Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy 

This article is an edited version of a lecture that I gave last week at Cardiff Business School. The lecture examined the culture and the relationship between Welsh Government and Local Government. It also attempts to sketch out some of the reasons why I believe that greater devolution across Wales will help strengthen our democracy and why there’s a strong socialist case for a more radical approach to the wider reform debate.

I did not come into politics in take part in a debate between different management consultancies or a sterile argument between different versions of a technocratic theory. For me the way in which we order our affairs as a society is a deeply political and philosophical question. Too often our politics has been about choosing between two versions of the same committee structure. In the last few weeks much of the criticism levelled at me is that I’m either being too radical or too ambitious. Whilst I’m very happy to be found guilty on both charges the fact that being seen as either radical or ambitious is now seen as valid grounds for criticism speaks of a political culture that has probably lost its way.

So this evening I want to reassert that radical and ambitious agenda. I believe that to do otherwise would be a failure of leadership and a failure to speak for the people we seek to represent and I want that agenda to be rooted in our values. Let me start with the most fundamental of those values – democracy.

Whilst we are one of Europe’s oldest nations we are also one of Europe’s youngest political nations. And this is something which we all sometimes fail to remember. All too often we compare ourselves unfavourably with parliamentary democracy as practiced in the Palace by the Thames. But the hard reality is that we have been inventing a new democracy in a country where there had previously been little independent thought or thinking. As a politics student in the eighties my tutor, Denis Balsom, would often ask whether Welsh politics existed at all. The question serves to remind us that our emerging new democracy is barely a generation or two away from an ill-disguised autocracy where two or three ministers would take decisions and govern our country behind closed doors.

Fundamental to any democracy is the active participation of citizens in selecting and choosing the way in which power is used on their behalf and in their name. And for me active citizenship is at the heart of my proposals for reform. 

Wales has a radical political history and I hope that we can still see some echoes of those radical traditions.

In the next week we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that established the National Health Service. But of course the NHS was not the brainchild of a government. It was actually born in 1890 when the Tredegar Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund was created with each worker in the town contributing halfpenny a week. It grew to provide services to 20,000 people including my own mother and father. And this was local citizens, taking matters into their own hands and creating the structures and services that they required, designed and delivered according their needs and their wishes. Active citizenship. And democracy was at its heart – they even elected the doctors! 

And growing up in Tredegar the medical aid society was a part of my childhood. Not simply the buildings – although I did see the doctor in old surgery buildings and I did visit relatives in the cottage hospital built on land donated to the Fund by Lord Tredegar in 1904 but more than all of that, the philosophy of the medical aid society was a fundamental part of our socialism. The belief that local people can demand, design, manage, control and then deliver their own local services was reinforced by the local council – the Tredegar Urban District Council – which provided a rich variety of services for the people of the town. 

But what’s this got to do with the challenges facing us today?

Because when faced with a significant challenge it must be our values that drive our solutions. We must not simply seek a managerial response or fix. And when local government leaders told me last year that the current system and structure is not sustainable it was to these values that I turned in fashioning my response.

And this is important. Why do we need democratic accountability for the mechanical process of taking away our refuse and recycling? Why the need for democratic oversight of the way in which the grass is cut in parks and public places?

I will argue that these decisions are not simply about delivering services, each individual decision shapes those services. And of course we also tax people locally. And democratic oversight of that taxation is a fundamental part of our system of governance the American revolutionary demand – no taxation without representation – still reverberates down the centuries.

And I want these decisions to be rooted in a renewed democracy driven by active citizenship. Not a tired democracy where people do not feel able or motivated to participate.

How do we achieve this?

In my view we place real power in the hands of the citizen and we enable the citizen and powerful new councils to exercise that power. So we will start by making it easier to participate in local elections.

We will legislate in the next year to start the process of enabling electronic voting and counting and extend the franchise – active citizenship must start with an enfranchised and inclusive community.

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. Social media is now the main communications channel. As a society and as a political system we are still coming to terms with the power of social media channels. I am an optimist and I believe that our society will in time learn to use social media in a more mature and 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, a great opportunity.

As well as providing the tools and means to participate we need to provide the structures 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”. And if active citizenship is to mean anything in Wales then the ability to apply this locally is fundamental to the growth and deepening and maturing of our own democracy.

