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Welsh Labour circles the wagons

By Darren Williams 

Wales is the one part of Britain (beyond municipal level) where Labour remains in government and this achievement elicited due respect from Ed Miliband, Iain McNicol and Douglas Alexander when they visited Welsh Labour conference in Cardiff on the weekend.

But, while Alexander was keen to co-opt the Welsh example of successful devolution for his campaign against the SNP’s independence proposals, he was notably reticent about the content of the ‘distinctly Welsh social-democratic offer’. The latter might succinctly be summarised as its commitment to equality of outcome and rejection of the New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem approach to the ’reform’ of public services. This contrasts of course, with Scottish Labour’s failure to distance itself significantly from Westminster. Miliband heaped praise on First Minister, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour’s values of ‘community, solidarity and responsibility’ but again had relatively little to say about the policies – although he did at least acknowledge, approvingly, that Wales had a rejected the ‘free market free-for-all’ in the NHS.

Carwyn’s own conference speech was a powerful restatement of Welsh Labour’s commitment to ‘fairness and social justice’. On healthcare he was particularly emphatic, saying that Welsh Labour believed in ‘citizen-centred public services for all, not “choice” for the few’, publicly funded and delivered. He added that the ‘privatisation and marketisation of the NHS will stop at the border’ – although there are some concerns that the competition clauses in Lansley’s bill might affect Wales because only the UK as a whole is seen a relevant jurisdiction under EU competition law.

There was little controversy on the conference floor, with the motions tending to offer encouragement to the Welsh Government, rather than criticism or demands. Aslef welcomed plans for a ‘not-for-dividend’ Welsh rail franchise and Unite praised the launch of Future Jobs Wales, which will provide 4,000 16-to-24 year olds annually with six months of work or training at the national minimum wage. One of the few potentially contentious matters was a proposal from Cardiff North CLP that, in the face of the forthcoming reduction of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30, Welsh Labour should follow the recent Scottish example and retain, as the basis of constituency organisation, the Assembly boundaries (thus far, coterminous with those for Westminster) rather than change to reflect the parliamentary map. While eminently sensible, this idea offends Welsh MPs and their camp followers and the issue has been referred for consideration to an ad hoc working group by the Welsh Executive Committee, which secured remission of the motion.

The election results announced at conference represented modest gains for the centre-left. The three Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) members on the WEC were all re-elected and were joined by fellow-travellers, Newport councillor, Debbie Wilcox and former AM, Christine Gwyther (remarkably, nine of the ten CLP seats on the WEC are now held by women). The two Welsh ‘regional’ seats on the NPF chosen by conference were both elected unopposed, one incumbent being WLG member, Mark Whitcutt.

As ever, some of the most interesting discussions took place at the fringes – particularly the well-attended meeting held by Welsh Labour Grassroots. Cardiff Council candidate, Siobhan Corria, argued that Labour needed to engage with local communities if it to win back Welsh town halls and run progressive administrations after May 3rd. Assembly Member and Welsh Labour policy guru, Mark Drakeford, excoriated Europe’s disastrous austerity policies and observed that the Obama administration, in contrast, had promoted growth and jobs – although, in a grossly unequal society, the benefits were flowing predominantly to capital and the rich. He hoped that, in Wales, we could ‘get both the economics and the politics right’.

Unite and Labour NEC member, Martin Mayer, described his union’s strategy for building an activist base in the party, able to develop and fight for socialist policies and secure the election of union-friendly MPs. And Welsh Health minister, Lesley Griffiths, reiterated Carwyn’s message about the NHS in Wales, reaffirming that reconfiguration would be governed by the best way to deliver quality services, not by neoliberal dogma. These discussions provided the activists present with valuable ammunition for the battles ahead.

A version of this article appears in the March issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Welsh Labour Conference: Beware the Ides of March.

By Gordon Gibson

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.

ImageSo 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.

The Northumbrian question and devo-max for England

By Jon Lansman

Never mind the West Lothian question, what about the Northumbrian question? Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, the process of devolution to Scotland, Wales and (Northern) Ireland will continue. And all that the commentariat can talk about is who in Westminster should wield the power — a UK parliament or an English one. If it’s wrong for Scottish MPs to exercise influence over the North East of England, wouldn’t it be preferable to devolve power than just shuffle it about in London? The call from the Hannah Mitchell Foundation in yesterday’s Observer is timely. And, by the way, isn’t an English Parliament bound to be a greater threat to a federal Britain then ever was a Scottish one?

It isn’t just the EDL  and others on the far right that poisons the cause of English nationalism. It is that no-one — apart from a few politicians — will feel any closer to power as a result of an English parliament. Its creation wouldn’t amount to devolution. And yet, its creation, like that of the Russian presidency under Yeltsin, would most certainly threaten the Union. Within a federal UK, in the sharing out of resources between ‘devolved’ parliaments, the dominance of the English would always alienate the others that remained.

