By Jamie McKay
At the beginning of this month First Minister Carwyn Jones stated that Welsh Labour must show that it has a distinct identity. The fear among staffers at the Welsh arm of the Labour party is that voters will see them as a mere puppet with someone in London pulling the strings. Leading members believe the party suffered in the 1999 Assembly elections, and were forced to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, because voters saw them this way. In recent weeks the First Minister has shown Welsh Labour’s distinct identity by picking fights with both the Conservative government in Westminster and his own party’s leadership.
The previous Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government launched the cross party Silk Commission in 2011. Published in two parts over the following two years, the report recommended new powers for the Welsh Government. The draft bill will also allow Wales to lower the voting age, change the number of AMs and change the name Assembly’s along with new powers over transport and energy policy.
After being published last year the UK government’s original draft Wales Bill was met with heavy criticism from politicians, writers and activists across Wales. At the time the First Minister argued that the bill amounted to an English veto on powers supposedly devolved to Wales. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood went so far as to call the draft bill “an insult to our country” arguing that it enshrined “Wales’ status as a second class country in the UK”. Jones argued the bill wouldn’t pass through the Assembly.
At the time Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb’s spokesman issued a statement accusing the First Minister of “playing a dangerous game” in peddling “nationalist rhetoric”. Since then he has backed down and agreed to make some major changes to the draft Wales bill. The secretary has agreed to examine those areas which have supposedly been devolved but where Westminster still holds some power and has instructed officials to reduce the number of policy areas where powers are reserved to the UK government. Overall the changes were lauded by pundits, but haven’t gone far enough for Jones.
The First Minister wants to see a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales, similar to the system which has developed in Scotland. However, Crabb has stated that this is an area he will not back down on. After the First Minister revealed his alternative Wales Bill last week the Welsh Secretary hit back almost immediately. Accusing Welsh Labour of running scared of Plaid Cymru Crabb said; “The fact is the Labour Party is split from top to bottom when it comes to devolution. This alternative Wales Bill is clearly a concession to Plaid Cymru ahead of the Assembly elections in which Labour is expected to lose seats.” Plaid leader Leanne Wood isn’t particular impressed by the First Ministers proposals either, arguing that the Welsh Government had been “dragging its heels” when it came to pushing for new powers for Wales.
But it isn’t just Westminster and opposition parties in the Senedd Jones finds himself at odds with. After the alternative Wales Bill was unveiled Labours shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, spoke in the House of Commons calling it an “interesting proposal” but stating it was not Labour policy. However, Jones pointed out it was in Labours manifesto last year in an interview on Radio Wales contradicting Burnham’s statement. While Jones has seized the moment, it remains to be seen how the national Labour party , and Welsh voters, respond.