Opinion

The Labour ‘radical federalism’ report is a necessary intervention – but an avoidable disappointment

14 Jan 2021 6 minutes Read
Westminster. Picture by Maurice (CC BY 2.0) The Senedd building. Holyrrod by Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 3.0). Stormont by Robert Paul Young (CC BY 2.0).

Bob Lloyd, President of the Executive Committee of Labour for an Independent Wales

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford will today launch a report published by a group of Labour members and civic activists proposing a new agenda, a ‘radical federalism’.

This report represents a genuine shift in the party leadership’s opinion on acceptable alternative forms of government, and should be cautiously welcomed by independence supporters – it builds on the Welsh Government’s 20 Propositions, and introduces a formal commitment from Welsh Labour leaders to a constitutional dispensation where “sovereignty is held by each, and then pooled for common purposes”.

Although “radical constitutional reform is no longer an option; it is an unavoidable necessity”, this report is a necessary intervention, but an avoidable disappointment.

The disappointment is two-fold: first, the proposals within the report provide more questions and complications than answers; and second, the premise of the report is focused not on what reforms are necessary to improve peoples’ lives, but rather what is necessary to protect and preserve the union.

This, combined with the confusion over what aspects of reform are reserved constitutional matters and what is merely local government reform, begins the debate with more fizzle than flare.

First, how will a UK federal parliament with responsibility over defence, foreign affairs, trade, and macro-economic policy represent the interests of the people in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, when it is still proportionate to population? How does pooling resources to achieve a common good work when the common good will be determined by the largest nation, still? With the ascent of the Internal Market Bill, we have already seen the disregard for the conventional requirements of consent a central UK government can have.

Once more, the gaping hole in the UK’s constitutional fabric – England – is the exception once again. There is some conjecture as to what an interdependent union of “sovereign” nations could look like, but when three nations are conflated with numerous regions of a supposedly equal nation, gaps in the report begin to widen.

What matters is not merely the discussions to come from this report and the Welsh Government’s propositions – what matters is what is achievable.

By what means will the report’s authors bring about these reforms before Scotland votes for independence? By what means will they win support in England, a country that polls consistently for the Conservatives and the status quo, even now? With which practical steps will any of this reform happen across the UK?

 

Conditions

Let us switch emphasis to the proposed policies that would, according to the report, result from these reforms.

What can the party, the Welsh Government, and the Senedd do to bring about the socialist society that Wales has voted for in every domestic parliamentary election since 1918? To bring about right now the visions set out by the authors?

The answer is, remarkably: a lot – and not much is related to radical federalism.

We could, in theory, put in place the vision of this report for local government municipalism tomorrow. Just in Wales. We could, in theory, encourage the formation and growth of cooperative enterprises in all sectors of the economy, providing decent jobs, empowering young people, women, BAME groups, the disabled and LGBT people, tomorrow. Just in Wales.

We could, in theory, encourage local solutions and responses to accelerating climate crises through the engagement of people’s assemblies, tomorrow. We could put in place these policies and offer the other countries on these islands a blueprint for success right now.

But we won’t, because this report is not an intervention on how we can make people’s lives better through reform in Wales, or even an investigation into what powers we’d need to achieve that – it’s a report into what we would need to offer people in order to ensure the survival of the union.

As the First Minister has confirmed, neither his nor Wales’ support for the union is unconditional, but the conditions we set should be based on how we can best meet the needs of our communities, not the needs of the union.

Discussion

To us, independence is that means with which to achieve a socialist society, freely co-operating with our neighbours as equals, offering a blueprint for an economy in which wealth is owned by the worker, and patronage and privilege are no more. It is by no means a panacea for all ills, no tool can be so comprehensive, and it requires co-operation and interdependence with our neighbours and the world.

It means working together where we can and diverging where we must without coercion or contradiction. It means, through the strength of our common endeavour as equal partners, achieving more than we do alone.

Although it’s not clear where exactly this report leads, Labour for an Independent Wales will contribute fully to any party discussions on constitutional reform – taking the claim that nations seeking governance free from interference of each other are “myopic” and “outdated” with the good humour that was obviously intended.

We intend to approach these coming discussions with one key focus in mind: how can we best achieve a socialist Wales in order to improve and enhance peoples’ lives?

The discussions to come within the party will be extensive and, at times, frank. But we discuss these issues because although we may disagree on which avenue to pursue, on the fundamental matter of what kind of society we wish to be, we are united in our desire to improve the structures in which we live.

This report aims to start the debate about those improvements and allows Labour for an Independent Wales to put forward an accompanying vision for a radical alternative to radical federalism. This is a good start, and we have common ground on where power should ultimately lie – our disagreements are to do with the purpose and model of pooling resources.

If we are to achieve a democratic socialist society, the most efficient means is through interdependent independence – working together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance, and respect.

On that, at least, we already agree.

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