An introduction to Welsh Politics

By Jamie McKay

Last February the Senedd, home to the National Assembly for Wales, celebrated its tenth anniversary. Established in 1999 by the Blair government after numerous campaigns throughout the second half of the twentieth Century, the Assembly has taken control of numerous powers from Westminster over the years.

Previously, the government of James Callaghan introduced referenda on devolution and ‘home rule’ for Wales and Scotland. After voters rejected these plans for devolved Parliaments at the polls, these campaigns were set back for almost two decades. By 1997, the next Labour government held new referendums on the subject, these far more successful. As a result the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament were created, with more powers devolved over the years.

Currently the Welsh Government has powers over 20 devolved areas, ranging from health, education, the environment, local government and the various matters surrounding the Welsh language.

Though Labour’s fortunes in the rest of the United Kingdom have declined since the introduction of devolution the party have maintained power in the National Assembly, leading to several clashes with the Conservative Government in Westminster.

In the previous elections to the Assembly held in May this year Labour went in as the incumbent minority government holding 30 of the 60 seats in the Senedd. Having led every Welsh government since the beginning of the devolved Assembly Labour came under criticism for varied perceived failings by their opponents in the Welsh Conservative party and their former coalition partners in Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats. In losing one seat, and overall control of the Assembly, Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Labour were forced to negotiate a new coalition. The Liberal Democrats, who lost four of their five seats, were willing to make a deal with former leader and sole remaining Assembly member (AM) Kirsty Williams becoming Cabinet secretary for Education.

But the new government did not form without firm opposition. One of the major shocks of this years election was the introduction of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who went from having no representation in the Senedd to holding seven seats after a 12 per cent swing across Wales. The Government of Wales Act 2006 states that the Assembly must elect the first Minister within 28 days of the polling day, but as the AMs gathered an informal arrangement between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and UKIP threatened the deal made between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

With the unlikely support gained from the Conservatives and the Assembly’s most recent addition in UKIP the nationalist leader Leanne Wood was able to draw level with Jones creating a deadlock with both leaders gained 29 votes for their candidacy. A tied vote for the First Minister was unprecedented in the history of the Assembly and the uncertainty tried the patience of leading figures in Welsh Labour who decried what they saw as the hypocrisy of Wood, who had campaigned on a promise never to make a deal with the Tories or UKIP. Ultimately the deadlock was defeated after days of close negotiations allowing Welsh Labour to continue in forming their minority government.

As an array of challenges face the new minority government, from negotiations with the EU to the threat to the livelihoods of Port Talbot workers, it remains to be seen if this thin majority will last.