Wednesday 30 July 2008

Electoral Miscalculus

Ordovicius has already drawn attention to the underlying problem with yesterday's Western Mail story on the possible outcome of the next General Election. Indeed, given that the website concerned openly admits that they have no data or basis on which to predict any changes to the Plaid vote in Wales, I was left wondering how on earth the 'national newspaper of Wales' could possibly justify using it to run a story about election results in Wales in the first place. At the very least, it looks like pretty sloppy journalism.

The whole basis of the Electoral Calculus predictions is that polling data on the relative positions of the three English parties is input into the database and a result extrapolated from that. In essence, they are simply applying English swings to Welsh constituencies, and assuming no change at all in Plaid's share of the vote, and no unique 'Welsh dimension' to the election. In reality, if Labour's vote drops as much as appears increasingly likely, then a significant proportion of that lost vote is likely to come in Plaid's direction, rather than going to the Tories – the results would then look very different, which is one of the reasons why most observers expect any Tory gains to be significantly less than the story suggested.

One thing, however, does seem reasonably certain. Even on the most optimistic (from their point of view) assessment of the Tory vote, the Tories will remain a minority party in Wales, as they have been throughout the political history of our nation. They may well have a large majority in England, but they will, once again, be rejected by the people of Wales. That's a scenario for which we need to be planning now.

Based on the attitude of their current MPs (and, as far as I can see, their Westminster candidates with the sole exception of Glyn Davies), and the complete unwillingness of their leader to adopt any stance at all in relation to the future of Wales, I think we can expect to be dealing with a Westminster government which is basically hostile to the aspirations of the majority in the National Assembly. They have already shown a desire to block and obstruct the further transfer of powers; when they are in a position of power that will get worse.

In terms of 'Englandandwales' decisions, we can expect them to try and impose doctrinaire free market policies on Wales, exactly as they have done in the past, despite the lack of support in Wales. And we can expect them to try and rein back public spending in Wales (on schools, hospitals etc.) in order to introduce tax cuts for their well-off supporters in the South East of England. Nothing that they have said gives me any confidence that they will not revert to type on all of these issues.

We need to transfer as much power to the Assembly as we can before any of this starts to happen. And we need to hold and win that referendum. Whilst some might argue that we stand a better chance of winning it after the Tories gain power in England, I have serious doubts as to whether they will even allow us to hold one.

All of this is so, so predictable. I really cannot understand why so many in the Labour Party are so unwilling to work with us to protect the people of Wales from the coming Tory victory. Wales will be the only part of the UK in which they remain in Government two years from now – why are they so determined to see us put into a position where London Tories, rather than Welsh Labour, control our destiny?


Anonymous said...

"the Tories will remain a minority party in Wales, as they have been throughout the political history of our nation...they will, once again, be rejected by the people of Wales."

A statement that could equally be made of Plaid Cymru.

John Dixon said...

Indeed; that particular statement could be made of Plaid. But in the case of the Tories they will be the government despite that rejection. They will be in a position to override the decisions and aspirations of our National Assembly, which, through the One Wales coalition, has a government which can at least claim some sort of democratic mandate in Wales.

Anonymous said...

The largest grouping in the European Parliament is the centre-right European People's party. That Parliament passes laws that have the most profound effect on the people of Wales, and on the "decisions and aspirations" of the National Assembly.

Only one of four MEPs from Wales sits as part of the EPP - in other words they are "rejected" by the people of Wales.

Do you also question the legitimacy of that institution to pass laws affecting Wales?

John Dixon said...


I don't think that the comparison is entirely accurate. The European Parliament is more about scrutinising the work of the Commission than with "passing laws". The EU unquestionably has a significant democratic deficit in the way decisions are taken; and EU decisions definitely have a significant effect on Wales – but they are rarely, if ever, decisions of the Parliament. Real power in the EU resides in the Commission and the Council of Ministers.

