Jonathan Edwards says the referendum is proving a Welsh political game changer

April 27th, 2011

The word historic is often over used in politics. However the referendum result on 3 March will go down in the history of our nation as the first time our people united behind the concept of a distinct Welsh political identity. If 1997 was too close to call, the result of this year’s poll was never in doubt once the first two counties to declare, Blaenau Gwent and Denbighshire, overwhelmingly voted yes.

Despite the consistency of the polls, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine such a conclusive result – 63.6 per cent voting yes. Carmarthenshire once again played its part. It scored the highest turn-out in Wales with over 44 per cent voting and over 71 per cent supporting law making powers for our Parliament. I shed a partisan tear looking at the boxes of my home communities in the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys recording emphatic Yes votes – some as high as 90 per cent according to our samples.

The Welsh General Election

This is the third in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election on 5 May. Tomorrow Jenny Randerson, former Liberal Democrat AM for Cardiff Central and now in the House of Lords, says the referendum result has allowed Wales to take control of its own destiny.

To say that the referendum is a game changer in Welsh politics is an understatement. During the week following the referendum the House of Commons was a very interesting place, indeed, to judge by the long faces and shell-shocked figures of Welsh Tory and Labour MPs.

Such is the categorical nature of the result, it will force the unionist parties in Wales to adopt a more federal approach, in which the historic nations of the UK are treated equally. Of course, parity with our Celtic cousins was the battering ram of the Yes campaign. But let us reflect that despite the referendum result, Wales will continue to have far fewer fields of responsibility than Northern Ireland and Scotland. Set against this reality, political parties that continue to treat Wales as a second class nation will find themselves increasingly marginalised.

Labour faces particular difficulties as it is split in two between a unionist and nationalist tradition. Let us remember that the No campaign was led by Labour party activists. For Labour, the party at the end of the day is more important than any other consideration. This is why their immediate response to the result was to rebuild unity by talking down any future devolution of power. It is a very dangerous game indeed for Labour. They will be strategically exposed if they stand as a roadblock to further change, in a situation where the people of Wales have found an appetite for greater freedom.

The Tories also find themselves in the middle of a bitter civil war between their AMs and MPs on the future direction of travel. No other party has such a profound spilt between their National Assembly and Westminster politicians. Anything the Tory AMs promise that would need to be delivered by their MPs is completely worthless. I was very interested to see the recent Welsh Tory Economic Commission join Plaid in calling for lower corporation tax rates for Wales to stimulate the economy. Whenever I have called for this in Westminster, Ministers dismiss the idea.

As a federal party the Liberal Democrats should be in a good position to benefit from the result. However, despite being a party that has historically supported a proper Welsh Parliament since the days of Cymru Fydd, a large proportion of their voters are anti devolutionists. The closeness of the result in their Powys stronghold speaks volumes. The Lib Dems will be punished in the May Assembly election based on events in Westminster. Being a junior party in a Coalition is never easy, but the key to success is a watertight programme with some clear red lines. Apart from AV I don’t really see a Lib Dem signature in the UK Coalition deal. This leaves them carrying the flack for the consequences of the overt fiscal consolidation policies of the Tories – a policy they warned against in the run up to the Westminster Election.

On the other hand, the One Wales coalition deal in the Assembly was littered with clear constitutional, cultural and social justice objectives for Plaid. The referendum was the tip of an iceberg which included dismantling the NHS internal market, stopping the NHS centralisation proposals of the previous Labour administration, the scrapping of right to buy, and the language measure to name but a few clear policy gains. As a result Plaid’s poll ratings remained remarkably solid during the four years of the One Wales government. This is no mean feat, as I like to remind colleagues.

For Plaid, winning the referendum more than justifies the decision to create the One Wales Government involving a partnership with Labour over the last four years. In opting for One Wales, Plaid turned down the possibility to lead our own country. The reason was to secure the referendum and to ensure we had the best chance of winning a Yes result. The poll on 3 March means that our major short term strategic objective has been achieved. Whilst the other parties will have to fundamentally re-adjust their positioning, Plaid will be able to concentrate on the forthcoming elections with a clear programme for creating a better Wales. The focus will be the economy, health and education.

