L'Éminence Noire

John Dixon posted this picture from Friday's Western Mail on his blog and, of the suggestions for a caption, I think his own was probably the best:

Not so fast you two. I'm in charge here!

Yes, it was the Labour roadshow arriving in Cardiff before fanning out for a series of horribly over-choreographed photo opportunities, culminating in a cabinet meeting in which I'm sure the main subject of discussion was how well they'd each come across on the evening news.

The joke is that Peter Hain might well be doing his best to hold things in Wales back, but when his bosses sweep into town, he's very much shunted into the background.

But who are his bosses?

Well, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, obviously. But there is a much more formidable presence floating in the creaking, shadowy hulk of the Labour government at Westminster. More than just an Éminence Grise, the Prince of Darkness demands a darker epithet. He was at the GEAE factory near Caerffili.


Now if anyone can work out a masterplan to take Labour through to next May's election, it is Peter Mandelson. That's what he was exhumed—yet again—from the political grave to do. He strikes fear into all those who would dare oppose him. Which explains why he's a force not to be messed with ... and, on the other hand, why he's completely unelectable.

So it was with some interest that I read what he had to say about Wales in the Western Mail.

Mandelson praises Welsh measures to fight recession

WALES has blazed a trail for other parts of the country to follow in its response to the recession, Labour powerbroker Peter Mandelson said yesterday.

Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool—who staged a dramatic political comeback last year when he was recalled from the European Commission to play a leading role in Gordon Brown's Cabinet—also paid tribute to First Minister Rhodri Morgan.

Mr Mandelson, who holds the title of First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills and Lord President of the Council, said the people of Wales should be free to decide if the Assembly should gain law-making powers.

He singled out the Assembly Government's anti-redundancy ProAct initiative for praise, saying: "I think the Welsh Assembly Government has been on the front foot during the recession—both in using innovative measures like ProAct, which we don't operate elsewhere in the UK, but also in delivering more pragmatic assistance to businesses to help them get through the severity of the recession. They have seen the threat, they have taken it seriously, they have responded and I think they have provided a good model for other devolved administrations."

When asked whether the picture of devolution which exists across the UK resembles what was envisaged when Labour took power more than a decade ago, he said: "Devolved government works best when it's flexible, when it's fast and when it's able to spot opportunities and pursue them. It's very important layers of Government don't get in the way, that officialdom backs up ministers in their desire to act quickly.

He paid tribute to the First Minister, who is expected to step down later this year, saying: "He's been a very important figure in bedding down devolution. He is a man of strong conviction and strong commitment and is an entertaining character, and that's a good combination."

When asked if he wanted to see Welsh devolution move towards the Scottish model, he said: "I can't comment on that because it's really up to the people of Wales to choose how they want to see devolution evolve in the future. The first thing we need to do is take our cue from them and not tell Wales what it needs."

Now, what are we to make of this? I can only read it this way:

      Labour have decided to let us have the referendum
      on primary lawmaking powers.

My reasons for thinking this? Look again at the two pieces I highlighted:

First, no-one says, "the people of Wales should be free to decide if the Assembly should gain law-making powers" unless they are going to allow the people of Wales to actually vote on the issue. As I have said on several occasions, the All Wales Convention was set up as a way of taking the question of a referendum off the political agenda until Labour could come to a united position on the issue.

The Labour Party now know that it will take a miracle for them not to lose power in the next Westminster elections. The leadership has come to realize that it is better that they remain in government and are able to carry through their programme in one part of the UK than it is for them to be in opposition everywhere. The only place where they have a hope of being in that position is in Wales.

For Mandelson, the issue is not clouded by issues of electability. He does not have to look at it through the eyes of Labour's Welsh MPs. Yes, they personally are likely to lose out if primary lawmaking powers are transferred to the Assembly from Westminster, because it will mean that the number of Welsh MPs will be reduced ... as was the case when Scotland was given lawmaking powers (... note that this is a separate issue from the general reduction in the size of the Commons currently being floated by the Tories).

One of the reasons many Welsh Labour MPs have been so opposed to this transfer of powers is because they want to control the lawmaking process in Wales for themselves. However, even if Labour get a majority of the 40 Welsh seats (which is still quite likely) the Welsh Affairs Select Committee will reflect the size of the parties in the House of Commons as a whole; so they will be in a minority and therefore will not be able to impose their will on the LCO process in the way they currently do. It takes an outsider to see what Labour's Welsh MPs, whose blind spot is their own self-interest, cannot be expected to see. The decision therefore lies with the Labour leadership in Westminster.

Second, Peter Mandelson is most definitely heaping more praise on the Assembly and Rhodri Morgan than it would be reasonable to expect. Especially over something like ProAct.

But the key is in the language. Peter Hain's almost constant refrain when asked about the referendum is that the new arrangements need "time to bed in". Even a month ago he was talking about it being ten years or so before he wanted to see a referendum. But Mandelson has chosen his words very precisely. He said, talking about Rhodri Morgan, "He's been a very important figure in bedding down devolution."

Mandelson is clearly saying that he thinks devolution has "bedded down". Perfect tense. Completed action. The process of bedding down is now over. The Welsh Assembly is making good use of the powers it has.


But, as I've said before, Hain is personally too close to the issue to be able to see things objectively. The GoWA 2006 was his "baby". If he's going to be remembered for anything in his political career, he wants to be remembered for this. After all, what else is there? That's why he was so keen for it to last for "a generation or more" ... as he used to say before he reduced it to a decade.

When all is said and done, Peter Hain is a minor figure on the wider stage of British politics. He may regard himself as a big fish in a small pond, but it is not he who will make the decision about whether Wales gets a referendum on primary lawmaking powers.


The real decision makers in Labour have now spoken. The only way they can be sure of getting the referendum is to get it through the Assembly and Westminster before next May's general election. Because once the Tories get in, they might be in for ten or fifteen years, and a Tory Secretary of State for Wales would be able to veto every area of new legislation the Assembly would want to put through.

The point is this. Even though they will be in opposition at Westminster, Labour's leaders will want to be able to point to the good things that are happening in Wales as a way of embarrassing the Tories ... in exactly the same way that the Tories have benefited from having Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. You need to be in power somewhere in order to shine a spotlight on something. Otherwise it's nothing but empty talk.

Make no pretence, this is more a matter of what Labour see to be in their own self-interest than in what is good for Wales. But should I care? All I want is for Labour to let us have the referendum ... for I have no doubt that we will vote "Yes" when we get the opportunity to have our say.

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Anonymous said...

interesting post on the referendum, but why does Peter Mandelson trotting out the line that all UK politicians do when asked about welsh devolution 'that it is up to the welsh people to decide' make the referendum any closer than when say Cameron or Osbourne say it?

Last week Cabinet visit to Wales was playing to the Gallery and dear old Mandy did better than most.

MH said...

I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong, CoP, but I'm not aware that either Cameron or Osbourne has ever said it.

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