretch ever further our capacity to scrutinise.

As Jeff Jones suggested, there is a need to draw on a greater ‘depth of talent’, and even if the number of AMs was to increase, the question of ‘depth’ would still remain a moot one. The dedication and drive required to gain entry into formal politics is resulting in an increasingly narrow political class. A small country such as ours with its democracy still in its infancy needs to draw on as wide a talent pool as possible to prove the naysayers wrong.

One way forward was floated three years ago by the former Welsh Government Minister Jane Davidson. She suggested bringing ‘talented non-politicians’ into the Assembly via the PR top-up lists. She argued there were many people of ability with a passion for Wales who did not want to enter formal politics, but would be willing to serve for a defined period. However, her call for political parties to reserve a third of the Assembly seats for outsiders and to put tribalism to one side came unstuck because of, well, tribalism.

Nonetheless, the spirit of her suggestion is surely right. Laura McAllister has pointed to examples of Scandinavian and Commonwealth states like Norway, Iceland, Canada and New Zealand where outsiders are co-opted onto parliamentary committees. By ‘outsourcing’ some of the scrutiny function their parliaments have increased their ability to hold their Governments to account and simultaneously strengthened civil society.

It is a model that should be considered by the Assembly Commission. After all, it was adopted by the business community long ago in the form of non-executive directors to challenge the executive, look after the interests of the company’s share-holders, and bring a range of experiences to the board table. The particular advantage of adapting the model to fit into the context of the Assembly is that it would bolster its capacity to scrutinise, without increasing the number of AMs.

Yet the main challenge we face is not simply about the number or quality of our politicians. Rather, it is about about developing a more mature political culture. In short, we’ve got some growing up to do. During the referendum campaign Roger Lewis, Chair of Yes for Wales, made it his mantra that in order to gain respect Wales first needed to build self-respect. And, as he said, the first step on that journey was to take responsibility for our own problems.

The theme was echoed just days after the result by Charlie Jeffery of Edinbrugh University, one of the few academics to take an interest in the development of devolution across the UK. In a sobering lecture to the Wales Governance Centre he deflated the rhetoric of the campaign with an assessment of the cold realities we now face. Professor Jeffery argued that “the political logic of the UK’s multi-level state” suggests that Wales will become an even more marginal to considerations at the centre. “Expect to hear refrains to the effect of, ‘Well done on the referendum, but you’re on your own now, hope it goes well’”, he told his audience at the Pierhead:

“Westminster will from time to time do things – like the near wholesale withdrawal of state funding for tuition in English universities – that have tremendous knock-on effects in Wales, without feeling a need to consult anyone in Wales about the policy and its effects. Get used to it.”

He suggested we can forget about demanding fair funding from the UK Government without first accepting responsibility for raising some of our own revenue. But the flip side was that if the new logic is embraced and politicians and interest groups understand that they can’t have it all ways, then Wales has the opportunity to fashion Welsh answers to Welsh questions. As Professor Jeffery concluded:

“It is an opportunity for the people of Wales and their representatives to define just what kind of political system Wales should have, what values it should embody, and what outcomes it should pursue”.

Of course he’s right. To govern is to choose. However, translate that into real world politics and the going gets tough. A problem is that we built a consensus leading up to the referendum, but we don’t have one on the direction beyond it. We did well on the rhetoric, but didn’t think much beyond 3 March. That’s where Rachel Banner was really right. Of course, we’d have never held a four party campaign together had we tried to do so. However, there’s now no escaping the need for hard headed assessments on what our real priorities as a nation are.

While anti-Tory rhetoric is seductive to our political leaders, it doesn’t address the scale of the challenges we face. Neither does the constant search for more powers to devolve to Wales. Both preoccupations seem like displacement activity.
If we want the vibrant and prosperous country we talk about, then we need to accept the stark reality of our situation. We are poor, we are small and we are bound together into a dependency culture. To become more self-reliant we must first encourage a culture of self-criticism. “Our critics are our friends,” Benjamin Franklin once said. “They show us our faults”. Well, there’s not much evidence of that attitude in modern Wales – the land of the pulled punch. That has to change.

So how do we encourage more people to speak truth unto power? As an early sign of intent the First Minister should make a statement that no organisation receiving public funds should fear criticising a policy or action of the Welsh Government. Indeed, he should demand that any that come under pressure for doing so should bring it to his attention. Though not a panacea it would be a useful symbol.

The same should go for the so-called sponsored bodies. Ministers must encourage arms length agencies to challenge official thinking. Since the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ the trend for seeing sponsored bodies as mere delivery arms of the Welsh Government has intensified. Civil servants have been actively discouraging chief executives and Boards from any ‘political’ role. Though that might have been an understandable instinct a decade ago as the new Welsh Government sought to establish itself, today there is a need to take a longer term view. Of course, it is Ministers that must decide but it must be in response to they also should respond positively to robust and challenging advice.

It has to work both ways. To achieve the new focus on outcomes and ‘delivery’ that we are told will be the hallmark of the fourth Assembly, Ministers must make greater demands of bodies that receive public funding. Until now politicians who have demanded an explanation for a culture of poor performance have been resented as interfering micro-managers. Indeed, the response of the teaching profession to Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ robust demands that they raise their game proves Corporal Jones’ famous dictum: “they don't like it up 'em”.

If we are to meet the challenges before us we must confront the culture of mediocrity. We have to shake ourselves out of our cosy, 'we all know each other' culture, and encourage a more testing environment. These are considerable challenges, but exciting ones nonetheless.

We should be under no illusions. The ‘project’ of making Wales a more self-reliant country is one that will take many generations to achieve. There are no quick fixes. Though some of her analysis struck a cord, ultimately Rachel Banner was profoundly wrong. The optimism of the Yes for Wales campaign won through. As Roger Lewis put it in his speech at the declaration on 4 March:

“Our country has great potential. Yes, it faces great challenges. But now is time for us all to take responsibility. Let us not be afraid to make decisions, or make mistakes. The real failure is if we do not try. The culture of blame and excuse is behind us. Today we have found our voice.”

• Lee Waters was Vice-Chair of the Yes for Wales campaign, Labour's representative on its steering group, and led on communications.


Anonymous said...

The 'more politicians equals a greater talent pool' argument sadly falls down in Australia which is top heavy with politicians - none of whom stand out as great statespeople. I think the problem lies with the fact that voting is compulsory. This forces half-decent politicians to appeal to the lowest common denominator and, at the same time, encourages single issue rednecks to take to the political stage, where they invariably establish a depressingly large amount of popular support.

Quentin said...