The biggest challenge of all

This afternoon we will elect our new First Minister. 

I was pleased to hear the new Welsh Labour leader, Mark Drakeford, using his first broadcast interviews to emphasise the need to think harder about the long term. Hallelujah. Our politics, like all politics, are always dominated by the short-term. And it does none of us any good.

For me the biggest and least discussed, and certainly least understood, long-term challenge facing Wales is the future of our public finances. 

For the first ten years of devolved government we could answer every question over government decisions, policy, or even democratic legitimacy by spending money. For every challenge there was a spending commitment. The Welsh budget was doubled and the people appeared to be content. For the first, and only time, in recent history there was a reduction in child poverty in our most deprived communities. And then 2008 happened. During our second decade we have been able to protect core services in which we had invested in those golden years. The NHS budget has been protected and local government has been protected.

But that cannot go on forever. And it won’t. 

Theresa May was, I believe, deliberately obfuscating when she declared austerity to be at an end. Austerity has failed every test set for it. It has not paid off debt, it has not delivered improved economic performance and it has not delivered sustainable public services. In response the Tories have packed away their promises and preferred a misunderstood narrative about the economic crisis than finding a long-term solution to its consequences. Today, with Brexit weakening our economy still further, this means that the UK is probably at its most enfeebled and diminished at any time in our modern history and certainly in any international comparison. 

But pointing out the obvious is an inadequate response to this crisis. Since 2008 the centre-left has collectively failed to articulate a convincing response to austerity. The former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, recently described 2008 as our generation’s 1929. And he was right. But we haven’t yet found our FDR. Protecting key services is not the same as challenging the fundamentals. This is not simply our failure in Wales and the UK. It is an international failure. And into this vacuum has stepped the hard right wing populists. And we all know what happened next. 

So far. So what?

It’s going to get worse. And in Wales especially so. For three very distinct, and Welsh, reasons. 

Firstly the decisions that the UK Government will take on the future of UK finances. Despite Theresa May’s warm and misleading words in Birmingham, austerity will continue and will worsen for most public services over the coming years. If we assume that NHS spending will continue to grow as predicted over the next five years or so then this growth will be paid for by significant reductions in all other spending areas. Every analysis of the last UK budget provided this same outlook. In five years time local government may well look back at this budget as the good years. 

Secondly the profound impact of Brexit reducing growth and weakening our economy in absolute terms and relative to our international competitors. We have already seen the impact of Brexit on our public finances. We have seen reductions in growth which has already led to a reduction in our ability to take tax out of the economy. It is not unreasonable to assume that, whatever happens over the coming weeks in the Palace by the Thames, there will be reduced economic growth and consequently a reduced ability to deliver taxation. From the Institute for Government’s examination of 14 different studies, to the UK Treasury forecasts and most recently the National Institute of Economic and Social Research report on the current Brexit deal, there is broad agreement on the conclusions. Most economists, and certainly within Welsh Government, we are looking at income potentially trailing this reduced growth by about 1%. And as a consequence of this the planned the reductions in public spending described above may well become the more optimistic scenario. 

And thirdly our own declining tax base. One of those issues which even politicians fail to fully grasp is the impact of Welsh taxation. Many of us have argued for many years for fiscal devolution to deliver the level of public accountability which is essential for good government and proper scrutiny. But there are consequences. To date the Welsh Government has essentially been a spending department. From next April income tax rates will be devolved and even without changes to rates of taxation the structure of taxation will change. And that means a fundamental change to our politics. And I’m not just talking about headed notepaper. 

If we change nothing then the Welsh tax base will decline relative to the wider UK tax base and in many ways this will crystallise the challenges facing us. It will mean that Wales will see a reduction in our ability to deliver tax income and therefore spending on public services as a consequence of the UK funding framework. And this reduction will be over and above the reductions that will be seen across the UK as a whole. The Wales Centre for Public Policy outlined the challenge facing us last July. And it should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the future of our politics.

Taken together these different pressures will deliver a perfect financial storm in the first half of the new decade. And who’s talking about it? Week after week we see both opposition parties in Cardiff Bay demanding increased spending on a different policy every week. Whilst we can marvel at the sheer creative hypocrisy of the Tories and enjoy the spectacle of Plaid spending the same money at the end of every speech or question, the hard reality is that Welsh Labour has to do better and more than simply enjoying an opposition out of its depth. Hubris doesn’t butter the bread. 

And this is the acid test of a longer-term approach. How to grow our tax base at a time of economic stress. How to do so in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the UK when we are starting from a position of relative weakness. And how do we structure our services and structures of governance at a time when it is unlikely that we will have the capacity to maintain the current structures? And to do all of this in a way which is rooted in our values and in a country where we do not have the policy communities to provide us with a range of policy choices and options which can be tested in a wide and deep political and public debate.

That’s quite an in-tray for the incoming First Minister. 

A very British revolution

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in the chamber and listened to the debate on the regulations which will pave the way for the formal repeal of the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Act. For those fortunate souls who have not been subjected to the whole of the debate on Brexit, this is the continuity legislation which became law last summer. It was passed to protect the settlement in response to the publication of the draft EU Withdrawal Bill and was superseded by the Inter-Governmental Agreement with the UK Government over the powers which will accrue to the National Assembly as a consequence of Brexit. 

It isn’t so long ago that the First Minister described the EU Withdrawal Bill as the most fundamental attack on devolved government since 1999. And he was right. So we should not understate the importance of the repeal of this legislation. Nor should we limit our understanding of the agreement to the simplicity of the use of powers following Brexit. This agreement is more than about the suite of powers under immediate consideration. It is about the concept of where power lies in the UK. And that is a much bigger issue. And in this new settlement not a single power is lost but a process of joint decision-making created.

