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Is Welsh Labour Turning Blue?

By Dave Reid

In 2003 Rhodri Morgan Welsh Labour First Minister proclaimed that his government was creating “clear red water” between it and Blair’s New Labour government in Westminster. The Welsh Labour brand was launched as a distinct banner from Blairism or ‘British’ Labour. Welsh Labour in government was charting its own course distinct from New Labour.

Proponents of the Clear Red Water doctrine on the left pointed to the abandonment of PFI and privatisation of public services; the effective abolition of tuition fees for Welsh university students; the refusal of many Blairite policies such as school academies or foundation hospitals and instead of a dismissive attitude to trade unions Welsh Labour would promote partnership between government, employers and unions.

Socialist Party Wales always took the view that the clear red water was very murky indeed. Welsh Labour had leant to the left under the hot breath of opposition on its neck especially in its valley heartlands expressed by a swing to Plaid Cymru who were posing as a left alternative to Blairism. We argued that in reality Welsh Labour espoused Blairism with a reddish tinge – for example, there might be no academy schools but schools are still semi-independent of local authority control and competing for students and resources.

The election of the austerity-driven Con Dem government at Westminster in 2010 should have made the policy difference between Wales and England appear even wider. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party some on the left hoped it would push Welsh Labour further to the left.

But instead there has been a steady drift to the right under Carwyn Jones as the Welsh Labour government has dutifully implemented Tory austerity and increasingly privatised services. Many of the progressive social and education policies implemented by the Morgan governments have been undermined by austerity and Blairite policies.

Rail Privatisation

The latest Tory policy from Welsh Labour has been the re-privatisation of rail services in the Wales and Border franchise. New powers over transport have been devolved to the Welsh government that gave it control over the £5B franchise which came up for re-tendering this year. Expectations were high that Welsh Labour would implement one of Jeremy Corbyn’s key policies: the re-nationalisation of rail franchise by franchise (the rail tracks and stations are already publicly owned by National Rail) and Transport For Wales (TFW) would take over the running of the Wales and Borders franchise.

Last August, however, Ken Skate, the Welsh transport minister announced that the devolved powers over rail were not sufficient to allow the Welsh government to bring the system under public control, but further, the government would carry out the Tory policy of privatising the tracks and stations by handing them over to the private train operating company that won the franchise bid.

In August Mick Cash general secretary of the RMT slammed Transport For Wales: “The meeting was a sham as it was blatantly obvious to me that a decision had already been taken to give the private sector the South Wales Valley lines… I am staggered to find that it is a Welsh Labour government that is privatising Network Rail’s infrastructure and is acquiescing with a Westminster Tory government in the piecemeal privatisation and break up of Network Rail.”

The chair of Transport For Wales is Nick Gregg, a former executive of Amey, one of the two corporations in the consortium that won the franchise bid organised by Transport For Wales.

The Welsh government is claiming that it does not have the power to nationalise rail services but it does have the power to privatise the infrastructure! It is absolutely clear that Welsh Labour did nothing to fight for re-nationalisation of rail but was only too happy to re-privatise the infrastructure. In 2016, at the same time that the Welsh government gained limited powers over rail, the Scottish government won full powers to provide a publicly-owned service – why did the Carwyn Jones government not fight for the same powers?

A Welsh government determined to carry through nationalisation would have fought for the necessary powers to carry it through, mobilising a mass campaign of rail users, trade unions, environmentalists and local councils. It would have been enormously popular as the ageing rail service is universally reviled and people are desperate for change. In the UK as a whole over 70% consistently support rail nationalisation – in one poll in Wales nearly 90% supported it. It would have been very difficult for a weak Tory government to have resisted such a campaign.

Even under the current arrangements the Welsh government could have framed the specifications of the franchise in such a stringent way that the private operating companies would not want to bid for them because there would not have been enough profit in the deal. In effect they would have walked away from the deal before it was signed. This would have allowed the possibility of an East Coast line scenario in advance – the Tory government has been forced to take over the running of the East Coast rail line because the franchisees, Stagecoach and Virgin, walked away from the contract.

While the Scottish SNP government has at least fought to return powers from the EU to Edinburgh instead of to Westminster, the Welsh Labour government has timidly accepted the more limited powers it has been given, which leaves open a possible power grab by the Tory government over development funds, transport, agriculture and fisheries and certain aspects of health and education. While EU restrictions on public ownership and other areas will be removed they could be replaced by similar restraints by Westminster.

