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.