Wales: the reality of coalition politics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 26 13:45:12 UTC 2007

The reality of coalition politics

Two very-pleased political party leaders stood side by side on the
steps of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. Both had achieved much of what
they wanted. But how long will their smiles remain? For two years, is
the probable answer from Rhodri Morgan. That is the probable period of
time he intends to stay as First Minister. But for his new coalition
partner Ieuan Wyn Jones, twelve hours may have been the correct
answer. My retort may perhaps be a bit unfair. But that is the precise
time it took for a Labour AM to voice an (inaccurate) complaint and
announce that she wanted an urgent meeting with the minister to sort
out the matter.

The member in question was the normally acquiescent Rosemary Butler,
AM for Newport West. She amplified complaints that no date was
available for the reopening of the railway line from Ebbw Vale to
Newport (the Cardiff link happens this December) into a claim that the
scheme had been abandoned. She demanded to see the minister.
Over eight years such noise has rarely been heard from any Labour AM –
they are such a quiet bunch that the email lines from their offices
seem to have no links whatsoever to the journalists in the press
gallery - totally unlike AMs affiliated to the Tory, Lib Dem or Plaid
groups.So, upon which minister was Mrs Butler intending to vent her
anger? Why, none other than Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Minister for
Transport and Economic Affairs. Now without doubt the honour of being
a minister is worth having, but then there are those pesky elected
members and their constituents to consider - particularly those signed
up to another party.

There seems little doubt that Plaid Cymru would have preferred to sign
a rainbow deal with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The deal
offered there was more radical; the constituent parties would have
been more willing to throw ancient Labour policies overboard;
introduce some new thinking; and with the three parties being more
equal, none would have been able to dominate. As it turned out, only a
Labour deal was available. Long and hard bargaining has given Plaid
three ministers and one deputy, and two of the portfolios seem almost
have been made for Plaid incumbents.

But that is precisely the reason why Rhodri has been given a second
reason for his big smile. Elin Jones's occupation of Rural Affairs has
enabled the First Minister to get out of his party's hair the one area
of policy with which they have almost no sympathy (apart from that
evinced by smallholder Tamsin Dunwoody, who sadly lost Preseli at the

And the same thing has happened to the language issue. Rhodri Glyn
Thomas (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) is proud that his name will go to
the new language legislation that the Assembly will be producing
before long. With protests likely from language-rights hard-liners, Mr
Morgan must be glad that it is not his party that will be in the
firing-line. Mr Thomas should have more fun with the heritage part of
the portfolio. Labour have always had terrible difficulty accepting
that England was once at war with Wales – which is no doubt a major
reason why the moated site of Sycharth, near Oswestry, home of Owain
Glyndwˆr, is totally unmarked, despite long-running pressure. His
tourism brief should give that industry better links to the heart of
government, replacing those they lost when the Wales Tourist Board was

It is the field headed by deputy minister Jocelyn Davies (South East)
which most clearly bears the marks of Plaid's bargaining. Ms Davies
will deal with housing, where Plaid, in long meetings with previous
minister Leighton Andrews, forced an increase in policies from two
paragraphs in the Labour manifesto to almost three pages in the One
Wales coalition document . "Labour have always had terrible difficulty
accepting that England was once at war with Wales"

Because of his first-language Welsh status, the First Minister has
always been aware of the affordable-housing crisis in the language
heartland of the West, where cash-rich incomers are pricing the locals
out of every village attractive to former-Londoners. But, in a party
which gains so much support from run-down industrial areas, it is
difficult to obtain concessions aimed at the far-distant West. The
challenge for the nationalist part of the coalition will be to ensure
that Ms Davies obtains policy moves which will satisfy such as Gareth
Jones, who won back Aberconwy for Plaid after its four years in Labour
hands, as much as Ms Davies's own constituency AM, the Plaid-hating
Irene James (Islwyn). Mr Jones had told a plenary of the community
tensions caused by people being unable to either afford or even rent a
home in their own communities.

A deep geographical and linguistic split exists here – and, now that
the language-fuelled arguments of a few years ago have died down,
there is considerable danger that the problems of the industrial South
will prevail. The First Minister made light of the delays in doing a
deal. The eleven weeks it took was the same sort of time needed to
form a coalition in Germany. Looking ahead, he mused about the sorts
of alternatives which might arise in Cardiff Bay – such as a number of
deals in succession which had been thrashed out, and had then
collapsed. No-one was willing to say much about the final series of
delays. How many hours did it take between Rhodri and Ieuan shaking
hands on their list of names, and the Queen giving her purely-formal
assent? About eight hours was wasted penning her "assent" to the
appointment of Mr Jones as Deputy First Minister. The Cabinet took her
several hours longer. Was it a garden party that intervened? Or has
the signing to be fitted into one or two predetermined daily sessions?
Or did the fax machine run out of paper?

Claims by some Tories that the deal won't hold together for more than
a couple of years – due to tensions induced if one coalition partner
or the other loses seats heavily at next year's council elections, or
in the next Westminster poll – were firmly rejected by Plaid. Mr Jones
firmly expects the deal to last a full four years, continuing under Mr
Morgan's successor. And a Plaid spokesman said that in the hierarchy
of elections, the Assembly was firmly top dog.

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