THERE is a growing chasm emerging between the politics of post-devolution Wales and the rest of the UK. For one, Labour still rules here; the 2010 general election results were better in Wales than other parts of Britain, with several marginal seats retained and the party 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: winning Cardiff, Swansea and Newport at the expense of the Liberal Democrats; Caerphilly from Plaid Cymru; Flintshire from 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.
Between these two polls was the election of May 2011 when Labour climbed from 26 to 30 seats in the Welsh assembly. The fact that the party took outright control of the assembly that night, ditching its Plaid Cymru coalition partners of four years, was an interesting counterpoint to the Labour meltdown in Scotland happening at the same time.
Welsh Labour is now governing alone, though from time to time it makes deals with either Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats to secure key items on the floor of the assembly. No formal coalitions are likely but both parties are keen to work with Labour on key issues, not least Plaid Cymru under its new and radically leftwing leader, Leanne Wood.
Such an arrangement is very natural since the politics of Wales is now an effective centre-left counterpoint to England. The Welsh government continues to be focused very firmly on demonstrating this. The Programme for Government in Wales is founded on three principles – social justice, sustainable development and ‘defending Wales’. The last does not indicate an ambitious programme of castle-building in the Welsh Marches, but rather an attempt to blunt and shape the impact of the Westminster government’s policies so they more closely reflect the choices made by the people of Wales at the ballot box.
So, Labour is performing well in Wales electorally if the last few outings are anything to go by, and the personal ratings of Carwyn Jones, the first minister, are high, higher even than his popular predecessor, Rhodri Morgan. This is in part due to his appeal in rural and Welsh-speaking communities, historically not Welsh Labour strongholds.
But Jones recognises that, as his government approaches its midterm, he needs to do more than rely on his popularity and political rhetoric. There are encouraging signs that the Welsh government now recognises the scale of the job that needs to be done in reforming public services. The emphasis ministers are now giving to it is a tacit acceptance that for the first 10 years of devolution Welsh Labour did not prioritise reform. Indeed, one of the consequences of the boom in spending during the Blair-Brown years was a virtual doubling of the assembly bloc grant. In that context, if a problem ever arose in service delivery then it was easier to throw money at it than try and solve it.
In most policy areas there is now ‘clear red water’ between the approaches in Whitehall and Cardiff Bay. In education, divergence has seen the education maintenance allowance retained in Wales while being abolished in England and a recent sharp war of words between the Welsh education minister, Leighton Andrews, and UK education secretary Michael Gove over proposed changes to pre-16 qualifications in England and over GCSE regrading. Andrews has also prioritised merging higher education institutions and has brought in Tony Blair’s former adviser, Robert Hill, to review how primary and secondary education is delivered in Wales and whether local education authorities are the most appropriate model, bearing in mind that 16 of them have had relatively poor educational assessments.
Andrews’ energy and vigour has been recognised in his winning the ‘Welsh politician of the year’ award two years in succession. His determination is clear, as is his desire for his record to be compared with that of Gove in England. It is the first time a Welsh minister has been so bold in gaining a Welsh agenda UK-wide prominence.
Less vocal but equally effective are some his cabinet colleagues. In health, Lesley Griffiths is putting safe and sustainable services at the heart of her reconfiguration plans. If in the past the Welsh government has been guilty of avoiding change until services become dangerous and unusable, Griffiths is brave enough to drive through reform in the health service which, although politically contentious in many communities, places the focus on the best clinical outcomes for patients rather than the distance from their home.
After the assembly elections in 2011, the first minister made ‘delivery’ the watchword of how his new government should be judged. In doing so he implicitly admitted that previous Welsh administrations had not been impressive enough in the delivery of public services and outcomes. This emphasis is written through his administration like a word through a stick of Barmouth rock.
But Jones knows too well that demanding better delivery is one thing – achieving it is another. After all, it is other bodies, particularly local authorities, who can effect change. Local government minister Carl Sargeant has awarded Welsh councils with a more generous settlement than Eric Pickles has delivered in England so that they are able to protect key services, but in return he expects local government to collaborate to improve standards and reduce costs. He is now getting tough on a somewhat lackadaisical response to reform by topslicing their settlement and directing resources to collaborative cross-boundary working for local authorities.
And, though Labour is in power in Cardiff Bay and in the majority of Welsh local authorities for the first time in the best part of a decade, one might expect the relationship with local government to have been rather more cosy since that election. However, Sargeant has not stinted in his crusade to cut council bureaucracy and improve delivery. Sargeant, like his cabinet colleagues, clearly sees a link between collaboration and performance, and the publication this month of new service performance standards reinforces collaboration as a vital component in driving up quality across services which show ‘unacceptable’ wide variation. More interestingly, this document allows for a greater relationship between citizens and their elected representatives, bringing closer scrutiny of the performance in key service areas and it is here where the government may draw its ammunition in terms of compelling those authorities to work together.
After almost 14 years of devolved government, the mood music from Welsh Labour is, finally, that public service reform is no longer an option, but a necessity. The big challenge will now be the way in which Labour, not just at Cardiff Bay but in county halls throughout Wales, delivers it.
David Taylor is a former special adviser to Peter Hain
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