By Ross Saunders
The volatility of the political situation is obvious in Wales: by the time this year ends, every political party in the Welsh Assembly will have replaced their leader at least once. Even the Lib Dems – who only have one Assembly member and no MPs – changed their rules in order to put a new face at the head of their organisation.
But it is Labour’s leadership election which will draw most attention. First Minister Carwyn Jones – a Corbyn critic – is stepping down in December and his replacement will occupy the highest position Labour holds in the UK state. Whoever takes over will have a big effect on expectations of what Corbyn would do with power.
Two of the three candidates are from the right of the party – Vaughan Gething, the current health minister in the Welsh government, is prominently backed by Owen Smith MP and Eluned Morgan was a leading MEP when Blair led the party. Rather than fight the Tories and their cuts, Gething is proposing a new social care tax that all Welsh people would have to pay.
By far the front-runner, however, is Mark Drakeford. Over half of Labour’s Assembly Members nominated him, and unions Unite and Unison are backing him too. Drakeford was a senior aide to Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh First Minister who famously claimed there was “clear red water” between Tony Blair’s policies and those of the Welsh Labour administration he ran. (See Is Welsh Labour Turning Blue?) As a result Wales was spared some of the privatisation that Blair meted out in England and there were some limited improvements in education, including the abolition of league tables. Drakeford backed Corbyn in the Welsh leadership election.
Those who are hoping for a political revolution of the character of Corbyn’s victory in the UK Labour leadership elections, however, will be disappointed. Even “Clear Red Water 2” is off the cards – those polices were enacted in an era of expanding budgets.
If he wins, Drakeford has said that he will run a “centre left” administration that “leans to the left” rather than “lurches”. He is advancing a modest, bordering on timid, programme of demands such as the creation of “ethical standards” for the treatment of workers, something already agreed but hardly implemented by the Welsh government– nothing likely to strike terror into the hearts of exploiting companies based in Wales such as Amazon.
Drakeford is currently the Welsh government’s finance secretary and has indicated he would, in his words, continue to “deal with austerity” – which in practice means implementing the cuts the Tory government demands – if he were elected as First Minister. This would be a massive waste of an opportunity: Carwyn Jones always claimed that the Assembly has no power to stop Tory cuts but in reality it could end austerity in Wales and topple the Tory UK government if it refused to cut services and instead coordinated the councils, health boards, fire authorities and other organisations below it to set budgets based on the needs that exist in Wales, spending council reserves and using borrowing powers carefully to buy time while the campaign builds momentum.
Instead, like much of the Labour left, Drakeford plans to passively wait for Corbyn to win. This is a mistake. Only a movement on the streets and in the workplace could make the victory of a Corbyn-led government certain, as well as defend it against the attacks of big business once in power.
The Welsh working class can’t afford to wait. The decline of this ex-industrial heartland is sharp: the amount of wealth per head continues to fall further below the UK average (10% in the last 20 years, from 81% of average UK GVA in 1997 to 71% now) and public services are in crisis, with Wales regularly bottom in the international Pisa ratings of school standards and cuts in the Welsh NHS routinely providing the Tories with ammunition for the Tories to attack Corbyn. We need an immediate end to austerity cuts and bold socialist policies to rebuild industry and create real jobs.
We need an urgent discussion, too, about what kind of organisation it would take to deliver those policies. Welsh Labour has just switched to a form of One Member One Vote for the election of its leader. The old system was a stitch-up which gave considerable power to the right-wing-dominated MPs and AMs. The new system gives a single vote to every member of the Party and of affiliated organisations but weakens the influence that trade-unions have. We need a party whose membership is open to all anti-cuts campaigners, trade-unionists and socialist organisations. That would require changing more than a leader and a voting system, whatever its form, to create an organisation that can fight to end austerity and fight for socialism.