The last century has seen the steady erosion of local power and locally-delivered services. And let’s be clear these last few years have not been easy for local government either. Whilst in Wales local councils have been protected from the whirlwind which has ripped through local government resources across the border,  I recognise that balancing budgets is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially so when we have a structure that is itself cumbersome and top-heavy.

At the same time we have not yet hard-wired the good work such as the 21st century schools programme to become the norm. When we work together we can harness and put to work some fantastic knowledge and experience to be found in county halls across the country together with the resources and power of the Welsh Government. But this has not happened in a planned, mature and consistent way. Twenty years on, the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government still has not yet matured.

My conclusion is that if our democracy and our political relationships are to mature, then it will only happen when power is held and exercised locally and where communities are able to hold locally-elected councils and councillors to account for their decisions.

So in addressing the future of local government I want not simply to 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.

So devolution must now mean devolution within Wales and real devolution to communities across and throughout Wales. I will publish a vision for new empowered councils that will describe my ambition to transfer power from Cardiff to county halls across the country. And I intend that this takes place as a part of a process of the simplification of how we practice governance. Councils should have new powers to act and new opportunities to increase and strengthen their financial resilience. And I hope that it will be underpinned by a new national framework within which empowered councils with the capacity and ability to lead will exercise their powers locally, regionally and nationally.

And the reduction of complexity in government is essential to a maturing and active and empowered democracy.

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 undermines the principle of democratic accountability. And they sap our collective energy, use up precious resources but more than this such complexity fundamentally mitigates against reform and change.  

I have spoken to too many people over the past few months who spend far too much time in meetings and not delivering services. I spoke to one person who described 74 different committees, groups or partnerships that she needs to attend. Our newly-appointed Violence against Women national advisors have also described the complexity of government as a real barrier to providing support to some very vulnerable people. Other public sector mangers have described to me how they attend multiple meetings to agree common approaches to solving basic problems. Decision-making needs to be simplified to allow for more effective delivery and implementation.

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.

Many of those who argue against larger authorities do so out of a well-founded sense that a larger authority will not provide the same localism as a smaller authority. I sympathise with their fears. 

For me, the issue is empowerment of local councils not their geographical or population size. This is not an argument based simply on numbers, it is a pragmatic one and should be rooted in the kind of local democracy we want as a country but which also recognises our communities and local identities.

So I propose that at the same time as we provide more powers for the principal authorities that we also seek to enable town and community councils to play a larger role in shaping our communities. The independent panel that has been looking at these issues believes that the larger principal authorities should deliver the “people” services but that local community councils could deliver more “place-based” services. And I agree. 

So a new settlement. Greater power exercised locally with greater opportunities to innovate and to drive change. And with greater power comes greater responsibility. So I would also want to see local government taking greater responsibility for the improvement of services provided by local authorities. This is the reality of a maturing system and a maturing relationship with the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Government has acted on many occasions to step in where there is service or democratic failure and that is right. We cannot tolerate poor performance. But, in fixing those problems we rely on those with expertise in the corporate and service functions and not in Welsh Government.   

So, to me, it makes sense that local government takes on a far greater role and responsibility for improvement functions. That will demand a greater self awareness of performance and drive for improvement among local government itself. It will demand a greater collective response where authorities act together for the greater good. It may be that we could create a national improvement agency as a partnership between the Welsh Government and local government but rooted in local government with local government taking the lead. 

At the same time,  technology is going to drive changes in the way in which services are delivered and in how councils and government operate, more so than we fully understand today. We have already created a project to look at how the digitisation of government will drive change. For the future, I believe that a national shared services agency could provide the basis to share and deliver these changes whilst at the same time protecting employment in some very vulnerable and fragile communities. But again a partnership between the Welsh Government and local government. And again rooted in and driven by local government. 

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 local government and Welsh Government.

So as I recognise that structural change can and must lead cultural change in way we manage and deliver public services I also recognise that structural change alone can deliver these ambitions. We know that many services are not meeting citizens expectations and it is difficult to see how we will meet the fair expectations of citizens anytime in the near future without a change and reform programme as I have described this evening. 