Dutifully cutting services

The Welsh Labour leadership are very relaxed about these controls that give them ready-made excuses for not carrying out public ownership and anti-austerity policies. But this please-sir-can-I-have-some-more approach to the Tory government is not an isolated event. In the last eight years it has meekly implemented Tory spending cuts to Welsh public services cutting over 20% of public spending in Wales in real terms.

Welsh hospital services were being closed even before the Tories took the axe to them in England and the closures have continued ever since. The NHS proposals are framed around the idea that there are certain objective forces that are inevitable and the health service must be configured around these inevitable forces – an ageing population, an increased demand for health services and “scarce resources” i.e. spending cuts. But of course, as Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out, these cuts are not inevitable they are a political decision. So too is the decision to cave into spending cuts and implement an entirely re-configured health service to match Tory spending priorities.

The failure to fight austerity is continued in the policy on social care. Like the rest of the UK social care is in crisis. With an ageing population we desperately need a publicly-owned care sector that is decently funded from general taxation. Socialist Party Wales would support increasing spending on social care by taxing big corporations and the rich. The big private care homes should be taken over and returned to council ownership and control. Instead health minister, Vaughan Gething, is proposing that everyone will have to pay a social care levy, which in turn would be turned over to private care home companies. This is in effect a tax, and probably a regressive tax at that, which will mean people on low incomes will have to pay a much greater share of income towards social care than the rich.

The whole ethos of Welsh Labour is to accept austerity as a given and to rearrange public services accordingly. The leadership has completely accepted the Tory argument that there is no alternative to cutting services and the best that can be hoped for is that Welsh Labour cuts services more humanely than the Tories. The government even tries to pretend that cuts are actually an improvement in services.

The icing on the cake was the secret welcome Carwyn Jones gave to the re-naming of the Second Severn Crossing to the Prince of Wales Bridge. The Tories announced it with no consultation with people in Wales except secretly with Carwyn Jones who welcomed it. This craven crawling to the Tories and the royals has epitomised the new approach of Welsh Labour.

The passive passing on of Tory policies to Wales is in part because at the heart of the current administration is a Blairite belief in the operation of the market in public services and a disdain for policies of public ownership. Increasingly, English-style league tables, testing and competition has been creeping back into school education undermining the success of the foundation phase primary education introduced by Jane Davidson in the first Morgan administration.

Leadership election

Carwyn Jones has announced that he will be stepping aside in December. So will Welsh Labour swing back to the left? The election of a new leader of Welsh Labour following the resignation of Carwyn Jones offers an opportunity for the Labour left to change the direction of Welsh Labour at least towards Corbynist policies. The candidate supported by Welsh Labour Grassroots (the Welsh arm of Momentum) is Mark Drakeford who as chief advisor to Rhodri Morgan was an architect of the Clear Red Water strategy and supported the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016.

He is favourite to replace Jones, but it is a forlorn hope that Drakeford will carry out even the limited policies of Jeremy Corbyn in Wales. He has said that he wants to “lean to the left” rather than “lurch to the left”. As finance minister he has accepted that austerity is inevitable and diligently implemented the biggest cut in public spending in the history of Wales. Health campaigners remember that as health secretary he carried out the massive A&E closure programme that forces emergency patients to travel long distances in ambulances (if one can be found).

Unfortunately the Welsh Labour leadership has been allowed to get away with these policies by the UK leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has remained silent on the cuts carried out by Welsh Labour, even extolling the example of the Welsh Labour government while it carries out policies that are the exact opposite of those that mobilised thousands of people in Wales to vote for him as leader and to defend him from the coup organised by Pontypridd MP Owen Smith who carried the overwhelming support of Welsh Labour MPs and AMs.

Welsh Labour Grassroots refuses to call for the re-selection of MPs and AMs and has acted as a cheerleader to the Welsh Labour leadership. Corbyn supporters have been discouraged from making waves inside the Labour Party and have been demobilised. Many of the most active are considering leaving the party.

If Mark Drakeford wins the Welsh election will Welsh Labour lean back to the left away from the Tory-lite policies of the Carwyn Jones era? Well, there may be cosmetic changes to some of the policies and the leader’s nominee to the NEC of the Labour Party might change. However Drakeford has given no indication that he will change Welsh Labour’s uncritical implementation of Tory austerity in Wales.

And of course a verbal opposition by the Welsh government to austerity is not enough. To genuinely fight austerity a government is needed that proposes a practical fighting programme, refuses to carry out the cuts and mobilises working people in Wales and the rest of Britain to force the Tory government to back down or be forced from office.