Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy

Last week I was invited to give the Public Affairs Cymru annual lecture. I am grateful to them for the invitation. During this lecture I returned to the theme of democracy and building a democratic society in Wales that I have been exploring over this year. This is an edited version of the lecture.

My theme this evening is democracy.

Democracy within Welsh Labour.

Democracy within the institutions of government and the National Assembly.

And democracy within the wider Welsh civic society.

And underpinning all of this a democratic culture that enhances and strengthens and deepens and emboldens our democratic institutions.

When I speak of democracy it is not the fake democracy of Trump or Farage where democratic legitimacy is built upon hatred of others. And we saw a glimpse of that particular democracy on Tuesday at FMQs. It was nasty, horrible and ugly. And it has no place in the sort of democracy that I want to see in our future.

But neither do I mean a democracy where people are shouted down at Constituency Labour Parties because their views don’t sit happily and easily with the current fashion. A democracy where antisemitism and bullying all too often form a culture where people feel unable to speak and say what they think. A democracy where there sometimes appears to be a virility test of various causes where a polit-bureau will assess your place on the virtuous left. There was a time when we used to elect national executives to stand up to the political leadership and to hold that parliamentary leadership to account. Now we are told that we must elect a NEC that is in thrall to that leadership. And that’s not democracy either.

Not a democracy where people feel inhibited and unable to speak, openly, honestly and truthfully. So many times over my decade in public office I have witnessed people who feel afraid to speak publicly whether it is the farmer who agrees with a minister over subsidies or councillor who agrees that reform is overdue. All too often I have seen people pull punches and bite lips whilst giving evidence to committees because criticism of Welsh Government or ministers is too difficult for organisations whose funding depends upon the largesse of that same government and those ministers.

But also not a democracy where a party of government is unable to easily hold an election with a woman on the ballot paper. My decision not to pursue my own campaign for the leadership of Welsh Labour was a difficult one. I would have preferred to spend the next few weeks travelling the country arguing the case for radical change and for the sort of party and political movement that I want to see.

But I know it was the right thing to do. And it reflects very poorly on the whole of the National Assembly Labour Party that people are not prepared to allow a woman on the ballot paper. And make no mistake. This is not an accident nor an oversight. It is not inadvertent and nor is it unintentional. It is the direct consequence of a planned campaign to limit the choice available to members of the party. And the consequence of this is that Welsh Labour will no longer be a credible voice for equality or for fairness if it becomes the only Welsh political party this year to actively prevent a woman reaching the ballot.

So that’s not the democracy that I’m interested in either.

This evening I want to reassert a radical and ambitious agenda. My leadership campaign would have been based upon a strongly-held belief that change and radical reform is how we will address some of the critical issues facing Wales today. From entrenched poverty to economic underperformance, the delivery of public services and participation in our democratic and public spaces. We need and must do better.

A challenge to the established way of doing things. Like many others I came into politics because I hated the poverty that I saw around me. But I also hated the poverty of ambition and aspiration from too many politicians. And still I see politicians today who believe that politics is about finding out what people want and giving it to them. The power of politics reduced to a transactional relationship.

As I have pursued a reforming agenda much of the criticism that has been levelled at me in proposing change is that I’m being either too radical or too ambitious. In agriculture, the environment, Welsh language and now local government and public services. Whilst I’m very happy to be found guilty on both charges the fact that being seen as either radical or ambitious are seen as a valid grounds for criticism speaks of a political system and culture that has probably lost its way.

Because change there must be. And change more profound than many of us realise. But that change will not happen unless we make it happen. Except that it may be forced upon us by events. And were that to be the case then would be a terrible reflection of the ability of devolved government respond to the epoch-defining challenges we face as a country and as a society. I say this because government must be about more than the administration of and supervision of the work of civil servants.

And democracy is fundamental to this change. Almost without realising it we are becoming a different country. By the time of the next election in 2021 the majority of the Welsh electorate will barely remember what I will now call direct rule. Wales without an assembly or a parliament. Without realising it we will have become a nation which is used to having a democracy and a government. And that is a real staging post in our national story. No other generation in our long history has witnessed the creation of a Welsh democracy and the creation of a Welsh state. And it is a privilege for those of us who have appeared – even somewhat uncertainly – on the stage and who have played a part in creating this young democracy.

But increasing longevity does not mean that any of our institutions are either secure or popular or even loved by the people we seek to serve. I believe that our politics are broken and that the threats to democratic self-government in Wales are real and present. Austerity and the politics that are a consequence of economic failure have created social and political reaction down the years. Gareth Bennett’s vile and ugly views have a platform not because of his successes but because of our failures. And it is to address those failures and to repair our democracy that lie at the heart of my case for radical change.

But let me also start by asserting clearly that whatever the faults of our current form of government it is a million miles better than what went before.

