Steve Howell reflects on Mark Drakeford’s approach to governing Wales
It says a lot about Mark Drakeford that he met Jeremy Corbyn within days of becoming Wales’s First Minister – but not just in the obvious sense that the two men are political bedfellows.
Indeed, I’m sure they had much more pressing things to discuss than how they both cut their teeth in the battles of the Thatcher era or kept clear red water between themselves and Tony Blair.
Corbyn knows he’s tantalisingly close to the chance of another general election. Drakeford is acutely aware that he needs Labour to win power at Westminster if he is to deliver, in full, his radical agenda for Wales. As Cabinet Secretary for Finance under Carwyn Jones, he had to try to mitigate the effects of a cumulative reduction in block grant to Wales of around £6 billion since 2010.
That’s why, with more Tory austerity in the pipeline, and Brexit threatening to derail the economy, Drakeford didn’t campaign for the Welsh Labour leadership on a manifesto brimming with spending promises. Instead, his strategy is high on energy and guile. He has promised to “push the boundaries of the Assembly’s powers” and “to use every day we have, and every lever we have, to make Wales a more equal, fair and just society”.
It is a paradox of current politics that older leaders from the left are often in more of a hurry to deliver change than younger ones schooled in the mainstream. When you are in the later stages of a political career, you are not likely to waste time once given the chance to implement ideas you have passionately held since your youth.
And Drakeford knows the levers available to the Welsh Government better than most. His 40-page manifesto contains 173 specific policy proposals with a strong emphasis on changing the way the government uses its powers and resources to achieve outcomes that match his goals. Procurement will operate on a ‘something for something’ basis to secure payment of the real living wage and build local ‘foundational’ economic capacity. The Development Bank for Wales will deliver ‘patient capital’ to keep successful firms locally rooted. Planning powers will be used to make sustainable transport infrastructure ‘a fundamental requirement for new development’.
These tools will be applied within the overall framework of what Drakeford calls ‘a common partnership for inclusive growth’. This has two key elements: firstly, a strategy for the economy that looks to create the conditions for shared prosperity by focusing on investing in skills and infrastructure, both digital and physical; and, secondly, the promotion of a Social Partnership Bill to put ethical employment and trade union rights at the centre of the Welsh Government’s economic policy.
The radicalism of Drakeford’s agenda runs right through all the policy areas where the National Assembly has devolved powers. His housing agenda includes legislation to give tenants greater security in the private rented sector, action to tackle land banking and the appointment of a Cabinet level housing minister, already implemented with Julie James in the role. On social care, he promises to meet Labour’s existing manifesto commitment to raise the capital limit for people in residential care and to ‘re-energise’ efforts to create co-operative suppliers of care services, bringing them back ‘closer to the public realm’.
Drakeford’s personal passions are, however, most strongly expressed in the sections of his manifesto on energy and child poverty. On the former, he places renewables centre stage, saying Wales has in abundance ‘the raw material for the sustainable energy of the future: wind, water and waves’. Specific pledges include a continued commitment to tidal lagoon technology, the maintenance of a ban on fracking and examination of the case for a new Welsh Energy mutual to promote local power generation and encourage energy efficiency. The manifesto’s chapter on child poverty describes it as ‘a major, but largely hidden scandal of our times’ caused by ‘deliberate policies’ pursued by the Tories at Westminster. While acknowledging the Welsh Government ‘does not have the levers to change the fundamental drivers of poverty’, the manifesto says he won’t let ‘the search for the perfect drive out the possible’ and pledges to expand the School Holiday Fun and Food programme, invest new money in extending free school meals, pilot a ‘Baby Bundle’ scheme and legislate to remove children leaving care from paying council tax.
Taken together, the manifesto is a comprehensive programme for radical change. But, while there is no doubting Drakeford’s desire to ‘re-energise’ the Welsh Government, there are two thorny questions that could soak up a lot of his time in the early part of 2019.
The first is the outcome of the public inquiry into building an M4 relief road. By handing the transport brief to Lee Waters, a staunch advocate of prioritising sustainable transport over road investment, Drakeford has raised expectations that he will come out against the new M4. However, Waters will not be involved in the M4 decision and Drakeford has stressed that, as First Minister, he has to be “careful because there is a legal process” which requires him to demonstrate that he read the inquiry’s findings and took legal and financial advice before making a decision.
The second thorny question is the pressure on the NHS in Wales after eight years of austerity. Wales will continue to invest more per person on health and social services than England and will retain its commitment to the NHS being both publicly funded and publicly provided. However, NHS funding on both sides of the border is still lagging behind the level Labour would like to see, and it is on this issue more than any other that change of government at Westminster would be met with a huge cheer in the First Minister’s office.
Drakeford’s desire to see Welsh Labour working shoulder to shoulder with Corbyn therefore has very practical implications in terms of what he can achieve in his new role – and this, no doubt, was foremost in his mind as he travelled to London just before Christmas to see the UK Labour leader.
Steve Howell is author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.
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