Yesterday, Westminster Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to Wales to address a meeting in Tredegar commemorating the 70th anniversary of the NHS. He also addressed a meeting in Barry, and later issued the following tweet:
There are, of course, two problems with this. First, the Tories don’t run the NHS in Wales. It’s run by a devolved Labour Government, and the Tories have consistently sought to use the Welsh NHS – which is of course subject to funding from Westminster – as a stick to beat the Labour Party. Second, a London Labour politician coming to Wales and speaking from a wholly English perspective speaks powerfully to a perception that Nationalist politicians have always been anxious to push – namely, that Welsh Labour is little more than London’s branch office, obstructing rather than supporting Welsh political aspirations.
So, what looks like a piece of classic Corbyn amateurism really matters. It matters in particular because politics in Wales is in a completely fluid political state; at the time of writing, it is possible that all four parties in the Senedd may have different political leaders by the end of the year.
Carwyn Jones has already announced that he will step down at the end of the year, and candidates for the succession have already started to declare themselves – even though the rules for the contest are unlikely to be determined before September. Tory leader Andrew RT Davies has stood down, and Leanne Wood is facing a potential challenge as leader of Plaid Cymru. The Plaid leadership is particularly important; there has been a growing sense that under her leadership Plaid has made no real progress, and – although at the time of writing, two days before candidates are required to declare themselves, nothing is certain, it is quite likely that she will be challenged by either Rhun Ap Iorweth or Adam Price – the latter in particular likely to abandon Wood’s leftish agenda and to push a more centrist and very much more aggressively nationalist line. In recent weeks Wood has notably escalated the anti-Labour rhetoric.
Which brings us back to Labour. The phrase that one is hearing increasingly as potential candidates jockey for position is “clear red water” – a phrase that derives from the late former First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s determination to create a distinctive Welsh Labour identity. It’s work that Carwyn Jones – the most successful political leader in the history of devolved Wales, with two clear election wins under the slogan “standing up for Wales” – has continued in office, forging a distinct Welsh Labour brand, prepared to stand up to London over issues like trade union rights; and working to secure greater powers for a more confident and respected Senedd, while delivering every dot and comma of the 2011 Labour manifesto. And since 2016, on issues ranging from recycling to women’s rights, Carwyn Jones has continued to leave “clear red water” between Wales and England.
The rhetoric on the left is that “clear red water” means leaving behind the perceived centrism of Welsh Government and aligning more closely with Corbyn’s (supposedly) radical agenda. But in fact that is to misinterpret what “clear red water” was about; it is about creating a distinctive Welsh Labour programme and identity, and not being dictated to by the agenda of Labour in England (at the time, that of Tony Blair). It’s about refuting that accusation that Welsh Labour is Westminster’s branch office, and not going the way of Labour in Scotland.
Which brings us back to Corbyn, and that speech in Barry, and the tweet that followed it. The point about that tweet is that it shows profound ignorance of, and disrespect for, Wales, devolution and Welsh Labour. As I mentioned earlier, the spectacle of an apparently sloppily-briefed (or just plain ignorant) London politician lecturing a Welsh audience from a purely English perspective is an insult to the Wales that devolution and Welsh Labour have made. Detail, after all, is the measure of the respect you have for your audience.
And, in terms of Labour’s forthcoming leadership elections, it is a reminder of what “clear red water” and “standing up for Wales” mean – not cheerleading the Corbyn leadership in England, but emphasising our separateness; and that any candidate who wants to honour Rhodri Morgan’s and Carwyn Jones’ “clear red water” legacy should be challenging Corbyn, Momentum and Welsh Labour Grassroots and the one-size-fits-all model of party structure that they appear to be embracing, where loyalty is to London rather than Wales. A leadership that fails to challenge Westminster and a Labour leader who appears to be wholly ignorant of Wales and devolution is simply selling Wales short.