A cool, wet June afternoon in Cardiff Bay did not look particularly auspicious in terms of historic moments in Welsh politics.
Delegates who had been recalled from the Welsh Labor conference in March stood huddled together in wet little groups outside Bute House and were relatively quiet as they waited to decide the fate of the expansion proposals on the Senedd and ultimately of the future of the Welsh government.
The decision should have been an evidence of simple agreement. Proposals have been made to expand the Senedd from 60 to 96 members to enable our national parliament to have the number of representatives needed to legislate for a nation.
Further details were offered on the twinning of constituencies. Each pair of constituencies would elect 6 members of the Senedd from a closed list according to the D’Hondt system which is currently used for the election of list member states. The lists would include gender quotas to ensure equality.
In March, delegates had already voted to expand the Senedd to 80-100 members and mandated the party to do so on a basis that entrenched equality and used a proportional electoral system.
Today they had been called back to the conference to agree on the finer details that had been put together. There was, however, a feeling of nervousness in the air.
The case was high stakes.
Mark Drakeford, already mandated by the Llandudno conference in March, had brokered a co-operation deal with Adam Price’s Plaid Cymru which included the party-bought proposals. Announced and made public, this agreement would ensure support and implementation of key labor policies throughout this term of Senedd.
Labor and Plaid had both been elected by the Welsh people on manifestos that committed to the expansion of Senedd, meaning around 60% of the country voted for the change in the 2021 election.
It’s something lost on Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, who is still crying out for a referendum despite the overall loss of the public vote last year.
However, some internal resistance had emerged within the Labor Party.
Resistance began before the conference, with unions GMB, Community and USDAW publicly declaring their opposition to the proposals. They made it clear that they agreed in principle with the expansion, but expressed concerns about the D’Hondt system and the possibility of less involvement of affiliated bodies such as trade unions and the cooperative party. in the selection of candidates.
A ‘no’ campaign ensued, with some constituency Labor parties publicly announcing that they also opposed the proposals on the basis of the size of the new twinned constituencies. This came mainly from south-eastern areas such as Rhondda and Swansea East rather than more rural constituencies, which were more accustomed to larger geographical areas.
It was clear there were high-level nerves in the party that the resistance could sabotage a finely crafted proposal that was key to the Senedd’s future and a successful electoral term. Negotiations and preparation had been underway for some time and notably there was little press involvement in the conference, despite requests.
As soon as the conference room opened, there was a lot of traffic in the room. Movers and shakers were out in force to make sure the speakers in the room were ready to defend the deal. A quieter, more subtle breakdown of those opposing the deal also filtered through the room, quietly gauging their support.
In Welsh Labor tradition, it was all good humour. It is rare in the small, tight Welsh working community to see anything but pragmatism, cooperation and camaraderie and the conference lived up to that tradition. Delegates from opposing camps happily sat next to each other and discussed their voting intentions while catching up and discussing recent election successes.
The GMB, who were leading the charge against the deal, joked that they could give up and go to the pub if the conference threatened to miss the kick-off in the post-Wales v South Africa match. midday.The debate itself was kicked off with a barnstorming speech by Huw Irranca-Davies of Ogmore. He urged the conference to “seize the day”, saying it was a unique opportunity for the country and the Senedds. He warned that the Senedd would not stand still and back down without this deal.
The ensuing debate was no less than remarkable for a Welsh Labor conference. The whole machinery of Welsh Labor came to life to support and do all they could to get the deal through.
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Normally, the conference debate is left to members and affiliates with an occasional contribution from a member state on a relevant topic. Councilors sometimes close the debates. MPs are rarely seen as the UK conference is their domain.
The first installment of speakers was led by Rhymney and Merthyr chairman Tyrone Powell, who explained his constituency’s opposition. It was quickly followed by speeches supporting the motion from Alun Michael, former First Secretary for Wales, and Labor and Co-operative MP Christina Rees.
Then in the choreography, the unions spoke. GMB’s Tom Hoyles explained his union’s opposition to the content of the proposals, not the principle.
Unison featured two speakers who sympathized with some of GMB’s concerns, but ultimately supported proportional electoral systems and proposals. Unite’s Mary Williams showed her union’s support for the deal. Support from Unite and Unison was crucial as the two largest unions in the room whose votes could carry half of the affiliate’s vote in favor of the proposals.
The dancing continued as John Giffiths MS of Newport East led the charge of Senedd’s representatives. John is one of the “Originals” who has been MS since devolution began.
He was followed by Jack Sargeant MS. Next comes an unprecedented appearance by former prime minister Carwyn Jones, who has remained silent at party conferences since retiring.
I have never seen so many MPs and even MPs stand up and speak at a Welsh conference. Alun Michael and Carwyn Jones have both advocated for reform
The cogs of the Welsh Labor machine are moving strongly to push through the Senedd reform.
— Clr Rach Garrioch (@RC_Garrioch) July 2, 2022
It was clear that this was an all-out charm offensive designed to wrest every possible vote from the delegates. MP Wayne David rose next, bringing rarely seen appearances from MPs into the fray. He was followed throughout the debate by MP Nia Griffith and pensioner Albert Owen. The Co-Op supported Christina Rees’ initial speech with supporting performances from Karen Wilkie and Mary Wimbury.
Several councilors also spoke, Sara Burch, Laura Wright and myself from the newly elected Labor administration.
Speakers spoke of the need for more Senedd members, highlighting councils with more seats than our own government. Northern Ireland was highlighted as having 60% of the population of Wales and boasting 90 members. Speakers from the North West and South East corners of Wales lamented their lack of Labor representation and highlighted the benefits of being able to tell voters that their vote would have count in a proportional system.
After an hour and a half of some of the best-coordinated political theater, it was clear the deal would be supported. Mark Drakeford closed the debate with a book-ending speech that echoed Huw Irranca Davies’ call to seize the once-in-a-generation opportunity.
A standing ovation followed Mark’s reiteration that ‘the history of devolution and the history of the labor movement are inextricably linked’.
Welsh Labor has just voted in favor of the Senedd reform. The adopted proposals to extend Senedd to 90 members will be adopted. It is incredible to have participated in this historic vote.
— Clr Rach Garrioch (@RC_Garrioch) July 2, 2022
The vote passed with just over 75 per cent support, meaning Welsh Labor had completed the puzzle that would ensure a stronger and more capable Senedd for Wales.
Rachel Garrick is a trade unionist and councilor for Monmouthshire County Council. She is also chair of the Labor for an Independent Wales group and has been an active member of the Labor Party for 20 years.
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