Taken together it is little short of a triumph. 

The debate was led by Mark Drakeford, with interventions from all sides and including those Members speaking on behalf of the Assembly committees who had examined the legislation. It is fair to say that on all sides of the chamber there were some expressions of the reservations and concerns over the course of action being proposed. But more fundamentally there was a wide recognition of the work and achievements of the Welsh Government in negotiating this agreement. 

In fact the agreement, which if I am being completely fair has involved some soul-searching for many of us, represents compromise on all sides. But it is also a revolutionary document. In a very British sort of way. 

Looking at Westminster from a distance the Palace can sometimes appear to be more and more of an anachronism is today’s world. An island almost set apart from the country it seeks to govern. And this is a place with its own rules and its culture. Despite the exertions of the Upper House there have been times as the debates and legislation over Brexit have progressed on their miserable way that the impressions given of it being the Last Night of the Proms every night of week in the Palace by the Thames. 

Which makes the agreement over powers all the more remarkable. 

And let’s remember this. The Brexit legislation was designed to end any encroachment on the powers of the Imperial Parliament. It was designed to put the “Great” back into Britain. Taking back control. The leader columns of the Daily Express given legal form. Whilst the agreement may involve some limitation on our freedoms to act. And for many of us, this is difficult to swallow. Those limitations are shared limitations. And this is where the minor revolution has taken place.

The agreement places limits upon the ability of the UK Government to govern England. 

Now let that sink in. 

The sovereign Parliament agreeing not to use powers to govern England as a part of an agreement on how we govern the UK.

This is ground-breaking stuff.

Those people who have decided to huff and puff would do well to take a longer view of these matters. The evolution of devolved democracy has been difficult to entrench in a constitution that keeps changing. For people who constantly lecture us on the power and majesty of the Mother of Parliaments, it is telling that that the UK Parliament has failed in over twenty years to deliver a stable form of government for the whole UK with checks and balances and a modern structure of scrutiny and accountability. These are failings of the UK Parliament and not failings of the devolved administrations. UK Ministers still retain far too many residual powers over areas of devolved competence and there remains a seriously deficient settlement for us in Wales and no UK-wide governmental structure that isn’t owned or controlled by the UK Government. So this agreement allows us to begin developing these structures which, after a great deal of unnecessary delay and prevarication, will, I hope, be seen in the future as a fundamental to our constitutional arrangements. It’s how Britain changes.

And I suspect that in private Adam Price recognises this as well. His demand that we take to the trenches to defend the sovereign right of the Welsh Parliament made better theatre than politics or legal common sense. I, and many others on the Labour benches, prefer the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people rather than that of the Crown in Parliament – whether that parliament is by the Thames or the Taff. But we also live in the real world. 

I believe that in time and with goodwill this agreement may well be seen to have set the beginnings of a new course for the UK. A United Kingdom of equal parliaments governing and sharing powers for the good of all the peoples of these islands. A new structure of ministerial councils maintaining the integrity of our shared institutions with shared and joint decisions making the UK a shared space. And the sooner the better.  

Which brings us back to Plaid. Their rage and anger over the agreement with the UK Government on Brexit demonstrates that they do not understand devolution, Wales or the UK. Which is a quite an achievement.

The SNP, with whom I and other Welsh ministers have sat and worked over the last decade or so, have an understanding of the political geography of the UK which is second only to Sinn Fein. And they have accordingly been far more successful than Plaid.

The SNP has clearly taken an informed decision that this agreement – probably for some of the reasons I have already described – is not in their interests. So be it. I make no criticism of the Scottish Government for reaching those conclusions. But their objective of independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom is different to ours. We want to make the UK work. 

The Scottish Labour Party has reached a similar position which, after the horrific consequences of being perceived to support the Conservatives in the independence referendum campaign, should be of little surprise to anyone either.

And this is the point that Plaid simply does not understand. It is entirely possible for Welsh Labour to reach a coherent political position which we believe is in the best interests of Wales and the UK and which is different to the policy positions of Labour elsewhere in these islands. That’s the power of devolution and reflects the political powers we have to take decisions which are different in different parts of the UK. And the crashing irony of Leanne Wood taking time over the summer to write to Jeremy Corbyn asking him to intervene in our affairs to protect Welsh decision-making remains there for everyone to enjoy. 

But that’s all politics. At its heart this is an agreement which may usher in a new way of working for all UK administrations and which entrenches the powers of all our parliaments, establishing a new principle of equality in the governance of the UK. And that means a very different UK to the one we’ve been used to seeing over the last twenty years. It is now our responsibility to describe how we want that new UK to look and the new structures of governance that will give life to this ambition. A fake and sterile argument over powers is a sideshow. The real prize is a fundamental reworking of constitutional theory and practice and the reality of a multinational and shared United Kingdom.

In short it is an agreement which in the future may well be seen as a very British revolution. 

Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy

Last week I was invited to give the Public Affairs Cymru annual lecture. I am grateful to them for the invitation. During this lecture I returned to the theme of democracy and building a democratic society in Wales that I have been exploring over this year. This is an edited version of the lecture.

My theme this evening is democracy.

Democracy within Welsh Labour.

Democracy within the institutions of government and the National Assembly.

And democracy within the wider Welsh civic society.

And underpinning all of this a democratic culture that enhances and strengthens and deepens and emboldens our democratic institutions.

When I speak of democracy it is not the fake democracy of Trump or Farage where democratic legitimacy is built upon hatred of others. And we saw a glimpse of that particular democracy on Tuesday at FMQs. It was nasty, horrible and ugly. And it has no place in the sort of democracy that I want to see in our future.

