In search of clear red water: thoughts on Welsh Labour’s leadership election

The months of phoney war are now over, and the nominations have closed for Welsh Labour’s leadership election.  Three candidates have been nominated: Mark Drakeford, the current Finance Secretary; Vaughan Gething, the current Health Secretary; and Eluned Morgan, Minister for lifelong learning and the Welsh language.

It’s an election that comes at a turbulent time in Welsh politics; when the Labour result is announced on 6th December, all four of the main parties in the Senedd will have undergone a change of leader since the summer.  Moreover, whoever wins has huge boots to fill: Carwyn Jones has dominated Welsh politics for a decade, and carved out a distinctive Welsh Labour programme and identity, winning two national elections while often moving in different directions to the Labour Party in Westminster under a succession of leaderships.  With Welsh Labour campaigning under the resonant slogan “Standing up for Wales” Carwyn Jones remains the most politically – and above all electorally – successful leader in current Labour politics.   His will be the hardest of acts to follow.

Taking the temperature of Welsh Politics

Before looking in detail at the issues for Welsh Labour’s leadership, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on some of the major issues in Welsh politics at the moment.

The current balance of the parties in the Senedd has Labour as by far the largest single party, on 29 seats – two short of a majority.  It governs with the support of one independent and the sole Liberal Democrat in the assembly, both of whom sit as Ministers (and therefore are bound by collective responsibility, which may be one reason for the Liberal Democrats’ invisibility in Welsh politics).  There are three other parties, with the Tories and Plaid Cymru vying for second place and UKIP taking the place of the Liberal Democrats, who were almost wiped out in the 2016 election.  But with UKIP’s vote having collapsed in Wales, and with the continued infighting and splits in the UKIP group in the Senedd, it is quite likely that, after the 2021 election, the Senedd will effectively be a three-party body for the first time in its history.  Obviously, that would have a profound effect on the Parliamentary mathematics: for the first time, any combination of two parties will be able to vote down the third.  The dynamics of the Senedd would be very different.

Second, the elections for the leaderships of the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru have led to changes in outlook, with both new party leaders, Paul Davies and Adam Price, stressing the need to work more closely with other parties.  For Plaid, this represents a major shift from Leanne Wood’s leadership.  Leanne Wood led from the Left – not always a comfortable place for the Plaid faithful, as the recent leadership election showed – and was unequivocal that she would never make deals with the Tories.  Adam Price has taken a more pragmatic view.  At one level he can be seen as moving Plaid Cymru back towards its roots, which are firmly on the Right; but at another level it is argued that Wood’s leftism has been the cause of Plaid’s stagnation in recent years.  Plaid’s headache has been that devolution resonates much more strongly with the electorate in Wales than independence:  a St David’s Day poll for the BBC in February 2018 showed that only 7% of voters in Wales support independence – compared with 44% supporting a Senedd with increased powers, and 28% supporting a Senedd with the same powers as at present.

With Price adopting a headline policy of aggressive tax reduction, it’s arguable that he is moving towards common ground with the Welsh Conservatives, in the knowledge that there is a real possibility that in the next Senedd they will have the votes to outgun Labour.  Indeed, Plaid’s rhetoric remains about ousting Labour, which has been the dominant party in Wales since the 1930s.

On the face of it, any sort of alliance between Plaid and the Conservatives – between nationalists and unionists – seems inconceivable.  But look closer and it makes considerable electoral sense, especially if one looks at Scotland, where a centre-right SNP and centre-right Conservative Party have effectively divided the political spoils between them, with a demoralised Labour Party, once dominant in Scottish politics, in a demoralised third place, its reputation never really recovering its sharing platforms with Tories during the Independence referendum.  The point is that nationhood has become the dominant political issue in Scotland; the principal debate is between independence and the Union, with the SNP adroitly packaging its independence aspiration as “progressive” in a way that its record in office on social and economic issues does not really bear out.  Seen in this light, it becomes clear that Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives both have a powerful vested interest in pushing nationalist politics to the fore, and marginalising Labour from the debate.  Plaid and Tories have nothing in common apart from the model of politics they want to promote – one in which Wales echoes Scotland in making national identity the central issue in daily politics.

