2012 – A year in Welsh Politics
As 2012 draws to a close, Daran Hill reflects on Welsh politics over the year and looks ahead to what 2013 might bring.
Politics in Wales is different from other parts of the UK. Labour still rules there, even if Labour’s performance in other parts of the UK has been patchy. Indeed, the General Election of 2010 was not as bad in Wales as other parts of the UK, with several marginal seats being retained and Labour emerging with nearly three quarters of the representation even if its vote share was significantly down. Similarly, in 2012 Labour won back control of the majority of local authorities in Wales: it had a ‘stunning’ night in Wales, better than any other part of the UK, winning Cardiff, Swansea and Newport at the expense of the Liberal Democrats; Caerphilly from Plaid Cymru; Flintshire from the Independents; and the Vale of Glamorgan from the Conservatives. In doing so, it reversed a decade of decline for Labour in local government in Wales.
But between these two elections was the election of May 2011 when Labour climbed from 26 to 30 seats in the National Assembly for Wales. The fact they took outright control of the Assembly that night, ditching their Plaid Cymru coalition partners of four years, was an interesting counterpoint to the Labour meltdown in Scotland happening at the same time.
Labour in Wales is now governing alone, though from time to time it makes deals with either Plaid or the Liberal Democrats to secure key items on the floor of the Assembly.
The first practical demonstration of this pragmatism came just before last Christmas when negotiations with the Lib Dems proved to be the first significant demonstration of effective horse-trading within the new administration and a forerunner of what is to come. No formal coalitions are likely but both parties are keen to work with Labour on key issues, not least Plaid under its new and radically left wing leader Leanne Wood.
Such an arrangement is very natural since the politics of Wales is now an effective left wing counterpoint to England. As Carwyn Jones told the Labour conference in Manchester last autumn, “We offered them policies based on fairness, justice and opportunity – policies based on Labour values. And the people of Wales responded to this promise by giving us our best result in the history of the National Assembly for Wales.”
The style, priorities and preoccupations of the Welsh Government continue to be focused very firmly on demonstrating how different they are from the UK Government. It is no coincidence that the Programme for Government in Wales is founded on three principles – social justice, sustainable development and ‘defending Wales’. The latter does not reflect an ambitious programme of castle building in the Welsh Marches, but rather the proofing of the impact of UK policies on Wales to see which values and intentions they embody.
In every field there is now ‘clear red water’ between the approaches in Whitehall and Cathays Park in Cardiff. In education, policy divergence has seen the Education Maintenance Allowance retained in Wales while being abolished in England; and a recent sharp war of words between Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews and Michael Gove over proposed changes to post-16 qualifications in England and over GCSE re-grading. In health, it sees a system in Wales that rejects the private sector at the same time it is being bolstered through the new Health and Social Care Act for England.
And is Carwyn Jones right to do this? The polls say that he is. Labour is performing staggeringly well in Wales in opinion poll terms and in the ballot box if the last few outings are anything to go by. Carwyn’s own personal ratings are also high, and seem to be higher than that of his popular predecessor Rhodri Morgan.
In 2013 Labour will be keen to maintain this separate sense of politics and identity in Wales. The recent budget round placed even greater stress on the Assembly’s funding streams, with particular pressure on the local government settlement, which means more reductions in frontline services. Until now this sort of reduction has been avoided by clever budgeting, but it looks like the next year will be the one where frontline cuts hit in Wales. All of which will play to Labour’s “standing up for Wales” narrative.
“In Wales, we are taking positive and imaginative action to defend jobs and the prosperity of our people. That’s what governments are for – that’s what a Welsh Labour Government is for – delivering for its people. The differences between the Welsh Labour approach in Cardiff and what the coalition is doing in London could not be more stark.”
Carwyn Jones AM, 1 October 2012
Daran Hill is Managing Director of Positif Politics
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