Last night saw the first in a series of hustings debates between the three candidates for the Welsh Labour leadership – Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan. Held in Cardiff, it was a well-attended, passionate, constructive debate that showed that there are clear choices in front of Welsh Labour members when the ballot papers drop in a little under a month’s time.
The format was that each candidate spoke for three minutes at the outset, and then took it in turns to answer pre-submitted questions from audience members with an opportunity for supplementary questions from the floor, with each candidate making a closing statement.
Speaking first, Eluned Morgan talked of the need for political bravery, and the need to reconnect with voters outside Labour’s traditional heartlands to renew Labour after nearly twenty years in Government; her focus would be on pulling Wales out of poverty and providing opportunity. She opposed Brexit and supported a People’s Vote and, as First Minister, would lead a campaign to remain in the EU.
Speaking second, Vaughan Gething said that this election had to be about the future; Labour had to renew itself. He stressed his abhorrence at child hunger and child poverty; his proposals included a national childcare service. He argued that Welsh Labour needed a leader, not a manager.
Mark Drakeford spoke of his years at the heart of Welsh politics; as a former advisor to Rhodri Morgan and as a senior Minister he knew what the job of First Minister entailed, and, against the background of Brexit and austerity, this was no time for a new First Minister to learn on the job. He positioned himself as the only Welsh Cabinet member who had backed Jeremy Corbyn and as a the only candidate who had backed One Member One Vote (OMOV) in internal elections. He argued that he was in the long tradition of the Socialist Left in Welsh politics.
The questions that followed developed some of the issues explored in the opening remarks – notably Brexit, the economy and party democracy – as well as issues such as social care and housing. It was here that the choices before Welsh Labour’s electors became most apparent.
The most passionate exchanges concerned Brexit and the question of a people’s vote. Both Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan were unequivocal; both backed a People’s Vote and both said they would lead the campaign to achieve it. Eluned Morgan reiterated her view that Brexit was a tragedy that would seriously damage Wales, and she would argue to remain. Mark Drakeford’s position was different; having stated that any Brexit damaged Wales, he argued that it was essential to back Jeremy Corbyn and to seek a General Election in which people who might not back remaining would vote Labour. The debate became more heated as Drakeford argued that by arguing for a second vote, his opponents were in effect telling those who voted leave in Ely in his constituency that they were stupid; and that a people’s vote wasn’t a policy but a slogan. It was necessary to trust Jeremy Corbyn. Discussing the relationship between Brexit and devolution, Vaughan Gething retorted that our loyalties had to be to our Labour values and to the Welsh people, not to a particular leader in Westminster. And Eluned Morgan reiterated that any powers that were coming back to the UK as a result of Brexit should come back to Wales, not to Westminster – a dig at Mark Drakeford’s deal with the Westminster government over the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Similar differences of approach were evident over other issues relating to Labour Party organisation and renewal. Mark Drakeford – whose campaign appears to be largely run by Momentum, who were well-represented at the meeting – emphasised the need for Labour to be a member-led party, and that OMOV was only the start of the process. And Labour’s elected representatives had to recognise that their responsibility was to the Labour Party members who put them into office. Vaughan Gething emphasised the need to strengthen the Trade Union link, and to bring the most talented people from the Trade Union movement into the Party as candidates and elected representatives. He also emphasised the need for people within the Party to conduct a more respectful dialogue, and pointed out sharply that unity did not mean uniformity; respectful disagreement lay at the heart of Labour’s practical values. Eluned Morgan emphasised the need for greater diversity, especially in local government, and that Labour needed to renew itself by going outside its traditional heartlands and listening to people. Interestingly, all three candidates argued that “clear red water” mattered less than it once did; but both Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan argued that Welsh Labour needed to be distinctive. Policies for Wales had to be invented and agreed in Wales. In contrast, Mark Drakeford stated clearly that nothing mattered more to Wales than having Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 leading a Labour government; he wanted a party that was enthusiastically behind Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, especially on economic issues.
All three candidates in their closing remarks emphasised that this was an election about choice – where did Labour members want the Party to go? And the clearest and most obvious divide was between Mark Drakeford on the one hand – presenting himself very clearly as Jeremy Corbyn’s representative in Wales – and Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan on the other, looking to retain the separate Welsh Labour identity developed in particular under Carwyn Jones. The clearest manifestation of this was, obviously, on Brexit; Labour supporters for whom a People’s Vote is important would need to think very carefully indeed before backing Mark Drakeford, whose position, on this showing, has hardened considerably in recent weeks.
Both Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan saw a Wales in which Brexit and austerity hang over the nation, and must be opposed. It’s very clear that on many issues, and on austerity above all, there was unanimity between all three candidates. The differences between Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan were more subtle and nuanced, and appeared to be reflected in their approaches. Both were more obviously supportive of continued devolution and a distinctive Welsh political identity than Mark Drakeford, some of whose comments appeared to offer hostages to fortune to a resurgent and more intellectually confident Plaid Cymru leadership. Vaughan Gething came across as both passionate and extremely well-briefed, providing answers to questions that were solidly argued but quite obviously based in Labour values for which I found (having only seen him interviewed on TV before now, and never having heard him in the flesh) surprisingly passionately and deeply held. Eluned Morgan appears to be the more strategically-focussed candidate though, arguing for radical reforms of the tax system and the relationship between Wales and Westminster; there were more ideas, expressed more radically, although inevitably less detailed. She stressed that as a relatively new AM with a long career both inside politics in Brussels and Westminster, as well as in business and the media, she brought a range of experience that no other candidate possessed.
So, in summary: if you are a devotee of Jeremy Corbyn, and support both his politics and his supporters’ distinctive concepts of party democracy – and in particular if you do not wish to challenge the concept of Brexit – vote for Mark Drakeford. . As I have argued elsewhere – both on this blog and in my book – I believe that means you are signing up to a model of politics that conflicts fundamentally with the values of devolution; but that is undoubtedly a clear choice.
If that is not your view, the choice is more difficult and nuanced. As devolution enters its third decade, and as the Senedd takes on more powers – especially fiscal powers – at a time when Brexit and austerity are leading to uncertainty, the choice between Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan seemed to be about whether this was the time for a visionary whose career spanned both the political world and the world outside – a world beyond the political bubble – or a candidate in Vaughan Gething more obviously focussed on the practical. Both believe that Welsh Labour must reach out and renew itself; both understand the damage that Brexit will do to Wales and are committed to opposing it; both understand that Westminster’s austerity has damaged Wales. But perhaps most significantly, both appear to be proposing that this renewal and change must come from within Wales itself; both appeared, on this showing, to have more belief in Wales.
All photographs (c) Neil Schofield-Hughes