Election 2016: Robert Orchard 'sorting sheep from goats'

The ballot boxes for the assembly elections 2016 open in just under a week's time. Wondering what the Welsh Assembly has ever done for you and why you should turn out to vote? Rob Orchard continues his quest to find out.

The man Tony Blair tried unsuccessfully to block from leading the new Welsh Assembly doesn't like to be reminded that he once likened its debates to watching paint dry.

Rhodri Morgan, now 76 and writing his autobiography in retirement, begins muttering about sheep and goats when I mention the paint.

He can surely take a fairly Olympian, reflective view of next week's elections: he's no longer in the front line of political battle though he is helping out in Labour's campaign to remain the dominant party, even if - as the polls suggest - it may lose seats and, possibly, sole control of the Welsh Government.

But with predictions in recent days from respected figures that the number of people voting - the turnout - could slump below a derisory 40%, the former Dear Leader reprises an old New Labour anthem: Things Can Only Get Better as the assembly gets more powers.

He concedes what a number of Welsh politicians I've spoken to about the assembly - not to mention journalists tasked with reporting it - seem to agree: the word that comes up most regularly in describing the Senedd's proceedings is, well, "dull".

That may be a superficial judgement: politics isn't all about shouting and attacking your opponent, of course.

Image copyright Christopher Furlong
Image caption Rhodri Morgan says the Welsh Assembly of today is a far cry from the The Sheep and Goats Identification (Miscellaneous Provisions) Wales Order 2000

Reasoned discussion and consensus have their place.

But it's also about passion, seething anger and heated debate, surely?

I have spent the past 25 years reporting on the doings, derring-do, and derring-don't, of politicians in the crumbling, vermin-infested Palace of Westminster (that's vermin with a tail and whiskers, obviously… what were you thinking?), and there's nothing like bitter controversy, acrimonious exchanges and political passion to gain the voters' attention, and interest... and winkle them out to vote.

Politics is about clashing ideas if it's about anything.

But the former first minister, who has always turned a good phrase, protests that he made the paint-drying quip in the early years of the assembly, some 15 years ago.

"What I meant was that back then we were only allowed to consider very minor, secondary, laws," he says.

"I vividly remember we had a one-hour debate on The Sheep and Goats Identification (Miscellaneous Provisions) Wales Order 2000. Now you could not develop your oratorical or debating skills on that!"

Rhodri Morgan insists things are very different today, as the assembly gradually accumulates new powers over more and more of Welsh public life, with the promise of some tax-raising powers to come, and with the government it produces already controlling both the NHS and schools in Wales.

But he has another gripe, while we are on the subject: part of the problem, he thinks, is those large computer screens assembly members shelter behind in the debating chamber - the ones all too reminiscent, to my jaundiced mind, of an upmarket call centre.

Image caption Killing debate? Rhodri Morgan bemoans the presence of computer screens in the Senedd chamber

"I regret that we did not ban those personal computers from the chamber... there was a keenness to have a paperless parliament.

"But once you have a computer screen you don't watch the debate. What you see is people looking at their computer screens. It is a killer. It is just not healthy."

But, dull or not, why should the turnout for next week's assembly election be even lower than the mere 42% it was at the last election in 2011?

Former assembly member and ex-Wales Office minister Jenny (now Baroness) Randerson of the Liberal Democrats thinks there's one glaring problem: the media are too busy focusing on a different election altogether.

"The EU Referendum in June has concentrated people's minds in one direction," she says.

"The assembly election is a very different issue. It's far from helpful that both elections are being held so close together... all the parties would agree with that."

Another political veteran who finds the assembly proceedings too often dull and uninspiring is the former Labour Cabinet minister who pioneered the Welsh devolution settlement, Ron Davies.

Once serving Labour as an assembly member for four years, he is now retired from politics and has switched allegiance to Plaid Cymru, having survived a torrid time in the public eye over his private life nearly 20 years ago, an experience which ended his political career at the top.

Image caption According to Baroness Randerson debate over the EU Referendum has detracted from the assembly elections

"Yes, the assembly can be dull because it seeks the traditional, easy path to non-confrontation," he says.

"That is what the ruling administration has been all about over the years... steady-as-you-go management. It is the art of managing without challenging. But the big choice is what to do about the declining economy."

And he summons up an unlikely role model: "If you have big personalities, you have big ideas... look at the presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in America.

"He is not just a personality... He is 'trumping' the rest because he has ideas, however hateful and unreasonable. To turn around the assembly, you need someone capable of mobilising a crusade. We need to say it with conviction. People like confrontation in politics."

The man running the Conservatives' campaign for the assembly elections is the former MP and Euro-MP Jonathan Evans, who now chairs the party in Wales.

He is very exercised by the likely turnout next Thursday too... and thinks it is the key to a political upset he claims that could even see Labour lose its dominant position in every assembly election to date, and every all-Wales electoral contest bar one since 1918.

"How do you overcome that ingrained view of Labour in charge? You counter that by saying 'can Labour lose?'," he says.

"In this election , Labour need to surrender just one seat to lose control - they currently have 30 out of the total 60.

Image caption Ron Davies says assembly administration has been all about 'steady-as-you-go management'.

"Our Conservative vote in the last assembly election was only half the number we got at the general election.

"We are only turning out half of possible Conservative votes. One statistic I use is that more people voted Conservative in the general election last year than have ever voted for Labour in any assembly election!

"The concept that all we have got to do is win a few seats to deprive Labour of a majority is very motivational."

