Friday, 28 July 2017

Where does Wales go from here?

In the weeks leading up to the General Election in June 2017, there continued to be endless opinion polls indicating that Theresa May was going to have a landslide majority and, even in Wales, projecting the Conservatives to gain up to ten seats from Labour.
At that time, in early-May 2017, another opinion poll was conducted by YouGov for Yes Cymru on the question of independence for Wales. It came out with a staggering result and one that was totally unexpected, and most likely unwelcome in some political circles.
The findings received little publicity at the time and were buried in the ‘hurly burly’ of the General Election campaign.
It gave a result that went against all opinion polls and public attitude surveys in Wales since establishment of the Senedd in 1999. Over the last twenty years, support for independence has registered between 3% and 6% on average, but this poll was very different.
In fact, the annual BBC Wales poll conducted in March 2017 by ICM revealed the following levels of support for various scenarios of Welsh governance— independence 6%; increased Senedd powers 44%; same powers 29%; fewer powers 3%; and abolishing the Senedd 13%.
Then, from that period to May, it was expected that the Tories would have a 100-seat plus majority in Westminster after the election, with the Labour party annihilated. Also, around this time, a Welsh Barometer Poll indicated the Tories winning 20 seats in Wales, Labour 16, Plaid Cymru 3 and Liberal Democrats 1. After a century of Labour hegemony in Wales we were heading towards a political earthquake of serious magnitude and a massive culture shock to the body politic.
The survey of 1000 respondents (the usual sample size for opinion polling) conducted by YouGov on behalf of Yes Cymru revealed that 26% of the Welsh public favoured independence, increasing to 33% if the predicted Conservative majority materialised!
In fact, Labour voters turned out to be relatively supportive of independence. Plaid Cymru voters, as expected, were too. But importantly, the 18 - 49 age group were also sympathetic which raised real questions for the future.
After taking the people who registered as being undecided out of the equation, the poll stated 47% of Labour voters favouring independence (of which 23% were strongly in favour); 64% Plaid Cymru; 33% Lib Dems;  15% Conservatives; and 18% UKIP.
There were two other interesting findings. The first was that 28% of Plaid Cymru voters were against independence. Then there was that middle band of voters for all parties that probably would be ‘up for grabs’ in any referendum campaign. They ranged from 8% of Labour and Plaid Cymru voters to 18% Lib Dem. 
However, the election campaign turned out quite differently to the expectations. Theresa May’s performance was the poorest, if not the most disastrous, by any Tory leader in my memory other than Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1963 and William Hague in 2001. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand was a revelation, a man inspired, totally different to the inept and ineffective performer he had been at Prime Minister’s questions time. He was in his element as a superb campaigner, attracting unprecedented crowds across the country. Events such as the Tory manifesto debacle and the terrorist attacks also played their part.
The outcome was effectively a hung Parliament until Theresa May was saved by the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party. The political earthquake never happened in Wales, so Labour breathed safely again.
So, as I asked in the previous post, what happens next over ‘the matter of Wales’ and the future of the UK?  Is it going to be a case of back to the ‘same old same old?’ Or will the progressive forces campaign and unite to move the agenda forward? 
Iestyn ap Rhobert of YesCymru, which commissioned the poll from YouGov, has said: 
‘We will make the case that Wales, like other small nations, are better off running their own affairs as part of a wider European and international family – without the backing of the political establishment. After all, it is only sensible that decisions about Wales should be made in Wales. We have the right to be an independent country and Westminster has no divine right to reign over us.’
On the question of size, eleven of the countries of the twenty seven in the European Union have a population of around 5 million or less. Seven of the eleven have a population less than Wales. In the modern financial, service and technological age, as opposed to the era of heavy industries and large scale manufacturing, the question of a country’s size is no longer a deciding factor.
But at the heart of this debate is what will Labour do? Any major constitutional reform cannot happen without its serious involvement and active participation in the discussions. This is a subject I will return to soon in other posts…Already I have highlighted the importance of the forthcoming party conference season in relation to advancing the debate on the future of the UK Union.
Furthermore Brexit and the consequent Repeal Bill (i.e. withdrawal from the European Union), unless radically amended, could have significant implications for the devolution settlement that currently exists. The Bill does three main things:

