During the Welsh Labour leadership election last year, the victorious candidate, Mark Drakeford – an early supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and with a campaign largely organised by the Corbynist Welsh Labour Grassroots, which styles itself as the voice of Momentum in Wales – argued that Labour in Wales needed to support and trust Jeremy Corbyn.
I wrote during that campaign that you can stand up for Wales or you can stand up for Corbyn, but not both; and that, in appropriating Rhodri Morgan’s phrase about “clear red water”, the Momentum left behind Drakeford’s campaign fundamentally misunderstood it.
Two major humiliations for Welsh Labour in the run-up to next week’s Labour Party conference appear to confirm that view, and throw an unflattering light on UK Labour’s views on Welsh Labour, devolution and Wales itself.
First, the NEC has decided that the selection process for Labour MPs in Wales should be governed by rules made in London, not in Wales. This matters because in the early years of devolution, relations between Labour MPs – and indeed Ministers – in London and the Welsh Assembly were strained. As veteran Welsh political commentator Martin Shipton points out in Poor Man’s Parliament, his history of the first ten years of devolution, Welsh Labour MPs in London, including Ministers, often acted as a brake on devolutionary aspirations in Wales. As First Minister, Carwyn Jones sought to address that by ensuring that Labour MPs were firmly integrated into the Welsh Labour brand; a brand that was itself proudly focussed on promoting the interests of Wales. Carwyn Jones’ slogan was “standing up for Wales”; and as Cardiff University’s Professor Roger Awan-Scully points out in his book The End of British Party Politics?, which argues that there is no longer a single, UK-wide party system, Welsh Labour’s rhetoric was often more nationalist than Plaid Cymru’s. The NEC’s decision looks like a far from subtle power-grab, a reminder that the job of Welsh Labour MPs is to back the Westminster leadership, and not to stand up for Wales.
Second, it has been decided to relegate Mark Drakeford’s Conference speech as leader of Welsh Labour to what is known as the “graveyard slot” – i.e. 0930 on Sunday morning, a time when an empty hall and minimal TV audience can be guaranteed. This is the courtesy afforded to the only Labour leader of a national Government in the UK – and speaks volumes about the way in which the Labour leadership views Wales, and rewards the loyalty of a national leader who has always put Corbyn first.
This matters all the more at a time when Wales appears to be moving towards unprecedented support for independence – partly as a result of the debate over Brexit; there appears to be little doubt that Plaid Cymru’s support for an independent Wales in the EU has been a significant factor in the debate. But the key factor seems to be that there is no confidence in Westminster to look after Wales’ interests; that we are simply overlooked and ignored at best, and targetted as a soft touch at worst.
And the Labour leadership’s attitude – born no doubt of the fact that Corbyn’s Labour follows a deeply centralised model of party structure – exacerbates that. It simply fails to understand that Wales is not a region, or a geographical abstraction; it is a nation, with its own language and culture, that is beginning to stretch its political muscles against a Westminster culture that has systematically failed it. And that is one reason why Welsh Labour’s European election results were so catastrophic.
At the heart of the current surge in interest in Welsh independence is a very simple question. Does Wales want to be an independent nation in the EU, with a guaranteed seat at the top table? Or does it want to continue being a very minor partner in a failing political union, begging for crumbs from Westminster’s table? The Labour leadership in London has made it very clear that its view of Wales, and Welsh Labour, is as supplicants not partners. There is every sign that, despite some well-orchestrated grumblings, Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour will go along with that, abandoning the devolutionary path set out by Carwyn Jones.
And in doing so, they’re sending a very clear message about how they view Wales’ position in relation to Westminster, at a time when opinion here in Wales is moving strongly the other way.