I am in the soon-to-be minority of people who are old enough to remember the bad old days of direct rule. The days when as President of NUS Wales I’d ask to speak to the Welsh Education Minister. In reality an Under-Secretary of State in the Welsh Office. He is in Cardiff most Mondays I am told. But you’d be better off meeting him in London. That’s where he spends most of his time. Would after lunch suit?

Let no-one tell you that those days were better days.

So let’s take stock.

What’s working?

Technically most things are actually working but is that how it feels? I suspect that for most people decisions still appear to be taken many miles away by people they do not recognise or know. We sometimes believe that this is only the case in the north. But it is also true in Tredegar and I suspect in Butetown as well. It is possible to feel a million miles away whilst living around the corner.

And this is the broken politics that I have spoken about over the summer in my short leadership campaign. A politics where people see no visible evidence that decision-makers are able to make a material difference to their lives.

Welsh Labour

It is time for Welsh Labour to embrace a reforming agenda. To paraphrase Winston Churchill…. You can always count on Welsh Labour to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

I want my party to return to its Bevanite roots. Where its determination to hold onto to power is at least matched by its determination to use that same power to transform people’s lives. When Tony Blair talked of the many and not the few he was talking about the people of this country and not simply decision-making in a CLP or party conference.

But Bevan was an idiosyncratic figure who hated being pigeon-holed. He was the radical miner’s agent who breakfasted in the Café Royale. The militant trades unionist who run Tredegar during the strike in 1926 who was also a regular weekend guest of Lord Beaverbrooke. The man who gave his name to the Bevanites of the left in the fifties and beyond was the same man who broke Michael foot’s heart in Brighton in October 1957.

Not for Bevan the rigours and confines of factionalism. The thought police would have been kept busy by Bevan’s creative and inquiring mind. His rhetoric and inventive would have been unleashed on many of today’s keyboard warriors. With a particular ridicule and contempt saved for those who seek deselection as a penalty for independence of thought and action.

So this is my appeal to my party. Do what is right for Wales and not ape what is done in England. Focus on democracy in a country of three million and not simply copy the democracy review completed for the UK Party. And look hard and creatively to develop a democracy that is rooted in the Welsh experience and not look at every proposal through the spectacles of factionalism and whether a particular leader supports it or not.

I also appeal to Welsh Labour to accept the case for STV and to embrace a reforming agenda for our public services and how we structure the governance of our country – we cannot with credibility demand reform from others while resisting it ourselves.

To become a political party where members, MPs and council leaders share policy making with Welsh ministers and where Welsh ministers are held to account because it’s the right thing to do and not because we want to deselect them before the next election. Looking inwards offers only the prospect of a deserved defeat.

And this is real political democracy. Delivering a manifesto in government is more important than endless internal meetings discussing the rulebook. And delivering that manifesto means delivering the whole of that manifesto and not the bits that are popular with different parts of the party.

Welsh Government and the National Assembly

Over the last twenty years all too often our national institutions have managed the feat of being both overbearing and timid. And often at the same time. Which is quite an achievement in itself.

I want to not simply arrest the process of centralisation but to reverse it. I have campaigned all of my adult life for devolution and the end of the UK unitary state. For me, strong home rule parliaments in Wales and Scotland form the bedrock of the architecture of our new United Kingdom. But I haven’t campaigned to create a strong parliamentary democracy in Wales only to create a new unitary state based in Cardiff Bay.

I believe that it is time for a new democratic settlement which will enable and allow citizens the opportunity to take more decisions locally. Although I don’t agree with the whole of his doctrines in The Road to Serfdom I do agree with FA Hayek when he said “nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government”.

The relationship between local government and the Welsh Government remains an immature relationship.

And it’s nothing new.

The last century has seen the steady erosion of local power.  Successive reorganisations have sought to find a balance between local accountability and the scale required to deliver high quality services. Everyone will be delighted that I do not intend to describe again all the attempts to reform both the structures and the culture of local government since 1999. It is sufficient to note that despite the urgings of ministers, the publication of numerous white or green papers and manifesto commitments as well as the clear demands of a population which doesn’t understand why a country of three million people requires quite so much government there has been no structural and little cultural change.

So devolution must now mean devolution within Wales and real devolution to communities across and throughout Wales.

And this is a challenge to the political class and to politicians in each one of the political parties.

Empowering citizens and creating a new democracy is uncomfortable and a threat to established power structures. Over the last year I have had private conversations with politicians in each one of the parties, including council leaders, where they have told me that they support reform. They have also told me very clearly that although they know it is the right thing to do they will not support reform because it is too difficult. What does that say to people who are struggling with the consequences of this failure?

But we need to go further than this.

We have created a complexity in governance. And this complexity is not a benign entanglement of committees. It is something which disempowers both public servants and citizens. I do not support the creation of an additional and unnecessary web of boards and committees because these models of governance not only take the business of government further away from the citizen but also fundamentally undermine the principle of democratic accountability.  And they sap our collective energy, use up precious resources and such complexity fundamentally mitigates against reform and change.

