Welsh Politics: Coming of Age

Auriol Miller| 23 June 2021

CC0 / Public Domain

When Mark Drakeford went to cast his vote in his Cardiff West constituency on 6th May this year, little could he, or anyone else, have thought that his subsequent re-election as First Minister would be quite so simple.

No backroom deals to negotiate, no coalitions or compromises to broker and no confidence and supply agreements to manoeuvre – and certainly no repeat of 2016’s Senedd drama.

The First Minister had been bracing himself for what the polls had consistently pointed at: Labour losing seats both to the Tories (predominantly) and to Plaid Cymru, with a chastened Labour party forced to the negotiating table to secure outside help to form the next government.

But as the results rolled in it became clear that Wales had voted for a continuation of the steady hand at the tiller. Despite not securing a majority (Wales’ semi-proportional system makes this very tricky) winning 30 out of 60 seats gave the party in red the increased mandate they required.

Daily televised coronavirus briefings, with the increased awareness that it was Drakeford not Johnson who decided when lockdown was being loosened or tightened, heightened his visibility – and popularity – to Wales’ people.

Welsh Labour happily stood on a ‘coronavirus election’ with a campaign centred around Drakeford being the face of a cautious, and distinctly Welsh approach, coupled with the best vaccination programme in the UK and one of the best in the world.

The electorate rewarded Drakeford’s more confident and outspoken approach and this confidence is now something that will be in even more plentiful supply.

Labour tails are wagging, but where will this new impetus take Wales in a UK which seems at a constitutional crossroads?

When discussing matters of the UK constitution and its relationship with its constituent nations, attention often turns first to Scotland; but Wales is in its own, unique space, is changing rapidly, and has an equally fascinating journey ahead of it.

Expanding the Senedd and Reviving Devolution

The confidence that the election has given him has empowered the First Minister to reshuffle his cabinet in a way that clearly bears his own stamp, a shift from ‘Continuity Carwyn’ to ‘Max Drakeford’ if you like. He has also publicly stated his desire for a bigger Senedd.

With the Boundary Commission set to recommend the dissolution of 8 Welsh constituencies, this could give Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru the necessary political cover to push forward and legislate for a Senedd of up to 90 members as recommended by the Richard Commission and most recently by the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform in 2017.

At the Institute of Welsh Affairs we have consistently supported calls for there to be an increase to the Senedd’s 60 members and that the baffling, semi-proportional voting system needs to go; but, amongst other things, fears about political navel-gazing and the received wisdom that seeking more politicians is never popular with the public has kept the brakes on implementing any reforms.

But May’s results will have given Drakeford the confidence to press the accelerator in creating a stronger Senedd befitting the enhanced powers that the institution now enjoys as opposed to what came into being in 1999.

This desire to make Wales a stronger, unignorable part of the Union has also led to Welsh Labour increasingly articulating a vision for how all the constituent nations of the UK should work together.

Despite being a Unionist, Drakeford has alluded to the Union being ‘over’ in its current form. In a noteworthy move, he appointed Mick Antoniw MS to the newly created post of Minister for the Constitution. Antoniw is part of the Radical Federalism collective and advocates for a complete re-organisation of the constitution of the UK.

The collective say: ‘Radical constitutional reform is no longer an option, it is an unavoidable necessity. The internal conflicts within the structure of the UK must be resolved.’ They also call for a ‘second chamber of the nations and the regions’ and that the ‘principles of devolution would be extended throughout the nations, regions, major cities and localities of the UK.’

To what degree Drakeford endorses this vision of the future of the UK remains to be seen, but it is nonetheless significant that he has chosen to appoint someone who has shown his cards in this way.

And the UK Government’s behaviour surrounding the Internal Market Act is surely one of the key reasons for this increasingly explicit endorsement of a federal UK. In short, the Act severely undermines devolution by its insistence that any product or service that is sold in one part of the UK also has the right to be sold in other parts. The effect of this would be that if, for example, the Welsh Government were to set higher animal welfare standards than in England, Welsh farmers might be at a competitive disadvantage, significantly constraining what is politically feasible.

Devolutionists fear that this could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ regarding standards and that they would be at the mercy of whatever trade deals the UK Government decides to strike.

Devolved and Regional Funding Post-Brexit

Linked to this feeling of devolution being persistently undermined is the emergence of the UK Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund that is due to replace EU funding and is part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

But, unlike the EU funding, this money will not be distributed on the basis of need based on indices of deprivation via the Welsh Government; the distribution of cash will be via a competitive scheme designed in Westminster. And – to the fury of Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru MSs (Members of the Senedd) – the UK Government has made it perfectly clear that it doesn’t see any role for devolved governments in this.

To add to that, No 10 has also announced that these funds will more than likely encroach on longstanding devolved competencies, bypassing the government in Wales that was democratically elected to manage development at a regional (and of course national) level, in line with successful sub-state practice in Europe.

The M4 Relief Road is one such touchpoint. The Welsh Government decided to scrap proposals for a relief road to the motorway mid-way through the last term. Despite many predictions that this might hurt them at the 2021 ballot box in seats around Newport, where the Welsh Conservatives – longtime supporters of the scheme – campaigned heavily, these fears were unfounded. They have now gone further and paused all new road building.

But the UK Government has continued to raise the issue and the Conservative Welsh Secretary Simon Hart MP, recently said he ‘won’t rest’ until the road is built, claiming it is a matter of ‘when, not if’.

As details of the Shared Prosperity Fund become clearer, it remains to be seen how the Welsh Government will respond if – or when – push comes to shove. If no compromise can be reached between the governments a legal challenge of some sort could be on the cards. Will the response match the rhetoric?

The balancing act that both parties are playing with is whether people value infrastructure spend over sovereignty. If Labour are seen to be cutting off their nose to spite their face by refusing to allow investment in communities because of a governance disagreement over who should be administering the money, then things could turn sour very quickly.

But if the public – who overwhelmingly prefer Drakeford to Johnson – start to see UK Government investment in their communities as a political game, then it could easily solidify Labour support and reverse the tentative Conservative gains made in the 2019 General Election.

And a note of caution for Conservative Unionists who think Union Jacks on big infrastructure projects is the way to save the UK: it didn’t help the EU.

Wales-EU Relations

And Europe? While we’re still waiting for an update on the Welsh Government’s International Strategy post Brexit and post Covid, the new Programme for Government’s message is clear: ‘Wales is a confident and outward-looking country, and we know that issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and globalisation cannot be solved without our friends and allies in Europe and beyond.’

The Welsh Government isn’t going to be hiding away – it intends to strengthen its existing networks, both formal and informal, argue for closer economic and research ties with the EU and maintain its presence in Brussels. And – given that the Erasmus scheme was the brainchild of a Welshman – it considers it a priority to continue to enable young people across the EU to exchange and learn from each other’s lives.

The next few years will be crucial, not just for Labour in Wales, and Wales’ outward facing stance, but for devolution itself. As Welsh Labour works ‘for a new and successful United Kingdom, pressing the UK Government for reform’, we may see an increasingly confident First Minister who is far more ready to stand his ground before he steps down mid-term. Standing his ground both when it comes to protecting the principles and practice of devolution and when it comes to reforming Welsh elections and the Senedd chamber itself.

Perhaps it’s a sign of Welsh democracy coming of age.

Auriol Miller | Twitter

Institute of Welsh Affairs

Auriol Miller is the Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Wales’ leading independent think tank.  The IWA works to develop a strong, confident democracy in Wales, to improve the political education of the nation and the accountability and transparency of Wales’ politicians.