SENIOR Labour figures in Wales are calling behind the scenes for a “stability pact” which would mean siding with Plaid Cymru rather than the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly.
The Western Mail can reveal that big-hitters including Social Justice Minister Edwina Hart have been making the argument in private, as the Labour hierarchy gets twitchy about Lib-Dem infighting.
The news comes as uncertainty continues over who will run Wales following last week’s inconclusive election result, where Labour won only 26 of the 60 seats.
Mrs Hart, the Labour AM for Gower, has been trying to persuade colleagues of the merits of such a deal, under which Plaid would agree not to bring down a minority Labour Assembly Government in return for an agreed policy programme. A stability pact with Plaid would be preferable to a full-blown coalition with the Liberal Democrats, according to Mrs Hart, whose view is said to be influenced by the intense rivalry at council level in Swansea between Labour and the Lib-Dems.
A senior Labour source said, “The $64,000 question is what will happen next. There’s no doubt that a stability pact with Plaid will be part of the discussions.”
But he added that the party was split and “Edwina is in a minority”.
He said, “Strategically it is not a good idea to deal with Plaid because it gives them credibility. They have more to gain from any such arrangement in the longer term, while we have more to lose in the longer term.
“Instead, we should try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Our philosophy towards them should be, ‘hug them close and strangle them slowly’. Another reason in favour of a deal with them is that it is difficult to remember any of the manifesto promises. What they were saying was so vague that it should be quite easy to reach agreement with them.
“Interestingly, they also seem to be rowing back from their previous insistence on proportional representation in local government elections, something we in Labour are wholly opposed to.”
Labour holds its first post-election group meeting in the Senedd today at which there is likely to be passionate debate both about how the campaign was fought, and about the way forward.
Plaid Cymru’s deputy Assembly leader Rhodri Glyn Thomas said, “I think a number of Labour Ministers are arguing the case for a deal with Plaid – I have spoken to some of them myself. They don’t like the Liberal Democrats because in the local government elections next year they will be trying to win back councils in Wrexham, Bridgend, Cardiff and Swansea from the Lib-Dems.
“There is also a strong feeling that the last time Labour went into coalition with the Lib-Dems, they were taken for a ride, with the Lib-Dems seeking to take credit for everything that was done. So some of them would find it a lot easier to deal with Plaid.”
But he added, “My personal view is that it would be better for us to stay in opposition. We are now a lot stronger than we were in the last Assembly, with three extra seats and some very strong majorities in our constituencies. If we do a good job of holding the Government to account, which is what we should aim to do, we will be in an excellent position at the next Assembly election in 2011 to replicate what the SNP in Scotland has done this time, and become the largest party. If Labour loses seats next time round and we pick seats up, that is a very possible scenario. But if we did a deal with Labour, we would risk being drawn into their future failures.”
Mr Thomas said, “I think the Liberal Democrats are in a very weak position. They have had a very bad election result, having got stuck on just six AMs. They are going nowhere, and are very obviously the smallest party in the Assembly. They are in terrible internal turmoil following Peter Black’s call for Mike German to step down as leader, and although some are saying they should step back from a coalition, I still think another Lib-Lab deal is the most likely outcome. They are not in a good bargaining position, although I suspect they will be prepared to do a deal at almost any price to get into government.”
Cardiff Central AM Jenny Randerson, who was Culture Minister in the last Lib-Lab coalition, said, “Clearly Mike German will be speaking to Rhodri Morgan and probably to Ieuan Wyn Jones. The important thing will be to see whether a workable coalition deal is possible. Our priorities are set out in our manifesto, and I’m sure the other parties have read ours in the same way we have read theirs. The key issues for us will be health and education. There’s a fair amount of overlap in all the manifestos – that includes the Conservatives’ as well. All options are open and a deal is by no means certain.
“We’re now entering a period of quiet negotiation, which will be frustrating for the public and for journalists.”
Asked whether the Liberal Democrats were likely to insist on proportional representation in local government as the price for any deal, Mrs Randerson said, “PR is in our manifesto and it’s important to us, although the public are not that concerned about it.”
Page 2 - What the four main parties will be aiming for during coalition talks this week