Why putting Drakeford in Starmer’s shadow cabinet wouldn’t work
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Keir Starmer is not the most senior Labour politician in the UK.
The most senior Labour politician in the UK is currently the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford.
Starmer is the leader of the official opposition in Westminster, which is ostensibly a powerful position.
But the truth is, he is not much more than a glorified asker of questions in the House of Commons.
He gets to interrogate the Prime Minister of the UK at PMQs. He gets to recommend some people for seats for life in the House of Lords and is sometimes allowed to access sensitive official government documents. That’s about it. He wields no executive constitutional power.
In Westminster power is vested in whomever commands a majority in the House of Commons. That person is not Keir Starmer, and he is a long way away from being that person.
Sure, he is theoretically a step away from Number 10 Downing Street. But the difference between being a step away from power and attaining it is a profound one.
For Mark Drakeford, executive authority is not something he could attain in theory. It is something he wields in practice. He is the leader of a nation.
This is one of the reasons why including him in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet just would not work.
It has been reported that PR experts have advised Labour leader to do so in a new report.
It includes a foreword from former Labour leader and Welsh MP, Neil Kinnock, and recommends including other well-known Labour figures from around the UK in the cabinet, such as Manchester and London Mayors Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan.
“Labour should look to restructure the shadow cabinet and communicate through a leaner group of members to improve the perception and awareness of Labour’s shadow cabinet among the public,” the report says.
“The grouping would effectively operate as a ‘political cabinet’ and would have sole responsibility, as Labour’s dedicated spokespeople, to frame, develop and communicate Labour’s message to the public.”
But one gets the distinct impression that Labour in Communications, who published the Fit for the Future report, have not entirely thought it through.
Not a subordinate
Mark Drakeford is a far more senior figure than Keir Starmer. He is not a subordinate, despite him being treated as such by the British media and the UK Labour Party.
He decides budgets (albeit with far too many strings attached by Westminster), he passes laws.
His power has been felt by pretty much everyone in Wales, especially during the pandemic. He has used his power to shut the border with England. He has used it to mandate that people stay in their homes.
Putting Drakeford in the shadow cabinet may seem like an elevation in status to some. But at best it would be access to what is little more than a talking shop, and at worst it would be a demotion.
At worst it would put Drakeford under Starmer’s thumb and ensure that the Welsh Government dances to the tune of what suits Labour at Westminster, not what benefits the people of Wales.
How would that happen?
Well, the shadow cabinet has a thing called collective responsibility. Its members can argue about a policy as much as they want internally. However, once a line on an issue has been decided, they have to stick to it – in public at least. They have to show a unified front. All for one and one for all and all that. That is unless they leave the shadow cabinet of course.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to see how inclusion in the shadow cabinet could muzzle the First Minister.
The Welsh Government and Welsh Labour often take a different stance on issues to the UK party.
Indeed, it has been one of its USPs since former Rhodri Morgan First Minister gave his “clear red water” speech at the advent of devolution. That famous speech, which aimed to draw a stark distinction between Wales and Westminster, just so happens to have been written by a certain Mark Drakeford. It might be regarded as remiss of him to consent to muddying that water now.
One could argue that the water is muddy enough as it is – that it is not quite as clear as the First Minister of Wales would like us to imagine.
There are times during the pandemic that Starmer has criticised the Conservative UK Government for measures that Drakeford’s Welsh Government have also implemented in Wales.
Labour’s Westminster leader branded an offer of a 3% increase for NHS workers in England as “shameful”.
But NHS workers in Wales were offered the very same increase in pay by the Labour Welsh Government.
The Welsh Government has generally argued for Wales to have more powers than UK Labour would want to permit.
Including Drakeford in his shadow cabinet would lead to him either having to align with UK Labour policy or having to constantly argue that those circles you see are indeed square. There is quite enough of that in politics as it is.
But despite its manifold limitations, and its fundamental lack of understanding, in a way this report is a small step forward.
It suggests that the UK Labour Party has at least belatedly realised that Wales exists. It is becoming part of the party’s internal conversation.
The clearing of this admittedly low bar is to be welcomed. Of course, the fact that this is to be welcomed tells us something about where we are with regards to the way Wales is treated by the Westminster establishment.
But, while it recognises that Wales is underrepresented at a UK level, this report has also demonstrated that they have yet to get that elusive ‘it’.
It is beginning to dawn on the UK Labour Party that it has a Wales problem.
However, it not close to figuring out how to fix it.