Posted on Progress online on March 1st 2012
With the UK going though a period of flux who would bet against an independent Scotland in three years time? Of course, the prospect has countless permutations but for Labour’s there’s one that stands above others: without Scottish MPs, and with the significant cut in the number of Welsh MPs we’re now seeing, Labour could struggle to govern alone at Westminster again.
But as the party still strives to the performance of Labour is Wales will become even more important in showing our values, and our competence to rule.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks David Cameron will seize on any opportunity to shine a light on the party in Wales to score a point in Westminster. Labour in Wales therefore has a huge responsibility to our party across the UK to show the way. And to discharge that responsibility we’ve got to get serious.
If we are going to be in Government in Wales for the long-term – either in coalition or on our own – we need to take a good hard look at ourselves. What might have served us well enough for the last 20 years, will not do for the next 20. We need to look critically at our cultures and structures, and ask – is this the best we can do?
My first job after leaving University was as a speechwriter to the Secretary of State for Wales. It is of course a Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’. Well, it was an interesting time. And though it is the bit of my CV I sigh at, because of the sad way it all worked out, I am very proud to have worked for Ron Davies at that time because Labour changed Wales.
Though we have always had politics in Wales, for the first time we created ‘Welsh politics’. We should claim that achievement and celebrate it. It was a time of great promise and excitement. As is now.
I was very grateful to Carwyn Jones for the opportunity to play a role in last year’s referendum as the party’s representative on the cross-party ‘Yes for Wales’ campaign. I realize it marks me out as suspect, but I enjoy working across party divides.
In that campaign we assembled a talented group of individuals. And though it was just a couple of months before an election campaign, we all worked in common purpose. To me it demonstrated the potential there is to make Wales better when we work together.
Carwyn and Leighton Andrews showed great leadership in that campaign, as did others at a local level. But overall, as Vice-Chair of the cross-party campaign, I was conscious of the party’s unease at working with others.
Now, that’s not a new development – it was the same in 1997, in 1992 and even as far back as the 1950s during the first Parliament for Wales campaign. The attitude was summed up well by the Secretary of what was then the Welsh Council of Labour, Cliff Prothero. Refusing to take part in a cross party campaign he said in 1955 that “any kind of devolution required in Wales can be discussed within the confines of the Labour movement”. Labour should not look outwards to address the constitutional future of Wales, but only inwards - within the confines of the Labour movement. The die was cast. But although this tribal dominance may not be new, it is a problem now more than ever.
We designed and delivered devolution but we appeared reluctant to develop it. But with friends from across the political spectrum we did so and last year led the campaign that secured a Parliament for Wales. We have every right to claim credit for that.
We brought pluralism to Welsh politics. Some may actually regret it rather than celebrate. It isn’t going away so we have to deal with it?
There are those who lament conceding the principle of proportional representation for the Assembly back in 1996. I well remember an MP who sat on the Welsh Executive Committee saying to me when I was a Lobby Correspondent that the Welsh Executive only agreed to PR because Ron told them Tony Blair wanted it. But when years later he asked Blair about it he said he’d only agreed to it because Ron Davies had told him the Welsh Executive wanted it!
And that feeling of being hoodwinked persists. A bit like those in East Germany who look back to the days of the GDR with fondness, there are many who think that all will be well again if only we got rid of PR.
I put my head in my hands when the Welsh Executive announced it favoured a return to First Past the Post in Assembly elections. Not only was it bad politics – because it’s not going to happen – but it confirmed the prejudices people have about our party.
We think we are the natural party of Government in Wales and have allowed ourselves to be tricked into giving it away. But how does having 50% of the seats make us ‘in charge’? Not least when we got just 39% of the vote.
The Assembly’s voting system isn’t going away. We’ve got to get serious: Wales has changed. We changed it. Why don’t we get it?
During the debate in the 70s about devolution the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe warned of the risk of “the possibility of permanent one-party rule—a sort of Glamorgan County Council on stilts”. He was right. It is not healthy for any one party to push their weight around. The support for devolution was in part based on a reaction to the Thatcher years where ‘strong Government’ imposed its will. The Assembly was designed to be different.
Until we come to terms with the fact that the modern Wales we created is a multi party democracy, and though we are the largest party we are no longer the dominant party, we will be stuck in a timewarp.
We have to understand the new Wales we created if we are to be in tune with it, and have any hope of leading it in the future.
Looking outwards and embracing new ideas should be our natural habit. But old habits die hard. The party, both at a local and Welsh level, can feel too closed. Too resistant to change. Too defensive – resentful of challenge. That has to change.
I’m a school Governor and we are referred to as ‘critical friends’. I think that is a dynamic and constructive role that can help organizations improve. In my own organization I’ve set up an advisory board to do just that. But the Labour Party doesn’t feel as welcoming to ‘critical friends’.
When Carwyn announced Labour would govern as a minority Government he said this would be done without ‘triumphalism and with no trace of any political tribalism’. His instincts are the right ones.
To finish I want to outline a few areas where I think Welsh Labour needs to change for us to survive and prosper.
We have to learn to think. Sections of the party have a long tradition of being anti-intellectual. Traditionally our party structure and our energy has been focused on organization not on policy. That is entirely understandable but we need a greater focus on developing policy and ideas for Wales.
The UK is changing very fast. Policy agendas are diverging and we need to be equipped to think for ourselves. Just as we have created a policy institute for help Government originate and refine ideas, so too as a party we need to take policy development more seriously.
And like Scottish Labour we need the focus of our structures to be on our own devolved Parliament. It would be a mistake to organize our CLPs on the basis of parliamentary boundaries and not assembly ones.
We’ve developed Welsh Labour as a brand but not a political entity. The power to make laws has shifted, but the decision making in the party has not. As far back as 1999 Alun Michael pledged a Welsh seat on the NEC, Ed Milliband said he supports that too. But change has yet to take place.
And finally we need to invest in developing talent within the party. To return to my initial point. If we want to be the Government in Wales for the long-term we need to look critically at our cultures and structures. We need to think about how we do things, about political recruitment; about who we get as Assembly researchers; how we develop them. At the moment candidate selection feels too random; too focused on rewarding local activism and not concerned enough in nurturing future talent. With just 60 seats in the Assembly, we cannot afford to carry passengers.
If we have an organizers academy why not greater focus on developing the next generation of elected decision makers?
The devolution genie is out of the bottle. And as much of some of this will make some people in the party uneasy there is no going backwards. We can breathe fresh oxygen into the Union. It’s all to play for. But we need to be bold. Paralysis on our part will only cede the initiative to others.
We have a responsibility to the wider Labour movement, and to Wales, to get serious. That’s our challenge.
Lee Waters was the Labour Party representatives on the cross-party ‘Yes for Wales’ campaign in last years’ devolution referendum campaign. He is a former Chief Political Correspondent of ITV Wales