The most important political debate in Wales is one you probably haven’t heard of

Jeremy Corbyn (left). Picture: Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0) The First Minister (right). Picture: National Assembly.

Huw Williams

There is an ongoing debate within Welsh Labour that is crucial in terms of the future direction of our country – but very few people have heard of it.

This is due in part to the Shakespearian nature of the tragedy that has unfolded in the Senedd over recent months, which has understandably dominated Welsh political news.

However, both stories are linked by our First Minister’s impending (so we are told) retirement.

It’s the decision as to whether the future vote for First Minister of Wales within Welsh Labour will be ‘One Member One Vote’ or an electoral college.

You may remember OMOV as the system established under Ed Milliband that, somewhat significantly, of course, saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn at the UK level.

This system is already used at UK & Scottish Labour elections and there are many within Welsh Labour that feel that we should catch up.

The alternative is the electoral college, in which a third of the votes would go to party members, a third to affiliated supporters (including the Unions and its members) and a third to MPs, AMs and the one MEP.

Under this system, 58 politicians would have the same voting weight as 30,000 party members.

Last November, the BBC reported on the opening chapter, as the Labour Party’s Welsh Executive Committee (WEC) rejected a “One Member One Vote” (OMOV) system for electing their leader and deputy leader.

Yet the significance of these developments have caused little debate elsewhere.

But the decision is massively significant, not just because of the potential influence on the future direction of the party – but Wales as a whole.

Given Welsh voters’ fidelity to Labour, one might say the election of their leader is more significant to the long-term prospects of Wales than the Assembly elections themselves.

Consultation

The lack of coverage may partly be due to the rather technical and complex background to the decision. It’s very difficult to explain the complex internal machination of Welsh Labour in a single news story.

So here is an attempt to sum up how we got here, where we are now, and why the issue is in danger of causing such a cleavage within the party.

In 2017, there was a 3-month consultation prompted by the UK party delegating to Welsh Labour control over various matters, including the election of the leader and deputy leader.

Previously, however, there was no post of Welsh leader identified in the Welsh Labour rules (although the Assembly group leader was in practice recognised as leader) and there had never been a Welsh deputy leader.

Moreover, there had been no system for electing a leader identified in the rules. An electoral college was used in previous Welsh leadership elections – but with rules drawn up on an ad hoc basis.

The consultation ended in controversy for a number of reasons.

Despite the vast majority of constituency Labour Parties (19 against 5) expressing their preference for OMOV, a significant majority of the WEC voted to reject OMOV and decided to install the Electoral College system.

The decision therefore effectively flew in the face of the preference expressed by the membership.

However, it was widely assumed at the time that the WEC would simply make a recommendations to Welsh Labour conference, based on the outcome of the consultation.

The conference would then take the final decision.

The WEC, however, pointed to a rule adopted at the last Welsh conference in March that it was claimed empowered them, not the conference, to make the final decision.

This was based on a disputed interpretation of the rule that stated the WEC would “set out detailed procedural arrangements” for the Leadership elections.

Shortly after the decision in November, one of the 19 Constituency Labour Parties that voted for a change to OMOV – Julie Morgan’s Cardiff North – passed a motion expressing ‘deep regret’ at the decision.

A meeting in January in Llandrindod Wells, including Julie Morgan, Mike Hedges, Mark Drakeford and Mick Antoniw publicly backed OMOV, which led to some curt responses being issued by others in the party.

Of further significance was the news that Cabinet ministers were firmly divided on the issue – although understanding the individual motivations is a complex, speculative task.

Frustrations amongst those in favour of OMOV have been compounded by the difficulties created in obstructing any further consultation on the matter at conference.

There is also a perception that an unprecedented (and some might argue unnecessary) Deputy Leader contest has been rushed through to further entrench the established order.

Thi weekend’s conference in Llandudno, therefore, has the feel somewhat of a ‘showdown’, with a great deal at stake, as members attempt some circuitous routes towards putting OMOV back on the agenda.

A victory for Julie Morgan as Deputy Leader – who has campaigned on this platform – could provide some crucial momentum (no pun intended).