I am painful aware that the failure rate of government-led transformations is high. And that the reasons for this failure are multi-faceted. But I believe that we can deliver change if we provide clear leadership, a clear purpose and priorities, if Welsh Government provides the support and capacity to deliver change. But I also understand that we need to win hearts and minds as well. I want to lead reform and not simply impose reform. 

In order to win hearts and minds we must also establish trust.

The new empowered councils will have a considerable suite of new responsibilities and powers. Perhaps it is a step too far to say that the new Monmouthshire or Gwynedd should have parliaments rather than a council. But I hope that collectively and individually these new authorities will exercise a greater range of powers than our predecessors when the Assembly was created in 1999.

I believe that we need a break from the past in building our new democracy. So let’s go further and entrench these new powers with a new system and within a new agreement. I recognise that in any parliamentary system it is difficult to entrench powers so let me suggest this; 

That we sign, together, the Welsh Government and the leaders of local government, a Charter for Democracy. Based upon the EU Charter for local government, but focused on our own agenda for decentralisation and democracy where the new powers for local government are codified and placed on the statute book. 

It is a statement that in the future we will have a mature and intelligent relationships based upon mutual respect and mutual esteem and an agreement on how we work together, structurally and culturally. 

So active citizenship, rooted in our values and in our democratic traditions. Reinventing our democracy and entrenching powerful new authorities where vibrant and active democratic debate will renew and rejuvenate our politics for the future. The delivery of excellence in public services, the protection and investment in the workforce will be driven by a more fundamental accountability to and in the communities we serve.

And this is why I remain passionate about reform and passionate about the journey ahead. I believe in the public good and the public purpose and I believe in collective action.

I read last week that to succeed in reform one needs to be resilient, determined and persistent. It is for others to judge whether this is a good policy or whether it is the right policy. But it is my belief that by following this route we will not only deliver better services but that we will also strengthen and deepen our democracy. 

It’s time to talk about prisons

We need a serious conversation about how we do justice in Wales. 

Last Thursday morning I gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. My appearance in front of the Committee followed the publication earlier in the week of a troubling and disturbing insight into the life of the prison service in Wales by Cardiff Governance Centre. Reported in today’s Western Mail it makes for some miserable reading. And this report itself follows on the heels of a number of critical reports into the management of the criminal justice system in Wales.

But all too often a debate over the future of penal policy in Wales is reduced to a debate over the location of a prison. Over the Easter recess I published a statement on the Welsh Government’s approach to justice policy. Most journalists saw the immediacy of the story over a proposed “superprison” in Baglan. Without further thought they reported that story whilst ignoring the rest of the statement.

We need to do better than this. 

It is difficult to argue that the way we do criminal justice in Wales is working well. The hard reality is that we have a justice system that is simply not fit for purpose. My view is that we urgently need to develop an approach which focusses on Welsh needs and begins the process of developing a distinctive Welsh penal policy.

For many of us the UK Government’s intransigence over the devolution of justice has been just another one of those sometimes interminable debates that we’ve endured over the last few decades as we struggle towards a stable settlement which allows for the good government of Wales within the United Kingdom. 

In terms of criminal justice we face a situation where the UK Ministry of Justice is unable to deliver its overall policy programme in Wales and where the Welsh Government is also unable to deliver a policy programme. We have the worst of all worlds. And this is entirely due to a settlement rooted in the Conservative Party’s refusal to recognise Wales as having the same rights to good governance as either Scotland or Northern Ireland. Or seemingly even London. 

My view is clear. The current settlement is broken. And until it is fixed then we will always have a half a conversation and we will not reach a conclusion which will be of benefit to anyone. 

As a minister I have responsibility for justice policy in Wales but much of this policy is not yet devolved and so I have no easy way of delivering any policy outcome. I rely upon the goodwill of the professional leadership and their desire to work together to deliver the coherence that politicians have failed to create. So we find ourselves in the curious situation of creating a series of ad hoc structures to overcome the difficulties created by the political structures. There are a lot of good people trying hard to do the right thing.

This is no way to run a country. 

