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Clear red water or Wales ignored? No ‘regular, reliable rhythm’ of contact between Drakeford and Starmer

10 Apr 2021 6 minutes Read
Keir Starmer picture by Rwendland (CC BY-SA 4.0). First Minister Mark Drakeford. Picture by the Welsh Government.

Mark Drakeford famously called for a “regular, reliable rhythm” in his meetings with Boris Johnson.

Much to the First Minister’s frustration, he managed to secure just one meeting and one phone call with the Prime Minister over the last year and the Welsh Labour leader said this “remote” relationship puts the union at risk.

But Drakeford has spoken one-to-one with Johnson as many times as with the Labour leader seeking to replace the Prime Minister in Downing Street.

Keir Starmer this week marked the first anniversary of his election as leader of the Labour party on a promise of “radical devolution”.

And Welsh Government records show the UK Labour leader held just two virtual meetings with Drakeford, Labour’s most senior elected politician across the UK, between last April and December.

Their first meeting came two weeks after Starmer was elected and the second came in October.

As well as being equal to the number of times Drakeford has spoken to Boris Johnson, it’s also no more than the number of meetings the First Minister has held with UK Government minister Michael Gove, the EU’s ambassador to the UK, the general secretary of the TUC or the director general of the BBC over the same period.

By contrast, Drakeford has held seven one-to-ones with his Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, during that period and five with Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart.

No doubt that the pandemic has had a major bearing on the First Minister’s schedule, but the data suggests his relationship with Starmer could equally be described as “remote”.

“It’s a curiosity why the Labour party, as it tries to struggle with national identity politics, in Scotland and in England are not more interested in its success in Wales, in seeing what they can learn from that, Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University recently told the Hiraeth podcast.

“Clearly they’re not. It looks very much like the whole project around Starmer to think about radical federalism is very much focused on what we can learn from the Scottish Labour party. That’s not the obvious place to go, Keir.”

‘Contrast’

An arm’s length relationship with Starmer could however well be by Drakeford’s design rather than to his frustration.

After all, it was Drakeford who authored the famous Rhodri Morgan speech putting “clear red water” between Welsh Labour and London at a time when Tony Blair was slaying the sacred cows of the party.

That was less important while UK Labour was under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn given Drakeford was, at the time of Corbyn’s election, the only member of the Welsh Government to support him.

But during the race to replace Corbyn, Drakeford insisted the next UK Labour leader could not simply offer “a more competent administration of the status quo.” That’s exactly how Starmer’s strategy has come to be characterised by many, particularly on Labour’s left.

On top of that, Starmer and Drakeford have expressed different views on the right to self-determination in Scotland, the speech given by Starmer on his vision for devolution was described as “vacuous” and the latest polling shows Drakeford is more popular in Wales than Starmer.

Welsh Labour Grassroots has accused Starmer of waging a “war on the left”, adopting “reactionary policy positions” and having “ceded ground on economic policy.”

“Yet another signal that ‘clear red water’ is needed,” the group wrote recently on Twitter in reaction to suggestions Peter Mandelson could become an adviser to Starmer.

“We in WLG, like many party members, have been very disappointed by Keir Starmer over the last year,” they told Nation.Cymru.

“While he wasn’t our preferred candidate for the party leadership, much of his platform was positive, especially his pledge to remain true to the policy agenda of Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos and to hold the Tory government to account.

“In practice, he has begun shifting the party to the right and has consistently let the Tories off the hook over their reckless handling of Covid, as well as clamping down on free debate within the Labour party.

“Starmer should also be listening more closely to Mark Drakeford and learning the lessons of Welsh Labour’s success in governing Wales, in accordance with Labour’s progressive principles, under increasingly challenging circumstances.

“The contrast between the way the pandemic has been handled by the UK and Welsh Governments should inform Starmer’s response to the actions of Westminster ministers.”

‘Valuable’

Before being elected leader, Starmer said “achievements in Wales make it clear that another future is possible.”

He hasn’t made a habit of citing them in the Commons since becoming leader. The only real praise came last June when Starmer urged the UK Government to follow Cardiff on free school meal provision.

But he has rediscovered his appreciation of the Welsh Government as the elections approached.

In February, he said the vaccine rollout in Wales was an “incredible achievement” and, after a virtual meeting with SMEs alongside Drakeford last month, Starmer said “the Chancellor should learn from Wales.”  On Tuesday, he pledged to support Welsh Labour’s campaign in an online meeting with candidates.

Health minister Vaughan Gething alluded to dissatisfaction with Starmer’s strategy in an interview with Labour List last month, saying: “The challenge is, do you go on reinforcing that there’s a Prime Minister-in-waiting who likes the country that we are, but wants to see the country improve and has a plan to get there and is someone you can trust with the NHS and the economy?”

But he added: “People have to remember how remarkably unpopular we were at the last general election.

“The fact that we’re pretty much level with the Tories in the UK polls, I think, shows a significant recovery from where we were.”

Welsh Labour Grassroots told Nation.Cymru that the UK Labour leadership generally takes too little account of the specific experience of the devolved nations.

“The apparent involvement of Starmer, or those around him, in Richard Leonard’s departure as Scottish Labour leader, was a particularly troubling development, and the leaked party paper advocating greater use of the union jack shows little understanding of national identity in Scotland or Wales,” they said.

“The UK Labour leadership could learn from Welsh Labour achievements like the abolition of the NHS internal market and of prescription charges; the maintenance of the comprehensive model in education, rather than academies or free schools; the promotion of Social Partnership in the workplace and economy; support for the rights of children and young people, by making physical punishment illegal and enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds; and a school curriculum that incorporates the experience and history of BAME communities.

“These achievements mean that, in the Senedd elections, Welsh Labour has a positive record to campaign on, as well as progressive new policy pledges such as the real living wage for social care workers.

“Focusing on those policies will be far more valuable to the party on 6 May than any intervention by the UK leadership.”

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