At a time when our finances are under enormous pressure it appears to me to be curious how we believe that greater complexity will in any way address the challenges ahead. And I believe that it is going to get worse. Whatever Brexit scenario we may choose to believe no scenario foresees additional tax revenue and additional public expenditure over the coming years. And the reduction of complexity in government is essential to a maturing and active and empowered democracy.

Civic Society

It is time for civic society to challenge the Welsh Government. I have lost count of the number of witnesses who have appeared in front of committee to tell us that everything is going swimmingly. Just a little tweak needed here and there. Such timidity tends to be born of government funding rather than a belief in the government itself.

And a maturity to know the difference. Harder talk, tougher debate. A more honest politics. A new culture in civic society where there is a mature relationship with Welsh Government. And the Welsh Government – members and officials – must also learn to live with this culture as well.

So what is a democratic culture?

Whilst we are one of Europe’s oldest nations with a culture, language and traditions that stretch back into history, we are also one of Europe’s youngest political nations. And this is something which we all sometimes fail to recognise. All too often we compare ourselves unfavourably with parliamentary democracy as practiced in the Palace by the Thames where they call themselves the mother of parliaments.

Clearly they’ve never heard of Iceland. But there we go. It establishes an unhelpful context for us. The hard reality is that here we have been inventing a new democracy in a country where there had previously been little independent thought or thinking.

When I consider the question of democracy and a democratic culture I feel more comfortable with Tom Paine than Edmund Burke. I am instinctively drawn to the democracy of the American or French revolutionary than the traditionalism of the British (or in Burke’s case – Irish) Conservative.

The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 by a group of Puritans led by John Winthrop came with the understanding that the enterprise was to be “based in the new world rather than in London.” One of the first actions of the new settlers arriving in Jamestown was to hold an election. The principle of local self-government was more important to many of those first settlers than the question of the independence of the colony as a whole. A new political culture with active citizenship at its heart and as a founding principle.

And in Wales we share some of these radical traditions. We started our journey to becoming a literate nation long before compulsory education, thanks in part to Griffith Jones and his Circulating Schools which by the time of his death in 1761 had taught around 200,000 people to read. And this is important. It was not the state providing an education but a radical self-built movement which enabled many working people to read for themselves and at the same time rooting the importance of education in the culture of the country. Again active citizenship changing the lives of people, communities and the nature of the country.

In July we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that established the National Health Service. But of course the NHS was not simply the brainchild of a think tank it was born in 1890 when the Tredegar Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund was created with each worker in the town contributing halfpenny a week. Active citizenship. And democracy was at its heart – they even elected the doctors!

And so I believe that active citizenship is not only a central part of our political traditions but it is also a part of who we are as a people and as a nation.

For me active citizenship is fundamental to our democratic socialism and any new democratic culture. And you cannot control a culture where equality and democracy are at its heart. Something that politicians need to learn and understand.

How do we achieve this?

In my view we place real power in the hands of citizens and enable citizens to exercise that power. We devolve and distribute power more equally.

But active citizenship demands accountability more than once every four or five years. The politicians of the future will need to be far more responsive to their electorates than the politicians of today. In my time in elected office I have seen the number of letters we receive fall to a trickle. In their place email and social media now dominate our communications. And notwithstanding the issues of bullying, trolling and abuse I still feel that this channel of engagement is generally a good thing. As a society and as a political system we are still coming to terms with the power of these ways of managing our communications. I am an optimist and I believe that our society will in time learn to use social media in a more thoughtful way.

So the active citizen of tomorrow will be able and willing to communicate instantly – and expect instantaneous response – and able to mobilise at a pace and scale we haven’t seen before.  For us politicians, this is a great challenge.  For citizens it is a great opportunity.

By providing new powers to be held locally, new opportunities to use those powers and by increasing and deepening local democratic debate, I believe that we will, over time, change the culture of government. And by doing so, change the relationship between government and the communities it serves as well as the relationship between local government and Welsh Government.

It was that great historian Gwyn Alf Williams who said that Wales would be made and remade by those people living in the two western peninsular of Britain. For two thousand years, he said, we have improbably fashioned a nation – our nation – the Welsh nation and it only exists because we made it exist.

So today it falls to us. To our generation to remake Wales again. Those of us who remember enjoying Gwyn Alf arguing through The Dragon has Two Tongues with Wynford Vaughan Thomas will remember their description of Wales through the ages – under the heel; gentry country; swallowing the leek; from riot to respectability; and of course the final episode inevitably entitled “the death of Wales?” with Gwyn’s memorable description of us as a people walking naked under a acid rain.

It is my hope that the next chapter in our history will be Democratic Wales with our democratic institutions underpinned by a democratic society but it will only happen if we make it happen. And making it happen is our duty to future generations.

One thought on “Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy

  1. Indeed. I’ve lost count of the number of times i’ve hear Third Sector charities tell me that Minister’s SpAds have threatened to withdraw that charity’s funding if they continue to oppose a development in that Minister’s constituency.

    Good job people keep the emails.

    Like

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