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Welsh Labour must seek another Plaid coalition

Today, Welsh Labour reached the barrier to secure an Assembly majority, but failed to cross over. Will leader Carwyn Jones choose to govern alone without a clear mandate? It's far more likely that the party will seek a coalition with Plaid Cymru
John Osmond
6 May 2011

Be careful what you wish for is an adage worth pondering as Wales wakes up to yet another set of extraordinary twists in its 21st Century devolution journey. All along during this election campaign the overriding and tantalising question has been: will the inevitable swing to Labour be enough to push it from 26 Assembly Members to cross the barrier of 30 seats to secure a majority?

At the start of the day Labour was hovering on the edge. However, as the north Wales results came in, with the Conservatives holding Clwyd West and gaining Aberconwy, Labour stuck on 30. Could that lead to Carwyn Jones’ worst nightmare: forced to govern alone without a clear majority? Or will the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru offer him the escape route of a coalition?

Without a coalition Carwyn Jones will be taken out of the comfort zone Labour occupied during the whole of the last term when the One Wales Labour Plaid coalition luxuriated in such a large majority that the whips were made redundant.  During much of the term Karen Sinclair, Labour’s former AM for Clwyd  South, was absent due to illness, and it didn’t matter a jot. But it would in the coming term if Labour opts to run as, in effect, a minority Welsh Government.

And without being ageist, let’s not forget either that Labour will now have two septuagenarians among its ranks – Keith Davies, the new Labour AM for Llanelli, and Gwenda Thomas, who continues as AM for Neath.

In these circumstances it becomes critical whether Government or Opposition provides the Presiding Officer. Labour voices are saying they see no reason why Plaid’s Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas shouldn’t continue in the post. However, Plaid Cymru will not be keen to surrender his vote. In anticipation of the role his deputy in the last term, Newport West Labour AM Rosemary Butler has apparently been busy stocking up on her wardrobe.

Apart from living on a knife edge, without a coalition partner Carwyn Jones will struggle to find the personnel to fill his Cabinet. If Labour does end up governing alone expect a reduction in the size of the Cabinet and a new constellation of portfolios. For example Environment could be merged with Rural Affairs and Housing with Social Justice and Local Government. And, of course, there would be no need for a Deputy First Minister.

However, if Carwyn Jones decides to try governing alone Labour will have little political cover in standing up for Wales against the public spending onslaught about to be unleashed by an unsympathetic Westminster government. In particular, Wales’s financial fortunes will be laid bare when compared with the relative spending deal enjoyed by Alex Salmond’s SNP Government north of the border. With a Scottish independence referendum looming towards the end of the five-year term, the Westminster Government will find all manner of reasons for failing to look for an alternative to the Barnett funding formula which works to Scotland’s benefit but against the interest of Wales.

A couple of weeks after he became the UK Prime Minister a year ago David Cameron visited the National Assembly and said he regarded the nations of the UK as a family that he wanted to keep together, adding, “I don’t want our family to fall out over money.” Expect a good deal of falling out in the next few years, with Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Government becoming more and more frustrated and cross at its inability to wrest any concessions from a London Treasury continuing to pacify the Scots with financial largesse.

Despite all these dilemmas Welsh Labour can at least comfort itself that they are problems of success, the outcome of winning the election. Nonetheless, it will surely be looking for a coalition partner. Before the election Carwyn Jones made it clear he did not wish to lead a minority government. Thirty seats places Labour in the position it found itself in the wake of the 2003 election, living day to day at the mercy of events and negotiating one deal after another with one or the other party.

Not only that, 30 seats puts Labour under potential pressure from any discontented backbencher. This was demonstrated in the term following the 2003 election when the late Peter Law left Labour to form the People’s Voice movement in Blaenau Gwent.

Carwyn Jones will undoubtedly lean in the direction of renewing the One Wales agreement with Plaid Cymru. Although, according to today’s Western Mail, the Liberal Democrats have already made overtures to Labour, they will surely be tainted – in Labour’s eyes – because of their coalition with the Conservatives in the UK government.

