Leanne Woods (centre), a member of the National Assembly for Wales, is upbeat after the recent referendum showed an appetite for devolving power from London.
Leanne blogs here.
Yes campaigners are still buoyant after a strong showing in the recent referendum on law-making powers in Wales. More than 63% of people voted to endorse the next step of devolved power to Wales from London. Given the result to establish the National Assembly for Wales in 1997 was so close (the Yes campaign won by just over 6,000 votes), this result shows that over the twelve years of devolution, many more people have been won around. The ‘Yes’ vote won a majority in twenty one out of the twenty two local authority areas, only missing out in the Conservative stronghold of Monmouthshire by some 350 votes. The result stands in contrast to the result in 1997, which split the country along class and geographical lines.
What was the vote about?
In 2006, Wales had a new Government of Wales Act which introduced law-making powers for Wales for the first time, but not without major restrictions. Westminster had to be asked for the power to make laws before those laws could be made. The act contained provision to move on to skip this step, but only after a Yes vote in a referendum, which could only be triggered by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly plus the agreement of the Secretary of State for Wales.
Possibly because he had included so many hoops, Peter Hain – the then Secretary of State for Wales – confidently stated that his 2006 act had settled the devolution question for a generation. Hain was forced to eat his words only a year later when in 2007 his party in the Assembly signed a coalition deal with Plaid Cymru agreeing to trigger a referendum and to support a yes campaign within the term of the Assembly. It was one of the deal-breaker commitments.
The 2006 act has been in operation for less than four years. During this time the Assembly has not been able to make primary Acts. Welsh-Assembly made laws are termed ‘measures’. The 2006 Act restricts the policy fields to the twenty that were in the original devolution settlement (the 1998 Government of Wales Act). Everything is reserved to the UK Parliament, with the exception of these twenty policy fields. It is within these twenty fields, the Assembly is able to make ‘measures’ after asking permission. The request for powers or competence is successful if Westminster grants a ‘Legislative Competence Order’ (LCO) to the Assembly.
The 2007 ‘One Wales’ Plaid/Labour coalition deal included a commitment to legislate to increase the availability of affordable and social housing and to restrict the tenants ‘right to buy’ their council house. It took three and a half years before the LCO was agreed. The powers requested to legislate on the Welsh language were watered down. The request for powers to stop the physical punishment of children was refused outright. Twenty five measures have been made within this Assembly term, but they have taken a long time, many have had their spirit weakened by outside interference reducing the scope of the powers.
The referendum question asked if people were prepared to support devolving legislative competence en bloc for the twenty devolved fields. It was a technical question about the detail of a constitutional process and was not at the forefront of the minds of most people in Wales. The recession is biting and many people, especially public sector workers who make up a large proportion of the Welsh workforce, are feeling insecure about the future. Given this wider political context, the turnout was never going to be high.
But when ‘True Wales’ (sic), the group that had been set up in 2008 to campaign for a no vote, decided not to apply to the Electoral Commission for official designation, the yes campaign automatically lost the opportunity to become officially designated. Under the rules governing referendums, official designation can only be given to both sides. Official designation would have secured numerous TV and radio broadcasts, and the free delivery of a leaflet to every home. ‘True Wales’ severely restricted both sides’ ability to explain exactly what the vote was about. A common response on the streets and on the doorstep was lack of understanding. A low turn-out was assured.
The situation was not helped by constant attempts from the no campaign to obfuscate the issue. They used every TV and radio debate between the two sides to throw in red herrings, decrying the lack of progress on the economy, education and health services in international comparisons, saying Wales’s position had worsened since devolution. They attacked politicians for their expenses claims. Their entire campaign strategy revolved around an inflatable pig, which was meant to symbolise the ‘snouts-in-the-trough’ politicians who were only interested in ‘grabbing more power for themselves.’
