Thursday 12 June 2014

Random anniversaries

On no better basis than that the political silly season has started early this year fifteen years is an exact multiple of 5, that five is half of a number ending in zero, and that numbers ending in zero represent whole decades, the Welsh media have taken to indulging themselves in wall to wall coverage of the first fifteen years of the National Assembly’s existence.
One of the emerging themes has been that ‘people had high expectations’ of the Assembly at the outset; the inference being that it has not lived up to said expectations.  It’s stated as though it were fact, but I wonder what evidence there is to support the assertion, outside the ranks of those directly involved.  I’ve never seen any evidence – even anecdotal – for the claim that the people of Wales ever really expected radical and rapid change from the new body.  Healthy scepticism about how much difference any group of politicians would ever make seems to me to be much more of a common thread.
Certainly, the limited economic powers devolved to the Assembly always meant that any differences made in economic terms would – could – only ever be at the margins.  Insofar as any high expectations were mentioned, they were coming from politicians who believed that they would win votes by talking about change which they knew that the Assembly could never deliver; but I suspect that most electors – unless they had an axe to grind either in favour of more powers or else of abolition – would have discounted these because of their source.
The most noticeable and important change hasn’t been anything which the Assembly has done at all; it’s merely a concomitant of the Assembly’s existence.  Whilst its establishment was the result of a close poll on a low turnout, the idea of abolition is now confined to the fringes of politics, and there is more confidence in Welsh institutions.  It’s hard to divine cause and effect though – does the existence of the Assembly boost confidence, or does a growth in confidence boost support for the Assembly?
It’s easy to blame Labour for the slow pace of change over the last fifteen years; they have, after all, been in power continuously over that period.  But, although the opposition parties – particularly Plaid – have come up with some eye-catching policies for implementation within the powers of the Assembly at election times, it would be hard to argue honestly that these were so radical that things would be very different today had Labour not been in power.  It’s hard to be certain, of course: what would have happened under a Welsh Government of a different hue can only ever be speculation, but given the Assembly’s limitations, I just don’t see what would have been so very different.
The fact that there is no credible alternative to continued Labour Government in Wales is a problem in itself.  An alternative became credible, briefly, in 2007, although I know that I’m far from alone in believing that such an alternative, had it come to pass, would have been a disaster for all concerned, and would probably have lasted only a few weeks or months before collapsing.  With the further fragmentation of non-Labour politics in Wales, and the current probability of a UKIP presence in the next Assembly, the idea of any coalition not led by Labour is simply not credible at present.
I’ve seen some criticism of Labour for this; but it really isn’t their fault that people continue to vote for them in such numbers despite all their failings.  There may be more of us unhappy with Labour than are happy with the party, but there is no hint of a consensus around any alternative. 
Gerald Holtham suggested recently that the answer is for Labour to provide its own opposition, and to have more open internal debate about future direction.  But effectively, that’s the way politics has been in Wales for a very long time – the discussion which actually has most impact on what happens is that discussion (such as it is) which happens internally to that party, even if it isn’t always very public.  The problem with that as an approach is that the motivation for such internal discussion is usually about what’s best for Labour, not what’s best for Wales (although, in fairness, that’s often because those involved in such discussion don’t or can’t see the difference between those two things).
We are left in a position that things will continue as they are unless and until an alternative vision for Wales is articulated in such a way that it gains more support than Labour’s ‘vision’ (or lack of).  In the absence of electoral support for radical change, we are left with the sort of small, timid, incremental change which is all that is on offer; and it’s difficult to argue that the best way of achieving that is other than through the Labour Party.  The Assembly facilitates such an approach, with no Tory governments to reverse policies – and perhaps that’s enough to justify its first fifteen years.  It’s not a very exciting future to look forward to though.


Anonymous said...

Quite agree.

But at the heart of all the problems in Wales is poor education. But poorly educated people tend to vote Labour or Plaid.

So where is the incentive for improvement?

John Dixon said...

"But at the heart of all the problems in Wales is poor education." "But poorly educated people tend to vote Labour or Plaid."

Two very sweeping assertions for which I doubt you can produce any hard evidence. But then, if we were all as well-educated as you, we wouldn't need to bother with substantiating what we say, because we would, of course, 'know' that we were right (and we'd vote differently as well). How I envy the advantages which your superior education has bestowed upon you.

Anonymous said...

I think I detect a temper tantrum. And that's another thing a good education can help to control.

No, I don't think I need to produce 'hard evidence' about the quality of education here in Wales. Everyone the world over knows about our relative lack of performance compared to the rest of the UK.

It worries me. But I can perfectly understand why it doesn't worry you. And that's my point.

John Dixon said...

No, you don't need to "produce 'hard evidence' about the quality of education here in Wales", and I didn't say that you did. I'll accept that as a given. But you do need to justify the statements that "at the heart of all the problems in Wales is poor education" and that "poorly educated people tend to vote Labour or Plaid", which are completely different. And I haven't said anything that could lead you to the wholly incorrect assertion that I am not concerned about the quality of education in Wales. Unfortunately, my education, unlike yours, was obviously not good enough to teach me how to reach sweeping conclusions without following any path of logic or reasoning. Sad really.