A matter of life and death

Over the years I have sought in this blog to discuss various things – issues which interest me or issues where I want to say something on policy, politics – or even culture. I have never sought to create a commentary on Welsh or UK or international politics and policy or a history of our politics. The blog was, I’m afraid to say, selfishly, created to provide me with the opportunity to speak directly to the reader. And if there are people out there who enjoy it then so much the better. It may be an arrogance to assume that people will be interested but no-one is forced to follow the links either.

Anyway.

This blog isn’t about any of that.

It’s about me.

Or perhaps to be brutally accurate it’s about my death.

I am painfully aware that I do not look like a runner. Not only do I not have the athletic build that anyone would associate with endurance sports but perhaps more importantly neither do I have the determination to train to be so either.

But there are a few places where I like to run. My two favourites are along the river in Bute Park in Cardiff and above Trefil outside Tredegar. Bute Park is one of the great urban parks of not only Wales or the UK but of Europe or the world. The humiliation of being spotted gasping for air and wheezing by friends (and occasionally foes) is nothing when set against the lovely urban environment with those easy pathways following the river or past the wide playing fields. Trefil is completely different. I park by the lay-by opposite Top House – the old Quarryman’s Arms – and run (if my staggering can be dignified in such a way) up past Duke’s Table to the top of the Dyffryn (or Dyffryn Crawnon to give it it’s full name but to us it’s the Dyffryn) and then across to the entrance of the Quarry. In total it’s a 8km round trip. And happily the return trip is downhill.

On Friday evening I had been working in Cardiff and was going to head out of Cardiff and go straight to Trefil for a run. But for some reason I decided to have a quick run in Bute Park before getting into the car. That unthinking decision saved my life.

I have little memory of Friday evening. For most of the day and the week I had been helping out with food distribution and supporting people in Tredegar and other parts of Blaenau Gwent. I had returned to Cardiff to see my partner and to catch up with some other work. I got changed and went straight out. I remember thinking how lovely it was in the early evening spring breeze. I remember thinking that it would be nice to do this run and then head back to Tredegar after a quick shower. I remember discussing with my partner, Anna, whether we should order a curry and our plans for the weekend. I remember thinking about what needed doing with the Coronavirus in different parts of the borough. I had spoken with both the health board and the local council during the day and had a list of things to do.

Somewhere in park – I still don’t remember where exactly – I saw some old friends of mine and stopped to have word. I hadn’t seen Mike or Thoma Powell for years. I was pleased to bump into them. It was very nearly the last thing that I ever did.

Apparently – and I have no memory of this – I stopped and took a breath, said hello, and then collapsed. I know because of the cuts and bruises on my head and face that the collapse was total and immediate.

It turns out that I had suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment my heart had simply stopped beating. It had ceased to function. The most reliable pump that nature has ever constructed simply stopped working.

There was no notice. No pain. I had no indication either during the day or previous days that there was anything wrong. I felt fine. I actually thought that it was a pretty good run. No record-breaker but not overly difficult either.

The rest of this account is largely what I am told happened.

The cuts and bruises on my face and head tell me that I was unconscious before I hit the ground. I have no idea if my heart had already stopped – I assume so.

Mike and Thoma called 999 and immediately started CPR. The 999 operator guided another person to the nearest defibrillator. He cycled to it, picked it up and brought it across.

The ambulance arrived quickly and I understand that it was the paramedics who used the defibrillator to restart my heart. But that task would have been futile without the quick thinking and urgency of Mike and Thoma.

I have no real memory of anything else that evening. I seem to have memories of things. Lights and shouting. Urgency. Noise. I also know that I was completely unable to respond to any of these things. I was utterly helpless.

Saturday is largely the same. I remember nothing. I can only assume that I was unconscious most of the day. I understand that Anna, managed to get a bag of supplies to me at some point during the day. I do have some memory of her waving from a distance. I was connected up to various machines and feeling in extreme discomfort. I know that I received and replied to some text messages. But I also now know that medical staff were forced to ask Anna to give consent on my behalf for some procedures because I was not able to give reasoned consent myself.

I lay in bed listening to people discussing me.

There must be an elocution school for cardiac surgeons and airline pilots. In his utterly calm, confident and reassuring voice the surgeon told me exactly what he was going to do to me.

He also discussed the impact of what had happened both in short and longer term. He described the treatment and what I will need to do in the future to avoid such a thing happening again. And then he got to work. First an angioplasty and then a couple of days later a series of stents.

And a few days later I’m sitting here in hospital and writing these words. We all talk about the NHS and it may well have its faults, but at a time when it is dealing with the biggest health crisis in our lifetimes it can also save the life of an overweight middle-aged man with a vision of himself as championship middle-distance runner.

The best way to give thanks of course is not to waste the gift that has been given. Mike and Thoma, the paramedics and the staff in the Heath Hospital have given me the gift of life for a few more years.