I think you are really asking why I would accept the legitimacy of the EU but not of the UK, when it comes to making laws which affect Wales. And the answer, at its simplest, is that I don't, under current conditions. I want changes in the nature of Wales' relationship with both unions.

We have been very clear that Wales should be in the EU as an independent nation, with representation in the Council of Ministers, which would give the Government of Wales a direct input to decision making as an equal partner in the EU. We have also argued for Wales to have a number of members of the Parliament which more accurately reflects the size of Wales - as an independent nation, we should probably be entitled to around 11 members rather than the four we have at present.

Unknown said...

I think it comes down to the question of unionist versus nationalist more than purely party groupings.
The Tory, Labour and Liberal Dem. parties are unionist and profess to be so. They oppose the 'break-up' of the union.
Therefore the natural opposition to the nationalist parties, in Wales and Scotland, are the three unionist 'British' parties. Until one of these paries comes out in favour of reform of the constitution, the situation will remain. You are right in saying the Tory Party, when elected, is unlikely to offer Wales a further degree of devolution and that is why Plaid is tied to Labour, which is committed to a referendum.
However, make no mistake, these British parties may fight tooth and nail to retain the Union and will regard any attempt to divide it as traitorous.
In a past age it would be: off with their heads!

Anonymous said...

I take issue with your characterisation of the role of the European Parliament as merely a revising/scrutiny body of the executive. An increasing number of Directive are passed via "codecision". That gives the EP very significant power to create laws that in turn fetter and in other ways influence those that can be taken in the National Assembly (and indeed in the UK Parliament).

But leaving that aside, it strikes me from your answer that Plaid (or you at least) will in the long run have very serious objections to remaining within this European Union, or any evolution of that union that is likely to come about. At the heart of the EU is a commitment to pool sovereignty in agreed areas on a long-term (i.e agreed via binding international treaties, rather than ad hoc) basis. It is almost inevitable that this will lead to decisions being made - sometimes in quite fundamental areas - by representatives not from Wales and against the wishes of representatives who are from Wales. The deduction is that the disadvantages of being "outvoted" thus are outweighed by ongoing membership of the Union; if they were not, one assumes the EU would quickly become unsustainable.

But this calculation does not change the fundamentals. Being part of a union - particularly being a small member of a union comprising several much larger members - means that is is likely that the people of Wales will "reject" - either explicitly or implicitly - those who then come to make laws on their behalf. Having a place on the executive and a greater proportion of members in the legislature may marginally improve the odds of that happening, but it does not avert it.

None of this is a commendation of remaining within the UK. But one of your main objections for doing so is that Wales will every so often be governed by a party she did not support then you might want to think about whether you can consistently continue to advocate membership of the EU.

Rhetoric Innes said...

Lib Dem's and Plaid need to work together to start picking at the
conformist, sheep like Labour Am's to get the LCO's through for Wales. The tories will abstain as it is not in there interests for a devolved Wales.
With a tory UK govt, it will be a different scenario for Welsh politics . Whichever party or coalition rules the roost.

John Dixon said...


Good points, and well-made. Best debate I've had here since starting this blog. But I think you may be inferring from my words some things which I didn't actually say.

I agree with your comment that, "at the heart of the EU is an agreement to pool sovereignty in agreed areas"; and that it is inevitable that this will sometimes result in decisions being made which I will consider to be the 'wrong' ones for Wales. I don't have a problem with that, and don't think that I suggested that I did – provided that Wales is a signatory to the agreements. I do not believe that Wales is currently well-represented in the European institutions, and I believe that we could get a better deal from direct representation. I accept, of course, that the nature of pooling sovereignty is that there will be compromises even then. So I agree in principle with your statement that "Having a place on the executive and a greater proportion of members in the legislature may marginally" (you said 'improve the odds' here, but I have taken the meaning as 'reduce the probability', given the context set by the previous sentence) "of that happening, but it does not avert it". I would however take issue with the inclusion of the word 'marginally' when it comes to a place on the executive (although it's an entirely valid word to use in relation to the parliament).

