Brexit, Austerity, Clear Red Water and the Welsh Labour Leadership

By Mick Antoniw AM

After 8 years of disastrous Tory government in Westminster, it is sometimes easy for people in England to forget that in Wales, Labour in government is facing up to Brexit and the approaching breakdown of UK constitutional government and Tory austerity whilst at the same time electing a new Labour leader who in three weeks’ time will become the UK’s most senior Labour office holder as First Minister of Wales.

Historically, Welsh Labour has always delivered its quota of Labour MPs to support Labour in Westminster and since 1999 has delivered a working Labour Government in the Welsh Assembly every year since it was set up although because of its mixed voting system nearly always as a minority or coalition government. In Westminster, during the last Labour Government, the Welsh party was predominantly supportive of Tony Blair’s New Labour agenda whilst in the more sceptical Welsh Assembly a different, more traditional Welsh Socialist agenda was pursued on the principle of establishing “clear red water” between the centrist politics of Tony Blair and the Welsh Labour Government.

This took the form of ignoring PFI, opposing English educational reforms and refusing to open the door to the seductive sirens promoting private interventions in the National Health Service. Economic management was also different. Instead of the more pro-business, trade union sceptic approach pursued in Westminster, the Welsh Government set about developing a Social Partnership model which successfully brought together Government, Business and Trade Unions in an economic and social forum.

Since 2011 the Assembly, has become a proper legislature, with the right to pass its own Welsh legislation, raise taxes and manage its own electoral processes. Responsibility for domestic policy has increasingly shifted from Westminster to Cardiff Bay not just in terms of powers but also in the minds of the people of Wales.

The Assembly has exercised these powers in a way which has often resulted in conflict with the UK Government. Opposing the Tory abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board by setting up its own Welsh structure. Opposing the Trade Union Act by passing its own Welsh legislation disapplying parts of the act relating to Welsh public services, abolishing the right to buy Council and Social housing, abolishing zero hours contracts in the care sector on the ground of improving public service delivery, establishing a not for profit rail franchise as part of its integrated public transport Metro ambition and soon, subject to the outcome of the Welsh Labour leadership contest to take a lead in developing a Social Partnership Bill which will aim to put the social partnership on a statutory framework which will put ethical standards of employment, collective bargaining and trade union recognition at the forefront of Wales 6 billion pounds annual public procurement spend.

This of course is dependent on Mark Drakeford winning the contest to become Wales Labour leader which would lead to him being nominated to become First Minister of Wales to replace Carwyn Jones.

He is the favourite to win on December 6th when the results of the contest will be announced. Opposing him is Vaughan Getting, a former trade union solicitor more closely aligned to the new labour centre of the party, close to the Progress wing of the party and Baroness Eluned Morgan, former MEP and now member of the House of Lords as well as a regional list member for the Assembly.

Mark has the support of over half of Labour Assembly members, more MP’s than any of the other candidates, 24 of the 28 Labour Constituencies that endorsed candidates and 7 out of nine 9 of the affiliated trade unions participating in the election including Unite , Unison , CWU, Aslef, TSSA, BFAWU and NUM. He also, importantly has the support of both the Socialist Health and Education Associations and importantly the influential Welsh wing of Momentum, Welsh Labour Grassroots.

This will be the first Welsh Labour election to be held under OMOV which was introduced specifically for this contest at a hard fought over special Conference in September. Around 25,000 individual members and around 150,000 affiliated trade union members will be able to vote, but only one vote per person.

Mark is the only candidate who has supported Jeremy Corbyn from day one , openly voting and supporting him in each of the Labour leadership elections, although each of the other candidates now purport varying degrees of support for his leadership, although not necessarily his policies.

So what does this all mean for Labour in Wales and in Westminster? For the Labour leadership, if Mark wins it means there will be cohesive support for the Corbyn agenda from Wales and Scotland. For Wales it will mean the most radical socialist leadership since devolution from a candidate who has support across the spectrum of Labour opinion. He is widely respected for his achievements as former Cabinet Secretary for Health when he established the Welsh NHS as a living wage employer. Since then he has as Wales finance and Brexit minister led the fight against a no deal Brexit, campaigning for a customs deal to protect jobs and investment, opposing the current Draft Agreement and calling for a General Election if the Agreement is defeated in Parliament. Firmly behind Labour Party policy, if Parliament is incapable of calling a general election he has called for the people to decide in a people’s vote,
Many of the policies in the Corbyn to do list are already implemented in Wales. Much of the remainder of the list is part of the Drakeford agenda and it is clear from the hustings around Wales and the declarations of support that there is much support for this new radical approach to politics.

In a detailed 40 page Manifesto  he proposes a series of policies that would amount to the most radical agenda since the establishment of the Assembly in 1999. He will promote a Social Partnership Bill to put ethical employment, trade union rights and recognition and collective bargaining at the centre of the Welsh Government’s six billion pound annual procurement spend. He commits to implementing Section 1 of Labour’s Equality Act of 2010 which would enable the government to create a specific duty to develop policies that will promote greater social and economic equality.

He proposes support for a Foundational economy in which-

“the significance of collective goods is properly recognised and in which we guard, all the time, against the dangers of private affluence and public squalor and the growing inequality which follows in its wake”

Other proposals include a ban on fracking, support for renewable energy, support for a tidal lagoon, a programme of social and council house building, investment in the digital economy, a Clean Air Act and not for profit public transport. The manifesto covers education, health and social care and throughout is based on clearly identified socialist principles.

Winning the election is only the first step. If elected he will immediately face the impact of the UK Government’s austerity policies which have since 2010 resulted in reductions to the Welsh block grant of around £6 billion, and a budget which will be impacted by a further £850 million of cuts in the pipeline and the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of EU funding.

The recent Tory budget purporting to bring austerity to an end turned out to be smoke and mirrors. The much trumpeted £550 million over the next three years when scrutinised turned out in real terms and real new money to be only worth little more than a few million pounds, certainly not the silver bullet to ending austerity. Funding cuts in the pipeline and the loss of EU funding mean that austerity is very much alive and kicking in Wales as well as the rest of the UK.

Mark’s manifesto is a very non nationalist agenda. He recognises that many of the things Labour want to do in Wales cannot be achieved without a Labour Government in Westminster with a clear anti austerity agenda.

He supports a centralised taxation and welfare system as the basis of socialist redistribution of wealth around the UK and is critical of the separatist Plaid Cymru agenda which he says would make the people of Wales poorer.

A proud European, a Welsh speaking Labour politician and a committed socialist and trade unionist, Mark is certainly going to be different type of leader with a radical plan. The result of the election will be announced on December 6th


Mick Antoniw is the Labour Assembly member for Pontypridd
A former trade union solicitor and Counsel General for Wales. He currently chairs the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Assembly. He is a member of Welsh Labour Grassroots.