That is why Carwyn Jones is right to argue in the Guardian that a more devolved UK requires a new constitutional settlement: he suggests “a new upper house with equal representation from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.” Unfortunately, this formula doesn’t stack up. It might be OK for Wyoming to have the same representation in the US Senate as California (with a population 66 times larger) and the other 49 states, but equality of representation doesn’t wash in a federation of 4 where England has a population 28 times that of Northern Ireland. It could be different if power was also devolved to the English regions.

Now it is certainly true that John Prescott’s attempt to devolve power to the English regions was a disaster. But it failed through a lack of New Labour’s ambition and will. Without the backing of Blair — “never a passionate devolutionist” as he understates it in his autobiography A Journey (p251) — or that of his Ministers who, department by department, refused to delegate Whitehall’s powers — the offer on regional devolution in 2004 was tokenistic, half-baked and rightly rejected. But the time has come to move on from the defeat of devolution in the North-East referendum for several reasons:

  1. Devolution in Wales and Scotland has moved on in public support and changed the constitutional background. From rejection and near-rejection in the 70s, support for devolution has grown since it was granted in 1999 and the public now demands ever more devolved powers. Wales has just voted for more and “Devo max” has majority support in Scotland (3-2 in favour, whilst on independence it’s neck-and-neck).
  2. If Wales could change from 4-to-1 rejection of devolution in 1979 to acceptance 18 years on, and two-thirds demanding still more 14 years after that, could not the North East shift similarly? There are factors which make this more likely in the North East: Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher found that “‘No’ voters appeared to be more committed to stopping an Assembly than ‘Yes’ voters” leading to a higher turnout (or response rate since it was a 100% postal ballot) from devolution opponents. Voters were also affected by general dissatisfaction with government policy (including over Iraq) and a distrust of politicians in general, and, given the limited powers of the proposed assembly, tended to believe that they were likely to increase costs without delivering benefits for the regional economy or raising the region’s profile in Europe.
  3. The North-South divide continues to widen, increasing the case for a stronger regional voice and new powers to rectify the balance.

What is needed now is a commitment to the incremental development of regional authorities, starting in the North East, Yorkshire & the Humber and the North West with substantial devolution of powers from Whitehall over health, social services and education, universities and training, employment and regeneration, transport and planning, housing, waste management and the environment. It does not have to be a one-size fits all approach, any more than was devolution to the ‘nations’ of Scotland and Wales. London, of course, already has devolved government but needs a substantial increase in what powers are devolved to it.

This is the basis for a new constitutional settlement in England and the UK. It would provide a healthier basis for interaction with Scotland and Wales, for the development of the UK and for England; for government, democracy and parliament. Federalism may also prove a more attractive and durable offer to Scotland and Wales than Unionism.

And let’s hear no more nonsense about an English parliament.

This post first appeared in Jon Lansman’s blog Left Futures

Wales and the Brussels Summit

by Nick Davies

As is widely acknowledged, criticisms of Cameron’s negotiating skills at the Brussels summit in December rather missed the point. His priorities were to protect the interests of the City of London and the unity of the Tory party. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Tim Mitchell Top-table Blues

Brazenly dishonest, of course, was his claim to be acting in the ‘national interest’, when the interests of most of England, let alone the other nations of the UK, were notably absent from his concerns.

For Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, whatever Cameron’s priority, disengagement from the EU is not in the national interest of Wales: ‘I am seriously concerned about whether the interests of Wales can be advanced effectively by the UK government’.

In one sense, none of this is new. Wales has always been, at best, peripheral to the neo-liberal project. The last thirty years have put into sharp relief the divergence between the interests of the South East of England-based financial sector, and everything, and everywhere else.  The Tory party identification of itself with the ‘national interest’ is as old as the party itself and Euro-sceptic Tories from the south of England tend not to lose much sleep over the problems faced by Wales. By the same token, the EU has generally been more popular in Wales than in England, not least because of the strategic role played by European structural funding in compensating for the malign neglect of the Thatcher-Major years.

What has given this situation a new dynamic is the depth of the UK’s economic crisis, the total failure of Cameron and Osborne’s economic policies to alleviate it, the crisis in the Euro-zone and, last but not least, the continuing devolution process which sees an increasingly self-confident Welsh government refusing to be seen by the rest of Europe as merely a ‘region’ of the UK.

With some of the poorest communities in Western Europe and with over 26% of its working people employed in the public sector,Wales has already had to pay dearly and disproportionately for the greed of those 150 miles up the M4.  Wales has lost 13,000   public sector jobs  in the fifteen months since the coalition took office and the fear is that Wales’ manufacturing sector will lose out as a result of the UK’s semi-detachment from the EU, the destination of  about half of Wales’ exports. The collapse of the Euro zone into low, or no-growth austerity (and the consequent increase in the value of sterling as against the euro) will make a bad situation much worse, threatening the 54,000 private sector jobs with EU based companies in Wales.

