Unions should lead the way on devolution

Published date
A guest essay by Darren Williams, PCS National Officer for Wales

I’m very pleased to be able to contribute to the discussion prompted by the Devolution and Work Commission report on behalf of PCS, a union with a longstanding commitment to democratic devolution; our main predecessor unions campaigned for an Assembly in the 1997 referendum and we also backed the ‘yes’ campaign in the 2011 referendum on primary law-making powers. 
That support has been vindicated. while we’ve had our differences with the Welsh Government, our members in the devolved sector have been better treated than those in the Whitehall sector, in terms of their pay and conditions and the ability of their trade unions to defend their interests.

More broadly, as the report says, the Welsh Government has created an industrial relation climate that respects and engages trade unions, as well as taking a more humane and progressive approach to government generally. 
So we can say that the general trend over the last 25 years has been broadly in a positive direction. However, we seem to have witnessed a regression in politics at UK level, with renewed austerity, demonisation of refugees and migrants, use of culture wars rhetoric, restrictions on the right to protest and attacks on union rights. The future seems uncertain.  
I therefore welcome the report produced by Prof. Jenkins and her colleagues as a serious attempt to engage with the challenges confronting workers and their trade unions, and with the practicalities of promoting a fairer economy through devolution.  The report rightly emphasises the complexities of the situation and explores the interaction between the accumulation of legislative powers, the capacity to implement those powers and the ability of unions to use powers to the advantage of their members.

All of us who have been involved in discussions around the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act will appreciate that there is a legal and constitutional minefield to traverse when any change to the devolution settlement is attempted. 
But I think the present situation looks more positive in historical context. Devolved government in Wales has grown in its practical influence over people’s lives and in the public support it has enjoyed. 
It took nearly 30 years from the time that a Parliament for Wales was first proposed until the people of Wales were first given opportunity to vote for an Assembly in 1979. That first referendum saw a four-to-one vote against devolution, with the proposal heavily defeated in all parts of Wales.

18 years later, of course, a second referendum delivered a ‘yes’ vote, albeit by a very slender margin. A big factor in the change between 1979 and 1997 will undoubtedly have been the experience of Thatcherism, when the people of Wales saw destruction of much of their coal, steel and manufacturing industries as a result of the policies of a UK government for which most of them never voted and against which they had no protection at an all-Wales level.
When there was a further referendum in 2011 on primary legislative powers, the proposal was carried comfortably, suggesting that 12 years’ experience of the Assembly had won around public opinion. The Assembly’s powers already grown substantially in that period – bearing out Ron Davies’ famous comment about devolution being a process not an event – and they have continued to grow since, with law-making and tax-raising powers being secured and put into practice.

The Welsh Government has been able to make a difference in areas like agricultural wages, in disapplying the worst aspects of the 2016 Trade Union Act, it has taken the Wales & Borders rail franchise into public ownership when private provision collapsed and it has responded to the Covid pandemic in a way that was far more coherent, consistent and science-based than the UK government’s approach, and which involved consultation with unions and other social partners at every step of the way. 
In this context, the results of the surveys of workers presented in the report are encouraging, to the extent that they suggest that there is more support for Welsh Government control in policy areas that are already devolved, such as health and education, where workers have seen beneficial consequences. 

On employment rights, where the Welsh Government has virtually no responsibility and no immediate prospect of gaining such responsibility, opinion is almost evenly split, suggesting that if a positive campaign were undertaken to get the possibility of devolution in this area on to the political agenda, support for the idea could increase. 
One question that the report poses is whether we should, in fact, campaign for that change, especially if industrial bargaining strength is ultimately more important than legislative change and if devolution of employment rights could even undermine unions’ capacity to negotiate positive outcomes at UK level.

Hopefully, a change of government on the horizon in Westminster, even if we will now have to wait until the autumn to see it happen. Labour is still promising a new deal for working people. We may need to manage our expectations about what that will ultimately entail, given the way the UK Labour leadership has been backtracking on some of its commitments, but nevertheless, the expected change of government can only be positive for workers. 
However, even if and when that change comes to pass, the political pendulum at UK level will eventually swing back to the right. I will be 54 years old in a couple of weeks and for 36 of those years – two-thirds of my lifetime – the UK has been ruled by Conservative or Conservative-led governments, with Labour in office only for the remaining 18 years. With no reason to suppose that that pattern will change any time soon, we have to accept that any gains secured under the next Labour government could fairly easily and quickly be reversed. 
In Wales, on the other hand, where the political centre of gravity is further to the left and where there is a progressive consensus on issues like public services, social partnership and trade union rights, gains that favour working people are more likely to become permanent. 
So, pragmatic considerations tend to reinforce the basic democratic argument acknowledged in the report that decision-making should be brought as close as possible to the people affected.

I would add that a future Welsh Government with the power to raise minimum standards in employment rights for all workers in Wales could also provide a positive example that would help unions negotiating elsewhere in the UK to put pressure on employers to match those advances. Hence, there is an argument that what workers in Wales ultimately need most from a UK Labour government is an extension of the responsibilities devolved to the Senedd and the Welsh Government, to provide protection against future UK governments attacking and undermining their rights still further. 
But I would add that the report makes an important point in linking legislative capacity with the resources necessary to make effective use of that capacity and unions in Wales should also be putting pressure on the next Westminster government to ensure adequate financial support accompanies any additional powers and that, in keeping with longstanding Wales TUC policy, there is radical reform of the Barnett Formula to ensure that Wales receives the funding it needs to support its people and deliver effective public services.

All of the report’s recommendations are worthy of support as measures that could enhance the Welsh Government’s ability to influence the world of work in positive, if modest, ways. 
I particularly welcome the last recommendation, to establish a Wales TUC working group to examine the practicalities of employment rights devolution. I would advocate that, alongside that work, the Wales TUC should make a positive case for further devolution in this area, taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves arising from the forthcoming report of the commission established by the Welsh Government; the significant growth in support for various forms of constitutional change, including radical federalism and outright independence; and the likelihood of a change of UK government. 

Just as Welsh unions in the 1980s and 1990s helped to make the case for devolution that resulted in the 1997 referendum victory, so the Wales TUC and Welsh unions today should seek to lead public opinion and be ambitious about the potential for constitutional change to facilitate a fairer economy, rather than being unduly constrained by the limits of public opinion as it stands today.

Darren Williams, National Officer PCS Wales & South West