Welsh Labour Conference: Beware the Ides of March.
A few weeks early for the Ides, the backstabbing began. Not the ‘disruption’ the left is accused of when debate breaks out; Labour’s post-Blair democracy leaves little room for that sort of thing. At Welsh Labour’s 500-strong ‘best attended, best ever’ conference, all resolutions were passed virtually unanimously, with the full support of the Welsh Executive. Change days indeed.
Opposition and manoeuvring these days is for the spinners. Appropriately in back rooms, huddles and corridors of the conference’s cricket ground venue in Cardiff, they were much in evidence last weekend.
Highlight speech was from Ed Miliband, setting out policies that ordinary people want to hear. And he tentatively apologised for the Blair years, calling for Labour to ‘win back the trust’ of voters. To do that, he voiced some hitherto unmentionables: “tax bankers’ bonuses; create 100,000 jobs for young people; too many jobs low wage, low skill; good jobs, good wages; irresponsible capitalism; reform the banks”. For government contracts, “every company must provide apprenticeships for the next generation”. Banking is to be teased apart with a new British Investment Bank to ‘properly serve business’. Here, he’s weakest, not least with ‘an employee on every remuneration committee so that top executives have to look an ordinary member of staff in the eye before they award themselves that pay rise”. As if they care.
Note: not a word about taxes.
And how did the media cover this? They spotted Ed Balls’ seemingly mischievous press release calling for a reduction in income tax. They picked up disgraced expenses fiddler, LibDem banker David Laws, currently being rehabilitated by his millionaire friends in government, joining the media tax fetish. And poor old John Prescott (‘poor old’ only in this context) gets flayed for his rather brave and poignant reference to his inability to hug his beloved sons. Ed Miliband? Labour fightback? What’s that?
Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Scot, was first up at conference, drawing lessons on Labour’s ‘historic defeat’ last May, when 1999’s “only true National Party of Scotland, found itself supported by only one in eight Scottish voters”. He appears to have learned little. Despite wondering that we may have got it right ‘Standing Up For Wales’, and holding on to power, Alexander spent much of his delivery berating the SNP and defending the Union. He rightly flags the SNP’s support for Tory votes in London; their claim that the Scots ‘didn’t mind’ Thatcher’s economic policies; their advocacy of corporation tax cuts for bankers; SNP capital investment cuts and public sector job losses greater that those of the Tories in Westminster. The problem is, Scottish voters associate these policies and many more with New Labour negativity. Because of that, Labour is facing devastation in Scotland.
So it fell to Carwyn to spell it out. Standing up for jobs, services, and the development of the Welsh economy is what wins votes, not carping about other parties, pandering to bankers, or overstating ‘the Union’. Of course he played to his audience with the obligatory lambasting of the other parties. Least appropriate was his line on ‘placard waving megaphone’ Plaid, an attack on the wing of Plaid that Labour should most identify with in the fight against the Tories. Of more political sharpness, exemplary in fact, was his positive approach, claiming Labour as the party of the language and of Wales – bringing in the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner, launching a new Welsh Language Strategy and placing the language at the centre of Welsh life and culture – ‘Llafur Cymru yw eich plaid’. Enacting policy is what Welsh (and Scottish) people want to see and feel in these hard times and Jones focused on jobs, employment and training for young people, services, the NHS, children, communities – ‘accessible, high quality, citizen-centred services for all’. ‘The forces of marketisation and privatisation of the NHS will stop at the border.’
Conference speeches get loaded with niceties and (often) false flattery. Peter Hain delivered the heaviest load. Praised as ‘friend’ by Ed, Douglas and Carwyn, Hain, as is the way with Oscar winners, saw fit to heap thanks on everyone under the sun, or under Welsh Labour’s red flag, naming, one by one, Union leaders, MPs, Assembly Members, councillors, party workers, his old auntie in Merthyr. (I lied about that last one.) One gets more than a trifle cynical. Peter Hain counts his political friends in Wales carefully. In recent years, the Labour machine in Wales, contrary to its much-lauded Hardie/ Bevan legacies, has set aside much of the radicalism it may have had. Hain names names to maintain support for his own project, interestingly revealed in his platform appearance at the Liam Byrne, Purple Book ‘Progress’ fringe meeting on Sunday.
There’s the danger. Having led Labour to election disaster in Westminster and Scotland, alienating the party from its core support in the process, the Blairites, still dominant in Westminster and the party apparatus, remain obsessed with the middle ground – a cover for deep conservatism. In Wales, and perhaps with Ed Miliband in London (the jury is still out but we spotted a difference!), there is a glimmer of hope, some ‘clear red water’, what Carwyn chooses to call ‘the dividing line, stopping at the border’. Supportive policies and campaigning will win voters; best if they are clearly against the Tories and their banker-feeding austerity offensive. But there are dark forces at work within Labour too. And the media loves them.