But neither do I mean a democracy where people are shouted down at Constituency Labour Parties because their views don’t sit happily and easily with the current fashion. A democracy where antisemitism and bullying all too often form a culture where people feel unable to speak and say what they think. A democracy where there sometimes appears to be a virility test of various causes where a polit-bureau will assess your place on the virtuous left. There was a time when we used to elect national executives to stand up to the political leadership and to hold that parliamentary leadership to account. Now we are told that we must elect a NEC that is in thrall to that leadership. And that’s not democracy either.

Not a democracy where people feel inhibited and unable to speak, openly, honestly and truthfully. So many times over my decade in public office I have witnessed people who feel afraid to speak publicly whether it is the farmer who agrees with a minister over subsidies or councillor who agrees that reform is overdue. All too often I have seen people pull punches and bite lips whilst giving evidence to committees because criticism of Welsh Government or ministers is too difficult for organisations whose funding depends upon the largesse of that same government and those ministers.

But also not a democracy where a party of government is unable to easily hold an election with a woman on the ballot paper. My decision not to pursue my own campaign for the leadership of Welsh Labour was a difficult one. I would have preferred to spend the next few weeks travelling the country arguing the case for radical change and for the sort of party and political movement that I want to see.

But I know it was the right thing to do. And it reflects very poorly on the whole of the National Assembly Labour Party that people are not prepared to allow a woman on the ballot paper. And make no mistake. This is not an accident nor an oversight. It is not inadvertent and nor is it unintentional. It is the direct consequence of a planned campaign to limit the choice available to members of the party. And the consequence of this is that Welsh Labour will no longer be a credible voice for equality or for fairness if it becomes the only Welsh political party this year to actively prevent a woman reaching the ballot.

So that’s not the democracy that I’m interested in either.

This evening I want to reassert a radical and ambitious agenda. My leadership campaign would have been based upon a strongly-held belief that change and radical reform is how we will address some of the critical issues facing Wales today. From entrenched poverty to economic underperformance, the delivery of public services and participation in our democratic and public spaces. We need and must do better.

A challenge to the established way of doing things. Like many others I came into politics because I hated the poverty that I saw around me. But I also hated the poverty of ambition and aspiration from too many politicians. And still I see politicians today who believe that politics is about finding out what people want and giving it to them. The power of politics reduced to a transactional relationship.

As I have pursued a reforming agenda much of the criticism that has been levelled at me in proposing change is that I’m being either too radical or too ambitious. In agriculture, the environment, Welsh language and now local government and public services. Whilst I’m very happy to be found guilty on both charges the fact that being seen as either radical or ambitious are seen as a valid grounds for criticism speaks of a political system and culture that has probably lost its way.

Because change there must be. And change more profound than many of us realise. But that change will not happen unless we make it happen. Except that it may be forced upon us by events. And were that to be the case then would be a terrible reflection of the ability of devolved government respond to the epoch-defining challenges we face as a country and as a society. I say this because government must be about more than the administration of and supervision of the work of civil servants.

And democracy is fundamental to this change. Almost without realising it we are becoming a different country. By the time of the next election in 2021 the majority of the Welsh electorate will barely remember what I will now call direct rule. Wales without an assembly or a parliament. Without realising it we will have become a nation which is used to having a democracy and a government. And that is a real staging post in our national story. No other generation in our long history has witnessed the creation of a Welsh democracy and the creation of a Welsh state. And it is a privilege for those of us who have appeared – even somewhat uncertainly – on the stage and who have played a part in creating this young democracy.

But increasing longevity does not mean that any of our institutions are either secure or popular or even loved by the people we seek to serve. I believe that our politics are broken and that the threats to democratic self-government in Wales are real and present. Austerity and the politics that are a consequence of economic failure have created social and political reaction down the years. Gareth Bennett’s vile and ugly views have a platform not because of his successes but because of our failures. And it is to address those failures and to repair our democracy that lie at the heart of my case for radical change.

But let me also start by asserting clearly that whatever the faults of our current form of government it is a million miles better than what went before.

I am in the soon-to-be minority of people who are old enough to remember the bad old days of direct rule. The days when as President of NUS Wales I’d ask to speak to the Welsh Education Minister. In reality an Under-Secretary of State in the Welsh Office. He is in Cardiff most Mondays I am told. But you’d be better off meeting him in London. That’s where he spends most of his time. Would after lunch suit?

Let no-one tell you that those days were better days.

So let’s take stock.

What’s working?

Technically most things are actually working but is that how it feels? I suspect that for most people decisions still appear to be taken many miles away by people they do not recognise or know. We sometimes believe that this is only the case in the north. But it is also true in Tredegar and I suspect in Butetown as well. It is possible to feel a million miles away whilst living around the corner.

And this is the broken politics that I have spoken about over the summer in my short leadership campaign. A politics where people see no visible evidence that decision-makers are able to make a material difference to their lives.

Welsh Labour

It is time for Welsh Labour to embrace a reforming agenda. To paraphrase Winston Churchill…. You can always count on Welsh Labour to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

I want my party to return to its Bevanite roots. Where its determination to hold onto to power is at least matched by its determination to use that same power to transform people’s lives. When Tony Blair talked of the many and not the few he was talking about the people of this country and not simply decision-making in a CLP or party conference.

But Bevan was an idiosyncratic figure who hated being pigeon-holed. He was the radical miner’s agent who breakfasted in the Café Royale. The militant trades unionist who run Tredegar during the strike in 1926 who was also a regular weekend guest of Lord Beaverbrooke. The man who gave his name to the Bevanites of the left in the fifties and beyond was the same man who broke Michael foot’s heart in Brighton in October 1957.