Labour in office in Wales has obviously not imploded; it remains strong and in the 2017 General Election reaffirmed its dominant position in Welsh politics.  Obviously, there has been no divisive independence referendum in Wales to polarise politics in the way it did in Scotland, and there is no real prospect of one happening for now.  Moreover, it has been much more difficult for Plaid Cymru to stereotype Welsh Labour as the English Labour Party’s Cardiff branch office.  Welsh Labour, under both Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, has projected a distinctive and separate identity from Labour in England – what Morgan described as “clear red water”, building up the credibility and standing of devolved Government in Wales while doing so.  That has involved not just measures that have gone beyond what Labour in England has advocated – for example, free prescriptions, the payment of Educational Maintenance Allowance, subsidised tuition fees, no internal market in the NHS and no Private Finance Initiative – but also a willingness to wrap itself in the dragon flag – Professor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University, in his book The End of British Party Politics?, describes how even in his anglophone corner of Cardiff North (a constituency that Labour gained from the Conservatives in 2017) the Labour literature was more Plaid-ish in tone than Plaid itself.  “Clear red water” has sometimes been represented as a commitment to a more left agenda than Labour in England (not least because it represented a comparison with the Blair and Brown UK governments) but it makes every bit as much sense to regard it as a commitment to a more explicitly Welsh agenda and branding – to “standing up for Wales”, as the Welsh Labour slogan has it.

Implications for the Welsh Leadership election

So where does this leave the battle for the Labour leadership in Wales?  What are the challenges for a new Labour leader, taking office as First Minister at the head of a party that has dominated Welsh politics for decades, and for as long as Wales has had devolved government?  And, in particular, how does it renew and reposition itself, in the face of the fluidity of Welsh politics, the uncertainties of Brexit, and in response to what looks like a likely resurgence of populist nationalism under a new and more aggressive Plaid Cymru leadership?

First, it is difficult to disagree that clear red water remains essential to Labour’s future in Wales; it remains absolutely crucial to have a Welsh Labour agenda and brand that is different from the Labour Party in Westminster.  Distrust of Westminster remains high in Wales.  One indication of this is Labour’s performance in the 2017 General Election in Wales; while polls at the outset of the campaign suggested that Labour could suffer severe setbacks, on polling day Labour received its largest share of the vote since 1997 and gained three seats from the Conservatives.  The Tories did well, while Plaid Cymru flatlined.  However, it appears that Wales experienced something very different from the Corbyn surge in England; Welsh Labour largely excised Jeremy Corbyn from its campaign, which was fronted by Carwyn Jones and branded entirely as a Welsh campaign.  While obviously people in Wales get much of their news from UK-wide media, Wales was different.  Jeremy Corbyn was seen as a liability by the Welsh Labour leadership; Labour’s gains came on the back of a campaign that was overwhelmingly made in Wales, to what appears to have been the considerable frustration of the Labour hierarchy in London.

That suggests that it remains more important than ever to draw a clear line between Welsh Labour and the UK Labour Party.  Indeed, two examples will demonstrate that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters do not understand, and have nothing to offer, Wales.  I’ve already blogged about Jeremy Corbyn’s regrettable visit to Barry at which he chose to speak entirely about the NHS – apparently oblivious to the fact that in Wales it’s run by a Labour government.  More recently, in the course of his speech to the Labour Party conference, Corbyn didn’t mention Wales at all  – the one part of the UK with a Labour Government, and one moreover that is both electorally popular and has delivered in office.  I’ve argued in my book that Corbyn’s Labour operates according to a Leninist model, one in which there is no place for the autonomy of devolved parties; and within minutes of his election as Labour leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard, the Corbynist candidate, caused outrage by arguing that his first loyalty was not to Scotland but to electing Jeremy Corbyn as UK Prime Minister.  Welsh Labour simply cannot afford that kind of crassness – we need to demonstrate that we remain the true party of Wales, not an outpost of London-based project.  “Standing up for Wales” means what it says; and that means a Welsh Labour leader should have no hesitation in opposing London if is in the best interests of our Wales to do so.

Second, the issue of Brexit is coming to a head – and all three candidates have acknowledged that any flavour of Brexit, soft, hard or no-deal, will have at the least serious consequences for the Welsh economy.  Welsh Labour’s position has been to respect the referendum result and to press for a Brexit that maintains full access to the Single Market and the Customs Union – a position that is consistent with the second of the six tests laid out by Keir Starmer that any deal should meet.

