A campaign to abolish the Assembly is coming – the time to start preparing is now

Picture by by Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Keith Darlington

The Welsh Assembly Parliament, now over 20 years old, has become an entrenched part of Welsh life whose future stability seems to be assured.

Yet, five years ago, the same would have been said about our future in the EU.

The only party then completely opposed to the EU were UKIP. It is an uncomfortable truth that UKIP, a party that has only ever had two UK MPs, succeeded in pressurising the then Coalition government into a referendum that resulted in Brexit – an outcome that was completely unexpected.

Could the same happen here in Wales with a referendum to abolish the Welsh Parliament? That is what the new leader of Welsh UKIP, Gareth Bennett, is now campaigning for.

Given what happened so unexpectedly with the EU, it would pay for supporters of Welsh devolution to be on their guard.

Referendum

At the present time, another referendum seems unlikely and, according to current polls, abolition would be soundly rejected.

However, an Abolish the Assembly party did win 4.4% of the vote in the 2016 elections.

This was achieved by a movement that had done no campaigning – or even have a leader.

Furthermore, an anti-Assembly vote is likely to be higher because, as Professor Awan-Scully says, current opinion polls show abolition support running at about 12%.

This is still a small minority. But it is not insignificant, and it could rise – particularly if the country experiences a downturn and UKIP indulge in a negative campaign of the kind that secured a Brexit vote.

Furthermore, the Assembly itself began with a fragile consensus because of the small majority in its favour in the 1997 referendum. This narrow majority was then consolidated following another referendum in 2011. This was approved emphatically with 64% support for the Assembly to have greater law-making powers.

The post-Brexit electorate also seems to be quite volatile, and the Welsh Valleys gave disproportionately more support to UKIP in the 2016 Assembly election.

For all these reasons, this makes me fearful that the abolition outcome is a distinct possibility.

Making the case

The supporters of the Assembly must seize the initiative and be aware of this threat of abolition now.

Their supporters, particularly AMs, need to spell out its virtues from across the political spectrum before any abolition campaign gathers pace.

A pro-Welsh Parliament campaign must have broad support from all the main pro-Assembly parties.

That will be difficult because Labour has dominated power at the Assembly from the start.

In the 2016 election, their share of the vote was less than 35% – hardly a ringing endorsement from the Welsh electorate.

Yet, Welsh Labour still almost has a majority of seats because of the vagaries of the part-FPTP (First Past the Post) voting system in Wales.

Barrage

Also, because the record of the Assembly so far is essentially Labour’s record, it will be difficult for the other parties to defend.

Carwyn Jones recently gave a speech outlining the virtues of the Assembly, but much of this speech was specifically directed at the achievements of Welsh Labour.

He will claim successes, such as opting out of organ donation and paying for plastic bags, but that will hardly be enough to bring on board a broad coalition from other parties who desire the continuation of self-government in Wales.

The buying back of the Cardiff Wales Airport was another decision important for the Welsh economy, but not all parties in the Assembly supported it.

What is needed is something that all pro-self-government parties in Wales can cohesively and boldly embrace. Foes will need to become temporary friends and work together on this matter, otherwise, partisan party politics could, inadvertently, help a UKIP abolition campaign.

So, for example,  given that all the main parties support the Swansea Barrage project, now is a good time to organise and campaign together to enable its implementation.

Success with this type of project would not only affect the economy in terms of job creation, and clean energy for Wales, but also show that the Assembly has the influence to improve the lives of people in Wales.

Accountability

The Assembly supporters would need to be bold and ready to expose the consequences of UKIP’s abolition commitment.

For example, the Wales UKIP leader, Gareth Bennett, was asked recently what the Assembly would be replaced with on the Sunday Politics Wales programme.

He said that it could be a return to the old system of the UK Secretary of State for Wales elected by Westminster.

This is a shocking admission because it could mean a return to individuals being responsible for Wales, such as the former Secretary of State, John Redwood, who had no connection with Wales whatsoever.

Furthermore, they would have no accountability to the Welsh electorate.

Pro Assembly politicians might also need to come to terms with, and accept a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs if a long-term future beckons for the Assembly.

The recent boundary review recommended a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 29. Many Welsh UK Labour MPs, such as Stephen Kinnock, railed against these proposals, but by being over-represented at UK level, surely weakens the case for representation at Welsh Parliamentary level.

Political over-representation in Westminster is not going to help the future of the Assembly. There are 40 UK Parliamentary and 60 Assembly representatives in Wales.

However, unlike Wales, in Scotland, following devolution, their number of UK Parliament seats was reduced from 72 to 59 and the word abolition has hardly ever been mentioned there.

Surely, that is a price worth paying for the future of the Assembly.

Finally, those who believe in some measure of self-government should learn the lessons of the failed Remain campaign resulting in Brexit.

If our politicians can’t make a good case for some measure of self-government, then they will only have themselves to blame.

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