Not for Bevan the rigours and confines of factionalism. The thought police would have been kept busy by Bevan’s creative and inquiring mind. His rhetoric and inventive would have been unleashed on many of today’s keyboard warriors. With a particular ridicule and contempt saved for those who seek deselection as a penalty for independence of thought and action.

So this is my appeal to my party. Do what is right for Wales and not ape what is done in England. Focus on democracy in a country of three million and not simply copy the democracy review completed for the UK Party. And look hard and creatively to develop a democracy that is rooted in the Welsh experience and not look at every proposal through the spectacles of factionalism and whether a particular leader supports it or not.

I also appeal to Welsh Labour to accept the case for STV and to embrace a reforming agenda for our public services and how we structure the governance of our country – we cannot with credibility demand reform from others while resisting it ourselves.

To become a political party where members, MPs and council leaders share policy making with Welsh ministers and where Welsh ministers are held to account because it’s the right thing to do and not because we want to deselect them before the next election. Looking inwards offers only the prospect of a deserved defeat.

And this is real political democracy. Delivering a manifesto in government is more important than endless internal meetings discussing the rulebook. And delivering that manifesto means delivering the whole of that manifesto and not the bits that are popular with different parts of the party.

Welsh Government and the National Assembly

Over the last twenty years all too often our national institutions have managed the feat of being both overbearing and timid. And often at the same time. Which is quite an achievement in itself.

I want to not simply arrest the process of centralisation but to reverse it. I have campaigned all of my adult life for devolution and the end of the UK unitary state. For me, strong home rule parliaments in Wales and Scotland form the bedrock of the architecture of our new United Kingdom. But I haven’t campaigned to create a strong parliamentary democracy in Wales only to create a new unitary state based in Cardiff Bay.

I believe that it is time for a new democratic settlement which will enable and allow citizens the opportunity to take more decisions locally. Although I don’t agree with the whole of his doctrines in The Road to Serfdom I do agree with FA Hayek when he said “nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government”.

The relationship between local government and the Welsh Government remains an immature relationship.

And it’s nothing new.

The last century has seen the steady erosion of local power.  Successive reorganisations have sought to find a balance between local accountability and the scale required to deliver high quality services. Everyone will be delighted that I do not intend to describe again all the attempts to reform both the structures and the culture of local government since 1999. It is sufficient to note that despite the urgings of ministers, the publication of numerous white or green papers and manifesto commitments as well as the clear demands of a population which doesn’t understand why a country of three million people requires quite so much government there has been no structural and little cultural change.

So devolution must now mean devolution within Wales and real devolution to communities across and throughout Wales.

And this is a challenge to the political class and to politicians in each one of the political parties.

Empowering citizens and creating a new democracy is uncomfortable and a threat to established power structures. Over the last year I have had private conversations with politicians in each one of the parties, including council leaders, where they have told me that they support reform. They have also told me very clearly that although they know it is the right thing to do they will not support reform because it is too difficult. What does that say to people who are struggling with the consequences of this failure?

But we need to go further than this.

We have created a complexity in governance. And this complexity is not a benign entanglement of committees. It is something which disempowers both public servants and citizens. I do not support the creation of an additional and unnecessary web of boards and committees because these models of governance not only take the business of government further away from the citizen but also fundamentally undermine the principle of democratic accountability.  And they sap our collective energy, use up precious resources and such complexity fundamentally mitigates against reform and change.

At a time when our finances are under enormous pressure it appears to me to be curious how we believe that greater complexity will in any way address the challenges ahead. And I believe that it is going to get worse. Whatever Brexit scenario we may choose to believe no scenario foresees additional tax revenue and additional public expenditure over the coming years. And the reduction of complexity in government is essential to a maturing and active and empowered democracy.

Civic Society

It is time for civic society to challenge the Welsh Government. I have lost count of the number of witnesses who have appeared in front of committee to tell us that everything is going swimmingly. Just a little tweak needed here and there. Such timidity tends to be born of government funding rather than a belief in the government itself.

And a maturity to know the difference. Harder talk, tougher debate. A more honest politics. A new culture in civic society where there is a mature relationship with Welsh Government. And the Welsh Government – members and officials – must also learn to live with this culture as well.

So what is a democratic culture?

Whilst we are one of Europe’s oldest nations with a culture, language and traditions that stretch back into history, we are also one of Europe’s youngest political nations. And this is something which we all sometimes fail to recognise. All too often we compare ourselves unfavourably with parliamentary democracy as practiced in the Palace by the Thames where they call themselves the mother of parliaments.

Clearly they’ve never heard of Iceland. But there we go. It establishes an unhelpful context for us. The hard reality is that here we have been inventing a new democracy in a country where there had previously been little independent thought or thinking.

When I consider the question of democracy and a democratic culture I feel more comfortable with Tom Paine than Edmund Burke. I am instinctively drawn to the democracy of the American or French revolutionary than the traditionalism of the British (or in Burke’s case – Irish) Conservative.

The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 by a group of Puritans led by John Winthrop came with the understanding that the enterprise was to be “based in the new world rather than in London.” One of the first actions of the new settlers arriving in Jamestown was to hold an election. The principle of local self-government was more important to many of those first settlers than the question of the independence of the colony as a whole. A new political culture with active citizenship at its heart and as a founding principle.

And in Wales we share some of these radical traditions. We started our journey to becoming a literate nation long before compulsory education, thanks in part to Griffith Jones and his Circulating Schools which by the time of his death in 1761 had taught around 200,000 people to read. And this is important. It was not the state providing an education but a radical self-built movement which enabled many working people to read for themselves and at the same time rooting the importance of education in the culture of the country. Again active citizenship changing the lives of people, communities and the nature of the country.

