The Welsh Labour leadership candidates must be honest with the people of Wales
Mark Drakeford’s impending departure from the First Minister’s office coincides with what could prove to be a significant reset of Welsh politics.
It’s also a time when those seeking to succeed him need to explain how they will take Wales forward. Are they predominantly interested in what Wales can achieve as a nation? Or are they hoping to cling on to Keir Starmer’s coattails as he cruises to power at Westminster?
At the very first devolved election in Wales in 1999, Labour didn’t do as well as had been expected, losing a number of seats to Plaid Cymru that had previously been regarded as impregnable. These losses – and the strong showing of Plaid, which the party has been unable to replicate since – deprived Labour of the majority that many observers took for granted.
The results were a surprise, because Tony Blair’s UK Government was still riding high in the popularity stakes. There’s little doubt that the party’s poorer than expected performance in the National Assembly’s debut election can be attributed to dissatisfaction at the way Rhodri Morgan was deprived of the Welsh Labour leadership in a classic stitch-up orchestrated from Westminster.
Since that first occasion, however, voting in devolved elections has tended to be strongly influenced by politics at a UK level – always bearing in mind that Labour has a higher base level of support in Wales than elsewhere. Rhodri Morgan used to refer to the “Baghdad bounce” Welsh Labour benefitted from at the second National Assembly election in 2003 thanks to what was initially seen as a quick victory in the Iraq war. Then in 2007, when Blair’s popularity had dipped because the same war hadn’t concluded as tidily as was expected, Welsh Labour had a bad election – in relative terms – and had to go into coalition with Plaid Cymru.
Ever since 2010, of course, the party has had a huge alibi, with successive Conservative governments in power at Westminster. It’s been easy to blame the Tories for all the woes Wales is suffering, from hospital waiting lists to poor education results to an economy in the doldrums. But while a shortage of funding from the UK Treasury is a very significant part of the story, it’s not the entire picture by any means. Incompetence can exist as an entity in its own right, and we can all think of examples where it has occurred in Wales in circumstances unconnected to the money flow from Whitehall.
When Keir Starmer enters Downing Street, the alibi – whether one has seen it as genuine or spurious – will no longer be available.
In any case, there have already been signs that voters may in greater numbers be prepared to vote differently in Westminster and Senedd elections. Recent polls show Labour maintaining a very strong lead in Wales in advance of next year’s general election while manifesting a noticeable drop in support in terms of voting intention at a Senedd election.
Whatever the reason may be – and one plausible theory is that the dip in support at a Senedd election is linked to the 20mph speed limit row – it’s surely a good thing that people may finally be prepared to make judgements about who they vote for at a Senedd election on the basis of devolved issues rather than UK ones. Such a move would certainly improve accountability and might even improve performance.
We are still, of course, not much less than two and a half years away from the next Senedd election. In the immediate future there’s another important election which most of us won’t have a vote in but whose result will have an impact on us all. Members of Welsh Labour won’t just be electing a new leader – they’ll be electing a new First Minister.
Whatever our political affiliations or preferences, we all have a stake in wanting the best candidate to win. The decisions of both Eluned Morgan and Hannah Blythyn not to put themselves forward as candidates makes it more likely that it will be a straightforward choice between Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles. It’s absolutely essential that both contenders are scrutinised as rigorously as possible in the coming weeks and months, both on their records in government and their programmes for the future.
In contrast to Mark Drakeford, a politician whose socialist principles underpinned the policy analysis he offered Rhodri Morgan, to whom he was a key adviser, as well as his approach to government, neither Mr Gething nor Mr Miles have yet articulated their visions with any detail or clarity. So far we’ve seen soundbite endorsements on social media from their respective supporters but nothing about policy. That must not continue.
Wales is not in a good place. We know about the continuing problems of the health service and education. Our economy is not in great shape, and its prospects are worse than they should be thanks to Brexit – a matter neither of the two main parties want to talk about. Messrs Gething and Miles must set out specific plans about how things can improve.
M4 relief road
There are strong rumours that Mr Gething may revive plans for an M4 relief road around Newport. If that is the case, he mustn’t just announce it as a soundbite but explain where the money would come from for such an expensive road – much more so than it was when Mr Drakeford cancelled it in 2019. What other projects would he cut?
Anyone with half an interest in Welsh politics will know that a major theme since Brexit has been the tension between the Welsh and UK governments over funding and powers. The Tories haven’t budged over the issue of consequential funding for Wales arising out of spending on HS2 in England. How hard will Mr Gething and Mr Miles be prepared to fight a Labour government in Westminster over this issue and others where the Tories have made decisions that disadvantage Wales?
Counsel General Mick Antoniw, who may have been persuaded to be a left wing candidate for party leader if he was younger, has said that constitutional reform should be embarked on within the first year of a Starmer administration. Do Gething and Miles agree and what reforms in particular do they favour in the short term?
Both Welsh Labour leadership candidates are from the right of the party. Could that mean that the “clear red water” concept articulated by Rhodri Morgan more than 20 years ago to distinguish his “classic Labour” government from Tony Blair’s New Labour variety will come to an end? Will a Gething-led government or a Miles-led government ape the policies of Starmer in Westminster or will they be distinctively and differently Welsh?
Is the Senedd reform package a done deal or is there scope for a reconsideration of the electoral system? Many party members would prefer STV rather than the Closed List system currently on offer, which many have criticised for undermining democracy by not allowing people to vote for individual candidates and giving too much power to party apparatchiks.
And given the complaints made by the current Welsh Government that it has been robbed of £900m this year because of Westminster spending cuts, what do Gething and Miles have to say about the apparent intention of incoming Labour Chancellor Rachel Reeves to keep a tight rein on public spending?
All these questions and more need to be put to them and answered with candour.
Finally, the fact that Vaughan Gething is black and Jeremy Miles is gay should play no part in decision making about which candidate to vote for. It’s what they can do for Wales that counts.
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