White smoke in Wales? Very nearly, at least: months of negotiation between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have produced a wide-ranging cooperation agreement between the party’s leaders Mark Drakeford and Adam Price. It has been signed off by the ruling executive committees of both parties, but will require further ratification from Plaid Cymru’s membership before we can definitively say it has been signed, sealed and delivered.
Although Drakeford led Welsh Labour to its best-ever result in May, with 30 out of 60 seats in the Senedd, his government is one short of a majority, and it has experienced a number of fraught votes as a result. Moves to bring in vaccine passports only passed because one Conservative member of the Senedd, Gareth Davies, was unable to work the remote voting software while at Tory party conference.
The deal is unlike the 2007-11 “One Wales” government, in which Welsh Labour’s Rhodri Morgan served as first minister, Plaid Cymru’s Ieuan Wyn Jones was deputy first minister, and ministers from both parties served in government. Instead, Plaid Cymru’s Senedd members will stay outside of government, though they will have special advisers in government overseeing the implementation of the agreement’s policies. That’s probably a bigger prize than ministerial offices: a lot of the most far-reaching bits of the agreement involve a degree of consultation and policy development, whether it is in the development of a national care service, or reforms to council tax. These are policy commitments where the work of Spads will be as important, if not more so, than that of ministers.
For Drakeford, the agreement is a big plus: not only because it frees his government from having to live hand to mouth every day, but because it means that it will be further to the left than one having to strike deals with different parties on an ad hoc basis.
There are distinctive Plaid Cymru achievements – the proposed local tourism tax for instance – in the agreement, but the party’s fear is that it will be 2007 all over again: an alliance with Welsh Labour that allowed the coalition’s bigger player to claim credit for all the achievements and saw Plaid lose seats in the following election. (Indeed, one reason why Welsh Labour politicians are in general quite relaxed about this accord is how well One Wales worked for them.)
The biggest difference is probably that proposed change to how the Senedd is elected. Changing your electoral system does, inevitably, change how your politics works. While Welsh Labour has done a good job of playing the cards it has been dealt over the years, the simple truth is that the structure of the Senedd works pretty well for the party. An alteration in the rules may well turn out to be the biggest prize of all for Welsh Labour’s challengers.