Last night, at Cardiff University, Welsh Labour leadership candidate and current Cabinet Secretary for Finance Mark Drakeford set out his vision of twenty-first century socialism. This was not a typical hustings speech but an intellectually-serious lecture in which he explained the guiding principles that he would follow if elected as First Minister.
He began by arguing that the UK had moved away from the European mainstream: that years of austerity had led to levels of inequality that were not just greater than those in the rest of Europe, but of a completely different order; and that inequality was increasing faster than elsewhere. This, he argued, was the background to the vote to leave the EU; research carried out at Warwick University for the ESRC had demonstrated a causal link between the withdrawal of welfare provision and the rise in support for UKIP, which translated into a Leave vote.
Against that, Mark Drakeford posited what he described as “Twentieth Century Socialism”, which was made up of five main elements: That Government represented the best vehicle for social change; Collective action – recognising that we achieve more acting together than alone; Collective ownership, with public services brought under public control; Active citizenship, based on the principle articulated by T H Marshall that everyone must have a stake in our public institutions (in contrast to the post-1945 model of services delivered by experts and bureaucracies to a passive public); and, most importantly, Equality, in which he cited Tawney as an inspiration for how greater equality also means greater freedom and diversity.
In conclusion, Drakeford argued that his vision of 21st Century socialism could form a bulwark against the effects of Westminster austerity and a bad Brexit deal.
So far, so good. There was little here that anyone who calls themselves a Socialist could disagree with, although there might well be differences on the detail below these guiding principles.
But there were two big issues that were left unresolved.
The first of these related to tax and devolution. Drakeford argued that the devolution process needed to continue; but said, explicitly, that he did not believe that there should be further devolution of tax and welfare. That position on tax seems to me to raise some fundamental problems. Drakeford was rightly critical of the recent Westminster budget statement, pointing out that it was simply untrue to claim that austerity was over. But, as the Welsh Government prepares to take over some tax-making powers, the Budget shows how far key decisions on Welsh policy still lie in Westminster; the changes to the tax thresholds affect the Welsh tax base and the increase in the Welsh Government’s borrowing cap to fund the M4 relief road demonstrates that the Treasury still holds the purse-strings. Moreover, the experience of English local authorities, facing Westminster’s localism agenda, is that Westminster uses the illusion of autonomy to withdraw funding support. Why should Wales – which is probably further down Whitehall’s agenda than most English councils – be any different? The inexorable logic of the devolution of tax powers is that, in order to safeguard Wales, it will be necessary to move further in the medium to long term. It’s true that, relative to the rest of the UK, Wales remains poor; the Welsh economy is not yet strong enough to support the kind of generous welfare provision that most Labour people would want to see. In the long run, before welfare could be devolved, we would need a much stronger and more resilient Welsh economy. But in order to do that, greater fiscal powers must come to Wales – we are still held back by decisions made in Whitehall in which the interests of the more than 50 million people of England will always trump the three million of Wales.
Second, Mark Drakeford’s position on Brexit remains hostile to a People’s Vote – he acknowledges that Brexit will damage Wales but his position remains one of managing it rather than opposing it. He argued last night – admittedly less aggressively than before, insofar as there was no talk of a People’s Vote being a slogan rather than a policy – that such a vote was essentially telling the people who had voted leave that they were wrong and stupid. But that is a deeply disingenuous position – it assumes that the proposition in a People’s Vote would be the same as before. It does not reflect the reality that the any Brexit deal reached will be the product of decisions taken by Westminster politicians for essentially political purposes – most notably by Theresa May whose position has consistently placed the need to keep the Tory Party together ahead of the national interest. A People’s Vote would not be a rerun – it would ask questions like “Do you believe Theresa May has got a good deal?” “Does it achieve what you wanted from your vote in 2016?”. In other words, it’s treating electors like adults, asking them to make a judgement about 2019, not 2016. Mark Drakeford was absolutely right when he said that People’s Vote campaigners should beware of patronising leave-voting Labour voters like his constituents in Ely; but it was difficult to avoid the impression that his position is at least as much about saving the face of Labour’s chaotic leadership on the Brexit issue.
In conclusion, Mark Drakeford’s vision of twentieth century socialism as a bulwark against the effects of austerity and Brexit is an attractive one. But, insofar as it does not address the need for greater fiscal devolution, and accepts Brexit as something that should be managed rather than opposed, it falls short in my view of forming the basis of such a bulwark – especially if you accept the view that Brexit is at heart an elite, right-wing project that embeds austerity, and will damage the communities that voted for it. And it is on these two points that the clear red water between the Welsh Labour leadership candidates can be found.