Overwhelming I’m feeling a profound sense of gratitude to everyone who stopped to help, friends who have texted and contacted me over the last days and to all those people who took care of me in hospital. Together they have saved my life and enabled me to write about this.

Leading Labour

Most people in Labour still feel shattered by December’s defeat. And many of us find the current leadership’s determination not to accept their responsibility for that defeat to be exasperating, frustrating and infuriating. But whatever the reasons for that defeat, most of the people I know want to move on. But to move on having learnt the right lessons from that defeat and not simply accepting the easy excuses – this wasn’t about Blair. It was a rejection of Corbyn. Time to come to terms with that reality.

But anyway. The UK leadership election gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we need to do to win back the trust of the British people. And Labour faces some historic choices. And this is where learning the lessons of December is crucial. I never want to put our members and supporters in the same position again. We need a leader with whom people can feel an empathy and a confidence together with a policy programme that is rooted in our values, inspiring, believable – and deliverable

For me I will be voting for Lisa Nandy as my first preference with Keir Starmer as my clear second preference. As deputy leader I will be voting for Rosenna Allin-Khan. 

For me – like many others – the decision came down to a straight choice between Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer. I like Keir and I recognise that he is respected across the party with a lifetime of radical politics and campaigning under his belt. I also believe that he can reach out and appeal to people throughout the UK and establish clear compelling policy initiatives. But so is Lisa and so can Lisa. And for me Lisa is the more radical and the more authentic voice who can speak to the real experiences of the people I represent in Blaenau Gwent. I disagreed with her over Brexit but it’s time to move on and put those divisions behind us. 

My experience of government tells me that policies and principles are fine. As are speeches and resolutions. But without power we are impotent. And again most Labour members that I know see and feel and witness the damage that the Tories are doing to people in our communities. I spoke to the people running the food bank in Nantyglo last week and they told me again how many more people are seeking help than ever before. Those people need a UK Labour Government more than they need self-righteous genuflecting in front of the latest sacred cow.

So what do we need from our new leader?

Firstly to regain people’s trust. It was not only Jeremy Corbyn that was roundly rejected in December but also our manifesto and the direction that the party has taken in recent years. Put simply. People looked at us and did not like what they saw. They saw a party unable and sometimes unwilling to deal with bullying, abuse and antisemitism with a manifesto where spending commitments were made in every sentence and speech. And as a consequence the people who are forced to budget hard every day and every week did not trust us with their family’s futures and livelihoods. 

And in rebuilding that trust we need to demonstrate that we understand the lives of the people we represent. Lisa talks about bus services and town centres. So do the people I represent in Blaenau Gwent. Decent jobs and services. But also the experience of how we live our lives. And this understanding is crucial if the people who walked away from us last month are to return to Labour in the future.

I believe that Lisa can reach out and speak for and to the people that want to vote Labour. She can rebuild that trust by speaking clearly and not in the language of Westminster (Or Cardiff Bay) and with a strong focus on the quality of work and quality of life issues which go to the roots of people’s frustration with politics over past years. A return to business as usual means a return to Tory UK Governments. We need a leader who is able to build a coalition for change and coalition for a different sort of politics.

But this trust needs to be rooted in substance and not just a superficial facade of change. We need a radical programme for government. And a radicalism rooted in changing our futures and not simply a tired, dull and clichéd parroting of the totem poles of leftist prejudice over the last forty years. And perhaps one of the most important elements of this new radicalism is a fundamental and historic change in the economy of the UK. We need to redistribute the wealth that we create in the UK and we need rebalance the economic and spending decisions that all too often benefit only London and the south east of England. For us in Wales it means making common cause with similar communities in different parts of the UK where wealth needs to be shared more fairly. And quite simply in this defining policy choice I trust Lisa to deliver. 

At the same time one of the clear challenges that faces Labour is to reinvent the UK. Much is made of the future choices facing northern English towns and cities alongside the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hard reality is that unless we embrace home rule for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland alongside significant and substantial redistribution of political power in England then there won’t be a UK left to worry about. These programmes of political and economic reform need to be at the heart of our renewal of Labour. And I welcome the commitment of every candidate to this federal or confederal future.

And finally I also believe that it is time that Labour elects a woman as our leader. I supported this position last year in our own leadership election in Wales. Despite everything that the party has achieved in recent years we will not be taken seriously on equality if we cannot bring ourselves to actually support a woman and elect her as our leader. 

All of this is urgent for Welsh Labour. Next year we will be electing the new Senedd. The UK general election alongside the latest opinion polls have given us a clear warning of the challenge we face. And no-one should pretend that the UK leadership will not matter next May.

So what about the deputy leadership? I regret that this election is taking place at the same time as the leadership election. A consequence of this timing is that the essential role of the deputy leader is diminished and the election receives far less attention and consideration. 

