The national Labour party has given considerable freedom to the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties to develop distinctive policies in their devolved administrations, contrary to expectations that policy would be controlled from London. As a result, producer interests, such as the trade unions, have far more influence on public service policies in Cardiff and Edinburgh than they have at Westminster.
These are key findings of new research led by Martin Laffin, Professor of Public Policy and Management at Durham Business School. The Economic and Social Research Council funded the research into the role of the political party in post-devolution intergovernmental relations.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have used devolution to introduce key national policies in the devolved administrations. They have been much more co-ordinated than Labour. The Liberal Democrats shared power with Labour in Scotland and did so in Wales from 1999 to 2003.
"We found that Labour has completely devolved its policy-making for Scotland and Wales to the Scottish and Welsh policy forums, despite keeping centralised party structures," says Professor Laffin.
"This has given greater power to the trades unions and other producer interests, and has meant that more market-driven policies such as foundation hospitals and city academies have not been introduced in Cardiff and Edinburgh, although they have been embraced by Labour for England."
Not only was there was little pressure from London on the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties to conform, there was also very little contact between the Labour parties in Scotland and Wales.
By contrast, the Liberal Democrats developed a much more structured approach, with closer links between their parties in England, Scotland and Wales. National policies were introduced in the devolved administrations to highlight their national platform.
Policy differences have emerged between the UK parliament and the devolved administrations over foundation hospitals, long term care for the elderly, university tuition fees, specialist schools and primary school testing.
However, the Labour parties in Scotland and Wales are no more powerful in the national party than English regional branches, and both depend on London for money and personnel.
"Despite being the party of devolution, the Labour party itself has not embraced devolution in its own constitution," adds Professor Laffin. "The party has taken an ad hoc and piecemeal approach, which is different from the 'control freak' caricature often presented in the media.
"Since the first post-devolution Welsh leadership election, there have been no direct attempts by the centre to shape the outcome either of leadership contests or candidate selection."
The researchers argue that it is too simplistic to see the differences between the Blairite ruling elite in London and the Scottish and Welsh Labour ruling elites purely in left-right terms.
"Labour's main competitor in Scotland and Wales is not the Conservatives. Their main opposition comes from the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru - nationalist parties occupying very similar social democratic ground to Labour," says Professor Laffin.
"Both nations also have much stronger public sector institutions, and very significant professional producer interests. There are fewer countervailing consumer interests or think tanks influencing policy in Edinburgh and Cardiff."
Devolution has been relatively smooth, despite such policy divergence, because Labour has simultaneously held power in Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh. This has given the devolved administrations significant access to resources and the corridors of power.
"But the relationship between a right wing Conservative party in power at Westminster and left-of-centre devolved administrations could be very different, especially if the centre was seen to be imposing unpopular policies on the two nations," concludes Professor Laffin.
"The potential also exists for the Labour party branches in Wales and Scotland to move more to the left, and this could strain the Labour party's own constitutional and political settlement."
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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