Welsh Labour needs more than clear red water

David Taylor says that Welsh Labour is finally realising that public service reform is no longer an option but a necessity

There is a growing chasm emerging between the politics of post-devolution Wales and the rest of the UK. For one, Labour still rules. The 2010 general election results were better in Wales than other parts of Britain, with several marginal seats retained and the party emerging with nearly three-quarters of the representation even if its vote share was significantly down.

Similarly, in 2012 Labour won back control of the majority of local authorities in Wales: winning Cardiff, Swansea and Newport at the expense of the Liberal Democrats; Caerphilly from Plaid Cymru; Flintshire from independents; and the Vale of Glamorgan from the Conservatives. In doing so, it reversed a decade of decline for Labour in local government in Wales.

Between these two polls was the election of May 2011 when Labour climbed from 26 to 30 seats in the Welsh Assembly. The fact that the party took outright control of the Assembly that night, ditching its Plaid Cymru coalition partners of four years, was an interesting counterpoint to the Labour meltdown in Scotland happening at the same time.

Welsh Labour is now governing alone, though from time to time it makes deals with either Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats to secure key items on the floor of the assembly. No formal coalitions are likely but both parties are keen to work with Labour on key issues, not least Plaid Cymru under its new and radically leftwing leader, Leanne Wood.

Such an arrangement is very natural since the politics of Wales is now an effective centre-left counterpoint to England. The Welsh Government continues to be focused very firmly on demonstrating this. The Programme for Government in Wales is founded on three principles – social justice, sustainable development and ‘defending Wales’. The last does not indicate an ambitious programme of castle-building in the Welsh Marches, but rather an attempt to blunt and shape the impact of the Westminster government’s policies so they more closely reflect the choices made by the people of Wales at the ballot box.

So, Labour is performing well in Wales electorally if the last few outings are anything to go by, and the personal ratings of First Minister Carwyn Jones are high, higher even than his popular predecessor, Rhodri Morgan. This is in part due to his appeal in rural and Welsh-speaking communities, historically not Welsh Labour strongholds.

But Jones recognises that, as his government approaches its midterm, he needs to do more than rely on his popularity and political rhetoric. There are encouraging signs that the Welsh government now recognises the scale of the job that needs to be done in reforming public services. The emphasis Ministers are now giving to it is a tacit acceptance that for the first ten years of devolution Welsh Labour did not prioritise reform. Indeed, one of the consequences of the boom in spending during the Blair-Brown years was a virtual doubling of the Assembly block grant. In that context, if a problem ever arose in service delivery then it was easier to throw money at it than try and solve it.

In most policy areas there is now ‘clear red water’ between the approaches in Whitehall and Cardiff Bay. In education, divergence has seen the education maintenance allowance retained in Wales while being abolished in England and a recent sharp war of words between the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, and UK education secretary Michael Gove over proposed changes to pre-16 qualifications in England and over GCSE regrading. Andrews has also prioritised merging higher education institutions and has brought in Tony Blair’s former adviser, Robert Hill, to review how primary and secondary education is delivered in Wales and whether local education authorities are the most appropriate model, bearing in mind that 16 of them have had relatively poor educational assessments.

Andrews’ energy and vigour has been recognised in his winning the ‘Welsh politician of the year’ award two years in succession. His determination is clear, as is his desire for his record to be compared with that of Gove in England. It is the first time a Welsh minister has been so bold in gaining a Welsh agenda UK-wide prominence.

Less vocal but equally effective are some his cabinet colleagues. In health, Lesley Griffiths is putting safe and sustainable services at the heart of her reconfiguration plans. If in the past the Welsh Government has been guilty of avoiding change until services become dangerous and unusable, Griffiths is brave enough to drive through reform in the health service which, although politically contentious in many communities, places the focus on the best clinical outcomes for patients rather than the distance from their home.

After the Assembly elections in 2011, the First Minister made ‘delivery’ the watchword of how his new government should be judged. In doing so he implicitly admitted that previous Welsh administrations had not been impressive enough in the delivery of public services and outcomes. This emphasis is written through his administration like a word through a stick of Barmouth rock.