The Welsh government’s response to the Cameron ‘veto’ has  been a declared intention to seek stronger ties with the EU and, for the first time, Welsh government ministers are  attending meetings of the EU’s General Affairs Council.

However, the EU in its present form is no safe haven for Wales. The ‘fiscal compact’ that Cameron refused  to sign up to, albeit for his own reasons, modifies the Lisbon treaty with a requirement that Euro-zone states’ budgets be balanced or in surplus and that this provision be incorporated into the various states’ legal systems. Thus deficit budgeting,  the  traditional Keynesian response to a recession, is virtually outlawed. Conversely, the austerity that is already taking  the Euro zone into a downward-spiral is set in stone, threatening jobs, public services and, if the bankers’ take-overs in Italy and Greece are any indication, democracy itself.

Since the 1970s many in the Welsh labour movement have abandoned the traditional hostility to the EU as a ‘bosses market’ and, notwithstanding its inherently free market nature, seen in ‘social Europe’, if not a more enlightened alternative to  the jungle of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, at least a place of safety from it. However bad the government might be in Westminster, European money would develop the economy of much of Wales, and the social chapter would act as a safeguard against super-exploitation.

After the Brussels summit that option seems no longer credible. More austerity is the last thing that Wales needs. However, a ‘left’ anti-EU stance, simply reverting to the ‘Get Britain Out’  position of the 1970s, risks getting caught in the slipstream of the  raucous, well-funded and totally reactionary Euro-scepticism of UKIP, the Tory right and the Daily Express, which sees the ‘repatriation’ of powers as a means of racking up the level of exploitation in the workplace.

Welsh Labour, instead of  simply seeking refuge in the EU must, along with other socialist, green and progressive nationalist movements across Europe, act as an agent of radical change and aim to transform the European Union so that it operates no longer for the benefit of the bankers, speculators and profiteers but is instead based on social justice, equality, democracy, international solidarity and the protection of our environment.

Nick Davies, writing personally, is Chair of Welsh Labour Grassroots and is a local council candidate for Labour in Swansea.

This article also appears in the February issue of Labour Briefing

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Clear red water over public sector pay cap

by Ed Jacobs

The Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones has distanced himself from Ed Miliband’s public support for a pay cap in the public sector, concluding that it is unfair to expect public sector workers to face the pain of such cuts in the midst of an economic slump caused by the banks.

Miliband last week faced widespread union anger over his decision to endorse the government’s policy of a one per cent pay cap, a moment dubbed by the FT as the Labour leader’s “Clause IV” moment.

However, it is now apparent that it is not just the unions that are unhappy at the stance being taken on pay.

Speaking to journalists at the first in a regular series of monthly press conferences, Carwyn Jones was clear in his attempts to establish clear red water between him and London, concluding:

“I think it’s absolutely crucial that people see that those who are paid the most in financial services, those who the public believe were responsible for our current economic difficulties, pay their fair share as well.

“I don’t believe that this is being done and as a result I think it’s very difficult to say to those who work in the public sector, who didn’t cause the economic difficulties, that we have to bear the brunt of pay cuts when it isn’t happening in those sectors which are more appropriate.”

Meanwhile, as Alex Salmond is today expected to argue in the annual Hugo Young Lecture in London that England would benefit from Scotland gaining independence, his Welsh counterpart went on during his press conference to call for a much bigger, less Scotland centred debate about the future of the Union.

Against a backdrop of yesterday’s IPPR  report pointing to an English “backlash” against the devolved nations and the establishment last week of the UK government’s commission on the West Lothian question, Jones argued:

“It’s attractive to say ‘English votes for English laws’, but where does it leave us, for example, in terms of the EU where at the moment an English agriculture minister casts a vote on behalf of the whole UK on agricultural policy?

“So there are wider questions that need to be considered and that is the way in which the UK government wishes to go.

It’s not in the UK’s interests to see the debate on devolution taking place mainly in the context of Scotland but also in quite in an incoherent way, in a way that’s not particularly joined up. I think there needs to be a more consistent approach for the good of the UK.”

Pressed about whether he was advocating a federal UK, Jones continued:

The UK is quasi-federal now, and if the West Lothian commission decides on ‘English votes for English laws’ then that’s where we will be, in a situation of federalism.

“Now what we need to is to look at how we can make the UK into an entity where there is stability, of course, but also to make sure in a post-devolution world the UK functions as a state where responsibilities of different governments are clearer.”

This article first appeared on the blog Left Foot Forward and is reproduced with permission.

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