Keir Starmer’s silence on the Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru deal is deafening
Dr Keith Darlington
Welsh Labour has attracted much publicity from its deal with Plaid Cymru.
The Welsh Labour-Plaid deal will help create a stable Senedd capable of delivering radical change and reform. It has been widely hailed as a great success on the Liberal-left of politics.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Parliament leader, described it as grown up politics. The Welsh Lib democrats commended the deal. Unsurprisingly, the Tories and their right-wing press friends condemned the deal.
However, Sir Keir Starmer and Westminster Labour have had nothing to say to date. Their silence is deafening because the deal involves commitments to nationwide social care, free school meals, and a publicly owned energy company.
Commitments, such as these, would have been music to the ears of Labour leaders in the past. So why is Starmer and Westminster Labour silent? Since Starmer’s election in April 2020, these two wings of Labour are diverging not only as a result of the personalities of the leaders but also on critical policy issues.
There are clear differences in the personalities and styles of the leaders.
UK Labour, led by Starmer is struggling to find a clear identity after UK Labour lost its fourth consecutive general election in 2019. Opinion polls show that his cautious timidity combined with his evasiveness when it comes to talking about policy issues, such as the consequences of Brexit or how he will fund social care is not striking a chord with the voters.
As Ifan Morgan Jones said on 22nd November, Labour see no realistic prospect of being back in power at Westminster in the very near future.
Drakeford, on the other hand, exudes confidence and clarity of conviction politics following Welsh Labour’s good performance in the Senedd elections in June 21. From his handling of the pandemic, to his readiness to condemn the impact of Brexit on the Welsh economy, Drakeford has been successful.
But the gap between Welsh and UK Labour is also broadening on emphasis of crucial policy issues.
Differences in emphasis of policy issues
There are notable difference between Welsh and Westminster Labour when it comes to Wales.
For example, Welsh Labour is quite happy to accommodate independent views in the party. Mark Drakeford was quite relaxed about allowing three Labour Senedd candidates supporting Welsh independence.
Westminster Labour, on the other hand, constantly berates independence. Indeed, the only time that Stephen Kinnock and Chris Bryant, Labour MPs that have seats in Wales, seem to have anything to say about Wales is to vilify Welsh independence.
Furthermore, Starmer has shown no interest in Welsh politics, causing irritation with some in Welsh Labour. In his party leaders conference speech he only mentioned Wales once.
Moreover, according to Alun Davies, Welsh Labour AM for Blaenau Gwent, Starmer has failed to meet the Senedd Labour group in Wales since becoming leader and couldn’t even be bothered to conduct a Zoom meeting with the group. Mr Davies said he found it extraordinary that Westminster Labour was not interested in hearing the views of a party who can hold on to marginal seats in Wales that Westminster Labour cannot – for example, Wrexham.
Starmer has also said that he would not work with the SNP. As Mr Davies said, such an attitude could keep the Tories in power indefinitely.
Given Starmer’s disdain towards talking to nationalist parties, it seems reasonable to assume that the reason for Starmer’s silence is partly because he disagrees with any deal with Plaid Cymru.
Starmer has also shown himself to be wedded to the First Past the Post (FPTP) system by rejecting it, even though 80% of delegates at the Labour party conference in October 2021 backed a motion to introduce FPTP.
However, Drakeford, is keen on electoral reform. Westminster Labour may also be ambivalent of the deal because of a trend towards reducing Welsh Westminster MPs and increasing powers and numbers of Senedd MSs. The deal does contain a commitment to increase the number of MSs above the current level of 60 to around 90.
There are also differences on Brexit. The Starmer strategy is not to talk about it or even discourage his party from doing so. According to the Guardian Labour MPs are being asked by the party’s high command not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament.
This is in marked contrast to Drakeford and his MSs who have constantly talked about the adverse effects of Brexit such as through trade deals with Australia which will hit the Welsh economy.
Finally, there are notable differences on the climate crisis. Starmer, to his credit, has committed Labour to more investment in Green energy. But he says little about how it will be paid for or how it to reconcile the move away from fossil fuels. He did not even attend the Cop26 summit.
By contrast, Drakeford and other members of Welsh Labour were in the thick of Cop26 attending the conference and active in promulgating policy detail at the Welsh level.
For example, Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, has been remarkably candid and brave in stating that unpopular decisions, such as the scrapping of a coal mining licence for Aberpergwm colliery near Glynneath will have to be cancelled to ensure carbon reduction targets.
Mark Drakeford said: “We don’t have a monopoly of good ideas” when announcing the deal with Plaid Cymru. This comment is a breath of fresh air.
Let’s hope Sir Keir is listening and learning from his Welsh counterpart.