In July we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that established the National Health Service. But of course the NHS was not simply the brainchild of a think tank it was born in 1890 when the Tredegar Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund was created with each worker in the town contributing halfpenny a week. Active citizenship. And democracy was at its heart – they even elected the doctors!

And so I believe that active citizenship is not only a central part of our political traditions but it is also a part of who we are as a people and as a nation.

For me active citizenship is fundamental to our democratic socialism and any new democratic culture. And you cannot control a culture where equality and democracy are at its heart. Something that politicians need to learn and understand.

How do we achieve this?

In my view we place real power in the hands of citizens and enable citizens to exercise that power. We devolve and distribute power more equally.

But active citizenship demands accountability more than once every four or five years. The politicians of the future will need to be far more responsive to their electorates than the politicians of today. In my time in elected office I have seen the number of letters we receive fall to a trickle. In their place email and social media now dominate our communications. And notwithstanding the issues of bullying, trolling and abuse I still feel that this channel of engagement is generally a good thing. As a society and as a political system we are still coming to terms with the power of these ways of managing our communications. I am an optimist and I believe that our society will in time learn to use social media in a more thoughtful way.

So the active citizen of tomorrow will be able and willing to communicate instantly – and expect instantaneous response – and able to mobilise at a pace and scale we haven’t seen before.  For us politicians, this is a great challenge.  For citizens it is a great opportunity.

By providing new powers to be held locally, new opportunities to use those powers and by increasing and deepening local democratic debate, I believe that we will, over time, change the culture of government. And by doing so, change the relationship between government and the communities it serves as well as the relationship between local government and Welsh Government.

It was that great historian Gwyn Alf Williams who said that Wales would be made and remade by those people living in the two western peninsular of Britain. For two thousand years, he said, we have improbably fashioned a nation – our nation – the Welsh nation and it only exists because we made it exist.

So today it falls to us. To our generation to remake Wales again. Those of us who remember enjoying Gwyn Alf arguing through The Dragon has Two Tongues with Wynford Vaughan Thomas will remember their description of Wales through the ages – under the heel; gentry country; swallowing the leek; from riot to respectability; and of course the final episode inevitably entitled “the death of Wales?” with Gwyn’s memorable description of us as a people walking naked under a acid rain.

It is my hope that the next chapter in our history will be Democratic Wales with our democratic institutions underpinned by a democratic society but it will only happen if we make it happen. And making it happen is our duty to future generations.

The case for radical change 

To me leadership is plural and not singular. It is a verb and not a noun.

This short note seeks to explain some the reasons why I decided to seek support for the leadership of Welsh Labour. This is A personal manifesto which goes into more detail on these issues. Please click on it, download it and see what you think.

Over the past few months many of us have been speaking about the future we want to see for our party and our country. I am anxious that we are all able to contribute to an open and wide-ranging conversation about how we make the radical changes that I believe we need to make in both the party, reinventing our socialism, changing the way in which we govern and how we meet the new challenges of the future if we are to continue to enjoy the trust of the people of Wales.

I launched this campaign above Tredegar at the Nye Bevan memorial. It is where I started my own personal journey and it is where our own socialist values have driven radical change which has transformed the Labour party and our country.

My leadership will be about this radical vision for change. To me leadership is plural and not singular. It is a verb and not a noun.

I believe that we need to rediscover the spirit of Nye Bevan and reinvent a new Bevanism for the 21st century. We all feel and share the anger that Nye felt over poverty and how it destroys lives and communities. But Bevan also brought those values and principles to life and used that anger to fashion a political and not simply a rhetorical response. And that is our challenge. My manifesto describes my own vision for a new democracy and a new politics which is rooted in an optimism and belief that together we can renew and reinvent Welsh Labour.

Fundamentally I believe that we need radical change because our politics is broken and that our democracy is facing a real existential crisis. Too many people believe that devolution and the National Assembly are immune from the international crises facing democratic politics across the West. I believe that democratic government in Wales is facing a real crisis of confidence and one which may even lead to a crisis of legitimacy unless it is urgently addressed.

Since I launched this debate we have seen how Gareth Bennett’s words of hatred and venom have generated enormous coverage over his attack on the Muslim community. This is a xenophobia and a chauvinism that should have no place in either our National Assembly or our wider public discourse. But at the same time in our own party the stain of antisemitism has also disfigured our own debate and has undermined our ability to hold the right wing to account. That is why Labour needs to address these issues and then on the basis of a moral authority confront the alt right populism which is one of the biggest threats we face as a party and as a community. And to defeat it we need to win hearts and minds and not just elections.

And in launching this campaign for change I am not proposing incremental or gradual change or a difference in emphasis. It is about asking hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions. I do not seek easy slogans or lazy populism – telling people what I think they want to hear – this is a radical campaign about challenging ourselves so that we are better able to serve and to reinvent ourselves for new challenges in the future.

We have succeeded in defending Wales from the worst of Tory austerity and we have created a Welsh politics unthinkable two generations ago. But to sit back and point at our record is the worst possible response to the political, social and economic change that we are witnessing today.

I do not believe for one moment that I possess all the answers but I do believe that by asking these hard questions and by making radical and challenging proposals for change that we begin the process of political change and political renewal.

The vote to leave the EU in constituencies such as mine in Blaenau Gwent was driven by many factors but I believe fundamentally the referendum was a referendum on our politics and how we do politics as much as it was a referendum on the EU. It may have been a vote against Brussels but it was certainly a vote of no confidence in Welsh and UK politics. And this is the emergency that we need to address – restoring trust and confidence in politics as a means of making and creating change. And politics as a means of ending austerity. We will not be taken seriously on social justice unless we address these fundamental issues.