Politics

Although these events may appear to be nothing more than the internal machinations of the party machine, in truth they could be key to Wales’ future.

This is ultimately laying the groundwork for the fight to succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister.

Responses from politicians back in November provided an indication of this, as Carwyn Jones and Lynne Neagle accepted the decision as the right one in maintaining the balance between politicians, members, and the Unions.

Carwyn Jones’ line on the matter was that it would be unwise to change a system “in the teeth” of opposition from part of the “Labour family” and that it served them well in the past.

Presumably, this is a past that included the controversial election of Alun Michael through that very same system.

There’s little wonder that the situation has been characterized in some quarters as the Party’s elite frustrating the aims of its membership.

The left-wing of the party, naturally, will favour the system that put their faction in charge of the party at the UK level.

Mike Hedges AM, one of the more prominent left-wingers, has been vocal in questioning the decision from the outset.

Under OMOV, the left-wing would have a huge influence on the vote due to the sheer numbers who have joined to support Jeremy Corbyn.

Some (including the editor of this site!) have expressed their skepticism regarding Momentum’s interest in Wales, but this overlooks the complexity of the situation.

Many of these supporters have become part of Welsh Labour Grassroots, a pre-existing left-wing group that has become ‘Momentum’s home in Wales’.

These people have brought a great deal of impetus to parts of the Labour Party – and played no small part on the ground in returning such a healthy vote and victories such as Cardiff North in the 2017 General Election.

But gaining influence on a party as well entrenched and as well organized as Welsh Labour is not easy, a factor perhaps underappreciated by those asking where Corbyn’s influence in Wales is.

The OMOV vote is in some sense the sharp end of these endeavours; everyone knows that to get a leader elected that reflects the new left-wing politics will be less likely, if the system of electoral colleges remains in place.

It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that a great deal hangs in the balance for both the party and the country.

Blow

What will it tell us about Welsh Labour if they persist in their current policy of making OMOV a WEC decision, in the face of popular opposition in the party?

It may confirm or substantiate the view of the party that is gaining more and more currency: that far from representing Wales’ proudly left-wing tradition, embodied in figures such as Aneurin Bevan, it is a centrist, technocratic operation that has very little real politics to offer.

It will no doubt make the case easier for those stauncher critics who claim it is the establishment party that serves the ambitions of its Assembly Members, more than it does its supporters or the people of Wales.

For those on the left of the party, it will be quite a blow, confirming the suspicion that Welsh Labour has no intention of cleaving to the more radical agenda of Corbyn’s Labour –shattering any remaining sense of the party as being the radical force of Welsh labourism it was once supposed to be.

Such is the current tendency towards centrism here that it leaves in grave doubt any potential legacy of Rhodri Morgan’s vision of ‘clear red water’.

People will quibble that Corbyn – a follower of Tony Benn and the so-called ‘hard left’ – represents a tradition in the British Party that has little to do with the left-wing politics of Bevan and his ilk.

However, it seems difficult to deny that the type of policies advocated by the current party are aligned with the public political culture of the left, and a great deal of the wider population, in Wales.

Their manifesto certainly did them no harm in Wales in 2017

What next?

There are wider questions here to be asked of what the Welsh Labour leadership thinks it is doing in terms of its agenda, but it may be worth ending by pondering the potential fallout.

By rejecting OMOV the party would be self-consciously standing in the way of the possibility of the Welsh membership exerting its will and driving Labour towards a more radical programme – that one suspects would be aligned with the desire of the majority of Labour voters in Wales.

Should the WEC decision stand, it could have serious consequences.

Not only will it be a summary rejection of the voice of the CLPs that will weaken any potential leader, it will also elicit a reaction from the thousands of new recruits who have come in through Corbyn’s leadership – and who will be feeling frustrated by the fact they can’t do anything more.

Faced with a future of having to tow the line with a leader and a politics they don’t believe in, one possible conclusion from this powerful, grassroots constituency could be that a new Labour party of a different kind is what Wales needs.

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