The Referendum ... the ball is in Labour's court

There's been quite a lot of talk in the blogs and media in the past week about the Tories' position on devolution. I want to sound a note of caution ... indeed, I'd put it more strongly and call it a warning.

We know full well that there are some Tories in Wales who on principle support primary lawmaking powers for the Senedd. Glyn Davies and Dylan Jones-Evans are two of the most prominent. They have each mentioned it again in the last few days, and David Melding's new book is along the same lines. That's not to forget others who might well want the same thing but are probably not always so forthright about it.

Outside Wales, David Cameron said in a TV programme over the weekend that the Tories had been wrong to oppose devolution in Scotland. So, taken together, it's hardly surprising that there should be a note of optimism about the Tories' attitude to the Senedd getting primary lawmaking powers.

In my opinion this is very dangerous indeed.

Take a step back and imagine first how Labour MPs and AMs will look at it. Of all the things they want most, right at the top of the list is a commitment from David Cameron that the Tories will not refuse to let us have the referendum if, as seems likely, they win the next Westminster election.

Why do Labour in particular want this so much? Because it saves them having to make this tricky decision for themselves before the election. If the Tories were to make this commitment, it would give Labour the luxury of knowing that they could sit back and ask for a referendum whenever they chose (they know that Plaid and the LibDems will vote yes). They would probably like to wait until the deep, dark days in the middle of the Tories' first term, when cuts in the block grant have begun to bite hard. They will then fight the referendum on the grounds of "saving Wales from the Tories" ... which will suit them down to the ground, because being "against the Tories' cuts in public services" is what Labour are most comfortable with. If you doubt that, listen to what Peter Hain is now saying over and over again in every speech and interview he gives.

If nothing else, it simply shows that Labour know their own supporters and what will bring them out. It's the old tribalism. It's always "Labour vs the Tories". They then don't need to present any case on its merits ... they can just rely on instinct and gut reaction. Familiar, easy ground. No effort involved.

     

Now that would be fine ... if the Tories were to make a commitment to allow the referendum. But, despite these few positive notes, they haven't ... and I'm quite sure that they won't!

My reasons for saying this are simple. The Tories have had ample opportunity to make such a commitment, but they have refused to do so. They commissioned a report by Lord Roberts last year, but they have point-blank refused to publish it, or make any sort of statement one way or the other about what their position will be.

I'd urge people to watch Cameron's much reported contribution to Holyrood and the Search for Scotland's Soul on BBC iPlayer, much of which was repeated for non-Scottish consumption on Panorama on Monday. It is nothing more than a one line soundbite. It is not any sort of commitment or change of heart. It's kiddology. They're quite happy to have people—especially those in other parties—think that they are on the brink of a new vision for Britain. But they're not.

They know that for every Glyn, Dylan and David there are probably half a dozen Tories who want the constitutional situation in Wales to remain exactly as it is. And, whatever their leaders in might think, it's definitely true that the majority of their supporters are firmly against the Senedd getting any primary lawmaking powers.

There was a line in Glyn Davies' blog that was very telling. He said:

What the comments that David Cameron is reported to have said certainly do is tell me is that he's willing to be open minded about this issue. I'd like ten minutes on my own with him to make the case.

And then in one of his replies to the comments he said:

I have not discussed the issue with Cheryl Gillan or David Jones, so I do not know what is their opinion - but we all know that we can establish a party policy position only after discussion.

A view from Rural Wales

Glyn Davies is quite likely to be the next MP for Montgomeryshire (which is better than things are at present, though nowhere near as good as they could be if Heledd were to win). He is easily the most prominent Tory to be unequivocally in favour of primary lawmaking powers, yet he has never had ten minutes with his party leader?

Also he claims not even to know the position of two of the current Tory MPs, one of whom happens to be the shadow Secretary of State for Wales!

To members of other parties, this will seem very odd. The first reaction is that this cannot possibly be true. But I don't think Glyn Davies is a liar. We need to remember that the Tories aren't like other parties. They are the top-down party par excellence. Their policy will be what their leader in Westminster says it is ... not what anyone in Wales might want it to be.

In other words, it shows that David Cameron hasn't even thought about it. Sure, you can spin that as being "open minded" ... but I'd prefer a leader that had actually formed an opinion on the subject rather than one who might get round to thinking about it. What is clear is that the Tories have not reached a position ... or at least not one that they are prepared to talk to Glyn Davies about!

     

Which brings me to my Machiavellian conclusion:

• If the Tories do make a commitment to allow a referendum, Labour will breathe one huge sigh of relief. They know that there will be no urgency to make a decision, and that will guarantee that there will be no referendum before 2011.

• And, by no strange coincidence, that's what the Tories want. They want others to think that they are about to have a change of heart in order to remove any sense of urgency. If they can get others to think that they might allow a referendum, they achieve their main objective, which is to delay the referendum ad infinitum.

• When the Tories get in at Westminster, they will not allow a referendum. They will do this for exactly the same reason that Labour have not committed themselves to it: namely that the Secretary of State has a powerful veto over the Assembly that no party in power in Westminster will willingly give up.

• So my warning—to all parties, but to Labour in particular—is to keep things in your own hands, rather than allow the Tories to have control of the details and the timetable. We do not need to rely on the Tories for this ... and we would be prize fools to let them take control of the process.

