by Jonathan Lee
As the UK Labour Party conference fizzles to an uninspiring close, the party appears to be as divided and directionless as ever. Keir Starmer’s long, heckle-drawing speech fell short on setting out a clear agenda for the party, but was big on Labour winning, winning, winning.
Not so subtle indications that Labour is fully returning to its centrist ground came in comments from Starmer on the importance of the public sector working “in partnership” with the private sector. His oblique reference to Tony Blair’s 2001 education manifesto speech will have similarly done nothing to fend off the Blairite accusations from detractors in his party. At the same time, his failed attempt to remove one-member-one-vote for leadership elections and replace it with an electoral college system was seen as a proposal to hand more power to Westminster elites (as well as one of the principal reasons for the Baker’s Union disaffiliating from the Labour Party). Any lingering doubts about the party’s surgical removal of the last vestiges of the ‘radical left’ from its ranks were dispelled by Angela Rayner’s assertion: “we are a party not of protest but of government.”
A tale of two leaders
While Labour in England struggles with its very identity as a party, not to mention in the polls, Welsh Labour is looking more and more like an independent (and more successful) sister party, instead of a mere regional branch as seen from Westminster. Keir Starmer is struggling to win confidence from within his own party, as well as across the political spectrum, while First Minister Mark Drakeford is enjoying unprecedented popularity and trust off the back of his management of the Covid-19 pandemic. In May, Welsh Labour matched its most successful election result ever in the Senedd, taking half of the 60 seats in the chamber. On the same day, Labour in England lost Hartlepool to the Conservatives for the first time in 62 years during a by-election.
The relative fortunes of the two leaders has led some to refer to Drakeford as the most senior politician in the Labour Party. While Mark Drakeford is the leader of a nation with constitutional powers and electoral success under his belt, Starmer has the honour of not holding Boris Johnson to account during his weekly slot at PMQs. Meanwhile the Chair of the Labour Party Anneliese Dodds released the Stronger Together: Labour Works report on the eve of the Labour Party Conference, which spotlights First Minister Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour in general as the shining example of Labour success in Britain. This was contrasted with attacks on Drakeford from the Labour Right, an embarrassing mix up with his official title during his conference speech, and tensions over his public commitment to one-member-one-vote in Wales.
A torrent of clear red water in the ever-widening Cambrian divide
The clear red water speech delivered in Swansea 19 years ago by First Minister Rhodri Morgan seems more relevant today than ever. The First Minister at the time took aim at Blairite proposals to introduce competition in public services (among other things) as decidedly un-Welsh. Welsh Labour’s strategy since has been to maintain clear red water between Cardiff and Westminster, in order to preserve what they see as a distinctly Welsh form of Socialist and Trade Unionist thought from the ideological turbulence of the British Labour Party.
Now there are calls from within Welsh Labour, and even Momentum, to split from British Labour and become a sister party. Advocates for an independent Welsh Labour point to factional divides under Starmer’s leadership, the stark difference in Labour electoral performance between Wales and England, and a fundamental ideological split between the two camps. It increasingly appears that the Labour Party no longer represents the Democratic Socialist principles of the Labour Movement which Welsh Labour prides itself on.
Wales has always been Red
There is of course a certain hypocrisy in Welsh Labour’s attacks on New Labour-esque policies. The Welsh Government have in fact gone very far down the road of private sector competition in public sector contracts. A Welsh finance scheme responsible for spiralling public spending costs looks suspiciously similar to England’s disastrous “Private Finance Investment”, only with the red, white, and green slapped on the front of it. Despite this, Welsh Labour (particularly Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour) has maintained the credibility of being referred to as a Democratic Socialist party (even during the New Labour years). As Rhodri Morgan put it, when speaking of the differences in social and welfare services between Wales and England: “the actions of the Welsh Assembly Government clearly owe more to the traditions of Titmuss, Tawney, Beveridge, and Bevan than those of Hayek and Friedman.”
Welsh Labour resisted New Labour initiatives such as academy schools and foundation hospitals. It maintained free school breakfasts, free access to swimming pools for children, and abolished fees for medical prescriptions. In 2010, Welsh Labour politicians (alongside Plaid Cymru) refused to cross a picket line outside the Senedd where PCS Union members were on strike over a pay dispute with the Labour Government in Westminster. First Minister at the time Carwyn Jones said that as far as they are concerned “it’s something that is ingrained in party thinking, that you don’t cross a picket line.”
Labour in Wales has always been a product of a different economic and social milieu than elsewhere in Britain. For decades Democratic Socialism and Internationalism have been as Welsh as Bara Brith, and Welsh Socialism has survived relatively unscathed without any major challenges from left-wing nationalism, liberal centrism, or right-wing populism, all of which have eroded just about every other Democratic Socialist party in Europe.
Welsh Labour has been the largest party at every election in Wales since 1922; surely one of the longest political tenures anywhere in the democratic world. Indeed, opposition politicians deride Wales as a “one party state”, with the Welsh Liberal Democrats referring to Welsh Labour as “the longest surviving government in Europe.”
Wales has voted Labour for as long as Labour has existed, with even the founder of the Labour Party (and namesake of the current leader) Keir Hardie first being elected as an MP representing the Welsh industrial town of Merthyr Tydful. Unlike in Scotland and the North of England, the support base generated by the National Union of Mineworkers’ affiliation to the Labour Party in 1908 has never been eroded in Wales.
It has been said (always by losing Tories) that you could pin a red rosette on a donkey and the people of Wales would vote for it. As the political divide across the River Severn seems to widen between Welsh Labour and its parent party, perhaps this jibe should be worn as a badge of honour. Perhaps voting blindly in class solidarity is preferable to voting for an empty suit of a man who seems set to lose at any cost.
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