‘For policy inspiration, Labour can look close to home: Wales’

Aveek Bhattacharya
© Jamie Green/CC BY 2.0

In theory, one of the most attractive features of devolution is that it allows parts of the country to learn from others, creating what US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis famously called “laboratories of democracy”.

Yet 25 years since Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments, there are surprisingly few examples of such learning.

The Welsh government has carried out fascinating policy experiments

That’s particularly been the case while we’ve had different parties, loath to give one another credit have been in charge in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.

Might that change if Labour wins the next general election, and brings into government people with a more sympathetic view of the party’s achievements in Wales?

It would be a timely moment to do so because the principality is carrying out a number of fascinating policy experiments that too few people around Westminster have taken notice of.

I use the word ‘experiment’ deliberately – these are not yet, by and large, clear demonstrated successes. But they are worth monitoring closely and should inform the way we think about a number of policy issues.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act is internationally unique

The most eye-catching is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, an internationally unique piece of legislation, which places a duty on Welsh public bodies to consider the long-term impact of their actions on quality of life.

It is backed by the creation of a Future Generations Commissioner whose job is to advise, encourage and promote the public sector to meet these objectives.

Keir Starmer has previously flirted with a well-being approach to policy (albeit before he became obsessed with economic growth). In 2021, UK Labour committed to creating a “healthy living index” to “ensure every government decision would have to improve well-being”.

It should therefore be keeping tabs on how that’s going in Wales. Unfortunately, the success of this sort of policy is not very easy to judge.

Anecdotally, it does seem to influence the way officials and policymakers talk about their work.

Yet the Future Generations Commissioner has expressed disappointment at the tangible progress made so far, particularly on climate change.

A pragmatic basic income pilot to learn from

Wales’ basic income pilot has also attracted attention, reflecting the wider buzz around the idea.

For all the excitable rhetoric, it is best seen as a relatively narrow intervention, targeting a particularly vulnerable group, care leavers, and seeing how far additional cash can mitigate their disadvantages.

As such, it is exactly the sort of pragmatic, rigorously evaluated initiative governments should be exploring.

The Welsh government’s policies in tertiary education are probably less glamorous, but no less significant.

Progressive support systems for university students

Its university student support system, anchored to the living wage, is widely thought to be the most progressive in the UK.

It might be a model for a Labour government seeking to do more help students struggling with the cost of living without cutting fees.

More radically, the Welsh government has established a single regulator for tertiary education, seeking to eliminate the divide between universities and colleges and encourage collaboration rather than competition within the sector.

It’s a development shadow higher education minister Matt Western says has caught his attention. Yet translating the change to England, with its more fragmentary regulated structure and sharp elbowed institutions, is likely to be tricky.

Closely watched curriculum reform

Wales’ flagship education reform, the Curriculum for Wales, is also worth keeping an eye on, but is less likely to be emulated by politicians in England.

Modelled broadly on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, it tends to focus on developing children’s skills rather than inculcating knowledge – whereas England has gone in the other direction.

Scotland’s slide down international league tables, alongside England’s recent relative improvements, have led the knowledge side of that debate to claim vindication.

If Wales fares as poorly as Scotland, it will be another major blow to their shared educational philosophy. If it does better, it will offer succour to those that Scotland had the right idea, and just implemented it poorly.

Wales leads on council tax reform

For all their differences, council tax is a common failing across the UK nations.

It is regressive, placing a greater burden on households in deprived areas, and arbitrary (in England and Scotland, how much you pay depends on how much your house was worth in 1991, regardless of how much value it has gained since).

Politicians have generally been afraid to touch it because any proposed change will create noisily disgruntled losers.

Yet the Welsh government is consulting on introducing a fairer system that charges bills more proportionately to household means.

How it navigates the political challenge of selling the reform should be of keen interest to anybody wanting to address one of the most inequitable elements of our tax system.

Labour needn’t look far for inspiration

The shadow cabinet has been on its travels in recent months, looking at places from Australia to Estonia for inspiration.

Wales may not be such an obvious beacon of success, but it is pursuing a number of interesting and novel policies.

There is never a shortage of international examples to learn from, but every now and again, Labour must remember to go west.

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