23 June 2010

If this is the question, the answer is yes

The Wales Office has sent a draft power referendum to the Electoral Commission:

"At present, the National Assembly for Wales (the Assembly) has powers to make laws for Wales on some subjects within devolved areas. Devolved areas include health, education, social services, local government and environment. The Assembly can gain further powers to make laws in devolved areas with the agreement of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (Parliament) on a subject by subject basis.

If most people vote Yes in this referendum, the Assembly will gain powers to pass laws on all subjects in the devolved areas. If most people vote No, then the present arrangements, which transfer that law-making power bit by bit, with the agreement of Parliament each time, will continue.

Do you agree that the Assembly should now have powers to pass laws on all subjects in the devolved areas without needing the agreement of Parliament first?"

Dave Reid, writing for Socialist Party Wales in January, said:

"We therefore support the calling of a multi-option referendum including the options of the status quo, full legislative powers for the Welsh assembly or independence. We would call for a vote for the second option in such a referendum and a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum on the question of more powers for the Assembly, linking it to the question of socialist policies to improve the lives of working people."

-Welsh Perspectives 2010

Socialist Party Wales has been consistent since the beginning in our calls for devolution for Wales and I remain confident this is the right choice now.

I've written recently on the unique challenges and opportunity in Wales. We can make gains in Wales — gains for the entire British working class — impossible elsewhere in Britain, through the fact that the Assembly, for its flaws, is far closer to the people it represents than the MPs in Westminster are. In the areas where Wales is devolved it already serves as a pole dragging Britain forward; people in England with long-term health issues, for example, have told me how jealous they are that in Wales we get state-funded prescriptions. An Assembly with full powers, or even an independent Wales, is not on its own sufficient for the establishment of a Welsh or British workers' state; but it is a useful stepping stone.

The question of timing is important. Wales Minister Gillan admits in her statement that we could have the referendum as early as the beginning of September, but still prefers a date of late March. This is purely tactical on her part: holding the referendum closer to the Assembly elections will on the one hand give the Tories the most time to stanch the bleeding of their support resulting from yesterday's savage budget cuts, while on the other holding the vote closer to the Assembly elections will depress turnout, meaning the Conservatives can argue against the legitimacy of the vote, like happened in Scotland in 1979. (By the way, the current ConDem coalition only got the electoral support of 38% of the electorate — by the Scotland '79 standard, David Cameron has no mandate, but we knew that already.)

Of course the powers referendum as written isn't perfect. Proper devolution would mean full powers, including most importantly the power to tax; it's unclear to me whether the Assembly would have the power to replace council tax with something like the proposed Scottish Service Tax. Also nice would be the power for Wales to set its own rules for how it elects MPs. Wouldn't it be awesome if all 40 Welsh MPs were elected by PR? The power to independently regulate commerce, immigration, financial policy, including the power to take up deficit spending, the power to disestablish the Church and the aristocracy (not a pipe dream; under the Irish Free State, George V was "king in Ireland" without being "king of Ireland") — these are all things that Wales should demand. In that light the referendum question we're offered is incremental progress on its own.

Nonetheless it is progress on its own, bounded by the amount of faith (little to none) we put in the British state as an institution. More significantly, every powers vote asks the Welsh working class to stand up for itself and be counted; this is something we can all rally to. It brings none of our tasks to completion — while the Assembly cannot apply powers it does not have, it will not apply any power it has for the working class without the working class demanding it, and therefore our key task now and tomorrow remains the organization of a mass workers' movement in Wales, in Britain, and around the world.

A "Yes" vote will make socialists' goals more attainable, our tasks easier. It gives more voice to a culture deprived of one. A vote for more Assembly powers is the right choice.

(hat tip to Liberal Smithy for calling attention to the question)

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