How we fashion a political movement across the UK and in government in Wales that can invest in our people wherever in Wales they live. And how can we use the powers that we hold in Wales to follow a different political and financial strategy to a Tory UK Government – we cannot simply point and blame the Tories when we hold power in Wales. We have gone some of this way but we need to go much further.

I believe that so far our debate over the leadership and the future direction of the party has been too managerial rather than tackling the major issues that face us as a nation and as a party. I believe that we need to be more radical.

So my priority in this campaign is to make the case for that change to our politics and change to the way in which we govern our country. And this change will be rooted in my values of democracy and equality. I believe in the power of democracy as a force to empower our citizens and drive changes throughout government, the way in which we deliver public services and the way in which we manage our economy. And equality is how we achieve real social justice for all our citizens. It is my belief that equality will provide the test for all our politics.

And these values of democracy and equality will drive a policy agenda to address the three key and fundamental issues facing us as a country – how we eradicate poverty and its impact on generations of people in Wales; combatting climate change which is the crisis of our age, and thirdly, Europe. I believe that Brexit is the greatest disaster facing Wales today and is the biggest economic risk facing our most deprived communities. Brexit is not a technical issue which requires technical solutions. It is a matter of who we are as a people and our principles as a party.

These values and principles represent my strong and compelling beliefs which will be the key driving principles for any government that I lead. Too often in Welsh Labour we spend too much time explaining why things cannot happen. We can be imprisoned by process and held hostage by our past. Bevan was a creative, imaginative and far-sighted political leader. We need the same energetic, dynamic and vibrant leadership today.

I look forward to that debate and conversation across Wales over the coming months. I hope that this manifesto – A personal manifesto – will be a positive contribution to that debate.

It’s time for Labour to root out antisemitism

The last few months have been pretty traumatic for anyone who wants Labour to be an open inclusive, compassionate and comradely place where we can challenge each other and come together to campaign to create a different sort of country and a different sort of society.

At a time when we are facing one of the worst governments in my lifetime – more riven than Major’s miserable regime in the nineties and more incompetent even than Heath in the seventies – Labour is focused inwards, unable and seemingly incapable of addressing the huge political challenges facing us. We seem to have spent the whole summer struggling and failing to come to terms with antisemitism.

And let’s be under no illusions. This is awful. We should not be in this place. We should never have been anywhere close to it. And this week it got even worse with the former Chief Rabbi comparing the UK Labour leader with Enoch Powell and comparing Corbyn’s words with Powell’s rivers of blood speech. Some may argue that the comparison is misplaced or inappropriate but no-one can possibly argue that Jonathan Sacks’ words do not powerfully illustrate the complete breakdown in the relationship and trust between the Labour Parry, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, and the Jewish community.

For many of us these months have been depressing and distressing. The bad situation is made worse by the way in which too many Jewish members have been treated both by the party and by some members on social media. The harrowing experiences of Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge demonstrate the hard and inescapable reality of what happens when we allow the stain and smell of antisemitism to infect our debates and our political discourse.

And let’s also be clear. There is no smear and no orchestrated campaign. No attempted coup and no conspiracy. This pain is self-inflicted.

So let me say this and let me be crystal clear.

Whatever is decided by the party’s NEC next week, if I am elected as leader of Welsh Labour I will ensure the complete IHRA definition, along with all of its examples, is adopted in full by Welsh Labour. I will also ensure that this is enforced in the spirit as well as in the word. Under my leadership I will make Welsh Labour a party that positively welcomes Jewish members and supporters alongside all others as a valued part of our national community. We will also celebrate the Jewish culture and community and celebrate the part it has played and continues to play in Welsh life.

I am completely clear in my mind that it is absolutely possible to debate and discuss the Middle East and to be highly critical of the actions of the Israeli Government or the Israeli Defence Force and do so without suggesting antisemitism or doing so alongside those who are clearly antisemitic or by sharing platforms or speaking on behalf of groups, organisations and individuals who express antisemitism. I know this because I have done so for most of my adult life.

I have worked in Beirut, in Damascus and in Amman. I have worked alongside Palestinian activists and have visited the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I have spent time talking and listening and witnessing the intense and heartbreaking suffering of the Palestinian people. I was on the West Bank at the beginning of the second Interfada in 2000. But I have also visited Israel and spoken with ordinary Israelis who live in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families and who sometimes also live in a never-ending terror of the future. And I have stood in the rubble of the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

I disagree with fundamental aspects of the recent nation state legislation passed by the Knesset, I am appalled by the recent violence in Gaza, I disagree with the policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank and I disagree with the building of a wall to separate Israeli and Palestinian communities. But I am also appalled at the indiscriminate killing and violence of Hamas and some other Palestinian organisations.

It is right and proper that we debate and discuss these matters. But we must do so in a spirit of goodwill and comradeship putting our Labour values at the heart of our debate. And our values can never allow us to offer any support to organisations who practice terrorism or antisemitism.

The IHRA is neither a threat to freedom of speech and neither does it prevent open, measured and intelligent discussions of the actions and decisions of the Government of Israel. What it does prevent is the ugly, nasty and discriminatory and chauvinistic abuse of Israel and Israeli citizens – and it prevents this because such rhetoric is always deeply antisemitic. Sustaining and supporting and protecting free speech should never be used as a pretext for allowing or even enabling antisemitic abuse and behaviour to be tolerated in any way. This spurious argument is a chimera and should be exposed as such. 

