Welsh Labour had a leadership contest. At a time of global crisis, from the economy to the very future of the planet, the contest could have been a platform for discussing big ideas about the kind of society we need and taking socialist arguments to a mass audience in the poorest country in the UK.
Yet the contest appeared to attract little interest from the wider public, largely seeming an internal party affair, pointing to a deep malaise in Wales after two decades of Labour leadership. For those of us on the left to pretend all is rosy is dangerous. In Wales, almost one in three households will be on Universal Credit when fully implemented and already nearly a quarter of us live in poverty If the left, in word and deed, does not speak to the depths of the social emergency in Wales with radical solutions then darker forces could fill the vacuum.
Labour’s leadership contest attracted little interest even from Labour members and affiliated unions. Of 175,000 people eligible to vote only 21780 did (12.4%). Almost 90% didn’t bother. Almost half of Labour members didn’t bother to vote in their own party leadership contest. Around 94% of people in Labour-affiliated groups including unions didn’t use their vote. These figures might suggest even Labour and rank and file union members found this contest uninspiring.
On a UK level Corbyn’s insurgent outsider leadership campaign resulted in Labour becoming the biggest social democratic party in Europe. There are no reports of people joining Labour to support Mark Drakeford, our new First Minister. If Welsh Labour leadership candidates cannot even inspire many Labour members to vote for any of them then it’s difficult to see how they can inspire a wider Welsh fightback against Tory austerity.
The starting point for understanding Drakeford must be the opening of his leadership manifesto, where he accepts all the restrictions Welsh Government works under from under Tory austerity, neoliberalism and corporations:
“We need to be clear about the part which the Welsh Government can, and cannot, play in economic development. Our economy operates in the context of powerful, global market forces, the fiscal strategy of the UK government and the regulation – or otherwise – of supra national companies and institutions.”
While he adds, “we in Wales are far from powerless”, the general tone of his leadership campaign was there is some tiny room for manoeuvre, but all we can really do is just wait till the next general election.
There is no sense of how the Welsh government under a socialist leadership could become an organising centre mobilising the mass democratic forces in Wales like never before to contest the Tory government on every front, or how hemmed in on all sides by those forces which prevent a socialist agenda going forward we might use all possible power to push back.
There is no sense of Welsh government using devolved powers to the maximum. For example, Britain has the highest private rents in Europe, the Welsh Government has the power to introduce rent controls, a kind of minimum wage for tenants, yet this is not even part of the debate. Particularly disturbing was no pledge to implement the Welsh Labour Conference’s vote to reinstate the Welsh Independent Living Grant.
Environmentalists also have noted evasion over the M4 proposals as, rather than openly oppose it, Drakeford hid behind talk of waiting to hear back from committees. His nuclear power ‘scepticism’ apparently falls short of actually opposing Wylfa.
Elsewhere Bernie Sanders said of another leadership contest, “This was not going to be a typical campaign. It was not just about electing a candidate. It was the building of a movement”. While in Spain, the left has a slogan – ‘one foot in the institutions, a thousand on the streets’ – to describe a ballot box/social movement strategy that recognises to uproot neoliberalism needs a movement of millions not a conventional electoral strategy.
Imagine a Welsh Government that was an activist government not only supporting extra-parliamentary movements, but actually building them. A Welsh government dedicated to challenging not managing austerity, where the First Minister was more likely to be seen on helping to distribute free food and clothes to rough sleepers on the streets of Cardiff than in closed meetings in Cardiff Bay. A socialist would relentlessly use the platform of First Minister to dramatise in the most creative ways possible the damage austerity is doing to our communities and give voice to the victims, acting as a megaphone for grassroots struggles of workers, poor and oppressed in Wales.
While Drakeford is promoted by some as a Corbyn-supporter, to most people he appears a senior insider from a mediocre Carwyn Jones administration who never rocked the boat and, as Finance Minister, has been the Welsh agent for Tory austerity.