But Jones knows too well that demanding better delivery is one thing – achieving it is another. After all, it is other bodies, particularly local authorities, who can effect change. Local government Minister Carl Sargeant has awarded Welsh councils with a more generous settlement than Eric Pickles has delivered in England so that they are able to protect key services. In return he expects local government to collaborate to improve standards and reduce costs. He is now getting tough on a somewhat lackadaisical response to reform by top slicing their settlement and directing resources to collaborative cross-boundary working for local authorities.

Although Labour is in power in Cardiff Bay and in the majority of Welsh local authorities for the first time in the best part of a decade, one might expect the relationship with local government to have been rather more cosy since that election.

However, Sargeant has not stinted in his crusade to cut council bureaucracy and improve delivery. Sargeant, like his cabinet colleagues, clearly sees a link between collaboration and performance, and the publication this month of new service performance standards reinforces collaboration as a vital component in driving up quality across services which show ‘unacceptable’ wide variation. More interestingly, this document allows for a greater relationship between citizens and their elected representatives, bringing closer scrutiny of the performance in key service areas and it is here where the government may draw its ammunition in terms of compelling those authorities to work together.

After almost 14 years of devolved government, the mood music from Welsh Labour is, finally, that public service reform is no longer an option, but a necessity. The big challenge will now be the way in which Labour, not just at Cardiff Bay but in county halls throughout Wales, delivers it.

David Taylor is a former special adviser to Neath MP Peter Hain. This article originally appeared on the Progress New Labour website

6 thoughts on “Welsh Labour needs more than clear red water

  1. Sometimes I think that the only thing her friends and enemies agree about is that Leanne Wood is ‘Radically Left Wing.’ I don’t really see it myself. She’s left of centre certainly, but I can’t think of any of her proposals (apart from Independence obviously) which would have seemed out of place in a Labour or SDP/Lib Dem manifesto 20 or so years ago before those parties moved to the right.

    There is a lot here about how Welsh Labour sees the need for reform, but no specific reforms are listed, other than changing the relationship between local authorities and schools in some unspecified way. What reforms does the author believe that Welsh Labour will, or should carry out?

  2. This is a generally incisive article. But if Labour is supposedly “defending Wales”, why is it that yesterday at the European Parliament at Strasbourg the Labour MEP from Wales failed to vote against the EU budget cuts that would have a devastating effect on our country’s infrastructure? Labour, in its many guises, evidently lacks joined-up thinking.

  3. Fully agree with David’s comments ref Leanne Wood. Is being in favour of improving the economy and boosting the number of people in work radically left wing? If so, let’s be radically left wing! In a recent budget deal on the Welsh Government budget Plaid ensured that tens of millions of pounds was allocated towards apprenticeship schemes. A very succsssful scheme was initiated in Caerffili CBC by Plaid and has now given more than 200 young people valuable work experience. Plaid is now the conscience of the Labour Party. Labour used to have principles.

    Carwyn Jones too often seems very comfortable pointing towards Westminster and moaning. Responsbility for serious revenue raising as well as spending could bring a dose of reality to the situation.

    I fully agree that all public services should be as efficient as possible. They are spending OUR money. At the same time as well as Welsh Government ministers looking at the efficiency of councils they could do far worse than look at the efficiency and often bloated staffing levels existing under the guise of WG/WAG. Efficiency should begin at home!

    As for the health service there must be a balance between the needs of the NHS and patients. For example, in the case of the baby unit in North Wales being transferred to the Wirral I believe that this is a ridiculous decision and certainly not giving due regard to the accessibility needs of the families of babies who need that service or the babies themselves. There are now clear differences between the NHS in Wales and England and health organisation in England is often criticised by Welsh Labour. How can they then export such a sensitive service as this? Is clinical safety sometimes used as an excuse for other motives? The anser may well be ‘YES’.

  4. Judging by her career, political history, and the way she speaks about certain causes, Leanne Wood obviously is radically left-wing. But don’t underestimate her ability to have a wider appeal. Especially in Wales. Wales is a very conservative country in many ways, but people don’t seem to mind radicals. Equally though, Plaid Cymru has to realise Carwyn Jones has vast personal popularity. He is seen as an extremely reassuring and honest figure. He’s actually more popular than Rhodri Morgan was.

  5. I agree with Noel Thompson. Labour appear to be a very confused group, saying one thing here and another in Brussels.

  6. Noel Thompson is right. Labour is shouting about “saving Wales” from the Senedd, whilst they are selling Wales down the river at the European Parliament.

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