Liz Silversmith looks at how a Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, would play in Wales.
There’s less than a month to go until Labour’s much anticipated ‘Special Conference’ when the new Leader and Deputy Leader are announced. It’s looking likely to be Jeremy Corbyn, with either Tom Watson or Stella Creasy as his Deputy. The decision Welsh Labour has to make is whether to embrace Corbyn or distance themselves.
For want of a better term, Wales is a more ‘left wing nation’ than others. We have a higher level of poverty and disability, creating more need for in-work benefits and more reliance on the NHS; a high level of public sector employment and a much more left-of-centre set of political parties, to the point where there is almost an unspoken pact between two of the largest parties that they would never let the Welsh Conservatives into power. And of course, Welsh Labour has been returned to the Assembly as the largest party for four elections in a row, despite the regional list seat system making this more difficult than in England.
So could Corbyn find an ally in Welsh Labour? He has four ‘official’ supporters in Mike Hedges AM, Mick Antoniw AM and Christine Chapman AM (although she will be stepping down in 2016). He also now has Mark Drakeford AM, the Minister for Health and Social Services, and a generally well respected figure in the party. There are also 9 CLPs (out of 21 that nominated candidates) who endorsed Corbyn.
It’s no great surprise that Corbyn is gathering this support, as Welsh Labour does tend to position itself as a more left-wing party than UK Labour. The famous ‘clear red water’ is shown in Welsh Government policies that actually mirror much of Corbyn’s proposed manifesto. Corbyn argues for a National Education Service that would support adult lifelong learning; the Welsh Government has been quite interventionist in terms of supporting post-16 education, by keeping tuition fees capped at £3,685 and directly paying employers to offer apprenticeships and more vocational jobs with Jobs Growth Wales.
Another Corbyn policy is to renationalise rail, gas and the National Grid. This doesn’t mean that the government would necessarily buy out the companies, but perhaps ensure the public are shareholders for example, so the majority shareholder is a public body and therefore under government control. In Wales, Economy Minister Edwina Hart has said Welsh rail should be run by a not-for-profit firm from 2018, when the franchise with Arriva Trains expires. Both Labour and Plaid Cymru have also spoken in favour of a publicly-owned Welsh energy company.
So in terms of policy, there’s a lot in common between Corbyn and the Welsh Government. In terms of voters, Corbyn could prove popular with many Plaid and Labour voters alike. Interestingly, Corbyn is also particularly popular with UKIP voters with 39% backing him. This actually makes him technically more popular with disillusioned UKIP voters than Labour, with only 38% of Labour voters supporting him. So those who think that he only attracts the young, optimistic, would-be-Greens should think again.
If Corbyn is leader in September, this puts the Assembly election in an interesting light. First on his to do list would be to coordinate campaigns for May 2016. He’s got a Scottish Labour party to revive and a fight in Wales to give Labour the majority it desperately wants so it is not forced into a coalition with Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats.
To do this, Corbyn will have to create a strong position on devolution and decide what to argue for at PMQs. Scotland has been the feature piece in this Parliament so far, due to the SNP’s activity and sheer numbers. Welsh Labour MPs on the other hand focus less on devolution matters and seem to leave this to the Plaid MPs to raise. If Corbyn wants to win over Wales and help drive Welsh Labour over the line, he needs to have a concrete position on what he thinks ought to be in the upcoming Wales Bill.
I suspect that Corbyn will actually seek to have a close relationship with Welsh Labour, as he could use the next Assembly term as something akin to a template of how a left-wing Labour party governs with more powers in Wales. Particularly with policies like no free schools, capped tuition fees, a ban on fracking and the removal of the Right to Buy; these are far closer to the kind of manifesto he would want to write.
In order to get Wales and Welsh Labour on side, Corbyn needs to build alliances. These needn’t start and end within the party; in order to build a majority for 2020, Corbyn will also need to build support with Plaid Cymru, Green and UKIP voters.
In short, Corbyn could win Welsh voters’ hearts, if he builds a bridge across that clear red water.
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