What are the LibDems for?

It is always good to hear someone advocating a fairer and more consistent devolution settlement for Wales, so some of these sentences from Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems, are particularly welcome:

Clegg "passionate" about giving more power to Wales

The National Assembly should be transformed into a full parliament with the same powers as its Scottish counterpart, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has declared.

The party will vote on Tuesday to support a referendum which could give the Assembly law-making powers in 20 strictly defined areas. But Mr Clegg believes devolution in Wales should go further.

In an interview with the Western Mail, he said: “I am a passionate believer in devolving power away from London and Westminster to the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and I think that means the maximum amount of powers for Scotland, for Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom.”

Arguing this was the best way of guaranteeing the long-term future of the UK, he said: “I think there is nothing inconsistent between keeping the union but devolving ever more powers. In fact, I think the way to keep the union fresh and strong in the decades ahead is precisely to give more and more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff.”

Western Mail - 8 February 2010

However the problem with the LibDems is that they are very good at talking this sort of talk, yet don't have such a good record of walking the walk. The language that Nick Clegg has used is one of devolving "the maximum amount of powers" away from London and Westminster. Fair enough. But when it come to an obvious area in which powers could be devolved to Wales he suddenly becomes very vague and noncommittal:

When asked if he would support the devolution of criminal and justice powers to Wales, he said:

"We would look at it. We are completely open-minded. We have no arbitrary red-lines at all ... "

That isn't a consistent answer. These powers are devolved to Scotland, and are—if everything goes according to plan—going to be devolved to Northern Ireland as well. So why couldn't Nick Clegg answer the question with a simple, unequivocal "Yes"?


Much the same is true of the LibDems' position in Scotland. As I commented here a few months ago, if the LibDems really did want "devolution max" for Scotland, why tie themselves to the almost minimal increases of responsibility for matters in Scotland advocated by Calman? They could very easily come up with their own devolution policies for Scotland to include much greater fiscal autonomy, responsibility for the tax and benefits system, broadcasting and many smaller issues. These could then be put as a third option in a referendum on independence later this year. (It is pointless putting the Calman proposals to a referendum since all parties, between them representing the huge majority of people in Scotland, agree on them as a minimum.) Between them the SNP, Greens and LibDems could carry a vote in the Scottish Parliament to set up such a referendum, and it would put the two big parties in London in a very awkward position if they decided not to implement what had been voted for.

So why exactly are the LibDems so lily-livered? They have a golden opportunity to present the people of Scotland with their ideal vision of a Scotland within the UK. Why are they so afraid to put those cards on the table?

It is hard for me to escape the conclusion that they are putting their own electoral advantage before any issue of principle. Following their "behind closed doors" conference last year it seems that they only want to do this after the Scottish elections in 2011, hoping that their number of seats will increase as a result of them showing themselves more in favour or more devolution that either Labour or the Tories. But they have enough seats to do it now, so why wait?


In Wales, the Labour party has shown us that it only wanted devolution as a way of strengthening its own hold on Wales, and now only wants to move to primary lawmaking powers for the Assembly because it is about to lose power in Westminster. But at least Labour has now come round, the Tories will always be in two minds.

But there would seem to be every opportunity for a party that wants to see devolution progress further in Wales ... but stop short of independence. Why aren't the LibDems in Wales making more of that message? Why are they only prepared to say they are "open minded" over policing and justice? Why, for example, don't we hear them say that they want control over the question of welfare and benefits transferred to Wales? After all, there is very substantial support for it in Wales, as I've mentioned before:

Survey respondents were asked about which level of government "ought to make most of the important decisions for Wales" for four key policy areas: Welfare Benefits, the National Health Service, Schools, and Defence and Foreign Affairs. Results are presented in Figure 6.3 below. These show not only clear majority public support for the devolved level of government to have control over areas where they already make many decisions—on schooling and healthcare—but also a similar level of public endorsement for those powers to extend to an area like welfare benefits. The latter is striking, as it is a policy area that currently remains very much reserved to Westminster.


In fact, for the last four years in a row, the BBC's annual poll has shown that people in Wales think the Assembly should have more influence over our lives than Westminster by a huge margin of about three to one:

60% to 21% in 2006
56% to 19% in 2007
61% to 22% in 2008
61% to 21% in 2009

It is good to see that Dib Lemming is blogging again, I hope she continues. But her first post after a long absence was to berate the fact that the LibDems could not escape being asked which parties they would work with. I want to be less mealy mouthed. In the 2011 Assembly election I expect to see Plaid get somewhere between seven and ten additional seats, but it is hard to see how we could win more than 25 seats.

After the 2007 election Plaid were in the unique position of being able to work with either the LibDems and Tories in the Rainbow, or with Labour. I think it's fair to say that we chose Labour for two major reasons: first because we could not get the referendum on primary lawmaking powers without them (it needs 40 AMs to vote in favour) and second because some of our AMs would have found it almost impossible to work with the Tories, even though the All Wales Accord itself contained hardly anything that was distinctively from the Tory manifesto.

Next time will be different because the referendum will have happened. Although Plaid probably won't get enough seats to form a government alone in 2011, there is a very real chance that we could form a government with the LibDems, even if only a minority government (Labour and the Tories will always cancel each other out because that is how they choose to position themselves in a UK context.) But to do that, the LibDems in Wales have got to start being a lot clearer about what they want for Wales. I would suggest that a clear commitment to the transfer of policing and justice, the responsibility for administering the welfare and benefits system, plus of course a substantial degree of fiscal powers for Wales (since we could use those levers to make it more attractive to do business in Wales, and therefore increase employment) could form a decent foundation to build an agreement on.

But although I think that might make sense to some LibDems, we have to go back to the rather sad fact that the majority of LibDem voters in Wales don't really seem to want the same things as LibDem politicians, as I mentioned here. And that—if you think that asking what the LibDems are for is facetious—does raise serious questions about why people actually vote for them.


Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of meeting Gwynoro Jones for the first time. Something which, by happy coincidence, ties in nicely with these two pieces about him and his son Glyndwr, Plaid's candidate in Merthyr, by Martin Shipton in the Western Mail yesterday:

     Once the biggest foe of Gwynfor, ex-Labour MP aids poll bid by Plaid son
     Gwynoro Jones brands Independent Wales a "childish fantasy"

Gwynoro was particularly active in the early days of the SDP when, for a brief year or two after breaking from the Labour Party, they looked like making a breakthrough in UK politics. But in the end they lost momentum and were subsumed into the old Liberal party, with all their passion for actually making a difference lost. Gwynoro can support his son because he knows Wales needs that sort of passion, even though it wouldn't be right for him to join Plaid because he does not want Wales to be independent (... and, as with Ron Davies, I would not want him to join unless he came to believe in independence.)

So my advice to the LibDems in Wales would be not to leave your leader in London to talk about his "passionate" (though not thought through) desire for greater self-government in Wales, but to start shaping some firm ideas on how you intend to go about it. If you can do that, you might have a reasonable hope of getting the votes of some of the consistent 60% or so who want to see the Assembly have more influence over the lives of people in Wales than Westminster ... but be careful, they might not be the people who vote for you now, since the majority of those who vote for you now are against further devolution.

However if you can't do that, don't be surprised if more and more of those people vote for Plaid simply because we are the only party with consistent ideas on how to devolve more areas of responsibility to Wales, even though they may not be persuaded about independence ... yet!

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Anonymous said...

If people don't vote LD because they agree with their policies, why the hell do they vote for them?

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