What can Welsh Labour learn from the Labour Together report before next year’s Senedd election?
Eluned Morgan MS, Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language
Following the publication of the review into the General Election by Labour Together, it is vital that the Labour Party in Wales takes stock and learns lessons before the Senedd elections next year.
On the face of it, the scale of our defeat was nothing short of disastrous. This was the fourth time that Labour had lost a General Election, so an honest appraisal of what happened is essential if we ever want to win in the UK again.
Labour in Wales cannot rest on her laurels either. Despite winning a majority in every election since the Senedd was formed in 1999, the Party has more recently seen a decline in support, including in our traditional red heartlands – so, we need to listen to the electorate and listen hard and fast.
The challenge of appearing fresh and energetic is not easy for a party which has been in government for 20 years. What is certain, is that Welsh Labour will need to go much further at the next election. We will need to offer and deliver a manifesto that responds to the aspiration of our young democracy, whilst adapting to the massive challenges presented by Covid-19 and Brexit.
So, what were the chief concerns of the public towards the Labour Party back in December and how do we respond here in Wales?
They thought our manifesto was undeliverable
Our cornucopia of promises simply weren’t believed by the public. It wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t like many aspects of what we were saying, it’s just that they just didn’t think we could make it happen. Our presentation was generally lacklustre and the series of rushed new policy commitments undersold the societal changes we wished to enable.
Contrast that to the Labour Party’s record for delivery in Wales – successive elections have taught us to be clear about our offer. The Welsh public now knows that when Welsh Labour says we will do something we deliver on our promises.
Belief in our ability to deliver matters.
Where populism divides, we should use the ‘Welsh Labour difference’ to positively unite. We must create a new trust in our politics and our political system and sharpen our sights on delivering for the long term, from the bottom up, in a way that rewards all voters.
The ‘Welsh Labour difference’ should be a beacon for our movement across the UK. A Labour government, (the only Labour administration in the UK) is delivering and making a difference. In the last General Election, the UK Labour Party failed to learn from what we can usefully contribute to the broader UK picture as a result of our experience in power.
The internal ‘parent/child’ relationship between London and Cardiff must cease.
To build a manifesto for the entire UK, we must be allowed to exercise our influence and share our achievements. The attempt at creating a ‘one size fits all’ manifesto cannot continue any longer.
They thought we were taking Labour votes for granted in our heartlands
Over the years, as the report highlights, Labour has failed to stem the loss of support in our heartlands. It stresses the need to avoid complacency about the seats we currently hold to avoid further erosion. Unlike in the General Election, we will need to be clear in the Welsh election about which voters we are trying to persuade and how we will persuade them.
Particular attention must be paid to the north of Wales – but no part of Wales should be taken for granted. It is essential from my perspective that we have a clear offer for rural Wales – one that future proofs our economy, builds resilience and provides for future generations, as they become the bedrock of our unique, Welsh communities.
To win again for Wales, our political and financial resources must be focused on an evidence-led campaign, with an agility to redirect support in a way we have not before. It was our failure to do this in the General Election which caused the loss of so many great Labour MPs here in Wales.
We need to campaign differently
We will need to be creative and make the best use of social media to reach places and people we have failed to connect with in recent years. The Tories made better use of their online presence during the General Election, but it was often negative and personal.
Uniquely, as our democracy has taken shape and developed in Wales, the impact of our indigenous media outlets has eroded. The penetration of the broadcast media in Wales is notoriously patchy, particularly along the English border.
Our campaign in December 2019 was predominantly doorstep based, even in the depths of winter. For us, there was no clear plan to go beyond engaging on a one-to-one basis. Where campaign resources were tight and a winter election was physically more demanding, our heroic efforts in some seats bore no real fruit.
As the Coronavirus pandemic has shown, the electorate has adapted quickly to the use of technology. We must harness this change, be ready to learn and adapt our campaigning techniques.
