Thursday, 25 January 2018

Identifying the devil

The leader of the Conservatives-in-Wales group in the National Assembly has written this week about the lack of political engagement with the National Assembly, as measured by turnout in elections.  It’s true, of course, that there is a low level of participation in Assembly elections, just as there is in local government elections and elections to the European Parliament.  The only elections which regularly attract a decent turnout are those to the UK Parliament, although even in that case, there has been a falling off in turnout levels over recent decades. 
That, perhaps, gives us one clue as to the underlying cause of low turnout; there seems to be something of a correlation between the level of turnout and the perceived importance of the relevant level of government.  In fairness to Davies, he does point out that many people will feel that the low level of engagement is indeed down to the limited powers of the Assembly, even if he then proceeds to identify his own preferred cause, which is a perception that voting will not make a lot of difference because Labour will still win.  I have a lot of sympathy with his view that there is a feeling that voting will change little, although there’s rather more to ‘making a difference’ than merely swapping the ruling party, a conflation which seems to be implicit in the piece.
There was another article on Nation.Cymru last week which also talked about the extent and duration of one-party rule in Wales, and the need for an alternative to the Labour Party.  It made some sound points, but the assertion that “In a mature democracy, power will naturally swing back and forth between parties every decade or so” left me cold, I fear.  I really don’t see why, before it can be considered ‘mature’ (whatever that means), a democracy requires a periodic change of governing party, or even the existence of a viable alternative to the governing party to such an extent that all the opposition parties should come together and form an alternative government, which is the implicit thrust of both articles.
Saying that is not to dismiss the criticism of Labour, much of which seems entirely valid to me.  Wales is governed by a party which seems to be managerialist, lacking in vision, unwilling to move out of its comfort zone, and motivated largely by its own desire to hang on to power.  And the basis on which it regularly seeks re-election has no more substance than a simplistic claim to be ‘not-the-Tories’.  But none of that seems to me to be justification for an alternative which by its nature (a temporary and probably fractious union of dissimilar parties) can have no clear alternative vision, which would be motivated largely by the desire of its prominent figures to exercise power and their belief that they can manage things better than Labour, and would be united only by virtue of being ‘not-Labour’.  It’s hard to discern which is the devil and which is the deep blue sea; it’s not a real alternative at all.
The underlying issue is that Wales is getting the government for which people vote under the electoral system which is in use.  A change in that system to one based on STV would mean that Labour would be less dominant than they are currently (the implementation of which therefore requires the turkeys to vote for Christmas), but on current voting habits would still leave a large Labour group and a split opposition.  It’s possible that such a change would also lead to a change in voting habits as well, of course; it would certainly provide more opportunity for newer and different parties to gain representation in the Assembly, even if at low levels.  But the basic problem remains – Labour seem likely, as things stand, to continue to win the most votes and seats.
I say ‘problem’; but what sort of democracy is it which says that one party regularly winning the most votes in a free and open election is a ‘problem’?  The way to bring about change isn’t for disparate parties to come together to try and form a government which sidelines the Labour party; it is for parties to persuade people of the need for change.  But political debate in Wales seems to be less about alternative visions and more about alternative management teams.
To return to the question of political engagement as measured by turnout – why would anyone believe that voting for a different set of managers would inspire people to participate?


Jonathan said...

You say " is for parties to persuade people of the need for change"- yes. But we have a mismatch of vision, Party and People in Wales. We need to try to get them aligned and get at least some points on the board. Here's my proposal:
Get the anti-Labour alliance formed.
For ever? No, obviously not.
On a wide range of policies? No, just one - divert taxes raised in Wales to a Welsh Treasury managed by the Assembly for a proper Welsh budget.(This is a Tory policy. Isn't it Plaid's as well?)
The aim? To take that big step towards self-sufficiency. We will be self-sufficient except for that £15bn or what ever the figure turns out to be. Where do we get the £15bn? Could be the UK Welfare Union - but it might be somewhere else altogether. We'd have a clear position and a clear opportunity and a big big advance on where we are now.
Alliance job done.
Re-think, re-align.
And be a lot further forward

John Dixon said...

"...divert taxes raised in Wales to a Welsh Treasury ... This is a Tory policy..." Can you source that? I don't believe that it reflects any policy that I've seen them promoting. I think it would be true to say that the Conservatives-in-Wales would like to see more tax accountability in the Assembly, but tax policy isn't decided in Cardiff, it's decided in London, and whilst HQ in London might be quite relaxed about a branch office promoting policies that they will never be called on to implement, I don't think such benign tolerance should be interpreted as agreeing.

"Isn't it Plaid's [policy] as well?" D'you know, I'm not entirely sure that it is. It certainly should be, but the one doesn't follow from the other. It's one of the areas in which I think Plaid have been quite timid in recent years.

But, back to the main point. The idea of a short term alliance in order to achieve a specific defined goal is not something that I would object to; part of my objection to the so-called Rainbow Alliance in 2007 was precisely the absence of a clear defined goal to move Wales forward. The 'prize' didn't justify the cost. Any national movement worthy of the name should always be prepared to take a short-term electoral hit, if that's the price which needs to be paid, in exchange for a sufficiently worthwhile long term gain (and I accept that 'sufficiently worthwhile' is not easily definable; the point is simply that achieving that balance between gain and loss requires detailed analysis and judgement). My problem is with a short-term alliance designed from the outset with the sole aim of toppling the party which enjoys the greatest degree of support from the electorate.

What you are proposing - a short term alliance aimed to deliver one specific advance - is an entirely different matter from that which the Tories appear to me to be seeking. We're debating two different things here.

Jonathan said...

Quite right, Borthlas, you are making me work for this.
My "source" is "Reforming the Union" by David Melding AM, a Conservative. Contains a real openness to devolving taxes on a signficant scale. I got the same impression from numerous remarks by Andrew RT Davies. But maybe you are drawing an important distinction between this (which would be real devolution) and "more tax accountability in the Assembly" (which is not clear, and which may not be real devolution as you warn). True, we don't really know.
But I stand by the point that I think that the Tories might well be up for more devolution if only Plaid would do a deal. Melding (who studied at William & Mary in Virginia) certainly gets written constitutions as applied to US States or Wales. David Hughes (active Tory and Cardiff barrister) certainly gets devolution as applied in the UK Sphere, in his case Gibraltar and Canada.
The sticking point is that Welsh Tories would certainly stop at Dominion Status, which would be granted top-down. This would be a muddle, and couched in antique Crown and Sceptre type flannel. It would be a long way from a home-grown Constitution devised by an elected Welsh Convention, which is what I fancy.
But it might be a runner, and a lot better than where we are now.