But some are predicting Plaid Cymru to pip the Tories for second place to Labour in the election this time, reversing the 2011 result.

If they do, its former leader, Dafydd (now Lord) Wigley, says the party is cautious about entering another coalition government with a weakened Labour party if Labour does lose seats.

"We would not be rushing into coalition," he says. "The Welsh electorate are getting fed up with one-party rule."

There is a problem of getting any excitement on the doorstep when there is a situation of the same party in power, election after election, and that affects the turnout.

It gets to be a switch-off. If democracy is going to work, it has to show the ability to move from one government to another... it's in Labour's own interests.

Surprisingly, Labour does not see it that way, and insists it is still fizzing with new ideas.

A more intriguing, if currently unlikely, scenario is put forward by Jonathan Evans of the Welsh Tories - some sort of coalition or arrangement between his party and Plaid Cymru, though that prospect is considered by Ron Davies to be "so distasteful that it is not a realistic option".

Evans isn't so sure.

"The prospect of a non-Labour Welsh Assembly government is not one that should be as easily discounted as it is at the moment," he says.

"The Welsh Conservatives have rebranded ourselves as a distinct party.

"We have not set out to overturn the assembly but to make it work, despite the paper-thin majority in the referendum that approved it in 1997.

"A deal with Plaid Cymru might be possible but I do not think it is possible with their present leader, Leanne Wood. She is the block to any coalition deal with us."

But with the Brexit-supporting UKIP expected to win its first seats in the assembly, could it too form part of such a "rainbow coalition"?

Image caption Jonathan Evans believes the Welsh Conservatives have managed to re-brand themselves as a distinct party

That idea gets a dusty response from the Tories' Jonathan Evans: "That is pretty much inconceivable."

Curiously, this crucial question of who forms the Welsh Assembly government if no party wins a majority on 5th May, as seems very likely, was not raised in the party leaders' big debate on Wednesday - the last time they all came face to face during the campaign, so voters still have little clue what policy compromises might be made in smoke-free rooms after the election.

As for UKIP, the party seems buoyant at its prospects of doing in Cardiff Bay what it failed to do in last year's general election, when Westminster's creaking first past the post voting system delivered just one MP out of 650 despite the party winning one of eight of all the votes cast.

Thanks to the partially proportional voting system for some seats in the assembly, UKIP seems likely to win a modest number of AMs.

Estimates vary, but UKIP is tipped to win more seats than the struggling Liberal Democrats, who are still licking their wounds from the suffocating UK coalition embrace of David Cameron's Tories.

And not everyone is as horrified at the prospect of the Senedd echoing to the tones of the Brexiteers as Plaid Cymru's leader, Leanne Wood.

'UKIP members'

She has called UKIP "un-Welsh" but one senior AM from her party, who's standing for re-election, told me furtively: "The election of several UKIP members could be the making of the assembly... it might generate some proper debate."

And the godfather of Welsh devolution, Ron Davies, has mixed feelings at the prospect.

"My arm would drop off if I thought I created the proportional representation election system in the assembly for UKIP, but at least they have a spark... some sense of urgency, of challenge."

The Lib Dems' Jenny Randerson thinks there are signs that her party will do better than the virtual wipe-out some are predicting, but she is still pessimistic about Labour's apparent stranglehold on the levers of power in Cardiff Bay.

"Until Welsh politics develops to the point where the Labour Party can be challenged or replaced in the assembly government, we will have no more than indifferent policy-making," she says.

"Where is the inspiration? It is very mediocre.

"In Scotland, the SNP has set politics alight. Here, [in Wales], it is all about saying no to things.

"There are fresh ideas coming through from England, and Wales is saying 'No: we don't want to change.' You cannot get inspirational government by saying No."

But while its opinion poll lead is waning, Labour shows no sign of conceding its grip on the assembly without a dogfight. Wales is the only country in the UK still controlled by the party… for the moment, though Jeremy Corbyn's party is the bookies' favourite to win the race for London Mayor on the same day next week, when Boris Johnson stands down to spend more time with his Tory leadership campaign.

Image copyright Lewis Clarke
Image caption What might have been: Rhodri Morgan is reminded of a regret every time he passes Cardiff City Hall

Labour's former First Minister Rhodri Morgan has worked in coalition, first with the Lib Dems and later with Plaid Cymru.

He is convinced a win for his party would still be best for the assembly and is proud of Labour's achievements in his nine years at the helm… the "clear red water" he boasted of putting between Labour in the assembly and the last UK Labour government: on issues like free prescription charges, subsidised student tuition fees, and no academy schools, not to mention a free breakfast for all primary school children judged to need it.

Oh, and none of this junior doctors' strike either, because the current Welsh government hasn't tried to impose a new contract with more weekend working.

But he has one other, symbolic, regret that may dismay some of his former colleagues.

"I did not push hard enough when I had the opportunity to scrap plans for the new assembly building in Cardiff Bay, and try to find a way to take over the magnificent Edwardian splendour of Cardiff City Hall," he says.

"Even today, if you bring a delegation to Wales and you take them blindfolded to both buildings, and ask which is the assembly headquarters, 90% would say City Hall.

"It is so much grander. It bespeaks government authority. Every time I pass the City Hall, I regret that decision."

But lighten up, Rhodri. Hey, it's not as if Cardiff City Hall - with its stunning baroque architecture and fine Portland stone so redolent with history - is wasted: it still puts on a jolly fine wedding.

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