New First Minister will need to argue for powers to be ‘returned to Wales’
Twm Owen, local democracy reporter
A senior councillor who was once Mark Drakeford’s boss, has said the next First Minister will need to argue for powers to be “returned to Wales”.
In the early years of devolution Paul Griffiths was the senior special advisor to first minister Rhodri Morgan with Mr Drakeford, who earlier in December announced he will step down as Welsh Labour leader and first minister, part of the four strong team of advisor before seeking elected office himself.
Together Cllr Griffiths – who since May 2022 has been the deputy leader of Monmouthshire County Council – and the future first minister helped Mr Morgan craft Wales specific policies which created a dividing line between the Labour led governments in Cardiff and London, where Tony Blair was prime minister.
‘Clear red water’
The policy became known as “clear red water” – a phrase coined by Mr Drakeford – and attributed to a speech Mr Morgan gave in Swansea in 2002 which was intended to define Labour in Wales as to the left of Blair’s New Labour.
However the soundbite was never actually uttered by the late first minister who died in 2017.
“The speech was drafted by Mark and I remember seeing a copy and contributing to aspects of it and Rhodri agreed it,” recalled Cllr Griffiths.
“We had trailed it to the papers and Rhodri failed to deliver the line so journalists were pointing the finger at Mark and I.”
While Mr Morgan needed to differentiate his fledgling government from the Labour one in Downing Street Cllr Griffiths thinks the new first minister will still have to manage potential tensions with the UK Government – even if, as many expect, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer becomes prime minister in 2024.
That is why Cllr Griffiths has said he is backing current education minister, the Neath MS Jeremy Miles, to succeed his former colleague in the nation’s top job.
“I think one challenge that will always face a devolved Welsh Government is staking out the position of Wales within the UK. There will always be a tendency of the UK Government, whether it’s Labour or Conservative, to seek to draw back on any existing devolved settlement.”
Cllr Griffiths said Mr Miles, who previously served in cabinet as the Welsh Government’s top legal advisor, the counsel general, including handling Brexit negotiations with Westminster as the UK left the European Union, had shown he has the eye “for detail” and an “impressive grasp of constitutional issues” that make him suitable to be first minister.
Brexit has resulted in the UK Government making spending decisions in Wales that would have previously, when cash was provided by Europe, been made in Cardiff and Cllr Griffiths believes the next first minister will have to continue to make the case for the Welsh Government to have control.
“The next UK Government is likely to be a Keir Starmer led Labour government that doesn’t mean the Labour first minister in Wales has to stop being robust and make the case for powers to be returned to Wales.
“Rhodri Morgan developed a good working relationship with Tony Blair but, as Rhodri stated, any future leader needs to be making the case for Wales to control its own destiny within the UK.
“Many discussions had to take place between Rhodri Morgan and Tony Blair to determine the position of Wales and I think Jeremy Miles has the skillset to do that and the legal background and constitutional background for a good platform for those negotiations to continue.”
While Mr Morgan was seen as to the left of the then prime minister both Mr Miles and the other leadership candidate, economy minister Vaughan Gething, are from the party’s centre ground.
Mr Miles has the backing of a majority of Labour Senedd Members, council leaders including Newport’s Jane Mudd, Monmouthshire leader and self-described socialist Mary Ann Brocklesby and left wingers such as Beth Winter MP and Carolyn Thomas MS as well as centersist such as Blaenau Gwent MS Alun Davies.
His rival Mr Gething is however backed by influential party figures including Torfaen council leader Anthony Hunt, who chairs Welsh Labour’s executive committee, former Torfaen MP Lord Paul Murphy who served in the Blair and Brown governments, and perhaps none more so than Newport East MP Jessica Morden who is Sir Keir’s Parliamentary private secretary – essentially his senior assistant.
That could suggest the leadership contest could force a split similar to the 1990s, when when Mr Blair had continually tried to prevent Mr Morgan from leading the party in Wales.
Cllr Griffiths said there is “always a tension” between a centralised UK Government and devolved administrations and that “Tony Blair certainly wanted to control devolution as far as he could, and Rhodri Morgan resisted that.”
With the experience of having seen at first hand inter governmental relations between Labour governments, Cllr Griffiths who left his special advisor role in 2007, repeated his belief in Mr Miles stating: “I think he has the skill set that will allow him to make the case for Wales within the UK.”
Having helped shape seven of the first eight years of devolution, after been appointed in 2000, the councillor said though he is “frustrated” by delays in the NHS and described low attainment in international PISA results as something to “learn from” he stands by what he considers the success of devolved government – and “clear red water”.
The Chepstow councillor cited continued local control of education, a distinct difference to the academy model introduced in England by the Blair government, as a success of devolution and of how “Welsh Labour reflects the community basis of life in Wales in our socialist roots.”
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