The Welsh Government has been clear that it believes policing should be devolved and there is in all honestly very little real opposition to that. Secondly the Welsh Government has been clear that the two jurisdictions should be separated and a Welsh jurisdiction created. This is good sense and I assume that the Justice Commission created by the First Minister and led by the former Lord Chief Justice will make some observations and reach its own conclusions on these matters when it reports next year. Whilst it is fair to say that such things are rarely the topic of heated debate in the Dog and Duck they are the basics that any constitutional settlement should get right. A legal device that was created by the Tudors to help assimilate Wales into the Kingdom of England five centuries ago is probably not the best way to manage our democracy in the 21st century. Most of the rest of those acts of union have been repealed and it’s time that bit went as well. 

So that just leaves the penal system as the only part of the overall criminal justice system where we haven’t had these conversations. And it’s time we did so. My view is (probably unsurprisingly) that this should, alongside the other aspects of the system, be devolved. This will allow us to pursue an holistic approach which brings all aspects of the policy together with those services which are already devolved to provide for a coherent comprehensive and consistent approach to both developing policy and providing services. It is logical and it is rational. The current position is neither of these.

And this would also benefit the overall devolution settlement where these areas are now the biggest single impediment to the stability and clarity that we all wish to see.

And this is possible. The Ministry of Justice has already reached an agreement to begin the process of devolution of many of these powers to the Mayor of London. The Secretary of State, David Gauke, told the House of Commons a few months ago that they were seeking a whole systems approach. Hallelujah. So if it works in London with far less of the infrastructure required to deliver such a policy then why not in Wales where there is significantly more confusion and complexity and where a specific and tailored approach could more easily be delivered in a far-sighted and intelligent way? And of course Wales has own legislature and government etc….

So what next? What would a Welsh penal policy actually look like?

It is difficult to argue that the current policy has been developed to serve Welsh interests. It is inconceivable that any policy rooted in a desire to serve Wales would have given us a secure estate which looks anything like the current structure. My assumption is that the current configuration probably owes more to disagreements between departments in London and the prejudices of the Treasury than in addressing the needs of Wales. No Welsh policy would have created a situation whereby there is no facility for women, only a single youth offender centre located within an adult prison and until last year no facility at all outside the M4 corridor. 

But my view is that a Welsh penal policy would be different, not simply in bricks and mortar, but also in tone and values from much of what we’ve seen in the past. I hope that it would be rooted in humanity and respect with a clear commitment to rehabilitation and to an holistic approach to preventing reoffending and enabling people to acquire the skills and support they need to live their lives. And such an approach would benefit the whole country.

And what would this mean in reality? For me it would mean a clear commitment not to build a woman’s prison but to develop two and possibly three woman centres with a focus on providing support for the whole family unit and providing ways to support those women at times when their needs are greatest. At present most of the woman from Wales who are in prison are there for theft or other relatively minor offences. Many of these offences are the consequence of attempting to escape poverty or from violence at home. Few women commit serious crimes and many are simply incarcerated as a result of a summary conviction. We are currently developing alternative routes to detention which I hope will reduce the number of women who are detained. The first step in a new direction.

We have already succeeded in reducing the number of youth offenders who are being sent to secure units. The next step would be a secure centre potentially linked to an FE college where those young people detained could access high quality education and skills to enable them to resettle successfully into their home community. 

The bulk of the prison population are adult male prisoners. The approach of the Ministry of Justice has been to build new large-scale prisons such as Berwyn in Wrexham. Whilst it is true that this provides high quality facilities I have made clear that we do not need large-scale prison developments that inevitably provide accommodation many miles from home. But we also desperately need investment in the secure estate. I would prefer investment in smaller-scale prisons with greater links to training and employment opportunities in communities closer to their homes where coherent and consistent services can be provided. But we also need to bring together the already-devolved services of health and education with the overall management of the prison system. Many people who are detained experience significant issues with mental illness and substance abuse. We need to be able to deliver seamless support which brings together the penal system with social services, health and education services. Only then will we be able to seriously address these issues. 

So there is a compelling new agenda for the whole the criminal justice system in Wales which can revolutionise the way in which we will deal with some of the most vulnerable and challenged people in our society. But rather than addressing these matters today we have the situation where a broken settlement means that neither the Ministry of Justice nor the Welsh Government are able to deliver the holistic approach that both probably agree is needed. 

We simply cannot carry on like this. Wales deserves far better.

