Wales has a radical tradition – from the first raising of the red flag above Merthyr Tydfil during the Chartist era to the establishment of the National Health Service – an inspiration taken from Tredegar – a village in South Wales – to the UK as a whole by that well-known Welsh MP, Nye Bevan after whom I named my first son.
Wales is continuing in that tradition, with this being the 21st anniversary of the establishment of a Parliament – renamed the Senedd this year – for Wales, with a Labour led government throughout that period. Indeed we are the only nation in the UK that currently has a Labour Government.
Clear Red Water
Many of the more radical policies have been pursued by this Government, with a declaration during the Blair years by our then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, of the need for clear red water between Wales and Westminster. And my call continues to be for clear red action, which like Rhodri Morgan’s clear red water speech emphasises that services should be free at the point of use, universal and unconditional.
Devolution is not an ‘academic’ matter – it has very real consequences for people and we’ve got a lot to be proud of. We’ve protected the NHS from much of the privatisation that has affected England and maintained free prescriptions. Wales’ devolved parliament was the first in the world to pass a Climate Emergency declaration, although Scotland may want to argue this point, and we have the best rates for domestic recycling in the UK. We were first with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) which was instrumental in preventing the building of the M4 relief road in Newport and, in the spirit of that legislation, the Welsh Government passed a bill allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in Welsh elections.
Wales is also helping to lead the way in developing an inclusive, largely foundational, economy taking a social partnership approach to promote fair work that safeguards workers’ rights and conditions, encourage locally based procurement policies and promotes the principle of public investment and employment with a social and community purpose. We’ve also have the Development Bank of Wales which is a unique lender to businesses in Wales set up by the Welsh Government to support the economy of Wales by making it easier for businesses to get the finance they need to start up, strengthen and grow.
In 2017, the Welsh Government passed the Trade Union (Wales) Act, welcomed by the Wales TUC as another step in the direction of partnership working in the public sector as it disapplied sections of the Trade Union Act 2016, like the provision that requires a 40% ballot threshold for industrial action. A later amendment also maintained the prohibition of use of temporary or agency workers to cover industrial action.
However this has been done against a background of a complete lack of adequate funding. A decade of brutal austerity has stripped Welsh councils of £1.6billion from their budgets1. The Barnett formula is ill-equipped to meet Wales’ funding needs. Throughout this pandemic, an estimated £526m of Welsh Government revenue spending has not been covered by Barnett consequentials. So we still suffer the problems of poverty and deprivation and inequality that the rest of the UK faces.
Taking away our control
All our good work is at serious risk as the Tory government moves to centralise power and ride roughshod over the devolution settlement. This Tory Government leadership said during the Brexit campaign that if we left Europe we would take back control. But the opposite is happening as exemplified by the UK Internal Markets Act. Instead of enabling communities and nations within the UK to take back control, it completely undermines the devolution arrangements and any flexible approach to meet local and national needs. It will prevent devolved and local governments from pursuing economic differences that meet the public policy objectives of the regions and nations of the UK.
We in Wales had strong objections to the Act precisely because it endangers these public service objectives that Welsh Government holds dear. We also have high standards for agriculture and the environment – all of this is threatened. But above all – the Act threatens the very principle of devolution and local control and democracy. Wales understands these principles as being central to being able to develop a society, an economy and a country that is able to identify, understand and meet the needs of its people.
The Internal Market Act will drive a race to the bottom by harmonising standards in such a way that it gives UK Government the power to overrule the devolved nations. Experience tells us that this Conservative Government has repeatedly refused to commit to higher standards in legislation. There has not been the kind of negotiation or involvement or informed consent to any of this with the devolved nations.
While it is important, as the UK leaves the EU, for us to have a system to harmonise standards across the 4 countries, any internal market legislation should have looked done the least possible on a centralised basis and as much as possible on a decentralised basis. And, anyway, as in the view of the Senedd, there already exists a successful regime in the form of the Common Framework to form the basis of all future arrangements.
Driving down standards
This attempt to harmonise standards throughout the UK is, in fact, an attempt to replicate the EUs internal market but with some crucial differences. In the EU dispute resolution is independent and it is done in such a way that it prevents the bigger members being able to force smaller states to accept undesirable standards. In the UK Government’s plans for the UK, the opposite will be true as the Conservatives prefer a mutual recognition principle for harmonising standards, so that the lowest standards legislated for by any of the UK’s Parliaments must automatically be adopted by all.
Devolution is not just an abstract concept. It is what has allowed Welsh Government to develop more ambitious policies and standards than its Westminster counterpart; to protect the NHS as a publicly owned service, to develop world leading standards for food, animal welfare, and the environment. These are all now under threat from the implementation of the Conservative Internal Market Act.
An example of how mutual recognition will work within the UK is that it could mean that Wales will be unable to enforce the ban on the sale of 9 single use plastics. Mutual recognition should be built on a legally binding agreement between equal parties. This Act has failed to include protections for the regions and the devolved nations so that their needs can now be overridden by central government.
Bypassing the Welsh Government
Local procurement arrangements are another area of concern particularly for Wales. Wales’s economy is significantly dependent on small businesses, cooperatives and social enterprises. Public procurement should be able to respond to the specific needs of local communities and economies. This Act could undermine that.
Typically, UK government did not seen fit to enter into discussions with the Welsh Government on this issue.
The government’s actions and inactions with regards the Shared Prosperity Fund is another example – the proposals in the spending review are for the monies to be centrally controlled and administered by UK government bypassing the Welsh Government leaving genuine concerns that we will get less funding.
There is a very real threat that the UK Government will override the Welsh Government’s decision not to build the M4 relief road totally undermining the priorities we had set in Wales.
Political and spending decisions should be made as close to the people they affect as possible. This is a fundamental principle of devolution, and it is unacceptable that the Tories are trying to stealthily roll this back. We cannot allow our spending powers to be taken into central control. It will prevent devolved and local governments from pursuing economic differences that meet the public policy objectives of the regions and nations of the UK.
As the Chair of the Senedd Constitution, Justice and Legislative Committee, Mick Antoniw MS has stated, “it is quite clear from this Bill that the aim of this Tory government is to cement their neoliberal economic and social agenda into a framework of a centralised British nationalist state. This Act shows their contempt for devolution, the constitution and the rule of law.”
Boris Johnson takes great pride in being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the greatest dangers that this Bill presents to the United Kingdom is that it fractures it completely. And that was why the Senedd withheld consent from the internal market bill.
Clear Radical Red Action
We are at a critical juncture in terms of democracy and devolution. Constitutional reform and devolution are not remote, side issues. We need a debate on constitutional reform and I welcome Labour Party’s commitment to exploring this in order to build a new long-term political and constitutional consensus. We need a system in which the four nations are treated as equals, not a top-down arrangement as at present. All parts of the UK should be properly and fairly funded without the need for a begging bowl whenever additional needs arise.
We need more devolution – not less, considering the needs of the regions of England too. This is an integral part of the discussion we must have on the left of the Labour Party about how we increase public and community involvement in the political world.
How we stop Westminster being remote from the people of Cardiff, or Liverpool or Belfast or Glasgow. At the same time, it is crucial that we are united in standing up and campaigning against the damaging policies of this regressive Tory Government. We need that clear radical red action now more than ever as we fight to give future generations across the UK a fairer, greener, socialist future. I very much look forward to doing this with Scotland and the regions of England.
1 Unison Cymru (2019)
2 Wales Fiscal Analysis (2020). Covid-19 and the Welsh Government Budget. Cardiff University, Cardiff