Welsh Labour in Power: 'One Wales' vs. 'One Nation'?

By Moon, David S. | Renewal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Welsh Labour in Power: 'One Wales' vs. 'One Nation'?


Moon, David S., Renewal


Here be dragons

As working people across Britain marched on May Day 2007, the Labour Party was in government in Wales, Scotland, London and Westminster. Five years on, only the Welsh Government remains under Labour control and, as First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM is the party's most senior elected figure. Governing alone since the 2011 Assembly elections, the minority Welsh Labour government thus finds itself tasked with demonstrating what a Labour administration stands for as a viable alternative to the harsh and economically dangerous cuts of the Conservative-led Coalition Government at Westminster. It is in this light that Ed Miliband describes the Labour government in Wales as 'charting a course' for a future Westminster government and Ed Balls declares that 'the UK can learn from what Carwyn Jones is doing in Wales' (Williamson, 2013).

Yet strangely, like ancient mariners' charts, today's maps of British politics might as well read 'here be dragons' across the Principality for all that is widely known of Welsh politics. Whilst the forthcoming Scottish referendum leads to breathless commentary from politicians and columnists, mentions of Wales mainly arise as ricochets from adversarial sniping, such as David Cameron's repeated attacks upon the Welsh NHS at PMQs, or Michael Gove's insinuations that employees should view the GCSEs of Welsh pupils as of lesser worth than those set in England. In all such cases Wales exists not in and of itself, but as a point of reference (and warning) for English concerns; even discussions over devolving tax powers to the National Assembly are reported (see Wright, 2013) in terms of how 'English people who relocate to Wales may get tax breaks' (and what of the Welsh already living in Wales one hesitates to ask?).

This entirely negative, Tory-framed image of Labour Wales is an embarrassment. In only 14 years Wales has been transformed, constitutionally, from a country without a directly elected devolved body, to one with a National Assembly wielding primary legislative powers. In this newly enhanced governmental context, the Welsh Labour government is forging its own, different path to the neo-liberalism practiced at Westminster--much as it did under Rhodri Morgan during the periods of the Blair-Brown governments. Yet, since the economic crash, the 'classic' social democratic politics practiced by Labour in Wales has found itself closer to the party's national leadership than it was--a step ahead of comrades in England even--and if Welsh Labour is indeed charting possible routes Miliband's 'One Nation' agenda might follow, then it deserves greater attention.

The constitutional is political

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to identify and present several interesting elements of Welsh Labour politics which may provide insights into the wider issues the labour movement is grappling with as it struggles to return to power at Westminster. This includes matters of social policy, ideology and rhetoric. It can only be a rough sketch and in selecting topics to discuss areas of very real significance are relegated to secondary concerns. Foremost among these is the issue of seemingly greatest interest to the Welsh Government itself, the ever changing constitutional settlement in Wales. Others have written in greater detail regarding this agenda than is possible here. Furthermore, whilst the future constitutional balance of the Union is important for all of Britain's component parts, it is arguably of less salience to the issues broached in this article. Still, a brief catch up may be in order.

From 1998 to 2011 the National Assembly for Wales had only secondary legislative powers and none regarding tax and borrowing, curtailing its ability to institute major changes. With the unlocking, via referendum, of the primary legislative powers held in the Government of Wales Act 2006, this situation has changed and in November 2012 Royal Assent was given to the first ever Bill passed by the Assembly (notably, an Official Languages Bill giving equal status to the Welsh and English languages inside the Assembly). …

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