Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Three years of the Welsh assembly

IN MAY the Welsh assembly commemorates its third anniversary. Assembly Members (AMs) are celebrating the occasion by awarding themselves a 9.5% pay increase, justifying the decision by their ‘unexpectedly high’ workload.

The national assembly, however, has made very little difference to Welsh society. Its very first act in 1999 was to award AMs a pay rise above that recommended when the assembly was set up. To most workers it seems to exist only to create lucrative salaries for its members and their hangers-on. Outside of the Welsh media, the assembly is regarded as an expensive talking shop.

This is a long way from the heady days of the summer of 1999. ‘Cool Cymru’ was the thing, with Welsh bands top of the charts and the whole of Wales covered in national flags and symbols. Even the Welsh rugby team was winning. The assembly was heralded as the beginning of self-government as Wales stepped out into a brave new world.

Even though in 1997 barely 50% of voters in the referendum voted for the establishment of the assembly, by the time of its inauguration it had gained 62% support. Now 71% do not think that services have improved and most people think that their say has actually declined. In last year’s Swansea East assembly by-election a mere 23% of the electorate voted.

This is largely accounted for by the rejection of party politics and politicians in general common to all European countries. At the count for the Ogmore parliamentary by-election in February this year, politicians from all the main parties heaved a collective sigh of relief that 35% of the electorate had turned out at all, cracking open bottles of champagne because ‘only’ two-thirds of the electorate had refused to vote! But the assembly is even more unpopular than politicians in general. Only 21% are satisfied with its performance and most people do not know who their AM is.

The assembly’s dismal record of accomplishments would not fill a postage stamp. The Labour/Liberal administration has introduced free pharmaceutical prescriptions for young people, bus passes for the elderly, free entry into museums a year earlier than England and, most notably, proposed a grant for students from very low-income backgrounds.

Next to this modest molehill of reforms a mountain of problems have piled up in public services which threatens the very fabric of life in Wales. Despite a significant pre-election increase in health funding, 10% of the population of Wales are now on a NHS waiting list of some sort. Many of the hundreds of nurses who flew in from the Philippines to help meet nursing shortages now wish to return because of the poor facilities and working conditions.

Meanwhile, the national assembly debates whether it should compensate the architect it sacked for designing a £28 million debating chamber that was never built. All that exists of this prestige project is a medium-sized hole in the ground.

The much-vaunted student grants have failed to address the issue of student poverty. The grants offered to Welsh students are testimony to the pressure built up by campaigning students and their families (helped by a vigorous Socialist Party Wales campaign). But only students whose parents earn a combined income of less than £10,000 will get the full bursary of £1,500 a year. Some of the sons and daughters of the lowest-paid workers in Wales will only get £800. This will scarcely dent the massive debts of working-class students – on average over £12,000. The measure will do little to stem the flood of working-class young people being forced away from higher education or dropping out of their studies.

One of the reasons for the failure of the assembly to act has been its lack of legislative and financial powers. In addition to administering health, education, economic development and other public services, the assembly can only pass secondary legislation (adjusting laws enacted by central government in Westminster). The government sets the budget and Welsh ministers have to wait to know how much money they can spend. Socialist Party Wales has always supported an assembly ‘with teeth’ – powers to pass laws and raise its own finance, a programme supported by the largest bloc of people in opinion polls.

As frustration grows with the assembly, the pressure will be on to increase its powers, especially if the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, were to gain a majority. Even some Tory AMs concede that the assembly’s powers might have to be increased. Welsh Labour leaders would like to adjust the powers of the assembly but dare not open up the can of constitutional worms. Changing the constitution ‘a little bit’ would re-open the argument that the assembly should have the same powers as the Scottish parliament, limited as they are. The New Labour leaders have always regarded devolution as an unfortunate necessity and do not want to place Welsh affairs even further beyond the reach of Tony Blair’s ‘control freakery’.

Despite the unpopularity of the national assembly, only 24% support its abolition while 38% support giving it law-making and taxation powers (19% support the present arrangement, while 11% support independence). But, given the close result in the devolution referendum (a majority of barely 1,000), it is remarkable that a majority supports its retention in any form.

The failure of the assembly, however, is not solely due to its lack of powers. The conservative policies of New Labour in Whitehall have placed severe financial limits on its budget and have also reached into the assembly’s chamber. Labour’s policies in Wales have reflected its transformation into a capitalist party, albeit with a nod towards the old Labour heartlands of South Wales. After the political demise of Alun Michael, Blair’s viceroy in Wales, and his replacement by Rhodri Morgan, ‘New Labour’ became ‘Welsh Labour’.

But the same old policies have continued. None of the huge social and economic problems have been addressed because Welsh Labour is committed first and foremost to the idea that, in general, ‘free enterprise’ and ‘the market’ are the only ways forward for society. The Labour/Liberal leadership has admitted that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is unpopular, that priority should be given to the public funding of capital projects and that PFI should be relegated to a second option. But, of course, public funds are not usually available so PFI projects are continuing to infest public services. The rhetoric is different but the result is largely the same.

Effectively, Plaid Cymru has been the only opposition to the Labour/Liberal coalition (the Tories did not win a single constituency seat in the assembly elections and hold only eight of the regional top-up seats elected by proportional representation). Plaid has attacked the coalition from the left and proclaimed its opposition to privatisation and PFI in principle. The local councils under Plaid control, however, have implemented privatisation and PFI with gusto. If it held power in the assembly – which it could well do in May 2003 – then Plaid, too, would carry out similar policies. It would hide behind the lack of powers, but would carry out essentially the same pro-capitalist policies as the other parties.

Nonetheless, a Plaid majority demanding more control could provoke a collision with Westminster that could distract attention from Plaid’s pro-big business agenda. A New Labour government would probably have to concede more powers to the assembly and Plaid would appear to be making headway. In the long run, however, Plaid’s empty rhetoric would be exposed.

The unpopularity of the assembly stems not from disenchantment with devolution itself, but with all bourgeois institutions – among which the assembly is just the new, friendless kid on the block. All the main parties are ideologically wedded to capitalism and the ‘free market’ which cannot solve a single problem in Welsh society. Only a socialist majority armed with a bold programme could allow the Welsh assembly to play a relatively progressive role. It would propose a bold programme of social reforms in the NHS, education, transport, housing and all the other public services and link them to the need to transform society. It would launch a mass campaign to demand resources from the Westminster government and demand autonomy for the Welsh assembly to provide these services. Mobilising a mass workers’ movement in this way, it could provide a focus for the beginning of the transformation of Welsh and British society.

Dave Reid


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