In terms of where Wales goes from here, there is little doubt that the next debate will centre around reforms of the funding of the Welsh Block Grant. A Calman-like process has already been promised for Wales. I welcome the drive towards greater fiscal autonomy, but these reforms cannot take place before the Barnett formula is revised.

Labour, which has enjoyed a bounce in the polls since last May, are preoccupied with a wider game of undermining the Tory Lib Dem UK Government. Their core narrative is that the only way to protect Wales from the reckless policies of the UK Government is to change Administrations. I think there is an opportunity here for my party.  Plaid’s core vision has always been that the best way to defend Wales from UK Governments of whatever colour is to develop our own democracy and sovereignty. It’s a far more coherent message considering the damage of the last Labour UK Government. The clear nature of last month’s referendum indicates that the people of Wales are increasingly coming to the same conclusion.

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Jonathan Edwards is Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

4 Responses to:Election Special 3: Welsh political debate moves on to the money”

  1. Peter Cox says:

    I concur with much of what Jonathan Edwards writes: the nature of politics in Wales has changed and I welcome that, not least because greater power making will have to lead to – or risk failure of the whole settlement – a new class of competent, yet visionary politicians. Perhaps it’s now time for job descriptions for AM’s and local councillors, but let’s not digress.

    His analysis of parties up to the referendum and beyond is mostly spot on, even his lauding of his own party over its handling of the One Wales agreement. Where his detachment fails in my view is in his the question of post referendum re-positioning. Whilst Plaid may justifiably claim being on the side of the angels in achieving its “core vision” he is wrong to think that leaves it with clear yellow/green (or whatever colour) water between it and the other parties. I for one have not been able to discern either a new post referendum vision being extolled by potential leaders of stature, nor in their manifesto or speechmaking that clear USP that they clearly held two months ago.

    The very respected Plaid ex-chair (and apparently ex member) John Dixon has so eloquently written on this subject and finds the party wanting, as I do. And as if to further make the point he last week analysed Plaid’s current standing of devolution of further powers: not as ‘unique’ as they might like, and certainly not as clear or even visionary, as many of us (now sadly non Plaid voting) would wish to see.

    Just in case Jonathan missed it – http://borthlas.blogspot.com/2011/04/mirror-mirror-on-wall.html

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  2. Billy Pilgrim says:

    When is an ‘historic’ event a damp squib? When is a ‘united’ nation deeply divided? When is a ‘distinct’ Welsh identity fractured? When is a ‘conclusive result’ far from being clear?

    When you only get 35% of the electorate turning out to vote.

    Ignoring the public’s dissatisfaction with the democratic process is the greatest folly of any elected politician. Politicians need to start to differentiate between the evidence staring them in the face and the image they would like to have seen. If politicians don’t, they will reap a whirl wind.

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  3. Siôn Jones says:

    Plaid certainly set, and achieved clear objectives with the One Wales agreement – and helped set a template that the Lib Dems would have done well to emulate in London. (They decided to wing it, though, and it will all end in tears in my humble opinion).

    But now that the referendum is achieved and won, what is Plaid really for? Just managing things better doesn’t really inspire, does it?

    A period in opposition will probably do the party good – time to reflect, to re-group, and to plan the next onslaught on the establishment (which is is in danger of becoming part of – especially with the Department for the Economy and Transport going to the English nuptials).

    It would also offer a chance to watch Labour from a distance – which way will they go? Will the Hainite tendency gain ascendancy? If they achieve a majority, I suspect it will, and the party will once again be under the thrall of London, which can only be good for Plaid, though not so good for Wales short-term.

    Or will Carwyn actually decide that he has a proper mandate, and cast the demon out forever?

    As far as I can read it, this election is day zero for devolution, and the next 10 years are going to be far more significant than the last 10, and Plaid have to make sure that they continue to drive the intellectual agenda, whether in government, or in opposition.

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  4. David Lloyd Owen says:

    I think Billy Pilgrim is being a bit unfair. Given the almost complete absence of coverage in the mainstream UK media and the No campaign’s tactic of denying publicity to any side, a 35% turnout is pretty remarkable. There is always a desire to engage with democratic processes, but it helps to know when and where they are taking place.

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