A COOL, wet afternoon in June in Cardiff Bay didn’t feel particularly auspicious in terms of historic moments in Welsh politics.

Delegates who had been recalled from Welsh Labour’s conference in March stood huddled in small, damp groups outside Bute House and were relatively quiet as they waited to decide the fate of proposals on the expansion on the Senedd and ultimately, the future of Welsh government. 

The decision should have been an obvious one of simple agreement. Proposals were being put to expand the Senedd from 60 to 96 members in order to allow our national parliament to field the numbers of representatives needed to legislate for a nation.

South Wales Argus:

Further details were offered on the pairing of constituencies. Each paired set of constituencies would elect 6 members of the Senedd from a closed list under the D’Hondt system which is currently used for the election of List MSs. The lists would include gender quotas to ensure equality.

Back in March, delegates had already voted to expand the Senedd to 80-100 members and mandated the party to do so on a basis which entrenched equality and utilised a proportional electoral system.

Today, they had been recalled to conference to agree the finer details that had been put together. There was however, a feeling of nervousness in the air. 

The deal was high stakes.

Mark Drakeford, already mandated by March’s Llandudno conference had brokered a co-operation agreement with Adam Price’s Plaid Cymru which included the proposals being bought to the party. Announced and publicised, this deal would guarantee support and enactment of key Labour policies throughout this Senedd term.

South Wales Argus: Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price and first minister Mark Drakeford. Photo: Huw Evans AgencyPlaid Cymru leader Adam Price and first minister Mark Drakeford. Photo: Huw Evans Agency

Both Labour and Plaid had been elected by the Welsh people on manifestos which committed to Senedd expansion, meaning around 60% of the country had voted for this change in the 2021 elections.

This is something lost on Conservative Leader Andrew R T Davies, who is still screaming for a referendum despite comprehensively losing the public vote last year.

However, some internal resistance had emerged within the Labour party. 

Resistance started in the lead up to the conference with GMB, Community and USDAW unions publicly stating their opposition to the proposals. They were clear that they agreed in principal with expansion but voiced concerns about the D’Hondt system and the potential for diminished involvement of affiliated bodies such as trade unions and the Co-Operative party in the selection of candidates.

A “no” campaign ensued, with some constituency labour parties announcing publicly that they also opposed the proposals on the basis of the size of the new, paired constituencies. This came from mainly South-East areas such as Rhondda and Swansea East rather than more rural constituencies, who were more used to larger geographic areas.

It was clear that there were some nerves from high up in the party that resistance could scupper a finely crafted proposal which was essential for the future of the Senedd and a successful electoral term. Negotiations and preparation had been going on for some time and notably, there was little press involvement in the conference, despite requests. 

As soon as the conference hall opened, there was a lot of circulation in the room. Movers and shakers were out in force to ensure speakers from the floor were ready to stand up for the deal. A quieter, more subtle spread of those opposing the deal also filtered through the hall, quietly gauging their support.

In Welsh Labour tradition, everything was good natured. It is rare, in the small, tight community of Welsh Labour, to see anything but pragmatism, cooperation and camaraderie and the conference lived up to that tradition. Delegates of opposing camps sat happily next to each other and discussed their voting intentions along with catching up and discussing recent electoral successes.

The GMB, who were leading the charge against the deal, joked that they may give up and go to the pub if conference threatened to run past the kick off of the afternoon’s Wales v South Africa match.  South Wales Argus: Welsh Labour's Huw Irranca Davies had chaired the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd ReformWelsh Labour's Huw Irranca Davies had chaired the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform The debate itself was kicked off with a barnstorming speech from Ogmore’s Huw Irranca-Davies. He urged the conference to “seize the day”, stating that this was a once in a generation opportunity for the country and the Senedd. He warned that the Senedd would not stand still and would go backwards without this deal. 

The ensuing debate was no less than remarkable for a Welsh Labour conference. The entire machinery of Welsh Labour came to life to support and do its utmost to push through the deal.

Normally, conference debate is left to members and affiliates with occasional input from an MS on a relevant subject. Councillors sometimes close debates. MPs are rarely seen as UK conference is their domain.

The first tranche of speakers was lead by Rhymney and Merthyr chair, Tyrone Powell, who explained his constituency’s opposition. He was followed swiftly by speeches of support for the motion from Alun Michael, former first secretary of Wales, and Labour and Co-Op MP, Christina Rees. 

South Wales Argus: Former First Secretary and now Police & Crime Commissioner, Alun MichaelFormer First Secretary and now Police & Crime Commissioner, Alun Michael

Next up in the choreography, the trade unions started to speak. Tom Hoyles of the GMB explained his union’s opposition to the content of the proposals, not the principle.

Unison fielded two speakers who sympathised with some of GMB's concerns but ultimately supported proportional electoral systems and the proposals. Unite’s Mary Williams showed her union’s support for the deal. Unite and Unison’s support were crucial as the two largest unions in the room whose votes could carry the affiliate half of the vote in favour of the proposals.

The dance continued as John Giffiths MS from Newport East led the charge from the Senedd representatives. John is one of “The Originals” who has been an MS since the inception of devolution.

He was followed by Jack Sargeant MS. Next was an unprecedented appearance from former first minister Carwyn Jones who has been silent at party conferences since his retirement.

It was clear that this was an all out charm offensive intended to wring every vote it could out of the delegates. Wayne David MP stood up next, bringing rarely seen appearances by MPs into the fray. He was followed throughout the debate by Nia Griffith MP and by retired Albert Owen. The Co-Op supported Christina Rees’s initial speech with representations of support from Karen WIlkie and Mary Wimbury.

Several councillors also spoke, Sara Burch, Laura Wright and myself from the newly elected Labour administration.

South Wales Argus: Rachel Garrick is the new president of Labour for an Independent Wales and has been an active Labour member of 20 years.Rachel Garrick is the new president of Labour for an Independent Wales and has been an active Labour member of 20 years.

Speakers spoke of the need for more Senedd Members, pointing to councils with more seats than our own Government. Northern Ireland was highlighted as having 60% of the population of Wales and enjoying 90 members. Speakers from the North West and South East corners of Wales lamented their lack of Labour representation and pointed out the benefits of being able to tell constituents that their vote would count in a proportional system.

After an hour and a half of some of the most excellently coordinated political theatre, it was clear that the deal would be supported. Mark Drakeford closed the debate with a book-end speech which echoed Huw Irranca Davies’ plea to take up the once in a generation opportunity.

A standing ovation followed Mark’s reiteration that “The story of devolution and the story of the Labour movement are inextricably linked.”

The vote passed with just over 75 per cent support, meaning Welsh Labour had completed the jigsaw which would guarantee a stronger, more competent Senedd for Wales.

Rachel Garrick is a trade unionist and a councillor on Monmouthshire County Council. She is also the president of the group Labour for an Independent Wales and has been an active Labour member of 20 years.

  • This article originally appeared on our sister site The National.