TO SAY THAT LAST MONTH’S WELSH LABOUR CONFERENCE in Llandudno was eventful would be something of an understatement. The left suffered some short-term setbacks but the struggle for party democracy is about to enter a new and hopeful phase and there is the prospect of a Welsh leadership election before the year is out, with an excellent left candidate already having declared. The conference was always likely to be dominated by two things: the ongoing battle over whether internal elections should be conducted by an electoral college or by one member, one vote (OMOV); and the outcome of the deputy leadership election, which concluded just before conference began.
Last November, Labour’s Welsh Executive Committee (WEC) ruled that Welsh leadership and deputy leadership elections should continue to take place through an electoral college, rather than OMOV, thereby disregarding the results of the consultation it had just conducted.
There was widespread fury, both over the substantive decision and over the fact that the WEC had sought to settle the matter itself, rather than taking it to conference.
A campaign to overturn the decision was established, backed by more than half the CLPs in Wales and several Assembly Members (AMs), eventually including more than half of Carwyn Jones’ cabinet.
The campaign co-ordinated the submission of three conference motions, two directly taking issue with the WEC decision and the third calling for a Welsh party democracy review, along the lines of the ongoing review headed by Katy Clark, but specifically addressing those devolved matters excluded from the UK review. The first two motions were, predictably, ruled out of order but the third was accepted for debate and, somewhat surprisingly, won the support of the WEC.
In the meantime, Welsh Labour’s first ever deputy leadership election took place, under the electoral college system. The left within Wales was united in supporting the Assembly Member (and former MP) Julie Morgan, although the politics of the contest were blurred somewhat by a string of English left MPs ill-advisedly endorsing Julie’s rival candidate, the Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris. Julie was moved to stand specifically because of her anger over the WEC decision on leadership elections and this issue dominated the hustings meetings, in which Carolyn Harris had to justify her decision to vote for the electoral college, as a PLP representative on the WEC.
When the result was declared at the start of conference, the failings of the college were laid bare. Julie had won almost two-thirds of party members’ votes, but these made up only a third of the college and Carolyn was the overall winner. She was narrowly ahead in the affiliates’ section, in which the turnout was just 4.7%, but what really clinched the result was the third section, comprising 58 politicians – 29 AMs, 28 MPs and 1 MEP – who each had a ‘super-vote’ equivalent to the votes of more than 400 ordinary party members.
While Julie and the left had lost the contest, their arguments had been vindicated by the result, as was reaffirmed at a packed fringe meeting held during the lunchbreak on the conference’s first day. The mood was one of defiance, more than grief, as those present committed themselves to continue the fight.
This was given more immediacy during the afternoon session, when Carwyn Jones – Welsh Labour leader and First Minister since 2009 – unexpectedly announced his intention to step down before the end of the year. When the democracy review motion was debated (and carried overwhelmingly) the following day, the mover and other speakers called for the review to have an initial phase devoted to leadership election arrangements, which should be concluded with a special conference before the contest to replace Carwyn takes place in the autumn.
This demand was supported two days later by Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford AM, when he declared his own intention to stand for the leadership. Mark is the outstanding figure of the Welsh Labour left – the intellectual driving force behind Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ policy programme in the 2000s and an eloquent and unapologetic socialist, who has backed Jeremy Corbyn from the beginning. Mark was immediately endorsed by all the other left AMs, while no challenger has so far declared themselves (although two or three are gearing up behind the scenes). Mark is regarded as the favourite to win, however, irrespective of the opposition, as his integrity and skill have won him respect far beyond the confines of the left.
Attention will now shift to the WEC’s next meeting on 9th June, which will determine the structure of the Welsh democracy review and decide, in effect, whether or not there will be an opportunity to introduce OMOV ahead of the leadership election. Despite gains by the left in the elections that preceded conference, the WEC still has a centre-right majority and the stance of the unions will therefore be crucial.
is a member of the Labour Party NEC and Welsh Executive Committee.