  • Repeals the European Communities Act 1972. This legislation provides legal authority for EU law to have effect as national law in the UK. This will no longer be the case after Brexit.
  • Brings all EU laws onto the UK books. This means that the laws and regulations made over the past forty years whilst the UK was a member of the EU will continue to apply after Brexit.
  • Gives ministers power to make secondary legislation. Technical problems will arise as EU laws are put on the statute book. For instance, many EU laws reference EU institutions in which the UK will no longer participate after Brexit, or mention ‘EU law’ itself, which will not be part of the UK legal system after Brexit. There will not be time for Parliament to scrutinise every change, so the Bill will give ministers some powers to make these changes through secondary legislation, which is subject to less scrutiny by MPs. There is a danger that those powers and responsibilities now delegated from Brussels, through Westminster, to the Senedd on matters such as agriculture and rural affairs would be taken back up the chain to London thus undermining devolution.

Here in Wales we have an added matter to contend with, and that is the manner in which Wales is perceived and reported through the media—not only in the UK but especially here in our own back yard. I posted a blog on this in April 2016, the Institute of Welsh Affairs also posted an article on the policy challenges facing the media in Wales and held a seminar on the issues. A number of other commentators such as Dan Evans and Craig Johnson have written about the implications of the ‘information deficit’ that exists in relation to insufficient coverage of Welsh issues by our media and the challenges ahead. 

It is why the powers over broadcasting in Wales must be transferred to the Senedd because as Dan Evans says: ‘lack of information directly contributes to political disengagement and the uniquely low election turnout in Wales, as well as undermining the Assembly and devolution itself—devolution hasn’t really embedded in the public imagination because of a lack of awareness of the role it plays in everyday life.’

‘… the lack of media coverage means a lack of scrutiny which reinforces the awful state of Welsh politics. Welsh politics continues to be so partisan and the Welsh government continues to underperform and contradict itself because they simply get an easy ride, as their failures either go unreported or unseen.’

So I ask again, where does Wales go from here?

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Has the unexpected snap General Election and the attention on Brexit dimmed the debate on the Future of the UK Union?

or will it be rekindled at the political parties’ annual conferences this autumn…

The question of the Future of the UK Union had been gathering a strong head of steam over the last three years especially.

It had kicked-off following the outcome of the Scottish Referendum in September 2014, and the promises made by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, as well as the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrats parties to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. These, more or less, have now been enacted.

Then there was the Wales Bill which caused a significant amount of controversy, particularly in relation to the reserved powers aspect and the defeats in the Lords over the transference of more powers concerning transport, policing, broadcasting and water.

Intermixed had been the 2015 General Election and the EU Referendum of 2016. Both of which, for differing reasons, provided unexpected results, with the latter leading to the resignation of a Prime Minister and the emergence of Theresa May.

The result of the EU Referendum further focussed the minds of devolutionists, federalists and others in favour of independence on the question of the UK’s future and its prospects for survival.

Over the last two years, many powerful voices have joined the constitutional debate, notably the First Minister Carwyn Jones, the former PM Gordon Brown, Lord David Owen and, a long time supporter of a powerful Welsh Parliament, Lord Elystan Morgan.

Indeed, the various constitutional challenges faced were explored in this article titled ‘A Constitutional Convention to discuss future arrangements for the UK’ which appeared on the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ website in March 2017.

The momentum was such that the Labour Party also came out strongly in favour of a Constitutional Convention, as witnessed by the event held at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff earlier this year which I was fortunate to attend. Additionally, Jeremy Corbyn spoke in favour of these developments at the Scottish Labour Party Conference.

