THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE EXTRA NEC seat awarded to Wales (and to Scotland) at Labour conference in September highlights the extent to which Welsh Labour politics has drifted to the right in recent years. Media commentary focused on the expectation that the change would deliver two extra anti-Corbyn votes on the Party’s ruling body and this seemed borne out when Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones awarded Wales’ seat to junior minister Alun Davies, a strident critic of Corbyn.
Yet it was not too long ago that the administration in Cardiff Bay was regarded as a bastion of the left in the Party, its policies reflecting an authentic Labour tradition from which the Blair-Brown leadership in Westminster had departed. West of Offa’s Dyke, the internal market in the NHS was abolished, prescription charges scrapped, PFI abandoned and academies rejected in favour of LEA-controlled comprehensives. These differences were summed up by Rhodri Morgan’s famous pledge to put “clear red water” between Wales and Westminster.
The gradual departure, however, of several senior figures of the left – whether as ministers or backroom policy ‘wonks’––and the pressure of austerity, have combined to drag the Party away from its moorings. This is not to say that the administration has simply embraced Blairism. It has continued, on occasion, to pursue policies of which Welsh socialists can be proud — pushing ahead, for example, with a ban on the ‘right to buy’ council houses. But no longer is it the case that every policy sits easily within the kind of egalitarian, collectivist philosophy that Rhodri and others once propounded.
So, for every ‘left’ initiative, there is another more troubling for socialists and trade unionists. Recent examples include offering the Wales and the Borders rail franchise to the private sector, in contravention of Welsh Labour conference policy to pursue a not-for-profit option.
Another was apparently allowing a private hospital to be built within the grounds of an NHS hospital in Swansea, so that the backlog of elective surgery can routinely be taken up by the private sector — again, a break with existing policy.
There was also widespread concern that the (admittedly flawed) Communities First anti-poverty programme was to be axed after 15 years, with no details of its replacement.
The wider political problem is that, throughout the devolution era, Welsh Labour has rarely succeeded in conveying to the people of Wales the potential its best policies have to make a material difference to their lives. Consequently, it has not been immune from the disaffection with mainstream political parties that has grown since the financial crash of 2008/9.
As in England, UKIP has been the main beneficiary, picking up seven seats in the National Assembly in the elections held in May — although one of its AMs, former leader, Nathan Gill, soon parted company with his party colleagues after being ousted as their Assembly leader by Neil Hamilton.
Left with only 29 seats out of 60 after the May elections, Labour has needed allies to get its governmental programme and its budget approved. Consequently, Carwyn Jones appointed the sole remaining Lib Dem, Kirsty Williams, to his cabinet and agreed a looser agreement with Plaid Cymru, which has long agonised over whether to work in partnership with Labour or seek to displace it as the natural party of government. Frustrated with his party’s strategic indecision, Plaid’s elder statesman, Dafydd Elis Thomas, recently resigned the whip and has routinely been voting with Labour.
But even if Welsh Labour has resolved — for the time being, at least — its problems of legislative arithmetic, it still needs to decide what it actually stands for. The current Assembly Labour group is the most right wing since the advent of democratic devolution in 1999 and Carwyn has been keen to identify with the ‘moderate’ side in the Party’s recent battles. But thousands all over Wales have been inspired by Jeremy Corbyn to join Labour in the last year or so and Wales’ problems demand radical solutions.
These tensions will be discussed at the AGM of Welsh Labour Grassroots — home for Momentum in Wales, in Swansea Guildhall on Saturday, 10th December, 11am-4pm.