Lets talk

The one thing that was striking in conversations in the immediate aftermath of Carwyn’s resignation was that many of us felt the need to talk about not simply the mechanics of a leadership campaign but also about the wider challenges facing us as a party and as a movement.

At first sight an eight month election campaign makes even the most enthusiastic activist tremble with fear.  But upon a more judicious consideration of the timetable allows a more stimulating and even inviting prospect. Carwyn, in his resignation, has given the party the one thing that very few political parties have the opportunity to exploit.

Carwyn had given us the gift of time. 

Normally a leadership election is forced upon an unwilling leader and an unhappy party by the electorate after an election defeat. Even when Rhodri resigned back in September 2009 he did so in such a way as to enable a contest to take place immediately. Carwyn has done something different. He has given us a timetable for his resignation.

And this means we have an opportunity now to do something different. Maybe even something special and unique in politics. 

We have the time and the space to have a debate before we actually need to have an election campaign. Over the coming months and until nominations open in September we have the opportunity to have a wide-ranging and open debate about the future of Welsh Labour and how we as a political movement respond to the enormous challenges facing us across Wales. From Brexit to populism to defeating austerity. How we campaign, how we involve people in our politics and how we organise ourselves. 

And this is a debate that will better happen if it is not seen through the prism of which candidate from whatever wing of the party is taking a position on a particular issue. I fear that such considerations will lead to our debate being reduced to a tired and dispiriting conversation based upon preconceptions and some entertaining and usually misplaced Kremlinology. Some of my colleagues have already made the point there is no immediate need for potential candidates to worry about having a list of supporters. Whilst others are exercising themselves by writing and rewriting lists of Assembly members. My message is to relax. Lots can happen in a few months.

Whilst I accept that my optimism may be seen as an unexpected innocence in some quarters. And obviously I do understand and accept that some campaigning is inevitable. But I also hope that there will be a recognition that an exhausting election campaign which lasts eight months without this debate will let down the people who want and need a debate on the future direction of Welsh Labour.

By the time of the next election in 2021 we will have been in power for over twenty years. This is a testament to the roots of the party in Welsh communities and also the campaigning strength of the organisation. I do not believe for a moment that we should be shy or even slightly embarrassed by this electoral success. But I do believe that this success and longevity in government demands a fundamental and honest debate about our approaches to the questions that will face us in 2021 and beyond.

I wrote on this blog yesterday about some of the opportunities we have as a party in terms of our democracy review. For too long the party’s approach to determining our priorities for government have been driven by Members in Cardiff with little involvement of the wider party. I want to see this change. It is time to to acknowledge and recognise the role of our MPs, members, councillors, CLPs, and affiliated bodies.

I have been a strong supporter of the strengthening of Welsh Labour as a political party, movement and organisation for some years. All too often people misread this determination to create political structures which mirror the constitutional reality as a means of creating distance between ourselves in Wales and the UK structures in London. This has always been a mistaken belief.

The reason that I have supported the strengthening of Welsh Labour has been to create a more powerful and a more open political party which is able to both determine our policy outlook but also to create the means by which the wider party can hold ministers like myself to account. In this way my ambition is to widen the debate over our party’s political programme and deepening the democracy within the party. For instance, I want to see my approach on local government reform to be tested not only by Assembly Members and councillors but also our MPs and members, trades unions and affiliated bodies. Together we have a great deal of experience, knowledge and expertise across the whole of the party and movement and we are stronger when we maximise the input of this expertise into policy-making and holding Welsh Labour ministers to account.

On Monday I attended the latest meeting of the Valleys Taskforce. Our discussion was focussed on delivering digital services to communities which have all too often been excluded. Our last meeting discussed local transport priorities and our next will focus on automation and the opportunities for our economy from this revolution. As politicians in the valleys (and elsewhere) we are all aware of the populist politics of our opponents and their easy answers to difficult questions. The valleys have all seen swings to UKIP, Plaid and voted to leave the EU. Taken together these issues, and others, will define the political debates for the next few years. Communities across Wales are on the frontline of austerity. Well-fed and well-upholstered politicians in the bars and restaurants of Westminster may talk austerity but it is the people of Cwm, Rassau, Blaina and Nantyglo who feel its affects. Their lives pay for those politicians’ theories. And we, as Welsh Labour, need to stand up for those people. 

