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Rhodri Morgan dies aged 77

The death of Rhodri Morgan, the ex-First Minister of Wales, has been met with shock and not a little sadness amongst working people in Wales. ‘Rhodri’ was known affectionately simply by his first name as the affable and eccentric First Minister who led the development of the Welsh Assembly and effectively the first Welsh government. More significantly he was the pioneer of the Welsh Labour project, creating the brand that claimed to put “clear red water” between the Labour Party in Wales and New Labour led by Blair and Brown at Westminster. Welsh Labour is now busily distancing itself from Corbyn Labour in London even in the middle of a UK general election. Welsh Labour is Rhodri’s most enduring legacy that reflects his political ideas. The affection with which Rhodri Morgan is regarded is as much about the political conjuncture that he governed in as his somewhat eccentric public persona. He was famous for his witty and left of field wisecracks – replying to Paxman when asked if he was standing for First Minister: “Do one-legged duck swim in a circle?”, a saying he claimed to have picked up from a miner in Merthyr. But much more significant were the conditions in which he led the Welsh government. Rhodri was lucky to operate in a period before austerity when public services were relatively well funded and some small reforms could be delivered by a social democratic government. He could bask in the relatively benign economic conditions that allowed those reforms to be delivered. However he had also begun to deliver cuts to public services. Rhodri was the Labour MP for Cardiff West when devolution was narrowly agreed in a referendum in 1997. Following the resignation of Ron Davies, Rhodri Morgan was passed over by Blair as Secretary of State and leader of the Welsh Labour Party in favour of the out-and-out Blairite, Alun Michael. Blair’s antipathy to Rhodri has led some commentators to regard Morgan as a ‘left’, but he really was not, except by the standards of the Blairite New Labour – the evangels of competition and privatisation of public services. Morgan along with the bulk of Labour MPs had happily gone along with Blair’s ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party which had transformed Labour into a pliant tool of capitalism. He was never a member of the Campaign Group led by Tony Benn with its diminishing band of socialist MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. But he still retained some social democratic ideas and an acute understanding of the unpopularity of Blairite ideas in the rock-solid working class areas of South Wales. So Blair and Brown regarded Morgan as an unreliable agent of New Labour and preferred to parachute in a reluctant Alun Michael as the first Welsh Labour leader and the likely First Minister of Wales. Resistance was growing to Blairism and in the 1999 elections to the first Welsh Assembly a huge swathe of Labour voters stayed at home or looked for an alternative. Plaid Cymru was the main beneficiary, portraying itself in South Wales as a left alternative to New Labour. Rhondda, which had boasted the biggest Labour majority in the UK, fell to Plaid along with Llanelli, Islwyn and even Rhondda Cynon Taff council. The personification of New Labour’s unpopularity in Wales, Michael could only form a coalition government with the Liberals. Feeling the ground shifting under their feet, a majority of Labour AMs moved against Michael and he was forced to resign in favour of Rhodri Morgan in early 2000. Having been installed as First Minister Morgan steered the government away from the pro-privatisation model being implemented by New Labour in Westminster. The hugely wasteful Private Finance Initiative for funding public service buildings was eventually put on the back burner; SATs and school league tables were abolished; Academy schools and Foundation hospitals were never adopted in Wales. Rhodri boasted of the ‘clear red water’ between Welsh Labour and New Labour. But this was no socialist model being implemented in Wales. Blair, having been forced to accept Morgan as First Minister, was quite prepared to allow him a free hand in Wales so long as he did not attack the New Labour project in England or implement policies of nationalisation or clear socialist policies. Some NHS services were put out to tender, the fire service was cut, and Morgan was silent on the Iraq War that Blair was preparing with Bush to unleash on the Middle East. Welsh Labour MPs trooped loyally through the Westminster divisions to vote for war, privatisation and tuition fees on behalf of Blair and Brown. Nevertheless it was possible to devote some resources to public services because the capitalist economy was still booming. As the Socialist Party explained at the time, it was a boom fuelled by expanding credit that could not last, but universally the capitalist class and its politicians believed it was everlasting. In this seemingly endless boom public spending was increasing and there was scope for some progressive reforms. In education the Assembly paid the tuition fees of Welsh students that the Blair government had imposed and the progressive Foundation phase education for 3-7 year olds introduced (Morgan’s proudest achievement). It was in this period that the concept of Welsh Labour distinct from New Labour developed under Morgan’s leadership. Welsh Labour is more of a social democratic model than the privatisation-mad model of New Labour, but like other social democratic parties around the world it has succumbed to pro-business policies and accepts limits on the scope of public services. It reflected the pressure of working class people in Wales to oppose privatisation, but Welsh Government and council services were still being outsourced and council services privatised. The “Designed For Life” hospital closure programme provoked widespread opposition with Socialist Party members to the fore. As Socialist Party Wales explained in 2010, the ‘clear red water’ was getting very murky. Prior to the 2007 elections Morgan claimed to be promoting “21st century socialism – a Welsh recipe”, but the voters were not fooled – Labour lost seats and Morgan was forced to form the One Wales coalition government with Plaid Cymru which actually moved some policies to the left, including a commitment not to privatise NHS services and “Designed For Life” was killed off. Rhodri announced his retirement as First Minister in 2007 on his 70th birthday. It was to prove a fortuitous time for him to retire. Just beginning was a world financial crisis that ushered in the new period of austerity and the enormous cuts to public services in Wales. His successor, Carwyn Jones, has continued the Welsh Labour model and dutifully carried out the cuts demanded by the Tories in Westminster. The NHS is struggling to cope and many council services have closed or been privatised. Many of the progressive educational reforms have been undermined by subsequent Welsh Labour ministers through devolving resources to individual schools combined with new school league tables, new tests, and above all cuts. Welsh Labour has proved to be a willing accomplice to New Labour, rather than a reluctant hostage. The Welsh Labour leadership has conspired with the right wing in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party bureaucracy to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (Rhodri opposed Corbyn’s election as leader). Through the General Election the Welsh Labour leadership has been promoting its own agenda as opposed to Corbyn’s including in one of the five Welsh Labour pledges the promise (or threat) to ‘Continue to give the NHS and social care services “the money they need”‘ having cut millions from the NHS budget in Wales. Unfortunately they have been assisted in this by Jeremy’s praise for the Welsh Labour government. So Rhodri Morgan will be missed by many in Wales – an affable symbol of a bygone age when Welsh Labour appeared to many to offer something different to Blairism and when at least a few progressive reforms were possible.