Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Senedd sharting ends in a squeak

Back in your box, Twitter. Feeling salty?

Normal service is resumed....sort of. The National Assembly has – as anyone with an ounce of common sense would've expected – rubber-stamped both the appointment of Carwyn Jones as First Minister and the formation of a Labour minority government.

Anyone expecting a repeat of last week's theatrics would've been disappointed, though AMs from both sides have conducted talks and secured an agreement in a thoroughly professional, constructive and timely manner. If last week saw the Senedd regress to infancy, over the last few days we saw them act like adults.

As you'll probably already know, Labour and Plaid Cymru agreed to :

  • The establishment of a National Infrastructure Commission and Welsh Development Bank.
  • The creation of three liaison committees on finance, legislation and the constitution, where representatives of both sides would provide input to those areas of policy.
  • A re-structure of the Assembly's scrutiny and committee system (as yet unspecified, but decided by AMs themselves over the coming weeks).
  • The First Minister formally outlining his priorities for the first 100 days of the new government, including measures on :
    • the steel industry/sale of Tata's UK business
    • campaigning in favour of EU membership in June's referendum
    • new bills on Public Health and Additional Learning Needs; a ban on smacking; amendments to the Welsh Language Measure 2011 - though no new legislation will be tabled until the scrutiny procedures have been amended (as mentioned earlier)
    • ensuring the Wales Bill is fit for purpose
    • a review of health and social care
    • the establishment of a Cabinet Office to focus on delivery
    • taking forward manifesto commitments on affordable child care, extra apprenticeships, GP recruitment and a new treatment fund to tackle postcode lotteries in health care/medicines

Plaid get at least one of their key manifesto pledges – a National Infrastructure Commission. However, there was no agreement on more contentious issues like the M4 Newport bypass, use of money from the proposed UK-wide sugar tax (Plaid being a proponent of a sugary drinks tax to fund doctor recruitment) or full integration of health and social services (not yet anyway).

The incident which sparked last week's events was Labour's refusal to postpone the confirmation vote by a week in order to outline their programme of government to the opposition. That's essentially what Plaid got out of the talks.

It might not sound like very much but it also means Plaid won't be "propping up Labour" through a formal coalition or supply-and-confidence deal, nor making any attempt to form a government of their own – yet they'll still get a say in key government plans without an obligation to vote in favour.

I'm sure both sides are relatively pleased, but if there's anyone out there left with egg on their faces by this it's the Twitterati (and some sections of the mainstream media), considering the heightened emotions that overcame them following last Wednesday's shenanigans.

People saw what they wanted to see, which was a titanic struggle for power between two big personalities, not what was right in front of them : a backfiring stunt and the standard application of parliamentary rules.

If you're Labour, Plaid were in some sort of devil's triumvirate with the Tories and UKIP, denying Carwyn his birthright as our liege lord – wrong!

If you were Plaid, Leanne Wood was puncturing Labour's arrogant believe in the divine right of kings and stood a real chance of becoming First Minister – wrong!

It reinforces what I've said recently about social media being an echo chamber. What actually happened was :
"....there's a 28-day period for AMs to cobble together an agreement that will eventually see Carwyn Jones appointed as First Minister. Then he can appoint a new government and those minor issues out there....can be addressed properly.

Plaid are spinning this as a serious attempt to form a new government, but that was never their intention....everyone is going to be disappointed when this ends, particularly those expecting Leanne Wood to be First Minister." (taken from this and the subsequent comments).

Despite that, apparently I was the one who misinterpreted what was happening. What was "really" happening was a power shift with an end to Labour's hegemony in sight. The result being....Carwyn Jones as First Minister and a soon to be appointed all-Labour cabinet. That's a power shift of Tottenham-esque proportions.

I'd welcome an alternative government to Labour, but I'm not blinded by party loyalty (or party hatred) and realise a stable government is more likely to be a good government. The question being : Who's more likely to command the confidence of the Assembly over the longest period of time at the least cost to themselves or the institution's reputation?

In a two-candidate race, Leanne needs at least 18 extra votes or abstentions in her favour, Carwyn needs 2. With the thought of Leanne leading a Labour-Plaid coalition being laughable, the only way she could've become First Minister is with the combined support of the Conservatives, UKIP and Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor).

If Kirsty had voted the other way last week, Leanne would've actually had to form a government with UKIP support whether she wanted to or not. That's why Kirsty voted the right way, is owed a pint by Carwyn and Leanne and why I was annoyed....because it was utterly pointless yet potentially incredibly damaging.

When you see people you care about sleepwalking towards a cliff edge, you're supposed to do something about it or speak up, aren't you?

As for the lessons both sides can take from this episode :
  • Labour have no right to rule (a mandate as largest party certainly, but only with the Assembly's consent) and displayed cocksure arrogance in assuming they could claim the first ministry without outlining their government programme to other parties.
  • Labour attempts to smear Plaid Cymru through guilt by association were a pathetic toddler-like tantrum because they didn't get their own way. Unless they're willing to strike deals with the other parties they're going to find it difficult to implement their government programme....but crucially, Labour don't need the opposition's support, just abstentions (yes, it's a big difference).
  • Plaid Cymru went into last week's vote with a distinct lack of foresight and no clear end goal, which very nearly resulted in them committing political suicide for nothing but hubris. They were one vote away from Leanne Wood being First Minister with no serious plans for government of their own, no formal agreement with the other opposition parties to support that government and just 20% of the seats in the Senedd. I applaud the gall, but it was reckless and naïve.
  • For scotching any chance of an agreement with the Conservatives and ensuring Labour can form a minority government, the Tories can – somewhat justifiably, but not entirely – claim Plaid Cymru aren't serious about change. Considering the price of that change : good!

The opposition parties have sent a message to Labour and, in the short-term, the tied vote got Plaid what they wanted – face to face talks with Labour and clarification of the government's programme. Was all this drama worth it? Probably not.

Rejoice, for Welsh politics is as boringly predictable as ever. I'm expected everyone to disagree but, when you consider what the alternative was, for once we ought to be grateful for that.


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