Page last updated at 05:49 GMT, Monday, 14 July 2008 06:49 UK

'Putting cart before the horse?'

Huw Lewis
Huw Lewis says it is fair to ask if the cart is being put before the horse

As the debate begins on whether the Welsh assembly should gain full law-making powers, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney AM Huw Lewis outlines his hopes and concerns for the All Wales Convention.

As a politically active student in Scotland, I fondly remember the time I spent helping with the organisation of the convention there in the 1980s.

Under the auspices of great political figures like John Smith and Donald Dewar, the convention energised not just a debate on the future of Scotland and devolution: it got people from all walks of life talking enthusiastically about politics and their vision of what they wanted their society to look like.

It was an exciting time, and it left an indelible mark on all those involved. Anyone involved or interested in politics in Wales must hope that the same levels of interest and enthusiasm are developed by the 16 members of our convention.

A quick look at the falling turnouts in successive elections is all that is required to show how people in Wales, once the most political of nations, are falling out of love with organised politics.

There are a number of reasons for this - touched on recently by Peter Hain, for example, when he described the demise of traditional clubs, societies and large workplaces.

So whilst people may argue about how far the convention should go in terms of actually drumming up support for further devolution, there should be one crucial aspect we should all be able agree on.

Through explaining the current system - and by discussing the assembly's function and how it can shape society in Wales - this is an unprecedented opportunity to reconnect people with politics.

The idea of a "convention" is something I have long advocated inside the Labour movement in Wales - the practice is commonly used on the continent, aside from set-piece annual conferences, to take a longer-term look about a party's vision and general direction of travel over 10 years, or even a generation.

Clearly the All Wales Convention will not be political with a capital P, but it does have that same opportunity to encourage a debate about the long-term future of Welsh governance.

'Popular support'

There are those inside and outside the Labour Party in Wales who question the need for such a convention at this moment in time.

As someone who is currently engaged in a backbench bid to devolve more powers to the assembly (on buses and coaches) using the new Government of Wales Act, I have some sympathy with that opinion.

We are after all talking about changing the Welsh devolution settlement before we've really tested the new powers won through the 2006 act.

To some, that seems an unseemly way of doing things, and without a case in point where we can say 'We need extra powers because currently we can't make Welsh society better by doing X, Y or Z' it is reasonable to ask if we are putting the cart before the horse.

I've always been pro-devolution because of the opportunities it affords people to make society-changing decisions closer to the grassroots.

The best outcome of the convention will therefore have to involve some real examples of why further powers are needed to make Wales a better place to live and do business - only then will popular support be assured in any future referendum.

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