By Gwynoro Jones
For the best part of 23 years I have been lying ‘dormant’ in political terms but in the middle of this General Election something in me ‘erupted’ like an old volcano! So here I am again troubling the waters and never afraid to speak my mind on the state of politics, Wales and beyond.
It was my erstwhile allegiance to the Liberal Democrats which probably prompted me to get active again this year, since I realised they were in deep trouble, and had been so in effect ever since 2010. The party that in the 1980’s was going to ’Break the Mould’ was helping to plaster the cracks of that mould in Westminster! Although I understood why the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories on that fateful day, I remember commenting even as Cameron and Clegg were in the Rose Garden that ‘no good would come of it’. Little did I imagine that the prophecy would be realised in such a devastating way on the night of May 7.
For a long time Welsh politics in reality has been dormant. Gone are the heady days of the 70’s, 80’s and even early 90’s when there were vigorous campaigns and debate on the future of Wales, independence or whether the Labour Party was too left, and so on. It seems that after the creation of the Welsh Assembly Plaid Cymru went into its shell and settled for that limited degree of devolution. Labour were content to accept its ‘divine right’ to be the ‘natural’ party of Government in Wales, albeit if they did have to rely on the support of the Liberal Democrats for one period and Plaid for another. Then the Conservatives, who had done relatively well from time to time in Parliamentary elections such as 1983 and 1992, settled down to a sizeable role in the administration of Wales. Politics is unpredictable because there is a case to be made that the party that has benefited most from the establishment of the Assembly has been the Conservatives – the very party which opposed it!
Anyway we are where we are but there are major matters to resolve and problems to face. Never in my adult life has the United Kingdom and Wales faced so many uncertainties, and it is those uncertainties that I will seek to address in my series of contributions over the coming weeks. Many events or happenings have brought us to this point—the Scottish Referendum result and the subsequent tsunami the SNP inflicted on all other parties in Scotland on May 7; the growth and emergence of UKIP as a force to be reckoned with, even in Wales; and Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Europe by 2017 which in itself is a testimony to the strength of UKIP and the Tory right wing. But other events have brought us to this point too, such as Labour’s choice of the wrong Miliband—Ed, like Kinnock, was unelectable as Prime Minister and that was obvious from 2011— and the chasm the Liberal Democrats left in radical politics by being in coalition.
Mixed up in all this have been other happenings. There is no getting away from the reality that the Senedd has not lived up to the hopes and expectations of 1997 and has been a big disappointment to many people in Wales. I was amused but not surprised to read very recently that in what was required to finally breathe life into the Senedd and make it more effective and responsive to the needs of the nation was an 18% pay rise for AMs—a topic I will return to before long!
Then there is by now a major question over ‘what is Wales?’ Does it have a radical electorate any longer, to what extent does it actually mirror England and, if so, what has caused this to be the case? Immigration, over decades, from other parts of the UK has no doubt influenced movements in the political landscape, but its impact and extent is deeper than realised. Labour and Plaid in particular have been ‘sleeping on their watch’ because it has resulted in a significant ‘hidden Tory’ component to Welsh politics by now.
But the complexity does not end there, Labour is seen as having neglected its traditional working class areas and the once rock solid loyal voter is on the move—not to Plaid or Lib Dems but rather to UKIP! So significant demographic changes, the de-industrialisation of the valleys and the failure of a complacent Labour party can also be added to the mix. Hence politicians and political commentators will need to reassess their traditional presumptions and historical biases about Wales and its politics.
So in the coming weeks my musings will turn to, among other things, the following questions – where do the political parties in Wales go to from here? Is Wales really like England? Has Wales a ruling political/establishment class which stifles progress and reform? Is the Senedd effective and acting for the whole of Wales? What is an AM worth? Are we driven too much by the public sector? How can we ensure that the powers of the Senedd are as near as possible commensurate with Scotland? Or indeed do the Welsh voters even desire such an outcome?
Then of course there is the overriding future of the Union and also Europe—as one political commentator puts it, will Cameron be the Prime Minister that causes Britain to lose both.
Gwynoro Jones is a former MP for Carmarthen. He was a Member of the Council of Europe and PPS to Roy Jenkins. He was Chair of the SDP and Alliance in Wales in the 1980’s, Chair of National Committee SDP 1982-87 and National Committee Liberal Democrats 1989-92. Between 1994-2012 he worked as a Schools’ Inspector. He is currently a Consultant, and is a campaigner for both PR and Home Rule.