Another update on Wales

[Tuesday]

I pray that this farce will end soon; I am getting tired of the story, its twists and turns have me bored rigid. Heaven knows what the outcome will be, but you know my position: I believe that independence is in the interests of working people, and whatever deal secures the journey to Welsh autonomy it will meet with my (critical) approval.

Welsh on the deal
The ongoing and seemingly never ending saga of who will govern in the Welsh Assembly started after Labour lost overall control in the May elections.

This, if you recall, is what the Assembly now looks like in terms of seats:

Labour, 26
Plaid, 15
Tories, 12
Liberals, 6
Independents, 1

Though Welsh Labour have formed a minority government with Rhodri Morgan again sworn in as First Minister, Plaid Cymru is going through a process of deciding whether to join Labour, the option of toppling them by forming a “rainbow coalition” with the Tories and the Liberals has been quietly dropped by the leadership in favour of joining Labour.

Welsh Labour, meanwhile, is being encouraged to consider a deal with the Liberals, rather than hop into bed with the nationalists. This encouragement is coming from the leadership of the Labour Party at Westminster, and the Liberals appear to be willing to join with Labour in Wales. There are those within the party who would feel more comfortable in a coalition with the Liberals, but this would give Labour a wafer-thin majority of one.

Liberal values
The eagerness of the Liberal Democrats in Wales to enter a coalition with Labour is in stark contrast to the position of the Liberals in the British parliament, where Sir Menzies Campbell has rebuffed incoming PM Gordon Brown’s attempt to form a unity government and Lord Ashdown obeyed his orders and turned down a job as Northern Ireland secretary.

Ah, but devolution is a completely different matter – principles go out of the window. It must be said that a rainbow coalition would be better for the Liberal Democrats at Westminster. To counter accusations that in the event of a hung parliament at the next general election, they would prop up the discredited New Labour government, Liberals can retort, smugly, “But look at the Welsh Assembly – we are in a coalition with the Tories…”

On the other hand, Labour can say that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Cameron’s Conservatives, so perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. Certainly, the Liberals appear wishy-washy: first of all they turned down rainbow coalition talks, and then they reversed this decision, now they are giving Labour the eye.

If they end up sharing power with Labour, then Campbell’s worst nightmare will come true. Both Brown and Cameron will try to ensure that the general election is a two-horse race by writing the Liberals off – and the much of the electorate might follow them in ignoring the third party because of the contradictory signals being sent out.

A Plaid for the job
There is something wonderfully stubborn about some Plaid AMs, for example Leanne Wood and Bethan Jenkins boycotted the royal opening of the third session of the Senedd three weeks ago, and instead visited a project for the homeless in Swansea. This was an effective protest and it worked in highlighting the issues of housing and poverty in Wales and the distance of the royal family from the real world.

Said Jenkins to the BBC, “As a Welsh person, I do not see how the monarchy is relevant to my everyday life, and to my generation.” But note: Plaid is not a republican party. Nor is the SNP, but there is no contradiction in seeking political independence and yet retaining the monarch as head of state. This has been the case for many of the former colonies of the British Empire.

The Queen, who brought Philip, Charles and Camilla, spoke of the new powers the Assembly has been given as a “new era for devolution”. This is true enough – the “assembly measures”, which must be approved by Westminster – demonstrate the weakness of devolution and imply that the Welsh administration is prevented from governing effectively by a complicated and undemocratic legislative process which is dependent on the permission of the British parliament. [1]

That’s not a focus now, of course. The length of the impasse gives the impression that political factionalism is getting in the way of a stable government, and the arguments against proportional representation are manifesting themselves: horse-trading between the parties, instability, and the lack of accountability to the electorate. I foresee this stalemate being used to counter demands for the reform of the voting system at Westminster.

Cardiff confusion
Plaid cannot be blamed for the deadlock, nor can Welsh Labour. The indecision of the Liberals and the pressure from Westminster are perhaps the guilty parties, but the “failure” is systemic: bourgeois parliaments are for the most part irrelevant talking-shops. The people of Wales might wonder why the sky hasn’t fallen in during the whole affair; the answer is of course, that decision-making is for the most part privatised and profit-driven.

If I make the Assembly sound inconsequential, I apologise. Plaid could introduce progressive reforms if they led a government: in the dreaded rainbow coalition the Tories would be included, but they would be in a minority. Conversely, as junior partners with Labour (and the Liberals?) advancement could be made on language rights and a referendum for Parliamentary powers whilst encouraging Welsh Labour to distance itself from New Labour.

Anything could happen in the run-up to the July conferences, that is the nature of negotiations and, it seems, modern Welsh politics. Personally, I think the nationalists would do well to exclude the Tories from office, bringing them into the devolved government could act as a positive example for David Cameron, and would undermine the credibility of the Plaid as a left-wing force.

A phone poll conducted by ICM for the BBC suggests that the rainbow coalition would be more popular. I find this hard to believe, although Labour’s unpopularity may be growing to such an extent that a rag-tag coalition may seem preferable. The most interesting part of the poll is that a majority of respondents expect Plaid to be part of the government, though there is not yet a firm majority in favour of a Welsh parliament. The reliability of such polls can be questionable and I might add that I don’t trust them as a way of gauging opinion; at best they can provide a snapshot, of what it’s hard to say, because more people refuse to take part in phone polls than those who stay on the line to hear the question.

It is unlikely that the Tories would co-operate in the implementing of a Welsh language act or backing a “yes” vote in a referendum on full law-making powers for the Senedd – they are a unionist party, after all. The Labour Party has tip-toed away from New Labour in some respects, and if a guarantee could be reached on a cessation of neo-liberal reform in the public sector, Plaid would win back those who were alienated by the idea of the rainbow coalition and at the same time undermine Gordon Brown’s authority.

Note
1. I realise that this might actually be a mischaracterisation of the changes brought in under the Welsh Government Act, but I find that my mind wanders when I read about legal procedures that do not involve expropriating the capitalist class and the transfer of political and economic power to working people. So I apologise if this is an imprecise description of the process of law-making in the Welsh Assembly, but though the detail may not be entirely accurate, the assessment is undeniably correct.

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