But why on earth would we as a political party want to encourage, enable or tolerant such behaviour anyway? Why would we want to allow the obviously grossly offensive comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany? Why would we want to hear our members describing Jewish people in terms which we would never tolerant if those same terms were used to describe other peoples? Why on earth would we allow antisemitic tropes of a Jewish conspiracy or of shadowy Jewish control of our institutions reminiscent of the thirties to become a part of our political currency today?

Over the past few months we as a party have demonstrated our failure to understand some of the basics of antisemitism and how images and suggestions of antisemitism have been used to attack Jewish people and the Jewish community. We have also failed to understand the fundamental and intense cultural fears of this Jewish community for whom the holocaust isn’t only a constant part of their history but a part of their present as well. Where persecution, intimidation and discrimination form a part of an identity where such harassment has been a constant over the centuries. And this is neither an academic or abstract issue, something for the history books or for other people in other countries. It matters to us in Wales.

The Jewish community has always played an important part in the life of Wales. And we have our own history to come to terms with. I am from Tredegar and the Jewish Riots in 1911 is a part of our history that we have not fully accepted or recognised.

For a week in August 1911 riots that had began in Tredegar spread across the coalfield. Jewish properties and shops and businesses were attacked, looted and destroyed. A frightening foreshadowing of that which would happen a little over twenty years later. In this way antisemitism isn’t something that happened or happens elsewhere. It is a part of our history in Wales, and a part of my personal history in Tredegar. My own grandparents would have witnessed the impact of that violence and probably knew, or were at least familiar with, some of the rioters. We all have a personal responsibility to act to recognise this and then to apply those lessons to our politics and to our country today.

By our words and actions and our failure to address these matters we have caused deep hurt, pain, anguish and despair throughout the Jewish community. These have been the worst of days for the Labour Party. And anyone who cares for the future of the party needs to recognise the depth and importance of this issue. We need to apologise for this and we need to put it right. 

To me leadership is about doing the right thing. And anyone who aspires to lead needs not only to understand these things but must also be prepared to drive radical change where it is needed. And adopting the full IHRA definition is the only the start. We also need a culture of respect and tolerance in our party. A culture where the language and the tone of our debate needs to change. Where our culture as a party reflects our values and our politics.

 

 

Let the people decide!

Welsh Labour should adopt primaries in our election for our new leader.

Last Friday I announced that I would seek support to stand for election as leader of Welsh Labour. One of the reasons I did so was because I felt that the debate we needed over the summer months and the autumn was simply not taking place. 

I am standing to drive that wide-ranging debate about the future of Welsh Labour as a political party and movement as well as our ambitions and visions for the future of Wales and then to be a leader of Welsh Labour with a clear mandate to deliver radical change.

And that radical change must begin with the way in which we elect our leaders.

Last month I wrote to Paul Murphy suggesting some significant changes to the process of nominating candidates that will eventually appear on the ballot paper. I suggested that the process of nomination be extended from the current system where AMs alone decided to include MPs, council leaders and our MEP. I was grateful to everyone who contacted me to welcome these suggestions.

But today I would like to go a step further.

My starting point is democracy and opening up our democracy as a party. If we are serious about being a party for the many and not the few then this needs to begin at the beginning. I do not want any tolerance or any acceptance of a democracy that is either fixed in advance, where back-room deals determine who gets to stand or a democracy where our elections are shaped and orchestrated by the few.

So this week I will write to Paul again. I will suggest that Welsh Labour adopt a system of primaries rather than to rely upon nominations from this very small subset of elected representatives. 

But why has my thinking changed on this issue?

Since last Friday I have spent a great deal of time talking with various people, from party members, to colleagues, friends and journalists. Almost the whole of this debate has been focussed on the process of nomination. I have come to the conclusion that until this changes then there will be no discussion of either politics or policy because no candidate needs to do anything except talk to their colleagues. There is no reason to appeal to a wider audience. 

My purpose in making such a suggestion on opening up the nomination process last month was to open the process beyond the Senedd in Cardiff Bay – after all this is our party leader in Wales. Under the current system the ballot paper and the election would be determined entirely by the Labour group in the National Assembly. And there’s nothing democratic about that. For me democracy means the real active involvement of the membership and our socialist societies and affiliates. It does not mean deals behind closed doors in the Bay. 

Primaries are a familiar part of the political landscape in the United States but tend to be treated with deep suspicion on this side of the Atlantic. They have been used as something of a novelty by political parties who have fallen on difficult times. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories have employed open primaries where all voters in particular constituencies being invited to select a candidate for a parliamentary seat. The motivation has usually been more to do the dreadful state of the party at the time and a need to generate some interest in the selection rather than to adopt primaries from a point of principle.

I hope that we can do better.

In fact the process of electing leaders in socialist or social democratic across Europe tends to be more open and more democratic than what has been so far proposed for either Welsh Labour or UK Labour. Most our our sister European parties have more open means of involving the whole party membership and only a few parties allow parliamentarians the veto that they effectively enjoy in either Wales or the UK. So what I am proposing is a primary nomination process which involves the whole membership of Welsh Labour.

So how could primaries work in Welsh Labour?

The purpose of this is to remove the power of patronage and appointment from professional politicians and return that power to party members as a whole. And the immediate impact of that will be two-fold. Firstly any prospective candidate has to do more than appeal to their friends and colleagues in the Bay. They will need to reach out across the whole country and the whole movement and speak to members about the sort of party and the sort of choice that they want to see. Secondly it would mean that potential candidates have to speak about those issues that matter to people and not politicians. The debate would be more about policy and politics and less about the potential for deals over jobs, roles, the process of governing and the politics of the group in the National Assembly.

