Mark Drakeford will be forgiven for thinking that, as baptisms of fire go, he could have had an easier one. Apart from dealing with the noxious effects of Brexit, which involve threats to our economy and our devolution settlement, a Drakeford government will need to address a series of momentous policy challenges.
Everyone will have their own list of policy priorities. My own list would include the following: the need to shift our healthcare services from a treatment culture to a prevention culture, in part by integrating health and social care; the need to boost the supply of affordable housing; the need to put further and higher education funding on a more sustainable footing; the need to decarbonise economy and society; and, in the very short term, the need to resolve the M4 relief road saga.
Mark Drakeford’s priorities for government were clearly set out in his manifesto for the Labour leadership campaign. Running through all the policy domains was a clear and robust political commitment to social justice. If this was most evident in the chapters on child poverty and looked-after children, the commitment to social justice was also apparent in the chapters on the economy, especially the foundational economy, where the new First Minister signalled his determination to use “every lever we have” to make Wales a more equal, fair and just society.
Fine words butter no parsnips, so what can a Drakeford government do to realise his vision of 21st century socialism? Let’s take three examples of how a Drakeford government can make a difference.
First, the public sector in Wales spends £6 billion annually on goods, services and works and we urgently need to deploy this money more effectively. Community benefit clauses should be routinely used to boost skill sets in our most deprived areas. Ethical public procurement should ensure that big firms are not allowed to bully their smaller suppliers through late payment, a problem that destroys some 50,000 firms a year in the UK according to the FSB. The Drakeford manifesto recognised that the public procurement profession needs better skills and higher status if Wales is to tap the potential of the power of purchase.
Second, Mark Drakeford is personally committed to the co-production approach, where government works in concert with its key partners. But co-production needs to begin with the Welsh Government itself, especially within the Cabinet, because to date ministers have been allowed to do their own thing. With a more cohesive administration, the Welsh Government can be a more effective partner for the range of intermediaries with whom it works in the private, public and civil sectors.
Co-production offers a double dividend: it will produce more effective policy outcomes and it will help Welsh Government cope with its horrendous capacity constraints, a problem exacerbated by Brexit. But to tap the potential of co-production, the civil service will need to become less centralist and more porous in working with external partners such as housing associations and universities for example. As Steve Thomas said in his valedictory address, the devolution train needs to leave the Cardiff station.
Thirdly, through all its policies, a Drakeford government needs to do more to ensure that good practice becomes the norm not the exception in the Welsh public sector. Wales is knee-deep in policies with good intentions, but good practice has been a bad traveller. Too often in the past 20 years Welsh Government has treated leaders and laggards the same, with the result that there are no consequences for poor performance, and this is very evident in the field of public procurement for example. A Drakeford government should strongly discriminate in favour of good practice when it dispenses grants and loans.
Will the fourth First Minister inaugurate a new style of politics? My colleague Professor Roger Awan Scully has said that Mark Drakeford is “the clearest example of Corbynism in practice”. But we should be wary of judging new leaders through the prism of the old.
It’s true that Mark Drakeford has aligned himself with Corbyn, especially on Brexit, but it would be wrong to see him merely as a Celtic Corbynista because this suggests that he passively takes his cues from Jeremy Corbyn, when the truth is that he has charted his own brand of socialist policies, not least in prudent healthcare, child poverty and ethical procurement.
Closer to home the comparisons will be with Carwyn Jones, his predecessor. Whereas Carwyn was intellectually inscrutable, Mark’s political philosophy is more readily apparent. I hope and believe he will make the machinery of government more cohesive, more effective and more porous. This will help it to shed its command and control style and adopt a more experimental and interactive style of governance in which it seeks to work in concert with its partners to find joint solutions to common problems in the spirit of co-production.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?
We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.
We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.
To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.
Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.