Labour’s failure to understand devolution

I was in Portcullis House yesterday, and as I had time between other meetings I went to an event organised by the think-tank Demos as part of its ‘Open Left’ project. Called ‘Memorandum from the Mainstream’ (details here, and the memoranda themselves are here), it consisted largely of short talks presented by six former middle-ranking Labour ministers about what they did wrong in government, and what Labour’s new leader should do about it. There was the expected attempt to find successes in Labour’s record in office, as well as some willingness to admit to failures.

What was most striking, though, was a big omission. That was any talk of constitutional issues at all, and devolution and territorial ones in particular. Given that many consider Labour’s constitutional agenda to have been one of its most successful areas of policy, it’s telling that middle-ranking ministers simply never even noticed this particular part of Labour’s record. But the failure to understand that there is a territorial constitutional dimension to every policy – that talking about ‘equal rights to public services’ begs the question of where that applies, and what that promise might mean in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where many such functions are devolved. I’d hoped that the Open Left project (which was set up by James Purnell after he resigned from government in June 2009) might mark a change in Labour’s thinking about this, but evidently not.  Equally, what works politically for Labour in England isn’t the same in Scotland or Wales, as political competition in those arenas is very different thanks to the nationalist parties.  I left thinking that these discussions could easily have happened in 1995 – and to a substantial degree even in 1985.

The only person to raise any sort of territorial concern was Nancy Platts, Labour’s unsuccessful candidate in Brighton Pavilion, who has realised that different things work in different parts of ‘the country’ (still not clear whether that’s Britain, the UK or England). She asked whether Labour should have different policies in ‘the north’ and ‘the south’, so it could win more seats. She didn’t get much of an answer, but Labour members in Scotland and Wales who remember the difficulties they had in getting Labour in London to understand the need for different platforms and policies in those nations may smile wryly at the suggestion.


Filed under Labour, UK elections, Westminster

3 responses to “Labour’s failure to understand devolution

  1. Sounds like grim, unconscious, dough-headed metropolitanism at its worst, Alan.

  2. Jeff Jones

    Alan The problem with the idea of different policies for ‘Wales’ is that it is based on the assumption that there is as the Assembly Coalition title suggests ‘One Wales’. This might be a view held by Nationalists but I would argue that it is a debatable point. Just before the First World War an American Professor at the University of Wales argued that you could divide Wales into three parts American Wales, Welsh Wales and English Wales. At least in those days some might argue that nonconformity was the glue that held the three parts together. Today many parts of Wales particularly those areas where the majority of the population lives are no different from other parts of the UK. The problems of American Wales which is the former industrial areas are no different from those of other parts of the UK such as the North East and the North West whwre heavy industry has declined. Unfortunately the idea that Wales is some how different leads to to an attempt by politicians to look for different policy solutions. In my opinion devolution in Wales still suffers form the fact that there was never was any real debate which involved the political class let alone ordinary voters before 1997 on what did people wanted out of devolution.The reason why many Labour politicians don’t mention devolution as a major achievement is because it was a policy that was devised by accident. It owes more to the reaction to Thatcher’s economic policies particularly in the Celtic fringes than to any real commitment to devolution as a political concept. The Labour Party in Wales still doesn’t real know where it wants this journey to end. Just look at the failure to even discuss issues such as tax raising powers or variation in taxes such as corporation tax in a meanful manner for fear of scaring the electorate.

  3. Jim Shepherd Foster

    Jeff Jones makes a very good point Alan. You recently attended the IWA conference regarding the differences between “The Taff and the Thames”. As you may remember, speaker after speaker referred to the Welsh as this cohesive society, and their relationship to Central Government. In fact a conference siting the differences between “The Taff and the Teifi” would have been equally as valid. Cons, Libs and Labour all look over their shoulders to “Head Office” in London, and support for Plaid is sporadic nationally. So devolved political identities do not exist yet.

    I don’t think the forthcoming referendum on more devolved powers will help, most of the ‘Yes’ voters think we will be like Scotland. Most of the ‘No’ voters don’t want to be like Scotland. Both sides are doomed to disappointment, and if the predictions for turnout are fulfilled, even a yes vote will hardly be a ringing endorsement for a devolved Senedd that exists at all, by the narrowest of margins.

    Addressing the point of your Blog, with the exception of Ron Davies, (who has now moved to Plaid), it is hard to think of any Labour politician fully in favour of a devolved Wales, and impossible to think of one in favour of the situation in Scotland. By opposing, the Tories drove the depth of devolution, because at that stage of the Blair administration the delight of giving bloody noses outweighed their centralist principles.

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