Plaid Cymru undoubtedly suffered a severe setback in the election, though in some areas only by a small number of votes. Helen Mary Jones lost Llanelli by just 80 votes. In South West Wales former Plaid AM Dai Lloyd lost his List seat by only 50 votes. A similar margin cost them an extra List seat in North Wales.

Nonetheless, while Plaid Cymru struggled in the campaign to strike a distinctive note, Labour did well in the main because it very successfully presented itself as the antidote to the London Government’s assault on welfare benefits and public sector spending. But it also did well because it emphasised the Welsh dimension of its Labour identity, in the form of the personality of Carwyn Jones and his nationalist slogan ‘standing up for Wales’.

In part this was gifted him by Plaid Cymru which insisted on the referendum for greater powers as the keystone of the coalition One Wales coalition agreement. Plaid then provided the legwork in delivering the commitment while allowing Labour to take the credit and the electoral benefit. Whereas in Scotland the SNP has become the party most clearly identified with defending the nation’s interest, in Wales currently it is Labour.

This is why many in Plaid Cymru will argue that the last thing it needs is an internal argument about whether it should go into coalition again with Labour. Having delivered the referendum, they will say, it now needs a spell in the wilderness to recover its direction, its impetus, and its soul. However, this is a decision that will be made by the Plaid Group in the Assembly. I fancy their judgement, led by Ieuan Wyn Jones, will be to seek a coalition deal from Labour that they can project as being in the interests of Wales.

Constituencies Scoreboard

Party

Seats

+/-

Votes

%

% Change

Labour

28

+4

401,677

42.3

+10.1

Conservative

6

+1

236,916

25

+2.6

Plaid Cymru

5

-2

182,907

19.3

-3.1

Liberal Democrat

1

-2

100,731

10.6

-4.2

Other

0

-1

27,021

2.8

-5.4

After 40 of 40 constituencies declared

Regions Scoreboard

Party

Seats

+/-

Votes

%

+/- %

Conservative

8

+1

213,773

22.5

+1.1

Plaid Cymru

6

-2

169,799

17.9

-3.1

Liberal Democrat

4

+1

76,349

8

-3.7

Labour

2

0

349,935

36.9

+7.2

Other

0

0

139,532

14.7

-1.5

Turnout

949,388

42.2

-1.1

After 5 of 5 regions declared

The immediate problem for the Welsh Conservatives is that in polling relatively well last night, the vagaries of the Additional Member electoral system resulted in the loss of their leader, the former List member for Mid and West Wales, Nick Bourne. In addition, the loss of the Conservative’s Cardiff North AM Jonathan Morgan, who lost his seat to Labour’s Julie Morgan, has removed Nick Bourne’s obvious successor. This presents a more deep-seated problem for the Welsh Conservatives than might at first be appreciated. For between them, Bourne and Morgan have been the major influencers in putting that ‘Welsh’ in front of the party’s name over the past decade. If, for instance, Andrew R. T. Davies, who headed up the party’s List AMs in South Wales Central last night, becomes leader – as seems likely – then the Welsh identity of the Conservative Party in Wales could be blown sideways. To be sure David Melding, another strong Welsh identifier, also made it on the Conservative List in South Wales Central, but he has ruled himself out of the leadership  contest.

The Conservatives have relatively minor problems, again resulting from electoral success, when compared with those facing the Liberal Democrats. It could be said that the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote collapsed in many areas of Wales, and especially in Cardiff, through no fault of their own but because the party at the UK level went into coalition with the Conservatives. That is essentially the case, but what it says is that the Welsh electorate does not distinguish the Welsh Liberal Democrats from those in the rest of the UK. Welsh Liberal Democrats face an existential crisis about their Welsh identity.  What do they stand for that marks them out? After more than a decade of the National Assembly it remains a hard question to answer.

It is paradoxical that much the same problem faces the most distinctive party in Wales, Plaid Cymru, though of course in very different ways. It now has to judge whether it can address the fundamental issues it faces at the same time as being in a coalition government with Welsh Labour that so successfully, in this election at least, has wrapped itself in the Draig Goch. I suspect Ieuan Wyn Jones will judge that he will achieve a greater profile in doing so over the next five years, rather than choosing the alternative, which does not offer him even the position of Leader of the Opposition.

This piece was originally published on ClickOnWales.org.

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