Monday, 13 July 2020

Reckless policy making

Last month I wrote for Public Affairs Cymru (PAC) about the decision of Gareth Bennett MS to join the Abolish the Welsh Assembly (sic) Party (ATWAP). This past weekend the battle for the roughly 20% of voters who tell pollsters they'd prefer not to have a Welsh Parliament was joined by the Brexit Party. Their leader in Wales, Mark Reckless MS, announced a new policy in which the Senedd would be replaced with a directly-elected First Minister who in turn would be scrutinised by Welsh MPs. Inevitably, any talk of scrapping the Welsh Parliament is an emotive topic with strongly held views on either side.

I hesitated before writing this blog post because I don't really want to become an 'abolish the Senedd' correspondent. It is not a view I share. I think the Welsh Parliament and the electoral system to it is in urgent need of reform. I also believe that devolution to pragmatic city regions is a much better policy than devolution based on identity. Nonetheless, it is fanciful to think that without a Welsh Parliament there would be such a form of devolution. If the Senedd was scrapped based on the public will, the idea of devolution to Welsh city regions would not be politically tenable either. Politicians would conclude that they'd seen their colleagues' fingers burned with devolution to Wales and they would not make the same mistake. In the current form, Welsh devolution is a centralised project, but the best hope for devolution to pragmatic regions within Wales lies with a change in attitude from Welsh Government, not with the abolition of the current institution.

Nonetheless, comment I will. At face value many of the observations I made about Bennett joining ATWAP also hold true with this position adopted by the Brexit Party. It makes life particularly difficult for the Welsh Conservatives as they stand to lose the most voters if there is an anti-Senedd candidate on the ballot paper. Of course, the Brexit Party and ATWAP have potentially made life difficult for one another too by splitting the already relatively small proportion of voters who would like rid of the Senedd but also care enough about that view to turn out and vote in a Senedd election. Perhaps we will see some form of election pact between the parties to avoid this.

Yet, the situation is not identical. Writing for PAC, I likened the moves against the Senedd with the pattern that preceded Brexit. To ATWAP, the end goal is simply to be rid of the Welsh Parliament. There is no planning for what comes next. Dare I suggest, this has the ring of the morning of 24th June 2016 about it? What the Brexit Party are proposing is a change in the way Wales is governed. I've already stated my disagreement regarding their proposal to abolish the Senedd, but on the matter of a directly-elected First Minister I think the party has opened an interesting debate.

Before I go further into policy, let me tell you a little back-story because I think it adds context. I've come to know Mark Reckless well in recent years, but in 2014 I was at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham which he skipped in favour of taking to the stage at the UKIP Conference in Doncaster. I bumped into Mark's former Constituency Chairman, firmly shook his hand and promised I'd head to Rochester and Strood to campaign in the upcoming by-election. I headed to Kent twice during that campaign. It was then with some irony that in 2016 I found myself with Mark as one of my Welsh Assembly Members. We first bumped into each other when we were both scheduled to take part in BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement programme. In the 'green room' we talked briefly of my campaign trip to Strood and, as one does, Police Commissioner elections! 

Having gained seven seats in 2016, UKIP quickly crumbled and today have just one MS. In 2017, it initially appeared that Mark had rejoined the Conservatives. As a then Tory member with an overinflated opinion as to how amusing I could be on social media, I quickly fired off a welcome message and cheekily suggested that as his by-election had dragged me across the country, he could start making it up to me with a canvass session in the Newport ward I was contesting for the council elections. It subsequently emerged that Mark had not been readmitted to the Conservative Party and that seemingly Tories at Westminster were vehemently opposed to the idea. Nonetheless, at the time of my light-hearted tweet it had simply seemed a good news story for my then political party. Over a year later, I was enjoying a coffee in Newport city centre when a friend sent me a link to a news story about machinations over the Welsh Conservative leadership. Apparently, my little campaign invitation had been a bigger issue than I'd realised. As I read the story, I awkwardly looked down at the t-shirt I was wearing. It was a tour shirt I'd bought at a Kiefer Sutherland gig emblazoned with the name of the tour - reckless! 

In 2018, Mark was kind enough to reference a paper I had written regarding the potential of a well-connected Severn Region during a Senedd debate and he also took part in an hour long interview for my Gwent Radio programme. As an MS he has proven responsive when I've raised issues. His route through politics certainly hasn't been straight-forward, but I think there has been a consistency in his policy approach.

This is relevant because while the decision to adopt a policy abolishing the Senedd might smack of opportunist bandwagon-jumping. The proposal to replace it with a directly-elected First Minister is, if you pardon the expression, Reckless policy making. Mark was influential in Conservative policy circles when it came to establishing Police Commissioners and whatever the subsequent flaws in that legislation and shortage of public interest, at the heart of the principle is an effort to bring more accountability. This is where the ATWAP approach and the Brexit Party approach differ, though I suspect many Brexit Party members will focus simply on the abolition bit of the policy.

This dynamic is interesting in itself. If you've read this far, it is reasonable that you'd conclude I have a lot of time for Mark. You'd be correct, even when I disagree with him on policy matters I find him an interesting thinker who can explain his ideas in a polite manner. However, I have always had difficulty associating the MS I see in South East Wales with his Brexit Party leader. Nigel Farage plays to populism. So did many other leading voices in UKIP and some in the Brexit Party. Over-simplistic solutions are offered to often over-stated problems all for the sake of a few votes. There is always blame to be placed, sometimes on the political class, but often on some of the weakest in society. It is ugly politics.

The contrast between how I've described the politics of Mark Reckless and that of parties he has been a member of is stark. There is something of the good student who's mixing with a bad crowd about it all. Since becoming leader of the Brexit Party in the Senedd, I think he has had to balance his approach as a policy thinker and a scrutineer with a need to throw some red meat to his party's core vote. It is necessary for every group leader to find a compromise to hold together a coalition of voters. However, if ever a policy summed up this approach it is that which he has announced for the future of the Senedd. The populist argument to scrap it. The policy thinker's approach to propose an alternative approach with what he regards as greater accountability.

He has worn the rosettes of UKIP and the Brexit Party, but actually when one breaks down a career-long policy focus on market economics, resisting state over-reach, opposing establishment group-think and self-determination a reasonable description of his policy approach is liberalism.

Update: On 19th October 2020 Mark Reckless MS joined the Abolish the Assembly Party.