Now, and in the years ahead, digital campaigning must be our focus whilst understanding that there will always be those who are digitally excluded, and we must ensure that these are also reached. We must, however, ensure that we reach beyond talking to each other to engage with the broader public.
Our message must be clear and simple
Over the next few months, Welsh Labour must focus on building an election platform that meets the needs of our nation, post Covid-19. We must show that we can rebuild a prosperous nation out of this crisis, and we need to do this in a sustainable, equitable way which understands that the climate change crisis continues to be the biggest threat of our generation. As the report suggests, “a transformational change must be rooted in the daily experiences and struggles of people’s lives in their place and communities.”
We must advance our appeal beyond traditional voters to a much broader audience. We will always as a party be attuned to the need to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, but we need to go way beyond this and set in place the conditions for everyone to reach their potential from the weakest to the strongest and most talented.
Evidence shows that elections are not won with short term thinking. As a political movement, Welsh Labour must be radical in our approach – we must focus on creating networks for change in every street, village, town and county and build trust in our ability to deliver.
As a passionate advocate of the EU and as someone who firmly believes that Brexit will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in Wales the most, our lack of clarity on the Brexit issue cost us dearly last year. As the report highlights, our indecision on Brexit let us down. With this now behind us, hopefully we can look to the future and shape a new constructive relationship with our nearest neighbours in the EU.
The infighting must stop
Here in Wales, we were not immune from serious splits in the party. Now is the time to heal division, reconcile our differences, build tolerance and work towards a Labour Government, both in Wales and the UK. Our splits have been plain to see, and as the report highlights, it was one of the principal issues voters highlighted as a reason to not vote Labour last time. Avoidable self-inflicted errors must not be repeated in the Welsh Parliament elections.
I am delighted that Keir Starmer has also started to vigorously address the issue of anti-Semitism from our party. We must do our utmost to consign this shameful episode to the past, so that we can work together for the future our country deserves.
No matter what we may think personally, the view of our Party and the view of the Public over Jeremy Corbyn diverged massively in the 2019 General Election.
Here in Wales, the coronavirus outbreak has raised the profile of the Welsh Labour Government and our First Minister. Mark Drakeford has ably proven himself to be a measured, capable leader in a time of unprecedented crisis that has exposed the growing political differences across the United Kingdom.
We will, in the next election, be proud to demonstrate the different approach taken in Wales compared to the rest of the UK, underlining once again that Welsh Labour difference.
Building on the best
On reflection, UK Labour was not ready for a General Election. Our systems and structures were overstretched and under-resourced. Despite this, locally our campaign teams and candidates worked hard to deliver on the ground.
In building forward, the Labour Party in Wales must have greater flexibility to set the direction, tone and channel resources to improve our electoral chances in our marginal and target seats.
That means simpler messaging with a focus on the positive ‘Welsh Labour difference’. Our message must resonate with the public, be clear, calm and considered so that we maximise our impact and translate messages into votes.
Positively, Welsh Labour as a campaign force is a well-oiled machine whose record over twenty years is one we can admire and be proud of, but the Party needs to constantly adapt and work out new methods of connecting to the communities and voters that we seek to serve.
Our election in Wales is more complex
Whilst learning these lessons, it is also important for the public to understand that the Welsh Labour Party will continue to do things that are right for us in Wales.
In many of our constituencies, it is becoming clear the old ‘two horse’ race associated with the General Election cannot easily be translated to the Welsh Parliamentary election context.
Whilst the Tories are undoubtedly our greatest threat in the forthcoming election, we cannot ignore the challenge from the direction of Plaid Cymru, although it is generally thought that their aggressive criticism of the First Minister during the coronavirus crisis has not been received well by the Welsh public.
We will be ready for the election when it comes and as always, we will be fighting what is best for Wales and its people.
Eluned Morgan is the Member of the Senedd for Mid and West Wales, elected in May 2016 and is currently Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language in the Welsh Government.