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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 21:15 GMT 22:15 UK
Labour rallies behind its red flag

By David Williams
BBC Wales Political Editor

Rhodri Morgan
Rhodri Morgan has suggested a compromise solution on powers

Saturday promises to be - believe it or not - an important moment for devolution and the Welsh assembly.

It's the moment when the Labour party in Wales decides, formally, its response to the Richard Commission recommendations to give the assembly law-making powers.

It should be a seminal moment. It might still be, but the reality - bar any last-minute unexpected developments - will be a fudge; a very clever fudge, but a fudge nonetheless.

As one internal critic in the party put it: "It will be the moment when the Labour Party in Wales effectively says 'vote for us at the next general election and we'll tell you what our policy in relation to assembly powers is..... afterwards'."

That view will be dismissed as one coming from the cynically disaffected. Privately, however, many in the party acknowledge that what Labour in Wales will be doing is effectively putting off the big decision on assembly powers.

Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain have been obliged to do political gymnastics of Olympian proportions
Why? Because party unity in the run-up to next year's expected general election is everything. The irony is that the party is anything but united on this issue.

They will bury their differences and rally behind the flag of agreement in the interests of securing a historic third term. In order to do this some of its leading figures, including First Minister Rhodri Morgan and Welsh Secretary Peter Hain have been obliged to do political gymnastics of Olympian proportions.

Both were initially against the idea of a referendum on the vexed question of law making powers for the assembly. There were some fascinating constitutional arguments put forward in support of their views.

Crucial issue

Suddenly those arguments disappeared and a new position was adopted by both men. It was agreed that the people of Wales would, after all, have the ultimate say on whether or not the assembly should have primary powers. There would be a referendum after all.

Peter Hain
Peter Hain may not be in the Wales Office during a third term
This is the crucial issue which the party has to agree. If it is agreed it will have the effect of temporarily satisfying all sides in this internal debate - no mean feat.

Those opposed to any rapid transfer of powers to the assembly - and they are to be found mainly among Labour MPs at Westminster - will be placated in the short term.

On the other hand, those who advocate more powers will be satisfied that they can achieve their goal after the election. Some believe it can even result in the assembly winning law-making powers before 2011, the date suggested by Richard.

A referendum endorsing primary powers for the assembly would, at a stroke, legitimise the enthusiasts' view and, at the same time, silence critics inside the party. That, however, may be more difficult to achieve than the optimists think.

It seems that all this has come about because of the considerable skills of Peter Hain, the consummate political fixer. He has effectively squared the opposition with the promise of a post-legislative referendum.

What really counts: keeping the lid on internal divisions in order to achieve electoral success
What this means is that other measures being discussed tomorrow will be incorporated into a government bill before, not after, a referendum.

Those other measures include:

  • the assembly making greater use of existing powers to shape and change legislation at Westminster;
  • the end of the assembly's current status as a body corporate;
  • the separation of the legislature from the executive, and
  • an end to politicians standing for both the list and constituency seats at assembly elections.

    All this, of course, presupposes that Labour will win the next election. It also assumes that whoever is in charge of looking after the interests of Wales at Westminster, after the election, will be as enthusiastic a devolutionist as Peter Hain - who may, of course, may be moved on to greater things come a third term.

    There are a lot of "ifs and buts" here then, but if all goes according to plan the principle aim of presenting a united front to the electorate will have been achieved. And that's what really counts: keeping the lid on internal divisions in order to achieve electoral success.

    As always, in politics, timing is everything and timing is of the essence for the big players in this game. The issue of greater powers for the assembly is what people like Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain will be remembered for in Wales - or NOT, as the case might be.

    Both are devolutionists. Both are personally in favour of greater powers for the assembly. Both are ambitious for themselves and their country. Both have limited time to secure those aims and take their party and the electorate with them.

    This weekend we will see the next stage in that continuing process of devolution.

    Labour's 'no' to assembly power
    03 Aug 04  |  Wales
    Wigley backs assembly deal
    02 Aug 04  |  Wales
    Call for more AMs and powers
    31 Mar 04  |  Wales
    Richard report and the reaction
    31 Mar 04  |  Wales
    Should the Welsh assembly get more powers?
    31 Mar 04  |  Have Your Say

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