But we also need to do more than that. 

We need to find and articulate not only a well-placed anger but solutions. And sustainable solutions to deep-rooted problems. I told the National Assembly yesterday that we are not paid to list problems but to solve them. And in doing so we also need to be honest with ourselves. 

And we can only do this with and through an open debate. Which takes us back to Carwyn. We are not facing an election and we are not recovering from one. The party is in good shape and and we can afford the time to talk. The Tories may believe that it’s impossible to drive through a programme of radical reform whilst having a serious conversation about the future but I do not. As a party we will be refreshed, united and reinvigorated by such a conversation.

Which, of course, is the real reason why they hate the idea of it. 

Some reflections on a weekend in Llandudno

Until about 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon conversations in Llandudno had been dominated by the deputy leadership contest.

Carwyn’s speech changed everything.

But in many ways his announcement also served to deepen, sharpen and provide a new focus for those pretty intense conversations which were already taking place.

It was immediately clear that the electoral college could not be used to elect our new leader. I hope the Welsh Exec will now move quickly to ensure that we have a democracy where people feel empowered in the debate over the future direction of the party. For anyone with any doubts let me be clear: the argument over OMOV is won. And those who still have objections would be best advised to find a way of coming to terms with this new democracy rather than finding novel, inventive and bureaucratic devices to obstruct the clearly-expressed will of the party.

But in this new democracy we also need a debate which goes beyond OMOV. In many ways the dominance of OMOV as an issue in the deputy leadership contest ironically served to cloud the debate and actually prevented us from having a much richer debate about our democracy and how the new role could help strengthen the party. However for me it is not enough to simply demand OMOV for the election of the leader. This is a limited view of our democracy and not one which I believe is an adequate response to the challenges facing us as a party.

One of the most striking aspects of the deputy leadership contest which has not attracted any real comment was the low participation of our members. Some of us received multiple ballots – as members of an affiliate or individual members – in the future we need to ensure that we all receive a single ballot. And then we need to motivate people to use it. The party likes to make much of the enthusiasm of our new mass party but that was not what we saw in this election. Only 36% of our members voted. Amongst affiliates the the turnout was a disastrous 4%. This does not speak of enthused and enfranchised membership. And it needs to be addressed. There is no purpose in changing the system if we cannot persuade members to take part.

We now need to have that debate.

In another decision in which now seems like a watershed conference, the decision to launch a democracy review is crucial for us as a party. But it needs to do far more than simply provide a new opportunity to rehearse existing arguments on re-selections and CLP standing orders. My own decision to support Carolyn was based on a belief that we all need to do far more to bring the party together. In this way it would have been a mistake for the whole leadership team to be based in Cardiff Bay. As a member of the party’s NEC I regularly tried to contribute to discussions on the policy approach that the party is taking across the whole of the UK – from Brexit to justice policy to economic policy. We need the structures to develop a policy platform for Wales whilst at the same time recognising a coherence – or at least an awareness – of the policy positions, outlooks and approaches of the party across Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. This means we need to address the fundamental shape of the party.

We are in power but we do not have anything like the internal political structures to reflect this position. If our party democracy is to mean anything then we not only need to actively involve people but we must also create a new architecture of accountability and political decision-making. We need to find new ways of involving this new membership in making policy and to maximise the input of our trades unions colleagues and also of councillors and MPs. We have a fantastic strength in terms of the experience and knowledge and skills within the party but we do not have the means to use this power to create policy or hold our elected representatives to account for actions and decisions taken in the name of the party.

And whilst we are considering the fundamentals of our democracy I also want to say a word about a deputy leadership candidate who wasn’t even on the ballot paper.

Our local government leader, Debbie Wilcox, has made a real impression in her determination to place local authority leaders at the heart of the debate over our leadership. Her campaign for nomination means that at very least the party now needs to make immediate changes to ensure that the threshold for future elections is changed to allow Welsh Labour local authority leaders to nominate and to play a much fuller part in our party. Of course this should have happened already. It’s ridiculous that a politician who leads a political group with executive responsibilities and a budget of many tens or hundreds of millions of pounds does not have the same rights within the party as a backbencher in either Cardiff or Westminster. If we are to reach out and create a more inclusive leadership team then it needs to change and it must change quickly.

