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Opinion

The two faces of the Labour Party in Wales

13 May 2023 7 minute read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by CPMR – Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CC BY-SA 2.0). Keir Starmer picture by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0).

Martin Shipton

Since the recent council elections in England, where the Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats made significant gains, even the usually most cautious of Labour politicians believe it’s a racing certainty that Sir Keir Starmer will be a resident of Downing Street by the end of next year.

One such politician I spoke to wasn’t sure Labour would win a majority, but was confident that, if it didn’t, a coalition deal could be struck with the Lib Dems.

In the run-up to the general election, most likely to be held in Autumn 2024, it’s therefore appropriate that there should be some focus on the relationship between UK Labour and Welsh Labour.

Strictly speaking, there’s no legal distinction between the two. Welsh Labour isn’t a discrete party in its own right and isn’t registered as such with the Electoral Commission.

It’s a nationalist-lite brand cleverly devised by Rhodri Morgan to appeal to patriotic Welsh voters who don’t want to sign up to the whole-hog independence agenda pursued by Plaid Cymru.

It became more than just a brand when Morgan pursued “clear red water” policies that distinguished his government’s more public sector approach than that of Tony Blair in England.

With a Tory government in power at Westminster since 2010, Welsh Labour adopted the slogan “Standing up for Wales” and opposed – in principle at least – austerity public spending cuts.

Power grabs

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, another locus of conflict has come to the fore, with the Welsh Labour government complaining of “power grabs” by Westminster and a reduction in regional aid allocations in comparison to what Wales could have expected if the UK had remained in the EU.

Welsh Ministers have complained bitterly about the treatment of Wales by the UK Government and deplored the Conservatives’ refusal to countenance any further devolution of powers.

But with the strong likelihood of UK Labour winning the next general election, will Welsh Labour get what it wants?

We were shown an ominous trailer of what may be in store on ITV Wales’ Sharp End programme late last year.

Asked about recommendations from the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales that powers over criminal justice and policing should be devolved to the Welsh Government – policies backed by Welsh Labour – Swansea East Labour MP Carolyn Harris was doubtful.

She said: “I wouldn’t be very enthusic [sic] to devolve policing.”

Asked why not, she replied: “I just wouldn’t.”

When presenter Rob Osborne said: “Your colleagues in Cardiff Bay…”, Ms Harris interrupted to say: “Well, I’m not in Cardiff Bay.”

Asked whether she was in tune with what the Welsh Government’s doing and whether she supports what the Welsh Government does, she said: “Of course I do. But there are some things I would like to stay in Westminster, policing being one of them.”

Ms Harris, of course, is not just a backbench Labour MP – she is the deputy leader of Welsh Labour and was one of the main organisers of Sir Keir Starmer’s successful leadership campaign.

The fact that she is out of step with the Welsh Government on the scope of future devolution suggests that the latter can expect resistance to its aspirations from a future UK Government.

Lean pickings

More substantial evidence emerged when last December UK Labour released the long-awaited report it commissioned from Gordon Brown on the constitutional future of the UK.

For Wales there were lean pickings, with a proposal to devolve youth justice and the probation service, but nothing about adult justice or policing.

First Minister Mark Drakeford put a brave face on, saying it would be great to get youth justice and probation devolved during the first term of a UK Labour Government.

In truth, though, the Brown recommendations were underwhelming – and especially so from a Welsh perspective.

Carolyn Harris’ reaction to the more radical proposals put forward by the independent commission chaired by Professor Laura McAllister and Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, are likely to have betrayed the attitude of many MPs – that some things should remain at Westminster so they have something to do.

In the early years of devolution there was tension between the Assembly Labour group and some Welsh Labour MPs who were concerned about their diminishing role because of powers being ceded to the new institution in Cardiff Bay.

That has appeared to reduce over the years, but Ms Harris’ comments on Sharp End show that such attitudes persist.

There are other factors which suggest that the Welsh Government and a future UK Labour government will have wider disagreements.

The NHS in Wales is devolved and the Welsh Government has remained resolutely opposed to any moves that would see the private sector play a role in delivering health services.

UK Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, on the other hand, is a convert to the idea that private companies should be at the heart of the NHS, delivering services as contractors.

Such a route involving the private sector will not be followed in Wales, opening up a new phase of the “clear red water” divergence.

Brexit

And then, of course, there is Brexit, with Keir Starmer not only rejecting any moves to rejoin the EU but also to re-enter the European single market and customs union – a state of affairs that is causing serious damage to the Welsh and wider UK economy.

Many Labour MSs believe that Starmer’s position is untenable and will hamper economic recovery, providing scope for disillusionment with a Westminster administration led by him.

On the issue of regional aid, Starmer has confirmed that the Welsh Government will be involved in the allocation of funds – currently it has no such role – but has not guaranteed that Wales will get the same level of funding as it would have got if the UK was still a UK member state.

UK Labour appears to want to stroll to victory on the back of the Tories’ considerable shortcomings, while giving as little away as possible about its future intentions.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Jo Stevens has been reluctant to answer awkward questions that touch on the gap between Welsh Labour’s aspirations and what a Starmer-led government will be prepared to concede. This is unacceptable in a mature democracy and there needs to be more candour as the general election gets closer.

