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6 November 2000

Lib Dems hit the jackpot in Wales

Cardiff - Paul Starling

By Paul Starling

“Three weeks ago, we handed unbelievable powers to the Liberal Democrats. Two weeks ago, Paddy Ashdown revealed that Tony Blair wanted a coalition government. Now Charles Kennedy is threatening to use the Wales and Scotland examples as a “battering ram” to force through PR for all elections.”

My companion, a senior and respected Welsh Labour MP, slumped back in his chair, struggling to make sense of “the anti-democratic decisions” that he bel-ieves are now seriously undermining Labour. “Tony seems hell-bent on dismantling the party, and our votes. I sometimes wonder whether he’s one of us at all.”

It all started unravelling for my companion two years ago, when Labour conceded PR-voting for the new Welsh Assembly. In the elections, Labour emerged as the largest party, but without an overall majority. Finally, after 16 rough and rocky months, politics in Wales has bowed to the inevitable. As the rest of Europe knows, PR invariably leads to some form of coalescing of policy or coalition of parties. And so it has proved in Wales.

On 17 October, Rhodri Morgan, the Labour leader in the Welsh Assembly, signed a formal “agreement” with the Liberal Democrats. They call it a “partnership”; everyone else knows that it is a coalition.

For the past 16 months, the assembly has staggered about like a bemused old boxer, battered and reeling. The whole period was peppered with squabbles, resignations, sackings and reshuffles, which, by turns, provoked public bemusement, anger and now deep-seated apathy.

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In a phrase that will serve as a fitting epitaph, Morgan admitted: “We have stumbled from hour to hour, unable to make any plans.”

During the long summer break that the assembly allowed itself, Morgan must have spent many reflective hours poking the campfire he likes to build outside his caravan, way out in the west of Wales, wondering what to do to save the assembly’s tattered reputation. No majority – no policy. It was as simple and self-destructive as that. A coalition with Plaid Cymru or the Tories was unthinkable. So, as he griddled his locally caught fish, Morgan’s mind turned to the Lib Dems. Their six votes and Labour’s 28 would give him a majority, force Plaid Cymru to vote with the Tories, and allow him to characterise both as “the unholy forces of conservatism”.

Gordon Brown had just delivered to Wales a three-year settlement worth an extra £4bn in the Budget. There was also £1.2bn in European economic aid, which, along with an extra £1bn in government aid, will mean a total of £2.2bn to tackle the endemic poverty in the former mining valleys and in west Wales.

In truth, Labour’s social justice agenda matched that of the Lib Dems in many ways. The discussions started. The Budget was dissected, compromises made and, eventually, in the early hours of Monday 16 October, Morgan and Mike German, the Lib Dem leader in the assembly, shook hands. Later that day, they told slack-jawed journalists: “We can now deliver for the people of Wales.”

“Yes, Rhodri, but what have you given away to secure the deal?” we asked. Silence fell. But this was the moment German had spent his whole life dreaming of, and he could barely contain himself.

“We have won 114 policy concessions,” he gleamed. “And two Cabinet seats. And a deputy minister’s post. And . . . oh yes,” he let slip, almost as an afterthought, “I will be Deputy First Minister in charge when Morgan isn’t here.” The media pack was stunned. Eventually, I asked Morgan: “And what does Labour get out of this?” “Stability, Paul, stability.”

What German didn’t say, but which has since emerged, is that he had also demanded and got the most important job in Wales for decades. Despite being the leader of the smallest group in the assembly, German is now the economic development minister controlling that £2.2bn of aid for the poorest areas of Wales. If successful, he will go down as the architect of a social justice revolution that transformed the country. If he fails, Morgan will be blamed for choosing him.

Within days, German put the deal to his members. This tiny fourth party of Wales naturally gave overwhelming support.

And Morgan? He now faces splits, revolts and public censure. At no time did he put the biggest change in Labour’s policy position for decades to the party’s MPs, MEPs and peers, to say nothing of hundreds of councillors and tens of thousands of grass-roots members. Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour held no “special” conference. Nor did Morgan travel to the four corners of Wales, as German did, to persuade, cajole and beg members to back the coalition deal before it was signed. Now he is being openly accused of “dictatorship” by some senior Labour figures.

One of the 114 policy concessions made by Morgan was PR-voting in council elections. Councillors and their leaders are furious. “We’ve all seen what PR did for the assembly,” they say. “It will happen over our dead bodies.”

The rumblings in the ranks will burst open at Labour’s forthcoming local government conference. And with just months to go to the general election, Morgan has secured anything but the “stability” he was seeking.

As for my powerful political companion – after long reflection, he turned, looked at me with deadly seriousness and said: “The leadership of any party antagonises its councillors and grass roots at its peril. If the support of MPs also bleeds away, God only knows what will happen.”

The writer is political editor of the Welsh Mirror. Tom Brown’s Holyrood column returns next week