Time for Labour to come round

When it comes to the referendum, we know that if the decision were simply up to AMs we would easily get the two thirds majority required to trigger a referendum. In fact, if Nick Bourne is able to hold his party together, there is a fair chance of the Senedd passing it unanimously.

That's not where the debate lies. What matters—and it is the only thing that matters—is how the wider Labour Party in Wales party react to Sir Emyr's report and its recommendations. They have to take the next few days or weeks to work out their response. They need to think clearly.

Although Labour's AMs are in favour, their MPs are divided. Some are absolutely against having a referendum, unless it is in several years' time. It's pointless naming names, I'm sure most of us know who they are anyway. Some are and always have been unequivocally in favour of a referendum ... but most are somewhere in the middle.


I have always said that the main purpose of the All Wales Convention has been to give Labour time to make up their minds about whether and when to hold the referendum. After the One Wales government was formed, the AWC was a very expedient way of giving everyone a good reason not to speak out on the issue. Expediency is vitally important in politics, because once a politician has been put on the spot and forced to declare their views on a particular matter, it becomes very difficult for them to later change their minds when circumstances change.

If anyone needs an illustration of this, just think of the promises given about the EU Constitution that was and the Lisbon Treaty that is. Both Labour and the Tories made firm promises, but then had to back away from them. Both parties could with some justification use the line that "circumstances had changed" ... but did that stop other parties making political capital out of it? Of course not. Politics is for grown ups.

Yes, there will always be outspoken politicians who can't help but make their own opinions public on every occasion. Every party has its sprinkling of those. But the majority of politicians learn when it is best to be vocal, and when it is best to keep quiet ... to wait and see how things pan out. If you can do that, you won't look a prize fool when circumstances change.

That is why the AWC was such a good idea. It gave the more sensible politicians a perfect opportunity to say that they would wait to see what the report recommended before taking a position. And in practical terms, it left them to get on with the day to day business of politics rather than be sidetracked onto constitutional issues by reporters anxious to create a battle for the sake of "newsworthiness".


That was back in 2007. It is now late 2009 ... and guess what? Circumstances have changed. When the AWC was set up, there was every chance that Labour would win the next Westminster election (few doubt that Gordon Brown would have won a general election if he had called it back in 2007). Even fewer of us were thinking about any sort of banking crisis and such massive public borrowing. And no MP thought their expense claims would be made so public.

The political landscape has been turned upside down in the past two years.

And that, for Labour, means that they now look unlikely (to put it at its mildest) to win the General Election in May 2010. Of course that won't, and shouldn't, stop them fighting as hard as they can against the Tories. And perhaps some miracle will happen. But even the most optimistic Labour MP must know that the prognosis is not good.

What the AWC's report has demonstrated is that—even if the LCO system is working better than it used to—the rate of progress is almost entirely determined by the Secretary of State for Wales, who has an effective veto. It can only work if the party in power in Westminster is favourably disposed to the legislation being proposed. At another level, Westminster currently makes extensive use of Framework legislation (because it's so much easier and simpler than the LCO system) ... but most of that has been used to confer powers on Welsh ministers directly rather than legislative power to the Assembly. Think, what Tory in their right mind would simply hand over more power to a Labour minister in Wales?


Now that the report has been published, there is no need for any division between Labour's AMs and MPs in Wales. Surely you all want what is best for Wales? True, your idea of "best" may not be the same as ours in Plaid, but they're close enough for us to be able to work together in a common programme for government in Wales. Of course it would be better to have a Labour than a Tory government in Westminster ... but with only 40 MPs out of more than 600, Wales doesn't get to have much of a say in the outcome of the Westminster election, does it?

For the past two years you've been able to work with "Plan A" ... but now it's time to dust off "Plan B". Plan B is to make sure that even if you lose power at Westminster, you can still carry though a radical programme of government in Wales. It really is a no-brainer.


Sadly some of your more outspoken MPs have made their opposition to lawmaking powers so obvious that they can't change their minds now. But most of you—all but a small handful of you—have been wise enough to keep your head down on the issue, to see how things would work out.

The AWC has now given you overwhelmingly positive evidence that we should move to a referendum of primary lawmaking powers. The public is in favour of the move by a margin of 10 percentage points. You can properly say that circumstances have changed to the point where the move is desirable, practical, and above all achievable. It's the only way of protecting Wales from the Tories. The public, whose opinion of you is what matters, will wear it.

So join your AMs and make sure it happens. If you can come together and present a united position, the referendum will be won easily. And if that means sidelining a handful of refuseniks, so be it. They will come round simply because it is more important for the party to remain united. Don't allow a small tail to wag the dog.


The name of the game is simple. You must set the terms of the referendum while you still can. The exact date, the exact form of the question, are important. You cannot safely leave any of that to the Tories. You don't trust them on anything else, so why take the risk of trusting them on this? You do not have the luxury of leaving it until June, you need to get it through Westminster before you leave office in May.

The referendum itself can be any time from Autumn 2010 to Spring 2011. You don't have to think about fighting the public campaign until the general election is over.

Neither do you have to make a decision right now. Don't panic. Wait until you have your new leader. Wait until he or she has reshuffled the cabinet over the Christmas break. Talk it through with other party leaders. Persuade Rhodri to lead the Yes Campaign as a well-deserved final chapter in his service to Wales.

Then come to the Assembly united and ready to put things into gear in January. Aim to get it through Westminster by the end of March, so that you still have a bit of leeway on the date of the General Election.

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Anonymous said...

If you are right that all that matters is support within the Labour movement, I'm with you on the analysis. Even then, though, the Yes campaing will need to think about ways of bringing in the significant minority of Tories who support further devolution. Casting the wider argument in purely anti-Tory terms would put them in a difficult position. Aside from the fact that Wales has always had a significant number of Tory voters (more than Plaid voters), the country is likely to have just returned a greatly increased number of Tory MPs, which will make for a significant difference from the atmosphere of the 1997 referndum's anti-Tory alliance. Look forward to reading further postings on the Yes campaign on the Syniadau Blog.

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