Another factor to be borne in mind is where the loyalty of Labour staff members in Wales lie. As is usually the case, it’s a question of following the money.

Those who work for MSs are paid out of public funds and are generally loyal primarily to their MS, to the Senedd Labour group and to the Welsh Government. Naturally they want to see a Labour government elected at Westminster.

The salaries of those employed at Welsh Labour’s Transport House headquarters in Cardiff are paid not out of money raised and held by Welsh Labour, but out of UK Labour’s central funds.

Some MSs have doubts about the staff based at Transport House because their primary loyalty is seen as to UK Labour rather than to Welsh Labour. Such doubts are likely to remain until Welsh Labour is a properly autonomous party able to support itself financially.


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wayne
wayne
9 months ago

23 yrs of semi devolved power in Cardiff. A health system in a mess in Wales as Labour Control of the Senedd, can’t manage a party in a brewery. First Food bank in the UK was founded in 2000 due to poor management by Tony Blair’s government. Now Welsh labour activists are running 130,000 + food banks in Wales. Labour started the rot, the Tories perfected the demise. People need to wake up and drop the Dead Labour Donkey. Change is needed.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
9 months ago
Reply to  wayne

The membership of Welsh Labour need to move to an independent Labour party separate from the UK party. It can still be in the European socialist / social democratic block and members of the Socialist International. A wholly Welsh owned Labour Party must be able to focus its policies for the Welsh people and not have to look over its shoulders to see if if its acceptable to the English party. I praise the party when it gets it right such as ‘The well being of future generations Act’ but I cannot support UK imperialism on Wales and Scotland. Wales… Read more »

wayne
wayne
9 months ago

Welsh Labour HQ registered office, 105 Victoria Street, London, SW1E 6QT. A long way from Wales. A puppet outpost of the Union, that’s 23 years of Labour at the Senedd. Talk of Independence merely a distraction. A Lacky to Westminster.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
9 months ago
Reply to  wayne

Centralisation. Imperialist puppet.
That’s why I will not consider joining them.

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
9 months ago

There is little difference, regarding Wales, by the UK Labour or Tory parties, they will both put the needs of Wales last. The Welsh Labour party has to realise this. There will be no further powers devolved no matter whichever one is in power. If Welsh Labour is truly for the people of Wales it must look at all the alternatives to Westminster seriously. Our children deserve far better than what is on offer at the moment.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve A Duggan
Cat
Cat
9 months ago

I beg to disagree with your analysis of the Brown Report. Gordon Brown has always made it clear that he has said little about Wales as he is waiting for the Commission to do its work and issue its own report. This seems right. Why have a party grandee dictating when the people of Wales have been involved in a consultation exercise? I would rather Wales made its own decisions.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
9 months ago

Wales Labour MPs are as anti-Welsh as the English Conservatives it seems. She cares more about England than Wales right to enjoy what others take for granted. People forget, what Wales answer to Nigel Farage Neil Kinnock said all those years ago in 1979 during the first devolution referendum. He at one ‘No to Devolution’ husting insulted our history, argued against the creation of an Assembly promising if we voted no there’d a land of milk & honey. Labour lost the General Election, and we suffered 18 years of Thatcherism where all our utilities were privatised and he helped the… Read more »

Gareth
Gareth
9 months ago

MP’s can not serve two masters, and it has always been clear Labour MP ‘s serve Westminster. Who can forget Kim Howells warning of murder and blood in the streets the “Balkanisation” of the UK if devolution was voted for, right up until today with the “no” for policing and justice devolution. We have not heared a peep from our Labour MP’s about HS2, even ART Davies has spoken up for us on that one, the arch Cymru denier, they do nothing for the people who elected them, only adding support to Englands Labour minority in the commons. Waste of… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by Gareth
Erisian
Erisian
9 months ago

We know that the term “Welsh Conservatives” is an oxymoron. But we seem to have a blind spot where so-called Welsh Labour is concerned. If we are not to be treated as second or third class citizens we need our own institutions.

Nia James
Nia James
9 months ago

Most Welsh Labour MPs have traditionally been some of the foremost vocal supporters of Unionism and British Nationalism. When you see how much the likes of Carolyn Harris despise calls for additional powers for the Senedd, and her dismissive attitude towards the likes of Yes Cymru, you really see where this party lies. There will not be a positive future for Cymru with them at the helm, as they have no pride in our nation.

Riki
Riki
9 months ago
Reply to  Nia James

Nothing wrong with British nationalism. What’s wrong is when it gets attributed to solely being English. As if it’s interchangeable with them! Anyone who thinks such clearly have a very low understanding of the history of this island. In historical terms – English has only been used as interchangeable with “British” for around 150 years or so. When the Britons of Wales started to really accept their incorrect Welshness created by those who wanted to Replace the Britons. We play into their hands when we call them “British”, like it’s different being from Wales, when it isn’t.

Last edited 9 months ago by Riki

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