Don't be lulled into a false sense of optimism about what the Tories will allow us to do. Yes, Glyn Davies, Dylan Jones-Evans and David Melding are decent Tories who I believe are perfectly sincere about what they say. But they share their party with fossilized anti-devolutionists like David TC Davies and David Jones. In fact, the old dinosaurs are far more representative of the way the Tory party thinks.

     

But enough of the Tory party. I want to move on to talk about how we make sure we do get the referendum.

I don't think it is any coincidence that this flurry of Tory activity comes at the end of the evidence gathering part of the All Wales Convention. Emyr Jones Parry in his recent interviews has told us what we all already know: that the current Government of Wales Act is so much of a dog's breakfast that most people are unable to understand it.

That's not new news! Did they seriously expect to be able to explain its Byzantine complexity in anything but the most broad-brush terms? But yet there seemed to be a sense of anti-climax in EJP's body language, almost a sense of failure. He must be wondering what on earth he can say. I don't envy him that task.

Let me offer this advice. The AWC was never primarily meant to be what it "said on the tin". It was only ever meant to be a means of delaying the decision until such time as we knew in which way the political wind was blowing. Labour politicians were able to say nothing (indeed they were more or less instructed to keep quiet) while the AWC was gathering its evidence. The reason is obvious. Once a politician commits him or herself to a particular view, it becomes very much harder to say something different later. If Labour were going to remain in power (Gordon Brown could have called an election in Autumn 2007—which he would probably have won—but he bottled it) Labour would have resisted a referendum before 2011. They would not have wanted to relinquish the Welsh Secretary's powers over the Assembly.

But that's history. We now know that the election won't be until May 2010. And we also know that Labour are set to lose it.

In other words, everything has worked out perfectly ... for those of us who want the referendum on or before 2011, that is.

     

There is no real question about which way the people of Wales will vote in the referendum when we get it. Polls and surveys consistently show an ever-growing margin who will vote "Yes" ... which at the turn of the year stood at 13%. We know that the AWC will commission another survey over the summer, which I fully expect will show a margin of 15% to 20% in favour. That's plenty good enough.

The question has always been whether the political parties would let the referendum happen for, despite all the rhetoric and window-dressing, politicians will only let it happen when it is in their own party interests to do so.

For Labour, it is all about party unity. There are two groups, who have up until now held two differing sets of views about further devolution. Labour are not prepared to go into a referendum campaign until these two groups can agree a common position. You can't blame them for that. It's simple political reality.

But it is equally true that the two opposing Labour camps will find a common position when the circumstances are right. The time will be right when Labour are no longer in power in Westminster. To put it bluntly, Labour will not want a Tory Secretary of State for Wales that can exercise the same powers of veto over a Labour-led Assembly government that their own SoSW is currently able to exercise. You can call that hypocrisy if you like, but I'd call it simple political reality.

From Labour's point of view, a "Yes" vote in the referendum allows them to get on with the job they were elected to do without political interference at every turn. They just need the foresight to get the Referendum Bill through while they are still in power.

-

Once that penny drops, it all becomes a matter of timing. My guess is that most Welsh Labour MPs have grasped this and (whether reluctantly or not) now realize that the only pragmatic way that Labour has any hope of delivering a comprehensive programme of government in Wales is to give the Assembly primary lawmaking powers.

     

As I see it, the only danger is lethargy. Action is required now. Labour can't simply sit back and wait for the All Wales Convention to report. It will not deliver a report that will make the decision for them, and no one should expect it to. Emyr JP is a diplomat, not a politician. The Convention can explain the situation and make recommendations, but it cannot and will not make the decision about whether or when to hold the referendum.

That is a political decision. We know what Plaid want, we know what the LibDems want. It does not matter what the Tories want. So the decision is going to be made by Labour. Without Labour we can't get the two-thirds majority in the Assembly. Without Labour's current majority in the Commons, we cannot get it through Westminster. All the balls are in Labour's court.

But if Labour leave it until the AWC has reported, it might be too late. You surely don't want the AWC to have to report that there seems to be no appetite among politicians for a referendum. That would be shooting yourselves in the foot. So now is the time for Labour politicians to start saying that they want the Assembly to have primary lawmaking powers.

Up until now you have been urged—if not instructed—not to make public statements on the issue. I would urge you not to hold back any longer. If Peter Hain can make public pontifications on the subject, ask yourselves why you are being told to keep quiet. If even some Tories are prepared to speak out in favour, why shouldn't you?

Bookmark and Share

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

good post. A referendum for a full-law-making parliament in Wales is Labour's get out of jail card. With it passed there's a chance they could hold power in Wales. Without it, I recon Labour are out of power in Westminster for 12 years or more and any 'power' in the Assembly will be at the beck and call of the Tory SofS's veto.

C'mon Labour - put Wales first ... and in this case this also means puttin Labour first.

Macsen

Marcus said...

Great post.

I think you call it generally right, you have seemed to have left out the idea of a new Welsh Labour leader being a significant actor in all of this. There is a narrative that would indicate a Carwyn Jones led Welsh Labour Party is a far different beast to a Huw Lewis one.

Valleys Mam said...

Think you should read a Change of Personnel on this He/She makes many of the same points and more

Penddu said...

MH - Congratulations on another excellent piece (Damn - I wish I had said that)

I hope you dont mind but I have reposted this on the Wales First blog (with due credit of course)

Amanwy said...

There won't need to be a seperate Referendum Bill, the power is already contained in the 2006 Government of Wales Act. All it will require is an Order.

Post a Comment