And, actually, I don't think that I said that "one of my main objections" to remaining within the UK "is that Wales will every so often be governed by a party she did not support". I think you put words into my mouth here. What I was arguing is that one very good argument for maximum transfer of powers to Wales is to ensure that decisions on those issues where sovereignty has not been pooled (by agreement) within the EU are taken in accord with Welsh needs and wishes. Having defined which areas of sovereignty are to be pooled at an EU level, I think that there is a very good argument for devolving what's left to a more local level as far as possible. And there is actually scope for a whole new debate on

(a) why that should stop at Cardiff – why not devolve more decision making to even more local bodies? and

(b) is there still scope for some decisions to be taken at a 'British' level by mutual agreement between the different Parliaments and Assemblies?

My argument about steps which we in Wales could take to avoid the consequences of the forthcoming Tory government for our nation is primarily a political argument rather than a constitutional one, even if the actions which we need to take are constitutional ones.

John Dixon said...


It would be a lot easier for anyone to start working with the Lib Dems if they could first start learning how to work with each other.

Anonymous said...

Glad to contribute - and happy to see that you are prepared to engage so candidly.

I fully understand the argument that the advent of a "deep" EU leaves some very serious questions about the continuation of the UK. If Members States both large and small can pool their sovereignty to mutual benefit what need does Wales have for an intermediate union to negotiate on her behalf? I think it was Dafydd Wigley who identified the capacity of the European dimension to transform the debate about Welsh independence. He was right; today many of the arguments that used to militate against independence for Wales today seem irrelevant because we all see the free movement of goods and people and harmonised practices throughout Europe. And it is obvious that a country of three million people is capable of being viable.

But I think you are dodging the central point I'm making. You argue that a future Tory government will be "basically hostile" to the aspirations of the Assembly, and that therefore the objective should be to devolve as much power to the Assembly (and beyond) before the Tories get their hands on power. This is equally an argument for the repatriation of powers from Brussels to a putative independent Wales. We cannot know what a future Brussels agenda might look like, but if it is to be a yet deeper union we have to acknowledge the possibility that it could pursue a right-wing (i.e hostile) agenda. I do not see how you can be indifferent to that prospect while warning against it at a UK level.

You may argue that it is a more distant prospect, but the relative size of Wales in the EU (0.6% of the population) to that of the UK (5%) means the potential for Wales to be overlooked or sidelined is greater - even if she chooses strategic alliances (incidentally, the most likely such alliance would be with England, but that's another debate). I've never understood why Welsh nationalists argue for an independent England since all it does it entrench the asymmetry in size (and thus influence) both in the British Isles and in the EU. We need a Europe of (roughly) equal sized members - a true Europe of the regions. Then Wales wouldn't be a minnow, she'd have an equal say.

Draig said...

I agree with your analysis of the Tory attitude towards Wales, John, but I think we're working on the asumption here that there won't be an election until 2010.

The way this government is going, we need to look at the possibility of an election in 2009.

Brown's support as Labour leader is crumbling, and there is the question of whether Labour can legitimately appoint another leader without holding a General Election.

Which brings us to Wales. If such a scenario were to come about, then there is not a hope in hell of achieving any substantive transfer of powers before the Tories get in. So given that we will have a Tory administration bent on blocking any further devolution to Wales, where does that leave us?

High and dry, I'd say.

John Dixon said...


"Dodging the central point"? Moi? Not intentionally, at least.

"This is equally an argument for the repatriation of powers from Brussels to a putative independent Wales. We cannot know what a future Brussels agenda might look like, but if it is to be a yet deeper union we have to acknowledge the possibility that it could pursue a right-wing (i.e hostile) agenda. I do not see how you can be indifferent to that prospect while warning against it at a UK level."

