By Mick Antoniw
2022 is a watershed anniversary for the Welsh labour movement and the Welsh Labour Party. As Wales celebrates success in soccer by qualifying for the World Cup for only the second time in its history, we can sing “Ry’ni Yma o Hyd!” We are still here! As Dafydd Iwan’s remarkable online chart-topping song goes: “Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, Ry’ni yma o hyd!” After everything we have been through, we are still here!
In every general election for the past 100 years, since November 1922, the Welsh people have given their electoral support to the Labour Party.
It is not just remarkable but also an outstanding record of success and achievement. It is also an historic moment because at a time when politics has become more fragmented, as the traditional industrial base which led to the formation of the Labour Party has all but gone, Welsh Labour has nevertheless, and against all predictions of its demise, emerged successfully. It has a very specific Welsh radical and socialist agenda, one undeniably in harmony with the values and aspirations of a majority of Welsh people.
At the last Senedd/Welsh Parliament elections in May 2021, Llafur Cymru/ Welsh Labour achieved its equal best electoral results and secured 50% of the 60 seats. Wales is now the only part of the UK where Labour is in parliamentary government.
Much of the success can be attributed in part to the leadership of First Minister Mark Drakeford and his ability to communicate and combine radical Labour values and policies with competence in Government.
Some of the seeds to this success were in fact sown 20 years earlier, during the New Labour government. The electoral landslide of Tony Blair in the General Election of 1997 certainly led to some important radical and progressive reforms. After the disastrous years of Thatcherism, policies like devolution, the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of information Act, improved pensions and welfare were at the forefront. But for many in Wales and across the UK, the reforms did not go far enough in tackling the underlying growing inequality and distribution of wealth which today’s Tories continue to exacerbate by their obsession with austerity and right wing policies.
There was a failure to reverse Tory policies on housing, to reverse the attacks on organised labour, to reform the domestic and national taxation policy and more broadly, to recognise the constitutional implications of the demographic changes taking place. Failure to address the impact of capitalist globalisation and de-industrialisation on a society increasingly identifying with national, regional and community interests contributed to a growing alienation and disillusionment amongst traditional Labour-voting communities and supporters.
Despite making important constitutional changes via the Wales Act 2006, Labour failed to adequately recognise the increasing constitutional dysfunction which was impacting and fracturing the tectonic plates of our political system. Political and economic subsidiarity increasingly succumbed to the simpler policy cul-de-sac of economic and governmental centralism. Socialism, as a vision of hope and change gave way to the philosophy of soft neo-liberalism. New Labour eventually lost the battle of values, ideas and vision to the Tories.
In Wales, post-devolution, the Labour leadership increasingly distanced itself from the direction and values of New Labour and adopted a “clear red water” approach to policy, more attuned with traditional Welsh socialist values.
In more recent years, as the National Assembly of Wales became a Senedd, a Welsh Parliament with primary law-making and taxation powers, so the ‘brand’ of Llafur Cymru/Welsh Labour strengthened and has now become the leading political identity and vision in Wales.
It has, however, not been an easy or simple transition, nor is the journey over, but it has been one of political success and achievement.
Our commitment to traditional working class values has always remained at the core of this transition, as has the importance of equality and our common interest across the nations and regions of the UK in the distribution of wealth and power; but that alone has not been enough.
Welsh Labour has also consistently spoken up for Wales and Welsh interests, in contrast with the Conservative Party in Wales. Devolution has enabled us to speak out against UK policies we disagree with or are not appropriate for Wales and to set our own specific Welsh agenda. This has been one of the factors that has led to the retention and growth of trust amongst the Welsh people: the recognition of common interests across the UK, but at the forefront always putting Welsh communities and interests first and consistently standing up for Wales.
The recent co-operation agreement between Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour is an example of that different philosophy, of political parties working together, where possible, in common interest. As well as enabling us to deliver a package of progressive social legislation and reforms, it will also enable the Welsh Government to deliver a much- needed enlarged Parliament, with gender equality, greater diversity and an ability to improve and grow democracy in Wales.
