RHODRI MORGAN last night won the emphatic victory he needed to stamp his authority on Welsh Labour as the party’s special conference endorsed an historic coalition with Plaid Cymru.
If members of Plaid’s national council also back the deal today, a coalition will be formed early next week.
Crucially, Mr Morgan yesterday triumphed in both sections of the party’s electoral college, winning more than 60% of the votes from party units as well as an overwhelming 96% from trade unions and other affiliated organisations.
The overall vote in favour of the deal was 78.43%, with 21.57% against. Among party units – comprising constituency parties, women’s forums and county parties – there was a 61.02% yes vote, with 38.98% voting no.
Party affiliates – of which the four unions Unison, Transport & General, Amicus and the GMB had around 70% of the votes in their half of the ballot – backed the deal by 95.83% to 4.17%.
If, as expected, Plaid Cymru’s National Council endorses the coalition today, Ieuan Wyn Jones and other Plaid Ministers will join Mr Morgan’s expanded Assembly Government within days. The two parties have 41 of the 60 seats between them.
Immediately after the conference at Cardiff International Arena, Mr Morgan agreed with the Western Mail’s description of his victory as “emphatic”.
He said, “Yes, and I’m very pleased that both wings of the party have voted in the same direction. It’s something you don’t always see, but on this occasion the party units have voted in the same direction, but not by the same majority as the affiliated organisations like the trade unions. So I think that gives a very good indication that the party will unite now behind this overwhelming vote.”
Asked about the timing of a referendum on full lawmaking powers for the Assembly – a crucial Plaid demand that provoked much antagonism within the party, especially from many MPs – Mr Morgan said, “The One Wales [coalition] document states quite clearly that we will, in good faith, do the groundwork necessary for a referendum, while at the same time testing the waters of Welsh public opinion to make sure we don’t get into another 1979 or even a 1997 situation, given how narrow that result was. You don’t commit yourself to go down the tunnel from which you cannot reverse until you’re pretty sure that public opinion is in favour of full lawmaking powers – and both Plaid Cymru and ourselves are agreed on that. How you measure public opinion, and the bedding down of the new powers, is all-important to that process.”
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said a referendum would be held “when the conditions were right for one”. He added, “That means there has to be a strong cross-party consensus of the pro-devolution parties, and public opinion has to be in place to vote yes. That’s the party’s policy, and we’ll have to see how that proceeds.”
Mr Hain added, “I’ve spoken to Gordon Brown over the last few weeks, and he’s talked to Rhodri a few days ago. He’s well appraised of the situation. He knows what Rhodri was seeking to achieve, and he will obviously respect the verdict of the Welsh Labour conference decision, which was pretty clear-cut.”
A number of anti-coalition MPs said, as they left the venue, that they did not think a referendum would be held for a long time.
Rhondda MP Chris Bryant said, “I think the people of Wales are far more interested in issues that affect them like the state of local schools and the services provided by their GP surgeries than the rather anoraky subject of lawmaking powers for the Assembly.”
Foreign Office Minister and Pontypridd MP Kim Howells – who opposed a deal with Plaid – said, “I don’t think there will be a referendum for a very long time. The coalition statement has two statements in it [about the referendum] which face different ways.”
Education Minister Carwyn Jones welcomed the result.
“It was crucial to get over 60% support from the party units, and that has been achieved. I think we can go forward now with confidence,” he said. Another supporter of the deal – former Finance Minister Sue Essex – was also delighted.
“There was a very strong feeling that we shouldn’t go into opposition and that Rhodri should remain as First Minister. I think the people of Wales wanted that, and they would not have understood if we had walked away.”
Darren Williams, secretary of the left wing Welsh Labour Grassroots body, said, “This is the right result for the party and the right result for Wales. We can now move forward and put into practice a progressive programme for government.”
It is understood former Labour leader Lord Kinnock made a passionate speech in the conference hall against a deal with Plaid.
The only one of the 41 delegates to release details of the speech she made was Vale of Clwyd AM Ann Jones, who said, “We need to think about the full implications of this shotgun wedding with the supposed ‘lesser evil’ of Plaid.
“We have been asked to vote today with our heads and not our hearts. So let us be hard-headed in our approach to this One Wales agreement. Whichever way you cut it, there are two manifestos in this document and yet we only have one Assembly budget. That is not an emotive point; it is fact.
“So it simply is not true to say that we are entering this coalition to push through our manifesto commitments – some will be sacrificed.
“This document puts us over a barrel – they [Plaid] will threaten to hook back up with the Tories whenever they perceive inaction on their separatist agenda.
“And this is what we are to call stable government?”
A Plaid spokesman said, “The result of the special Welsh Labour conference is to be welcomed.
“Plaid will [today] vote for the opportunity to implement Plaid policies and to be in government for the first time in the party’s history.
“More importantly, however, Plaid will vote to create a stable government that can make a difference for all the people of Wales.”
Welsh Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne said, “This result shows that there is still significant opposition within the Labour Party to the proposal to join forces with Plaid Cymru.”