That's a fair point. I think it is a "more distant prospect", to use your words, but I won't use that as an excuse to dodge the question. In fact, it was, as it happens, the main reason that I (and others) argued (successfully) for Plaid to campaign for a 'no' vote in the 1975 referendum on membership of what was then called the Common Market, i.e. that membership would tie Wales' hands on a range of policy issues. Over time, I've come round to the viewpoint which you put so well at the start of your response. In short, I have moved to the position that the political advantages - basically creating a new context for debate about Welsh Independence – and the economic advantages outweigh the potential downside. This is not an immutable opinion (I have an aversion to immutability in opinions, since the facts and the context can always change); but on the basis of the powers which are currently shared at an EU level, and on the basis of the likely development of the EU in the foreseeable future (How far is foreseeable? Hard to tell), I am still of the opinion that full Welsh membership of the EU as a constitutional objective has a net positive benefit. And I am equally convinced that maximum transfer of powers from London to Wales has a net positive benefit, although I wouldn't attempt to argue that there are no potential downsides to that either. Hence I am, especially in the short term, more concerned about the implications for Wales of a Tory victory in England than I am about a change in direction at EU level.

"I've never understood why Welsh nationalists argue for an independent England"

This is a difficult one. I don't think I've ever argued for an independent England personally, and I have always preferred the idea of a "Europe of 100 flags". I agree that would be a much better context for an independent Wales. In terms of reaching that objective however, England, of all the European nations, is the most problematic. The regions look by no means as natural or as 'human' as the natural old nations and regions of most of the mainland of Europe, and England, for all the differences between, say 'North' and 'South' still looks to be one of the most homogeneous nations in Europe. But, whilst I might want to see more devolution to regions happening to change the European context, to what extent should I - or any other Welsh nationalist - be telling England how to govern itself?

(By the way, I don't think that I'd disagree with you about England being an obvious potential ally, on some issues at least. But that's a whole different subject.)

John Dixon said...


I am not convinced that Labour will change their leader, or that, even if they did, it would necessarily lead to an early election. There might be a public clamour for the latter, but there is no constitutional requirement. I could be wrong, of course, but I don't think that any Labour PM will call an election unless either (s)he thinks there's at least an outside chance of winning it, or else the rules no longer allow it to be postponed.

But assuming that you're right, then surely it strengthens the argument for an early referendum on transfer of further powers. I believe that such a referendum is winnable – and the final point in my original post was that it is surely in the interests of the Labour Party in Wales to be working with us on this rather than delaying the vote.

Draig said...

John, I agree that changing a Labour leader doesn't necessarily mean that Labour are under any constitutional obligation to hold an election. On the other hand a leadership change will only provide the Tories with more ammo to call for one, as of course they will argue that such a leader has no clear mandate from the public.

It will allow the Tories to claim the moral high ground and further strengthen their position in the eyes of the public.

The other possibility of course is that as Brown's position weakens he will find it ever harder to impose discipline on the ranks. He's already been forced to rely on the Ulster Unionists for a key vote this year. And now of course he has one less member in the ranks after Glasgow East. One key vote lost and we could see a vote of No confidence.

I think it's a matter of Labour holding it's nerve between now and 2010. If it's collective nerve as a Party breaks, we'll see an earlier General Election. Given the deteriorating economic and political situation, my money is on 2009.

As far as Labour in Wales goes, I think they are going to drag their feet on this issue until the Tories get in. I suspect that most of them now privately accept that a Tory government in London is inevitable. Rather than pushing for an early referendum and risk public spats between pro- and anti-devolution wings, they will let the common Tory enemy unite them.

Then they'll play the Welsh card.

I think the only thing that will force Labour's hand is a "Yes" campaign that will force them to take a position. That campaign needs to be initiated as soon as possible to build momentum and popular public support before the Tories get in.

The onus on starting such a campaign lies with the natural party of Wales - Plaid.

John Dixon said...


"That campaign needs to be initiated as soon as possible to build momentum and popular public support before the Tories get in.

I agree.