Further Devolution for Wales?

Guest blog from our colleagues in Cardiff.

Wales got a poor deal when devolution began in the dog days of the last millennium. While Scotland had a full Parliament, and Northern Ireland had enhanced legislative powers by virtue of being separated from the ‘mainland’, Wales had to make do with a relatively toothless Assembly with powers over very little other than Healthcare and Education.

The reasons for the disparity are as much political as they are historic – with Wales’ path towards greater self-governance being best understood as the public face of hard-fought power struggles which rage eternal within the Labour Party.  Struggles between those who want to see Wales run from Cardiff, and those who remain apprehensive at  the prospect of the South Wales Valleys’ Labour block vote being eroded by ‘nationalists’ in a way akin to what we have seen in Scotland’s Central Belt.

Given these ongoing debates, Cardiff’s growing class of politicos were excited to see what would happen post 2010, when for the first time in devolution history Wales had a different governing party than that of Westminster. The result has been nothing less than fascinating. From the 2011 Referendum on primary lawmaking powers through to Silk Commission proposals and the Wales Act 2014, the last five years have heralded a second stage of devolution and even set out the parameters for a third.

And it is this third stage which is perhaps the most interesting, because it again draws us back to the Labour Party and begs the question of whether a Labour victory in May will cause the devolution process to stagnate once again?

Image 1 PM and DMP

This third stage began last Friday (27th February, 2015) when the Coalition leaders stood in the Millennium Stadium to launch a Command Paper entitled ‘Powers for a Purpose: towards a lasting devolution settlement for Wales’. Therein they made their case for Wales to gain further control over policy areas such as energy consents (under 350MWs), onshore oil & gas extraction (including ‘fracking’), ports, buses and the environment.

But in addition to these important areas the Command Paper also contained proposals for a ‘floor’ to be built into Wales’ funding formula to ensure that the country would not loose out should a further referendum be won to devolve tax varying powers.

And it is at this point the debate descends into political positioning. Over the last few years the Labour run Welsh Government has consistently called for further powers to be devolved. But, it has also caveated those calls in ways which make it unlikely to actually enact the powers it is offered.

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For example, when the Coalition UK Government passed the Wales Act 2014 and gave the Labour dominated Assembly the powers to call the aforementioned referendum, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM, pooh-poohed idea, stating that “the funding basis for Wales must be solid first.” To call the First Minister’s bluff the funding floor was delivered in the Command Paper. This led the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, to argue that “the last barrier is gone, the floor is yours. He has what he wanted thanks to the Conservative-led UK Government. A guarantee on funding is there.”

With the devolution ball now firmly back in Labour’s court it seems that attempts by Coalition parties to find a middle ground are still to be reciprocated. The First Minister is still claiming the measures don’t go fair enough, and Shadow Welsh Secretary, Owen Smith MP, (using a recent interview held towards the end of the Commands Paper’s cross-party negotiations in February) stated that there would probably be no referendum on income tax powers for Wales if Labour wins the general election in May.

So does this mean that a Labour victory in the weeks ahead means Wales’ devolution journey will stagnate? The answer is likely to be both yes and no. Yes in the short term because Labour led administrations in both Westminster and Cardiff are unlikely to see an end to the old struggles behind the scenes. And no because the prospect of more coalitions at both ends of the M4 before 2020, suggest that pro-devolution minority parties like the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru will be there, in positions of influence, to nudge Labour along.

The size of the nudge will of course be down to the electorate at both this year’s general election and, more importantly, at the next Assembly elections in 2016 – where triggering the tax powers referendum will likely become the trump card in coalition negotiations.

By Alex in Cardiff

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