Body Language of Labour Contenders

Stevie Upton says tone trumps content in the Labour leadership manifestos

A month into the Welsh Labour leadership race and, with three weeks still to run, there’s little that hasn’t already been said about the contenders and their manifestos. Yet there is one element of the campaigns, not yet discussed to death, that has a significant bearing not only on how Party members will vote but more importantly on how Wales is governed once this contest is over. As is so often the case in politics, it’s not so much what the candidates are saying but the way that they’re saying it that makes the difference. This is not about style over substance, but about difference in tone and what this might tell us about the candidates’ probable leadership styles.

Comparing manifestos on policy content can often lead either to the conclusion that harmony reigns – many manifesto commitments fall into the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ category, after all – or to a detail-induced slough, from which it is hard to ascend to a view of the bigger picture. Certainly there are differences in the content and focus of each campaign: Edwina Hart commits herself to furthering Welsh Labour’s clear red water tradition – a commitment to a distinct ‘Welsh Way’ of ‘Voice not Choice’ in public service delivery that owes much to Andrew Davies’ central role in her campaign team.

On the other hand Carwyn Jones reaffirms his belief that “Welsh Labour is stronger as part of the Labour Party in the whole of Britain”. On the day that Carwyn revealed his aim to increase education spending by 1 per cent above the block grant, Huw Lewis was in Port Talbot to emphasise his commitment to manufacturing industry in Wales.

However, it’s in examining what we might term their ‘body language’ that we get a clearer sense of what each candidate stands for.

Edwina Hart’s vision for her leadership is one of continuity with Rhodri Morgan’s approach. In majoring on her past achievements across ten years as a Minister in the Assembly, her tone comes across as both positive and personal. Her manifesto focuses on the issues that would exercise her in power, but it is clear that she cannot – and nor does she try to – be disassociated from her, and her Party’s, past record.

Whilst steering clear of full-blown personality politics, this is a manifesto that makes it clear that a vote for Edwina would be, well, a vote for Edwina. She is a woman with a political record about which we already know a great deal. In fact, so closely is she tied to her past actions that a vote for Edwina might also be interpreted as a confidence vote in the work of Welsh Labour to date.

By contrast, Huw Lewis projects a rather more confrontational image. He wants us to know that he stands for traditional Welsh Labour values of change-making, challenging the status quo and providing a voice for the disenfranchised. He has watched the Party “let slip our grip on this heritage” and is, he claims, ready to reintroduce “radicalism” and “courage” to Labour politics. Thus whilst there is continuity with Labour values in the deepest sense, his is a message of change.

It sits rather oddly, then, that this apparently radical contender is to be found asking readers to “tell us what you think” about each and every issue discussed in his manifesto. Where Huw’s pledges to “attack” the economic downturn and “battle” against climate change promise a bold new leadership, there is a sense of insecurity in this repeated request. This mixed message is ultimately compounded by Huw’s rallying call to “let Labour be Labour” – not, perhaps, the most resounding call to arms.

And then there is Carwyn Jones. The relatively late publication of his manifesto, not to mention its slick style and the tagline “Time to Lead”, speaks of a contender confident in his ability to lead the Party and the nation. Everything points to this confidence, right down to the manifesto cover image of the man himself striding resolutely towards the camera.

Then, as one might expect of a former barrister, Carwyn comes across as someone with an eye for detail. Of all the manifestos, his contains the most specific commitments on future policy. Although both Edwina and Carwyn highlight past successes, the latter relies less heavily on these than on his future commitments. Given Welsh Labour’s recent poor polling, this is perhaps a shrewd move.

So we have Edwina, who stands for continuity and whose plans for Wales’ future will seemingly be deeply rooted in its past; Huw, who believes his radical vision will appeal to the grassroots, yet who also seeks the reassurance of consensus; and Carwyn, who portrays himself as rigorous, charismatic and, above all, a leader. Three very different personalities, three weeks to go…

Stevie Upton is Research Officer at the IWA.

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