The reaction to Huw Lewis' pamphlet has been interesting. Some of it, of course, has been entirely predictable, with the usual simplistic sloganising, but what I found most interesting is the way in which so many seem to have reacted to what they assume Lewis believes, or to what he has said or done in the past, rather than what he actually said in the pamphlet. This seems, sadly, to be an all too frequent occurrence in Welsh politics, and obstructs rather than promotes political debate and understanding.
There are those who see the pamphlet as being little more than a launch of a leadership campaign by Huw Lewis. I don’t know the man, but everyone tells me that he sees himself as a possible future leader, so perhaps we should indeed interpret it in that context. But, even if it is indeed part of a strategy to challenge for the leadership when Rhodri Morgan steps down, in what way exactly does that make the content itself irrelevant? It doesn’t, of course. The content needs to be considered in its own right, whether Lewis wants to be – or becomes – leader or not.
There are others such as Paul Flynn (whose complacent response must surely have disappointed many) who see this as merely over-analysis of an election defeat. From Flynn’s perspective, the whole election result can be explained away by timing – the timing of Blair’s departure. Welsh Labour needs to do no more that sit back and allow Brown’s popularity to win them the next election. That response will be one which Plaid's strategists in particular will be hoping wins wide support within Welsh Labour.
Some nationalists have been quick to attack the paper and the author by association - associating them particularly with the Welsh Labour MP's who were so vocal in their opposition to the coalition with Plaid, and therefore as being ‘Brit—Nats' (whatever they may be - but I'll leave that one for another day). Lewis certainly agreed with the MP’s on that particular issue; but again, that doesn’t seem to me to be what he’s actually saying in his paper.
On my reading of the actual document, Lewis is arguing for the Labour party in Wales to become more autonomous, and in the process, to be better staffed, more organised, and more creative in its policy making. He certainly has suggested that the Welsh MP’s are more involved in the process – but that needn’t necessarily lead, as Lewis’ detractors have assumed, to the MP’s views having more sway. It could equally lead to a position where, by being more involved in the affairs of a decentralised autonomous Welsh Labour Party, those self-same MP’s are more signed up to working with, rather than against, the wishes of the majority of the party’s AM’s.
In some ways, Labour - although rightfully claiming to be the architect of both the current and the next devolution settlement in Wales - is the party which has adapted least well to the new situation. It is Labour which has shown least autonomy and retained most central control from London. Even the arch-unionist Tories seem to have had a freer hand in drawing up specifically Welsh policy (although the more unkind amongst us might suggest that that’s down to the fact that Wales doesn’t really matter a great deal to their London leadership).
Huw Lewis seems to me to be arguing that Labour need to address that lack of change, by adapting to the new situation in which they find themselves. It is interesting that it is nationalists who have done most to rubbish him. I'm not sure whether that's because they haven't understood him – or simply because they fear a more autonomous Welsh Labour Party.
On one specific point, I have to say that I think that one of Lewis’ suggestions - that Labour can easily win 30 seats with 40% of the vote - is a dangerous basis on which to proceed with an analysis. Mathematically, yes, it's true. But in reality, it has only happened once out of three elections so far, and then only barely so. Whilst all parties surely will enter every election stating clearly that they are fighting with the objective of winning a majority, the election system currently in use militates against that happening most of the time.
Sure, Lewis is right to say that Labour regularly average 48% in Westminster elections; but what the results of the three Assembly elections held to date show is that people have a different perception of them, and are consequently willing to vote in different ways. In addition to that, the electoral system itself makes it harder to turn even 48% support into an overall majority when 20 of the Assembly’s seats are allocated on a different basis.
Lewis may be right, and I may be wrong, but I don’t see any immediate signs that the voting pattern in Assembly elections will revert to Westminster patterns – and I’m not at all sure that it would really be a very good thing if it did anyway.
There are two changes which parties needed to make in adapting to the existence of the Assembly. The first is the need for more autonomy from London for the parties themselves – an area where Plaid inevitably had a head start. The second is in adapting to the idea of governments being chosen through an electoral system which includes a strong element of PR.
If this pamphlet marks the delayed start of a debate within the Labour Party which helps them to make that first adaptation, then surely that is to be welcomed. But they will be foolish if they follow Huw Lewis’ line on the second.
The other big question is whether the Labour Party should really be conducting this debate so publicly. It's always a high risk strategy to do so – and the final judgement can only be made after the event. If Lewis wins the argument, and the Labour Party changes in the way he suggests, then a public debate will probably be seen to have been a good thing. If he loses, he is likely to become even more marginalised; as a rebel who was publicly disloyal. But does he have any other mechanism for raising these issues?