With a leadership election taking place later in the year it is essential that this wider debate now takes place. And it is essential that we actively create the time and space to debate these issues before we turn our attention to the question of our leadership.

But more about that tomorrow.

It’s time for a new relationship with local government

I like to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.

Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.

Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.

What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.

And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.

And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.

As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.

In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.

Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.

So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.

So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.

In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.

So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.

But I cannot travel on this journey alone.

The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.

So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.

It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.

I certainly hope so.

Here we go again…

I’ve decided to start writing my blog again.

When I was appointed to government after the last election I felt that a certain degree of discretion was probably the best approach and whilst the blog provided some opportunity to contribute to a wider political discussion it also provided an opportunity for mischief to be made by those people for whom such things are a way of life.

So the keyboard was folded away.

My friends were relieved. Others looked clearly disappointed.

So why the change of mind?

The last few months have been amongst the most traumatic that I can remember. Carl was a dear friend as well as a trusted colleague and comrade. He was one of the first people I met in Cardiff after being first elected. Many of us are still trying to come to terms with losing him in such terrible circumstances. The various investigations into the circumstances of his death will continue to dominate people’s thoughts over the coming months and I hope that they will provide an opportunity for us all to better understand how and why Carl felt that he had no alternative and no way out. At the very least Carl’s family need to know why they have lost him.

But losing Carl has also dominated the life of the government. It is difficult to overstate the depth of the shadow that his passing has shed over those of us who served alongside him. It has been difficult and sometimes impossible to focus on how we move forward and deliver the government’s programme.

And this again is another reason to start writing again. I want to help move the focus back onto our politics and what we wish to achieve over the coming years.

These are the most depressing and difficult times that I can remember for the politics of Wales, the UK and the wider world. Carl’s death took place against a backdrop of anger against politicians and a deep disbelief in the power of politics to achieve real and lasting change. All too often people who are facing the hard reality of austerity simply do not believe that we as politicians have any understanding of their lives and the difficulties they face. In the debate on Brexit many people looked at their political leaders and decided that they didn’t believe a word we were saying. And this represents a real crisis in politics that goes far beyond Brexit.

But I do believe in politics. And I believe that it is only through politics that we can create change. It was politics that created our democracy, that created our NHS and it is only through politics that we can create real equality in our society – only politics gives us the platform to take on powerful vested interests.

In the last few decades it is politics that gave Wales the right to pass our own laws and create our own government and parliament. And as a member of that government and that parliament I want to play my part in repairing our politics. And without wishing to appear too precious or pompous I do believe that being elected is a privilege and a part of repaying that privilege is to use whatever knowledge or experience or understanding that I may have to contribute in a positive way to a conversation about our futures.

So this is my contribution to that debate.

It is not a ministerial blog, although I will from time to time discuss the issues for which I am responsible in the Welsh Government, but I make again the plea that nothing I say here should be over-interpreted or misinterpreted as the view of that government.

It’s my view. No more. No less.

I will endeavour to update at least once a week but such things are a movable feast.

 

Sometimes we need a little more UK and not less…

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Last week the Secretary of State essentially withdrew the Wales Bill that he published with a great fanfare only four months ago. In doing so he demonstrated that neither the Wales Office nor any Whitehall department has the experience or the expertise to understand how devolution works – either in principle or in practice. And this is of profound importance to all of us because it suggests that the UK Government no longer understands the constitution of the UK or appreciates how the UK actually works today. And that’s a pretty serious thing. If not entirely surprising.

Anyway. We are where we are.

The “pause” is only worthwhile if good use is made of this time. And by that I do not simply mean parliamentary draughtsmen working furiously to write a bill which is fit for purpose. The First Minister’s intervention on Monday did that for them. And by publishing a draft bill the FM demonstrated that the Welsh Government has a shared vision of a settlement which is coherent and intelligent and which hardwires stability into the constitution. The sad voices grizzling about process from the sidelines – I heard no real criticism of the substance – need to understand that that the vacuum created by the Secretary of State’s failures has to be filled. And it is absolutely right and proper that the Welsh Government does so. Not to have done so would have been an abrogation of its responsibilities.

