Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 11:01 UK

Welsh assembly 'needs more punch'

Alun Michael
Alun Michael addressing the media outside a polling station in 1999

Ten years after the first election to the Welsh assembly, its first leader says it has not "punched above its weight" on the economy and education.

But Alun Michael, who was Labour first secretary for nine months from May 1999, said there had been successes and he was optimistic for the future.

Former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley said the assembly had come of age, with an increase in voters' confidence.

Tories said they had spent the decade "trying to make devolution work".

Although Labour emerged as the largest party after the 1999 election, its vote had declined dramatically since the 1997 general election.

Under a system of proportional representation it won just 28 of the 60 assembly seats, rather than the majority that had been expected.

The Welsh dimension, the national dimension in Wales, has become a reality that people accept
Dafydd Wigley

Turbulent times followed, with Mr Michael eventually resigning as first secretary before a confidence vote tabled by opposition parties was voted on.

He was replaced by Rhodri Morgan, who formed a coalition administration with the Liberal Democrats to bring some stability to the fledgling assembly.

Mr Michael described the assembly's early phase as "pretty damn hard" for both him and Mr Morgan.

Both men had been left to "pick up the pieces", said Mr Michael, after the resignation of their predecessor Ron Davies after his so-called moment of madness on Clapham Common.

He said there had been "real successes" since then, including the creation of commissioners for children and older people and work in committees.

"But we're not punching above our weight compared to the English regions on things like economic development and particularly further and higher education," Mr Michael said.

Our criticism has been towards the policies of the Welsh Assembly Government, not the assembly itself
Nick Bourne, Welsh Conservative leader

"Although it is very clear that the ministers dealing with those issues now have recognised where those weaknesses are."

"It is very important, I think, that having got to the point where the assembly is now settled and people accept and support it, that we make sure that the second decade is the decade in which the assembly really punches above its weight in terms of delivering for the people of Wales."

However, First Minister Rhodri Morgan said the introduction of the Foundation Phase, a Scandinavian learn through play curriculum which was rolled out across Wales in September 2008, was one of the "proudest days" in the assembly's first 10 years.

"That was in our first manifesto in 1999 that Alun and I stood on and now we have rolled it out," he said.

"It is a big step for a small country like Wales to make a break with 125 years of British education tradition but we have done it."

Whilst nothing has quite matched the high drama of Mr Michael's departure in February 2000, few politicians would argue that the assembly's existence has not changed the Welsh nation.

It has made a "significant difference", according to Mr Wigley.

"We have to remember that in the referendum in 1997 only 26% of the electorate in Wales voted yes," he said.

"Therefore the assembly had an uphill struggle to win its own patch, if you like.

"By now only 11% of the electorate want to disband the assembly - in other words it has come of age.

"And the Welsh dimension, the national dimension in Wales, has become a reality that people accept," Mr Wigley added.

'Making devolution work'

Current Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne, who took over leading the party's assembly group within months of the 1999 election, described the assembly as an "important tool in providing an accessible, democratic forum for the people of Wales".

"Our criticism in that time has been towards the policies of the Welsh Assembly Government, not the assembly itself," he said.

Since 1999 Labour has always been in the assembly government cabinet, either on its own or in coalition, currently with Plaid and previously with the Lib Dems.

"The argument is no longer about whether we want devolution," said Mr Bourne.

"It is about how we make devolution work so it delivers for the people of Wales."

Mike German, who stepped down as leader of the Welsh Lib Dems last December, said politics in Wales was now an "entirely different animal" with "big differences to the political landscape".

"We've now got a realisation that no one party is in control.

"The voting system that we've got means that we're never going to get absolute majorities for everyone."

"More often than not we've had a coalition or a minority government... and it has meant that everybody has been able to play with a lot of power on the political stage.

"People will try and find solutions, less than try and find aggression.

"It doesn't always work like that but there is an element of people trying to find working solutions together."

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