Sharpening Up

I was particularly interested in something Betsan Powys' wrote in her blog today on the official launch of the Yes for Wales campaign.

It was about freeing politicians up to focus on delivery, said Mr Lewis. It was also about not conflating the Assembly Government's performance so far with the powers that would be given to the Assembly as an institution and any future government that will be at the helm.

Another difficulty. If it is not about political decisions taken already by this government, why does the campaign leaflet say that "it's good to know that our National Assembly is protecting schools, skills and hospitals" – the mantra of Labour and Plaid ministers? Where's the 'clarity' in that?

It won't be easy, was the gist of the response. Future leaflets would be "sharpened up." This is, after all, a cross party campaign, one having to explain what powers have been used for so far, what a 'yes' vote would mean and how more powers could be used in future. "That's the tightrope we're having to walk". In other words, we concede now that there'll be an occasional wobble.

Yes = No Excuses, 4 January 2011

I picked up on the "it's good to know that our National Assembly is protecting schools, skills and hospitals" line when the leaflet first came out, saying in this post that it had stretched things too far in a party political direction and wondering how comfortable Yes supporters from the LibDems and Tories could be with it. It wasn't a good start. Yes for Wales is meant to be a cross party campaign, and for that reason it has to be very careful about making statements that have the potential to alienate potential supporters.

So it is welcome and reassuring to hear that the campaign has taken notice of this and that future leaflets will be "sharpened up". It's a positive sign.


But it is a tightrope, and so it's perhaps inevitable that the campaign will sometimes stray from the issue of primary lawmaking powers and nothing but primary lawmaking powers, simply because others are trying to make out that it is to do with issues like independence, tax varying powers or the performance of particular parties that have formed the Welsh Government, at least up to now. So, as with any cross-political/cross-society group, we need to be careful not to take what someone might say if they do start talking about wider issues as necessarily representing the views of all the shades of opinion in the group. It is only reasonable to expect to Yes for Wales to deal with the issue it was set up to campaign for.

A good example of the danger is on this page of the Yes for Wales website on the subject of taxation. This first statement is perfectly correct:

The Assembly has no powers to increase or reduce taxes, whatever the outcome of this referendum.

But it is immediately followed by:

Any changes to taxes would require a further referendum.

Now that is a perfectly valid political opinion, but Yes for Wales is not in a position to determine whether a referendum will be required or not. Nor is any politician or political party. In constitutional terms, Westminster remains sovereign and can do whatever it likes. If Westminster decides to make the Welsh Government responsible for raising some of the money it spends, rather than simply giving a fixed block grant which we must either spend in its entirety or lose, it will be able to do so irrespective of whether we in Wales agree or not.

When his Commission's report was published, Gerry Holtham made the point that the issue of how Wales was funded was a matter of basic political accountability. In one interview he said that principle of accountability would apply even irrespective of the areas of responsibility that are devolved to Wales ... that it would apply if things stayed as they were, if more subject areas were devolved, or if half the currently devolved areas were re-centralized to Westminster.


Now I can understand why someone like Carwyn Jones would go out of his way to say that applying for tax varying powers was not on his political agenda. As he said a few times when he faced the Assembly Scrutiny Committee on 7 December 2010 (15:10 and 25:40 of this recording on Democracy Live) he thought that reform of Barnett was a greater priority. And I agree with that entirely, because without properly defining the principle of a fair baseline, there is nothing to set any tax variation against. It would just be horse-trading. But, that said, I have to note that the ConDem government seems determined to press ahead with that in Scotland without considering any replacement or reform of Barnett ... which is asking for trouble, as an ad hoc solution made now will only muddle things in the longer term.

In the second section, he did appear to be particular concerned that tax varying powers would be portrayed by some less scrupulous "mischief" makers (I'm sure we can all think of a name) as being linked in some way with the referendum on primary lawmaking powers. But I think he is being over-cautious in this respect. The two are not linked in any way, and even in the very unlikely event that this referendum were to be lost, the pressure for the Welsh Government to be accountable for raising at least some of the money it spends will still be there.

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Anonymous said...

we should all be clear - and make absolutely clear when we deal with 'ordinary' voters - that this referendum has nothing whatsoever to do with the welsh assembly gaining fiscal powers.

But a yes vote will of course make the process of devolution far more efficient and effective as it will mean that neither the secretary of state for wales or westminster MPs will any longer be able to delay or block even legislation already approved by AMs at the welsh assembly.

A yes vote will mean laws that only apply to wales will be made in wales! So there is no need or justification for anyone on our side of the campaign to make any references to tax varying powers!

Leigh Richards

MH said...