But this “pause” must do more than teach the Secretary of State about the basics of the British Constitution. It must also allow us to start having a serious debate about how the new UK, which is currently being created in an haphazard, confused and chaotic way, is actually going to work in practice. In short we need the sort of discussion that we should have had prior to last year’s St Davids Day Announcement and at the same time as the debate on the new powers to Scotland and the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”.

And central to this debate is not only a discussion over the devolution of powers and where those powers should properly rest. It also means a conversation about the future purpose of the United Kingdom and how will it will work in the future.

One of the very welcome suggestions made belatedly by the Secretary of State was that the debate over powers and reservations will now be based upon a principled approach. Hallelujah. All we need now is to find out which principles the Secretary of State will employ. I have commented previously that the only serious analysis of this matter was presented by the Welsh Government to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee. Someone in the Wales Office would do well to google it. It describes the UK as an economic, social and political union based upon the principle of subsidiarity. If we could agree on that then everything else quickly becomes easier and clearer.

Such an agreed vision of the future UK would have profound consequences. It would start the process of settling the over-long debate on devolution and it would begin to create a broad public understanding of the differing roles of different governments and parliaments. It would also enable us to build the new structures that would provide the UK with the constitutional architecture needed to underpin the stability that we all want to see.

Fundamentally, the United Kingdom needs a formal agreement between its constituent parts on how it will operate in the future – placing respect on the statute book. But it also needs the machinery of a federal state. At the moment the UK Government is the only shared institution we have – and all too often it acts as judge and jury on its own decisions and actions. This is neither fair nor reasonable and nor is it acceptable or sustainable.

The First Minister agreed whilst giving evidence to the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee a few weeks ago that there is no structure or process to resolve disputes on either competence or individual pieces of legislation between governments short of reference to the Supreme Court. This cannot be right.

At the same time wherever there is a dispute on financial matters such as the spending on the Olympics or HS2 or the fundamentals of Barnett then the Treasury simply imposes its own views. Again this is not sustainable as we’ve witnessed recently with the negotiations on the Scottish fiscal framework. The First Minister has also made clear that at least part of his rationale for not increasing income tax levels in Wales when that power is devolved is because of the continuing dispute over the Barnett Formula. The dispute has lasted almost as long as the formula.

To date the UK Government has been reluctant to recognise the constitutional reality that its policies and approach is creating. Its approach has been piecemeal and all too often the suspicion that partisan advantage lies too close to the heart of its decision-making. From English votes in the House of Commons to the reduction in the size of the Commons there has been a reticence to engage in the principled debate about the future nature and shape of the Union that Stephen Crabb seemed to indicate that he would now prefer to see.

An inter-governmental and inter-institutional agreement established in law and sustained by UK-wide institutions independent of all our governments are now crucial to underpinning our new constitutional architecture. And will benefit everyone except well-suited constitutional lawyers. At the same time the UK’s parliaments must learn to work together in a formal structure to provide a much richer, wider and deeper scrutiny in an institutional relationship to oversee the work of these governments and this UK-wide scrutiny is an essential part of this jigsaw.

This is not difficult to achieve. In terms of a financial framework for the UK Government and devolved governments, the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission seems to be a good model and a good starting point. The CGC distributes an equalisation payment to all states in Australia based upon an agreement reached between the states and the federal government. Its independence of the federal government is key to its ability to take rational and fair decisions acting as an independent arbitrator. The last UK Government created the Office of Budget Responsibility to provide external and independent advice for the Chancellor and the present UK Government agreed and accepted that an independent review of the Scottish fiscal framework would be appropriate and so this suggestion or model cannot be a bridge too far in principle. The Treasury would hate it but it would take the heat out of all of our current disputes on money and may even resolve the issues with the Barnett Formula.

In other matters, the Supreme Court is a constitutional court in all but name and I’m sure that within the structures of the Court a constitutional tribunal could be created which would resolve issues of competence before legislating and before any dispute escalates out of control. Far better that than years of arguments between ministers followed by very expensive litigation after a piece of legislation has been enacted.

Sometimes the debate around devolution seems to be about how many powers can be levered out of London and not about a collective vision of a future United Kingdom. Hopefully we can now have a debate about the UK as a whole and not only about what powers we want in Wales.