Our dysfunctional UK constitutional structure and restrictive asymmetric devolution settlement across the UK is to be addressed by Labour’s constitutional commission under the direction of Gordon Brown. The longer term and deeper constitutional issues are being explored by an independent Welsh Government-funded constitutional commission led by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and Professor Laura McAllister of the Welsh Governance Centre of Cardiff University.
And while all this is underway, it is equally important to recognise what Welsh Labour has already delivered, what it proposes to deliver and potentially what a UK Labour Government could deliver.
The Welsh Labour Government has delivered greater protection and voice for Welsh agricultural workers and an end to zero hours contracts in the care sector. We have taken our privatised airport and internal railway system into public ownership. We have disapplied the worst effects of the Trade Union Act to public sector workers in Wales, we led the way in presumed consent organ transplantation legislation, we have protected the NHS from the worst effects of the private and internal market, protected the state educational system, developed support for Welsh students, committed billions of pounds of investment into the building of new state of the art, 21st century schools programme, investing in a new publicly owned railway metro system and engaged with business and trades unions on a social partnership basis.
As a nation of sanctuary, we welcome and support refugees, oppose the racist Nationality and Immigration Act and the attacks on democratic rights through the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act and we will continue to support civil and human rights as best we can, despite the limitations on our devolved powers.
None of these policies are considered irrational and most resonate deeply with fair-minded members of the public.
In the current legislative programme, we are introducing a ground-breaking social partnership and procurement bill, to put the relationship between government, trade unions and business on a statutory footing, and plan to enhance the way we use procurement to promote fair and ethical work and socio-economic objectives. We will not be introducing voter ID or the other restrictions being brought in for UK General elections for Welsh Senedd or local council elections. Instead we will be introducing our own legislation to explore the digitisation of our electoral system and ways of enhancing it and modernising the electoral system.
As we go forward, we plan to develop an integrated, public transport system, co ordinating train, bus and taxi travel as an environmentally friendly and public service.
We also prepare for the devolution of our justice system in Wales, to increase accessibility and socio-economic justice. This will require the devolution of justice and policing similar to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Welsh Labour is on a mission. It is a mission I believe Keir Hardie and the founding members of the Labour Party and labour movement would be proud of: one based on our Labour, co-operative and socialist values of public ownership, justice, equality, hope, opportunity and shared prosperity. Welsh Labour has been able to capture those values in Government, at national, local and community level across Wales, by working collaboratively and bravely in challenging conservative norms and the Tory Government in Westminster.
This has been reflected in recent electoral results. So successful has it been that the Welsh Tories are now discussing how they might emulate Welsh Labour’s achievements, by distancing themselves from the Tory Government in Westminster and adopting their own “clear blue water” policy. We will see!
As a UK general election approaches, there is much that could be learned from Wales. People across the UK have similar values and aspirations. Overwhelmingly in Wales we are attuned to those values; but it is now up to UK Labour to have the vision and bravery to espouse those values and to lead.
The people of the United Kingdom need a Labour government. Wales also needs a UK Labour government. We have achieved much in Wales, but there is so much more we can do and need to do, but we need a UK Labour Government working together to achieve all our aspirations. We will do everything we can as Welsh Labour to ensure a Labour victory in the next general election.
Wales is an incredible county with so much potential. We have emerged through devolution with pride and confidence in our future and in our progressive values and the people of Wales have for over 100 years put their trust, election after election, in Welsh Labour. We have also shown, that we can be socialist , we can be radical and we can win elections. UK Labour can and must have the confidence to do the same.
Mick Antoniw is Labour Member for Pontypridd and Counsel General for Wales and Minister for the Constitution. He writes in a personal capacity.
Learning from Welsh Labour’s Radical Agenda
Monday 20 June 2022, 7pm
- Beth Winter MP
- Mick Antoniw MS, Welsh Government Counsel-General
- Jack Sargeant MS, Chair, Senedd Petitions Committee
- Carolyn Thomas AM/MS
- Sophie Howe, Welsh Future Generations Commissioner
- Ceri Williams, Wales TUC Policy Officer
- Darren Williams, Welsh Labour Grassroots
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