But since then three things have happened: opinion in Wales, as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer, has significantly shifted; it has become clear that the narrow vote for Brexit was not only based on lies (there will quite obviously be no £350m per week for the NHS) but that the integrity of the vote was seriously compromised; and Labour in London has strugged to develop even a remotely coherent position on the Brexit issue, favouring a set of proposals – including membership of “a” customs union while retaining the right to negotiate separate trade agreements, and access to “a” single market while cherry-picking which bits of the Treaties on free movement would apply.  It’s a position that is every bit as incoherent – and as unacceptable to the EU –  as Theresa May’s Chequers plan.  Moreover, Labour’s proposal on process is that if there is no Parliamentary vote for a deal, there should be a General Election – but has not said what its position on Brexit will be other than a further negotiation (which would mean rescinding the Article 50 letter) or what the negotiation objectives would be (let alone how it expects to persuade enough Tories to vote in Parliament to trigger an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act).  In other words, Labour in Westminster’s position is an amateurish botch-job which, like Theresa May’s, is more about uniting a fissiparous Party than dealing intelligently with the issues at hand.

In Wales, a significant number of Labour figures has joined the movement for a second referendum on EU membership, which would include a remain option.  These include MPs like Owen Smith, Chris Bryant and Geraint Davies; and AMs including Vaughan Gething, Eluned Morgan, Alun Davies and Lynne Neagle.  In all cases, their argument is that Brexit – any Brexit, least of all those options that appear to be on the table in Westminster – would be a disaster for Wales; and that as elected representatives it is their duty to stand up for what is right.  And given everything we have learned – about the effects of Brexit on Wales’ industrial and agricultural sectors, on our social services and child protection, and of course on the corruption of the first referendum process and the motivation of those who back Brexit – it seems logical that the only way in which one can stand up for Wales is to back a people’s vote with an option to remain.  And that means stating explicitly and unequivocally that what is on offer from Westminster Labour is, quite simply, not good enough for Wales.

Third, we need to understand that there are huge economic challenges for Wales.  Our rates of productivity remain below the UK average, and we are still an economy with pockets of real deprivation and poverty – problems that will be exacerbated by England’s Brexit.  We are not yet a nation that can generate the tax revenues to provide the social generosity that remains at the heart of Welsh Labour’s values.  The constant theme of Carwyn Jones’ leadership has been inward investment, skills, good quality jobs; and it is on those building blocks that we can develop the sort of decent, progressive, prosperous Wales that we want to see.  And on that basis we have to have decisions made in Wales – and to understand that our economy is fundamentally different from that of England, with our far greater reliance on manufacturing and agriculture.  We cannot afford the kind of one-size-fits-all policy making that is coming out of Westminster.  On one small point; Labour in England talks about the nationalisation of water – but why should be bound by such a policy when Welsh Water is already a not-for-profit enterprise?  Why should London be telling us in Wales how we should manage our railways?  And why should we be held back by Westminster Labour on policies where Wales is far in advance of England – for example on the adoption of the Istanbul Protocol on violence against women – where we have been able to act because Welsh Labour is able to win elections in a way that English Labour cannot?

In other words – and in conclusion – the biggest challenge for the Welsh Labour leadership candidates is to continue to stand up for Wales when Westminster Labour – including Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in Wales – want us to become the branch office we were before devolution once again.   To stand up for Wales you must make policy in Wales; you must support a people’s vote on the EU; you must reject the quasi-Leninist structures that Momentum (and ab extensio Welsh Labour Grassroots) seek to impose on Welsh Labour.  You can stand up for Corbyn, or you can stand up for Wales; but you cannot do both.

And, in difficult times, both here in Wales and in the UK, the next Labour leader must be the candidate who will follow Carwyn Jones and stand up, unequivocally and clearly, for Wales.


2 thoughts on “In search of clear red water: thoughts on Welsh Labour’s leadership election

  1. Pingback: The Welsh Labour leadership hustings: clear choices for Labour members | Notes from a Broken Society

  2. Pingback: A leader who will stand up for Wales: why I’m backing Eluned Morgan for Welsh Labour leader | Notes from a Broken Society

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