Then in Wales, an emerging non-partisan and all party group called Yes Cymru has been building momentum in support of independence, producing a booklet on the issue. By the way, I was honoured to have been asked to speak at three of their rallies in Carmarthen, Cardiff and Swansea over the last year.

Simultaneously, since last autumn, several significantly thorny Brexit issues have appeared centre stage, including the High Court/Supreme Court hearings and the enactment of Article 50.

Therefore, in the past 9 months, the debate over the future of the UK Union has been intensifying upon Brexit.

However, the PM whilst breathing in the beautifully rarefied mountain air of Snowdonia one weekend, emerged in London on a Monday morning to announce a snap General Election – despite having promised publicly on at least five occasions not to do such a thing.

She saw the chance – 20 points ahead in the polls, a seemingly dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn, and a considerably weakened Liberal Democratic party.  The temptation was too much…

But as Wilson always used to say, ‘a week is a long time in politics,’ and to also quote  Macmillan on the question of what shapes politics ‘events dear boy events’. 

Without recounting the full extent of events, the ‘strong and stable’ Theresa turned out to be ‘weak and feeble’ whilst the seemingly ineffective Jeremy became transformed with substantial crowds attending his rallies. I had not witnessed such rallies since the 1950s with people like Aneurin Bevan speaking.

So we have a minority government.

Now the sub plots of that election result will test the commitment, mettle and determination of devolutionists, federalists and all others engaged in the constitutional debate.

Firstly, the UK has returned to two party politics with a vengeance. Over 80% of those who voted supported the two old ‘establishment’ parties.

The third force was weakened. Even in Scotland, mainly through the campaigning tactics other parties, the SNP lost 20 seats.

In Wales, the Labour Party’s fear of a disastrous collapse with accompanying Tory gains of about nine or so seats, as indicated in the early-May opinion polls, just evaporated. Welsh Labour rightly breathed a huge sigh of relief on election night.

Plaid Cymru advanced a little, but nowhere near expectations, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are now struggling to remain on the Welsh political landscape.

So where are we today?

The stance of the SNP is broadly clear.

Will the Labour party regather its forces for change and pursue the matter of a Constitutional Convention and a Federal UK at their conference this autumn? Or has the satisfaction of winning thirty six extra seats, ensuring a stranglehold over Wales and achieving a limited but important comeback in Scotland dampened their demand for reform?

In Wales, what will be Plaid Cymru’s strategy in the lead-up to their conference?

Then what of the Liberal Democrats, the party of ‘Home Rule’, with its antecedents stretching back a hundred years? Will they actually manage for once to discuss constitutional change at their conference? In the days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance of the 1980s it was forever on the agenda. I made certain of that. The reality is that over the last decade the matter has been sidelined, except for occasional references in election-time manifestos!

It’s time to advance the national debate…

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Early period in Parliament 1970-72 with some recollections.

Continuing my life story Video 21 uncut
He outlines how winning the election resulted in an upheaval in the life of the young family. That during the first few weeks in Parliament along with his wife Laura and young son they stayed with his cousin Myrddin who was a policeman in the Metropolitan Police Force;
Three bus loads of party supporters came up to London on his first day at Westminster;
Describes his thoughts and impressions on entering Parliament as the youngest MP then.and the culture shock of the rules of the Westminster 'village/club';
After Parliament broke up for the summer recess they went on holiday to caravan parks in Pendine and Amroth! - had not given any thought to a holiday prior to winning the election;
Refers to the legislation of the first year or so such as the Industrial Relations Act 1970-71 and the Reform of Welsh Local Government 1971-72;
First impression of Parliament and realisation that political enemies do get on in the Westminster village;
References to a group of Welsh speaking MPs and their socialising with a couple of stories. 
The emerging divisions on the EEC, leftward move of the Labour party, devolution and Welsh issuesl 
Roy Jenkins became deputy leader 1971-72 and the first signs of a serious split in the party.
Reform of Local Government in Wales - and the Early Day Motion for an Elected Council for Wales. What happened when he leaked the story to the Western Mail.
Marked man after that!