The Welsh Labour Left turning the Corbyn project into tailing Julie Morgan, Drakeford or whatever middle-of-the-road politician is the best available option and pretending they are far more left wing than they in reality are has been disastrous, slowing down the growth of a new socialist current in Welsh Labour that emerged in 2015.
A better approach would be to draw up a socialist programme for Wales and what we might want from a socialist First Minister then measure each of the leadership candidates against it.
One could have then said, of the three available candidates we will support Drakeford as most aligned with what we want but also be publicly clear about the limitations of what he is offering.
This would have been a critical vote that also exerted pressure on him from the left, showed the Labour Left has a distinct political line and strengthened the socialist current within Welsh Labour.
Hundreds of people turned up to Corbyn rallies in Wales energised by a transformative message against austerity, war, racism, fascism, poverty, environmental destruction, that unlike Miliband or Drakeford or other centrists was direct and spoke to the crisis. It is likely that sustaining that radicalisation is something more likely to happen outside Labour than within it.
Though there are small signs of hope within Welsh Labour. Islwyn Labour Party recently passed a motion demanding “Labour Councillors do not vote for any council proposals that may result in service cuts, job losses or privatisation, and instead that they demand that the Welsh Government truly mobilize the public to ensure the Westminster Government provide them with the money needed to adequately provide services” building “a wider campaign beyond the council that draws in trade unions, service user and pressure groups, as well as anti-austerity campaigns like People’s Assembly, in order to engage the community in a wider fight back against Conservative Party Austerity programmes.”
Sadly Drakeford has little relationship with extra-parliamentary politics in Wales. Remember that big anti-austerity protest when Drakeford was marching on the street? Remember that strike for better pay and conditions when Drakeford visited your picket line? Me, neither.
Earlier this year his former workplace, Cardiff University, was on strike over four weeks with weekly mass rallies of 500-1000 people as part of a strike that became about resisting the neoliberal takeover of education. Many Labour politicians visited. Adam Price, now Plaid leader, visited. Mark Drakeford did not. One gets the impression most Welsh Government ministers feel publicly supporting grassroots struggles as somehow beneath them.
Drakeford calls himself an ‘internationalist’ but in all his time as an AM is there a single public statement on any international issue except Brexit? Britain bombing the Middle East? Nothing. Israel shooting down unarmed protesters earlier this year? Nothing. Saudi pilots trained in Wales? Nothing.
Last year he even refused to condemn Spain using rubber bullets against voters in Catalonia as ‘a matter of principle’ because the Welsh Government was not responsible for foreign affairs.
The ‘non-devolved issue’ line was previously used by Rhodri Morgan to justify fence-sitting over the Iraq War, and seems unique to Welsh Labour: Alex Salmond, as Scottish First Minister, and Ken Livingstone, as London Mayor, had no problems speaking on anti-war marches.
The line was used again by Labour AMs including Drakeford to justify voting down a motion for our Assembly to oppose nuclear weapons. Yet Scottish Labour joined forces with the SNP to commit the Scottish Parliament to oppose Trident.
If under Labour in the 1980s the GLC could host a “Peace Year” and lay the ground for the Northern Ireland peace process through engaging with Irish republicanism while pushing forward populist left wing policies such as slashing bus and tube fares, and in the same era every Welsh council could declare itself as a ‘nuclear-free zone’ making Wales the first country world to become symbolically a nuclear-free zone, why cannot Drakeford’s administration place socialism and international solidarity at the heart of Welsh politics?
From Aid to Spain in the 1930s to the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980s, Wales has a proud tradition of internationalism. Many of us would like to see a Welsh government opposing the establishment on war, nuclear weapons, arms industries, Palestine that sides with anti-austerity struggles across Europe and insurgencies of the poor in the global South, while fanning the flames of revolt here.
With no socialist First Minister on offer, a new socialist movement must be built in Wales to make this vision possible.
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