Friday 26 November 2021

Moving towards a new norm?


A few days ago, the Welsh branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party blasted the agreement between Labour and Plaid as a “move towards Welsh independence”. I can’t have been the only independentista to read the report and sigh, “If only!”. The rather, how shall I put it, ‘overblown’ claim from Plaid’s leader that this is some sort of “down-payment on independence” can only have added to the Tories’ sense of outrage, a sense which is easily triggered, and seems to have only two settings – extremely high and totally over the top. In reality, of course, the content of the agreement in itself has little or nothing to do with independence, and will advance it not a jot.

There may be another sense, however, in which it is indeed a step along the road, and that is not about the content but about the very fact of the agreement’s existence. It marks a move, initiated by Labour on this occasion in circumstances where some might consider that it wasn’t entirely necessary, to a more mature politics in Wales, one which recognises that in a proportional system (soon to become more proportional, hopefully, as a result of the agreement, although it’s yet to be seen how far Labour will move in practice towards STV), absolute majorities of seats without absolute majorities of votes are at best unlikely, and that some form of co-operation between parties needs to become the norm. Whilst the Tories (and the London leadership of the Labour Party) are stuck in the name-calling ‘we can never work with *separatists / *socialists / *Tories’ (*delete according to your own prejudices) mode of politics, Welsh Labour and Plaid have shown a willingness to move towards the much more European style of politics where post-electoral negotiations and agreements are the mark of a normal grown-up democracy. As Cynog Dafis has pointed out, the idea that everything in the agreement might be delivered in a single three year period is unlikely, underlining the fact that co-operation needs to be seen as a long term norm rather than a one-off fix. It is in that sense of building in more maturity that it might indeed be a step along the road to strengthening the powers of the Senedd and a step further down the long road to independence. The Tories might be slightly right, even if for completely the wrong reason.

It is a pity that both parties (Plaid having been more guilty than Labour on this score) went into the election denying any intention of coming to any agreement with anyone, each party pretending that it could end up forming a government with an overall majority all by itself. The shadow cast by the First Past The Post electoral system used for Westminster elections is a long and dark one. Coming to an agreement after the event can (and will) then be presented by opponents as some sort of U-turn, no matter how the proponents try to finesse the wording. Unfortunately, it looks as though it may yet take some time for the media (and the parties) to understand that the new norm makes trying to rule things out, absolutely, in advance a somewhat silly approach, and that they need, instead, to help the wider public understand the probable outcomes and consequences of proportional voting systems. Obsessing in advance about the precise implications of any particular post-election agreement is unhelpful, because it’s nigh-on impossible to accurately second-guess the outcome of any election and it’s a diversion from a proper examination of the programmes of the respective parties.

The fact that some sort of post-electoral agreement ought to become the accepted norm does not, of course, mean that any particular agreement is necessarily the right thing to do at the right time. My own scepticism in 2007 about both the One Wales agreement and the aborted All Wales Accord was on the details, not the principle. It is entirely to be expected that members of both parties should hold differing views on the detail and be debating those differences. Whilst the current agreement includes a lot of policies which will be acceptable to both Labour and Plaid members and supporters, the degree to which it will be a ‘success’ is hard to prejudge. The detail of the small print in an agreement – to say nothing of the things that aren’t written anywhere – will always leave plenty of scope for disagreement and disappointment in one party or the other. By way of example, one of the biggest running sores within Plaid over the One Wales agreement was over student fees, and it wasn’t because of what the agreement did say (no increase for three years), but because of what it didn’t say (what happens in year four?).

It’s a bold political move for Mark Drakeford and Labour, and a pragmatic one for Adam Price and Plaid. Only history will tell us whether, and to what extent, it actually takes Wales forward.

1 comment:

Alan Morrison said...

I am not sure I agree that it is a bold move by Mark Drakeford but is was certainly intelligent. It was the Labour/Tory 'Better Together' partnership in 2014 that ended Labour's electoral domination in Scotland and Plaid should try to learn that lesson. I think from this agreement, and recent statements, it proves Drakeford has learned the lesson well, and has has countered the risk effectively without compromising anything.