That sounds fine in principle, Leigh, but it's not as simple as that. Even if we stick scrupulously to the issue at hand, others are going to raise issues such as taxation, independence, and the political policies and track records of the parties which have been part of the government. True Wales are already doing it, and even if they didn't, the questions would still be asked by reporters and political commentators in the media. So yes, our core message will be about the advantages of being able to make laws for Wales in Wales, and we should of course concentrate on that, but we must also be prepared for what others throw at us from the side.

As I said before on the issue of independence, we would be seen to be evasive or as having something to hide if the only answer we ever gave was, "The referendum is only about primary lawmaking powers, so we won't answer questions on anything else." In my opinion it is better for us to be completely up front about what we want to see (and don't want to see) happen after this referendum ... and also be open about the fact that even though we in Plaid are campaigning for a Yes on this issue now with Labour, the LibDems, some Tories and a whole host of other organizations such as councils, unions, societies and other groups, we will inevitably be doing it for differing but broadly overlapping reasons and with different end goals.

On this occasion, I've raised the issue of taxation in response to something the Yes for Wales campaign said on their website. The last thing I want is for people to say that the "Yes campaign" promised this, that or the other when they are clearly in no position to make such promises. But I am encouraged that they seem to have realized this, and I trust that after these first couple of wobbles their act will now be that much sharper.

Unknown said...

The line about AMs having 'no excuses' once we get a 'Yes' vote is also a little concerning- with a 'Yes' vote we still won't have what Scotland does, we will still have structural economic problems, no high-speed rail, etc. Plenty of 'excuses' and injustices for any actually discerning politician to point out. But I get the point and the message is robust and makes sense. A 'Yes' vote would mark a coming of age.

It's about striking a balance between technical detail and the message you want to convey. It's worth noting that the 'Yes' campaign is much more likely on current form to do a better and more honest job of that than the 'No' campaign.

Owen said...

It's very hard to get the electorate at large excited about a very obtuse, technical, but still important, change in how Wales is governed.

True Wales have done an excellent job of making the referendum about everything but the question on the ballot paper, trying to turn it into a vote of confidence on the Assembly itself. This could very well come back to bite them on the backside.

The simplest way of getting the message across - and Lee Waters did it succinctly on Radio Wales yesterday - is to ask, "should laws that only affect Wales be made in Wales?"

Unknown said...

I think that the point about Tax varying powers being the prerogative of the Westminster government, and could be 'imposed' on us regardless of the result of the referendum is a very powerful one that could be used to neutralise Len Gibbs &Co next time they raise tax as a sinister spectre that would be let loose after a Yes vote. It would, by implication, make Westminster the evil ghost to be fared in this context!

Personally, I am all for Tax varying powers, but I know it scares a lot of people.

Aled GJ said...

Personally, I feel that the emphasis on "speedying up " the legislative process is a big mistake. That just gives the impression that it's all about making things more convenient for the political classes in Wales, and it just plays into the hands of True Wales. I really think that the sentiments expressed by True Wales should not be underestimated, especially if the YES campaign tries to go for a boring 1-0 win type approach. What the YES campaign really needs is four or five big ideas which could be put straight into practice if Wales votes YES. Lord knows we need some inspiration here at the moment.

Anonymous said...

some interesting points but to repeat..and whether it seems boring to some or not...this referendum is about 'speeding up' the devolution process and making it more efficient and effective. It will indeed mean laws that only affect wales will be made in wales.

That is what will be on the ballot paper, that is what people will be voting on and that is what the yes campaign will be campaigning on. It is on these issues that the yes side of the argument has commanded a significant lead over the wales haters for over a year now.

Topics such as 'tax varying powers' and 'independence' are nothing whatsoever to do with this campaign - however much the assembly abolitionists of true wales would like them to be.

Leigh Richards

Anonymous said...

Are Labour and Labour voters (and the supporters from other parties) going to thank Plaid Cymru fod making this priority number one in their One Wales Pact with Labour.

Were it left to Labour there'd be no referendum. It'd be good hearing some Labour thanking Plaid for being 'narrow minded nationalists' and giving Labour some back-bone to insist on a referendum. After all, as Peter Hain said, the present system is the settled will.

Plaid were right.

In any case, very very glad to see members of all 4 parties cooperating on this.

Democritus said...

Agree with Aled. Can't be expected from the cross party Y4W mob, but if the parties were actually able to set out some ambitious proposals for what they might do with the powers it would help move the debate on - besides the referendum is seriously cutting into the limited scope the Welsh parties have for setting out their stalls pre May 3rd. If the Lib Dems in particular want to shift the narrative then they need to get going NOW!

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