A week ago, after much debate, Labour Party members in Wales voted to go into coalition in the National Assembly with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists. So, how did this previously unthinkable alliance come about, and what does it mean for Wales’ place in the United Kingdom?
The situation the Assembly Members found themselves in was produced by the Assembly’s unusual electoral system. Despite winning by far the largest number of votes and seats, Labour were left four seats short of a majority, with the three opposition parties threatening to band together in a coalition of the unprincipled.
While Rhodri Morgan faced an undeniable mathematical dilemma, I disagreed with the proposal to share power with the Nationalists. For me, the conflict of ideology with Plaid - our vastly differing ambitions for Wales - meant that I did not favour the coalition.
Labour should always prioritise the public services that people care about, and the fight for social justice that changes lives. I felt that an alliance with Plaid Cymru, with their fixation about constitutional issues, endangered that. However, now that the Party has spoken, Rhodri has my support in what is bound to be an interesting few years.
One issue that came up on the fringes of this debate, and will need to be addressed in the future, is the role of Welsh MPs in this new context. Some people questioned the right of Members of Parliament to contribute to the debate on the coalition. ‘MPs should keep their attentions on Westminster and stay off the thorny areas of internal Welsh politics’, they said. But, even leaving aside the fact that many issues in the ‘One Wales’ document directly involve MPs, this position is both wrong and counter-productive for Wales.
Welsh Labour has, and always should, make the argument that Wales works best with AMs and MPs co-operating, working in partnership. A fellow Welsh MP, Chris Bryant, recently made the suggestion that practical steps should be taken to strengthen this relationship and help give us a better understanding of the situations and pressures each other face. Labour AMs and MPs should meet jointly more often, for example, especially when specific issues can be better addressed through working together. This is something I endorse; not because of any wish to direct operations from Westminster, but because a stronger partnership would be beneficial for Wales.
During the wider media debate, I was also puzzled to hear mentions of a ‘unionist wing’ of Welsh Labour. The Labour Party, in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is a ‘unionist’ party. We believe that, through being part of the Union, Wales benefits greatly – as the Union benefits from the presence of Wales. On the contrary, Plaid Cymru is the party that truly has a division between ‘unionists’ who want to stay part of the UK, and those who will publicly admit to their obsession with independence.
What’s more, polls consistently show that a huge majority of Welsh people don’t want independence. Not because they ‘lack self-confidence’, but because they can see the logic and good sense of working together within the U.K. for the benefit of Wales. They are proud to be Welsh and British and reject the attempts of nationalism to drive a wedge between the two. That’s why I welcome Gordon Brown’s proposal to fly the Union Flag from public buildings – we should be proud to fly both the British and Welsh flags, and show confidence and pride in our dual identity.
In 1997, we argued that devolution would strengthen, not weaken, the Union. Despite the spectre of nationalists holding power in both Wales and Scotland, we should not recoil from that argument now.