Although the no campaign were chiefly considered to be a joke, their arguments did gain some traction. On encountering no voters on the streets, certain common characteristics quickly became apparent. Many no voters were angry. They were mainly men, working class and nearing retirement age. Their anger was about waste, money, tax, cost, bureaucracy. They may well have had good reason to be angry. Perhaps they were insecure in their job and fully aware they wouldn’t get another one if they lost it? The anger and aggression exhibited by these no voters was something I have only previously come across when discussing war with hawk-types. We ignore this anger at our peril.
The yes campaign had the backing of all four political parties represented in the Assembly as well as the Greens, the Communist Party and the vast majority of the rest of the left in Wales. Celyn, the magazine of the Welsh Green Left, carried a front page announcing that ‘Socialists Say Yes.’ The no side was backed by UKIP, the BNP and, bizarrely, the CPGB. The party backers alone clarified the question for many people. The yes campaign chair was the affable, valley-boy-done-good, Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis. Our campaign was no doubt given a boost with two Welsh wins in the two 6 Nations games prior to the poll and our star winger, Shane Williams, featured on the front page of a million leaflets which were hand-delivered by thousands of volunteers. Showing great gratitude for the recent decision by the Welsh government to subsidise the tuition fee increase and keep the Education Maintenance Allowance, Welsh students mobilised to register their peers and ensure they were fully informed. Their work paid off with a good percentage of yes votes in on-campus ballot boxes. The public sector trade unions published leaflets and pamphlets which they sent to all their members advocating a yes vote. The Archbishop of Wales was on the national yes campaign organising committee and the Catholic Bishops and the Muslim Council of Wales all called for a yes vote. A constant stream of Welsh celebrities popped up to endorse the yes campaign but it was also a youthful, grassroots, popular campaign whose workers were committed enough to go out leafleting in some of the cruellest weather Wales has to offer.
The no campaign consisted of a few disillusioned Labour and Independent councillors from the Gwent valleys near the border with England and the odd UKIP activist. If anything, the campaign exposed the decades-long rift that has existed within the Welsh Labour Party on the national question. It was this rift that gave birth to the Hain-designed, dogs-breakfast of a law-making system in the first place. The no campaigners ‘happy-slave’ attitudes were exposed with lines like ‘Wales doesn‘t have people with talent or ability to do things for ourselves – all the best brains have got out.’ What is interesting is that these people, who the late, great Raymond Williams would have described as ’anti-Welsh Welsh people,’ have been reduced to a small rump in a corner of the Welsh valleys together with a few Super-Brit-Tory-types scattered around in the ‘usual suspect‘ areas like Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire – the county known as ‘little England beyond Wales‘. Our campaign strength paid off when even in Pembrokeshire, there was a majority for a yes vote.
The referendum result in 1997 enacted significant political change to the landscape of Wales, even though it was granted with the tiniest of majorities. In the case of the 2011 referendum, the result is much more convincing, but the change will be miniscule in comparison. The significance is the unity shown by the result. Devolution has been endorsed by every part of Wales. We are now one Wales.
In May, the parties will present the people of Wales with their manifestos explaining what they propose to do with the changed powers. The remarkable unity shown by the four main political parties will come to an end and the usual sectarian slanging matches will return.
In his speech at the declaration and accepting the result on behalf of the yes campaign, Roger Lewis paid tribute to the party unity and discipline and appealed for that unity to continue for the sake of the future of Wales.
If the no campaign were right about anything, it was that for most people constitutional details are not top of the agenda during a recession. Given that, a turnout of 35.4% is very respectable – and certainly compares well with Westminster by-elections, county council or European election results.
The ‘Yes for Wales’ campaign has shown that great things can be achieved by combining forces and maintaining unity until a specific political objective is achieved. The result was delivered by a very large, diverse group of people who were motivated and united by the feeling that they were doing something good for the future of the people in the country in which they live. Imagine what could be achieved if that motivation and unity of purpose could be kept up. With Wales having more control over the levers which drive our under-performing economy, we could have the tools to address the very real fears and insecurities of the ‘Mr Angry’ no-voter. And if the confidence of people in Wales in our ability to do things the Welsh way continues to grow, then the next Welsh referendum result could be even better.