In this way a system of primaries would be more open, more democratic and more empowering. By removing the sense of an internal narrow selection the party and the group would be strengthened and the election when it takes place would be the election that the party has chosen rather an election where the candidates are, in effect, imposed upon the party.

I would suggest that the party organise a series of hustings meetings in each region where every party member would have three votes and any candidate receiving over 15% of the total vote would appear on the final ballot paper in the election in the autumn. Each of the potential candidates would have the same opportunity to reach out and make their case. And each party member would be able to see and question everyone who wishes to be a candidate and would have the same opportunity to shape the election.

This is the radical and democratising way in which Welsh Labour can not only avoid some of the narrow debate that we’ve seen over the process or structure of nominations over the summer and can demonstrate how democracy can enliven and open up politics.  

Real politics. Real democracy. For the many and not the few. 

It’s time to confront UKIP and their prejudice 

Since they were elected two years ago UKIP has disfigured both the National Assembly and our national debate. For the first time I can remember we heard words like “foreigner” in our debates. But the election of Gareth Bennett as their leader last week and his words over the weekend cross a line. It would be easy to argue that a leader with a mandate of a few hundred votes shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. After all there are local councillors who have won with more votes and a bigger majority. But to not take him, and the direction where he wants to take UKIP, seriously would be a mistake. As leader of Welsh Labour I will take them on and confront them and their prejudice.

At one level they are a comedy outfit of inadequate, ineffective and mediocre individuals. Their performance in the Assembly has been wretched, woeful and feeble. But their inability to make any intelligent, rational or coherent contribution to our debates has not been questioned by either the media or by other parties. Sometimes Cardiff Bay is too comfortable. 

They succeed in making headlines either by their poor behaviour or conduct or by a series of confrontations in the chamber and elsewhere with their attacks on minorities or vulnerable people. Their use of ugly and unacceptable language leads to suspensions and interruptions to the business of the place. All too often the chamber sits in embarrassed silence whilst the UKIP spokesperson tries to read a poorly-written contribution onto the record.

I can think of no positive contribution that they have made since their election.

And this is where scrutiny is important. During the parliamentary passage of the Additional Learning Needs Act, the UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown, made no contribution to the debate over the legislation. She was clearly ignorant of the policy area and made absolutely no effort to either learn or to understand either the legislation – or – and this is important – the needs of this vulnerable group of children and young people. As a minister I was put under a great deal of pressure by both Plaid and the Tories – Darren Millar and Llyr Gruffydd – as well as the Welsh Labour chair – Lynne Neagle – all of whom worked hard to scrutinise and test the legislation. I made a number of changes as a consequence of this scrutiny and the Act is a better piece of law as a consequence. But UKIP played no part in this essential work of the parliamentary process, there was no UKIP amendment and apart from a few poor contributions virtually nothing said on the record. And this is what they are paid to do. 

And this inability to play even the smallest part in the work of the institution they they want to abolish and to do the bare minimum is not called out by either other politicians or the media. As a consequence they get away with their inadequacy, their idleness and their negligence. 

Some of us have refused to socialise with them, preferring to keep them at a distance. But at the same time some, including me, have felt inhibited from taking them on in the chamber because of their obvious inadequacy. It’s time to take them on and to expose them as a bunch of lamentable chancers with little talent and no commitment to their roles and their responsibilities.

I am not worried by Bennett’s quaint views on devolution – returning Wales to direct rule – all of our constitutional arrangements should always be contestable and always subject to test, debate and challenge. What is completely unacceptable is his views on our national community.

After a week of witnessing the best of Wales at the National Eisteddfod we now see the worst of Wales. And Bennett’s inadequacy should not stop us from taking him on. His brand of naked alternative right populism is the same hard right wing chauvinism that Steve Bannon is in Europe to promote. Bennett is probably copying Boris Johnson but it is this validation and repetition of prejudice that is dangerous. It is the same prejudice and same politics as the Front Nationale and the rest of the European right. And in Welsh Labour we need to campaign and to argue against it. We can no longer ignore them hoping that they will go away. Or even blame the electoral system for their election. People voted for UKIP because we failed to win the arguments against them.

But we must also work harder across the political spectrum to campaign and to argue for the Wales we want to see. The Wales of inclusivity and tolerance. The Wales where we enjoy and celebrate the diversity we saw in Cardiff Bay last week. The Wales where we reach out with a cwtsh rather than point fingers at differences. 

So let’s call them out. Let’s tell the truth about them. And let’s expose them as the nasty bunch of xenophobic chauvinists who will deliberately use their prejudice to create divisions, misery and distress because of their weakness, their ignorance and their cowardliness. And this isn’t simply an attack on Islam and the muslim community. It is an attack on us all.

The alternative is that this hatred, venom and this rancour will enter the Welsh political discourse and will become a normalised part of our political experience. And the consequence of that will be an increased threat to our whole national community across the whole of Wales. Wherever we live, however we live, whoever we worship, whatever we wear and whatever language we speak. 

But calling them out is not enough. We have to defeat their views and replace their prejudice with our values of liberal tolerance and compassion. And that means winning hearts and minds and not simply votes.

And this campaigning against populism and the alt right is part of the reinvention of our politics and our democracy that I spoke about when launching my leadership campaign last week. Last week I spoke about the structures and the process of politics. This, today, is about the principles and the values of our politics. The values of Nye Bevan and Paul Robeson that I tried to describe last week. Those values that reached out across an ocean to bring an American civil rights campaigner to sing at a Cymanfa Ganu at a National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale. It is those timeless values that must now drive our actions and our work.