Peter Rowlands assesses prospects for a left Welsh Labour leader
The decision by Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Government’s First Minister (and since 2011 the most senior elected Labour politician in the UK), to stand down in the autumn, triggering an election for leader, heralds major changes in Welsh politics.
The electoral system to be used will not be determined until a special conference in September. This is because last year, in a controversial decision, the Welsh Executive ruled that the previous electoral college system be retained for the election of leader and deputy, despite the adoption UK wide and by Scotland of an OMOV system. An election for the deputy post, which did not previously exist, was held last autumn, under the old electoral college system. It was won by Carolyn Harris MP, despite her gaining fewer individual votes than her only competitor. Strong campaigning by the left against this result and for the adoption of OMOV ensued. This could well now happen as there have been some union changes of view.
The election of a new leader is significant in that it could mark a change of direction for Labour in Wales if the candidate of the left, Mark Drakeford, is elected. This is more likely to happen if OMOV is adopted, but could well be the case even if the electoral college system is retained. Drakeford, formally an advisor to previous leader Rhodri Morgan, was elected in 2011 and has been seen as the leading figure on the left since then. He has (early August) 13, or almost half, of the current AMs supporting him, probably reflecting his capability and experience as well as his ideological outlook.
Jones’s resignation, although he may have been thinking of standing down anyway, was undoubtedly strongly influenced by Carl Sergeant, a Welsh Government minister, taking his own life following his suspension after unspecified allegations against him last autumn.
There were concerns expressed over Jones’s failure to follow proper procedures, although he was cleared of this, but there is to be an inquiry into the whole affair, which is yet to take place. In February Sargeant’s son was elected to replace him, openly with the aim of seeking justice for his father which he and his family do not accept has occurred. It was barely surprising therefore that Jones announced that he would be standing down this autumn.
The general view on the left in Wales is that Welsh Labour has drifted to the right since Jones took over from Rhodri Morgan in 2009, with lesser concern about maintaining ‘clear red water’ between themselves and what were to shortly be Tory governments, and a lack of enthusiasm for the Corbyn leadership. In particular there was a capitulation to central government over education, with an effective return to banding and league tables. The advent of Drakeford as leader could well reverse this trend, which is certainly what the left is looking for.
Having said that Wales, along with Scotland, can be seen as a beacon of hope in those areas it has control over, compared to England. There are no academies, free schools or grammar schools in Wales, where schools are run by local authorities. The NHS in Wales has free prescriptions, free hospital parking and controls and administers the service.
But political upheaval has not been confined to the Labour Party in Wales. In fact except for the Lib-Dems, all parties represented in the Assembly are undergoing leadership contests. UKIP has elected the nastiest of their bunch of five AMs, although at least they refused to reinstate the egregious Hamilton.
It is the contest in Plaid Cymru that is of most interest to the left, where Leanne Wood, leader for six years, has tried to establish a left wing Welsh nationalist party with support beyond the traditional Welsh speaking areas in the North and West. In this she has been partially successful, as her stunning victory against the Labour AM in Rhondda in 2016 demonstrated, but it has not been enough. Many on the left in Wales admire Wood, but real nationalism (not to be confused with ’Rugby Nationalism’) is just not a strong enough force in Wales, and Plaid is in danger of slipping back to being a primarily rural party whose concerns are mainly cultural.
There are huge problems in Wales, particularly in health, which it is now clear is grossly underfunded, Local Government, requiring a smaller number of larger authorities, education, environment, employment and more. But the prospect of a new and more radical political leadership gives hope to finding left wing solutions to these problems, notwithstanding UK-wide change.