I will support Rosenna Allin-Khan. In reality my choice was between her, Angela Rayner and Ian Murray. I was greatly tempted to support Ian Murphy because our UK leadership does need to understand that the UK is more than England. But I felt that Rosenna has not only a compelling personal story but a reach and a radical, incisive and instinctive political insight which has impressed in this campaign. Her clarity, her vision and her ability to speak and inspire is something which will help us campaign and win. So I will vote for her.

How much time do you need Jeremy?

Jeremy Corbyn asked for a period of reflection. So I’ve been doing some reflecting.

The first and most obvious response to this catastrophic defeat should be Corbyn’s immediate resignation. He’s spent most of his time in parliament demanding the resignation of far more electorally and politically successful leaders so he knows the drill. 

He needs to go and he needs to go now. Today. 

We need an interim leader. My suggestion would be that we ask the PLP to elect a leader that will allow us to hold Johnson to account over the coming months. The process of Brexit requires and demands a leader of the opposition to scrutinise and oppose. Corbyn has proven himself incapable of fulfilling this role and certainly cannot remain as leader during the process of debate and discussion that we need if we are to renew the party. And when he goes his office needs to go as well. The playboy revolutionaries have done enough damage. 

But we need to recognise that this defeat was not only a defeat for the man but a defeat for what he stood for as well. His failure was personal, political, policy and principle. Corbyn must go but for Labour to recover Corbynism must go as well.

I hear the recipients of Momentum’s emails making their excuses. Of course Corbyn was subject to appalling and unacceptable personal attacks from the right wing media. But then so has almost every Labour leader in history. Many of these people seem to have forgotten the treatment that Neil Kinnock endured with a quiet but angry dignity. 

And then we are told it was Brexit that forced working class communities to vote Conservative. Not Jeremy’s fault. Wrong. It was Brexit that shone a sharp light on the wider failures of his dysfunctional leadership. Brexit is the defining issues of today. I know where I stand. And I didn’t need a focus group to tell me. My values drove me to an instinctive response to this project of the far right. But I still don’t know what Corbyn thinks. Doesn’t he have a values set that drives his beliefs and actions? The impression is gained that he says one thing but believes something different. He doesn’t feel honest on it. And everyone can sense it. In many ways it has been Brexit that defined the chaos and dishonesty of Corbyn’s leadership. After three years we find ourselves in a situation whereby leavers believe that we’re a remain party whilst remainers think we’re a leave party. Quite a triumph. It was a policy failure on the most important domestic issue of the day and the issue upon which the election was called. His disastrous decision not to have a view on Brexit compounded and confirmed people’s disbelief in, and distrust of, him. And we lost far more remain supporters than we lost leave supporters. It was a political failure rooted in hubris. 

The other issue that defined his leadership was antisemitism. Time and time again I was ashamed to be a member of the Labour Party. His actions and his refusal to act made me feel deeply embarrassed. The constant excuses for friends and for antisemitic acts and words helped to create the toxic culture of bullying and abuse which has infected the party under his leadership. He must take personal responsibility for this distasteful culture which has driven good people like Luicana Berger to leave. The hounding and abuse of journalists like Laura Keussberg was also a reflection of this toxicity. And women always abused more than men. It’s no accident. His refusal to apologise for the hurt and pain he has caused the Jewish community left me not only angry but also a feeling of being humiliated as well – how could I justify to myself staying in a party led by this man? Over the last five years he has had time for every cause you can name but no time to visit Yad Vashem or Auschwitz. 

And then the manifesto was published. 

My heart sunk when I read it. Whilst many people will agree that individual elements of the document may be attractive to different groups of people. The whole thing simply wasn’t a credible programme for government. And many people hated that we thought they were daft enough to believe that Labour could deliver it. In many ways it simply confirmed people’s worst suspicions about Corbyn’s Labour. He’s not a serious leader. 

And this speaks to our most significant failure. It includes Corbyn but is not limited to him. For a decade Labour has been a shouty spectator on austerity. Had we been serious then we would have done the hard work on economic policy as Brown did in the 90s. But we didn’t. Playing with numbers on the back of an old fashioned fag packet. Raising more money on the back of a (probably) smaller economy where no-one pays more except the toffs. I didn’t believe it. And neither did anyone else. But why on earth wasn’t this the point of serious debate in the leadership? And if they believed in the manifesto why didn’t we campaign on it? Save the NHS?

The centre-left has failed to articulate an alternative to austerity. And the fact that it is as true in the US rust-belt as it is in the heads of the valleys isn’t an excuse. And printing monopoly money isn’t the same as challenging the economic orthodoxy that has failed so completely since 2010. And the fact of that failure makes our own failure to provide an alternative all the more calamitous.

And this lack of seriousness was validated with additional unfunded pledges on WASPI or broadband. I spoke to people who were genuinely angry that they thought Labour assumed they wouldn’t see through it. 

So we lost in the face of nearly a decade of austerity which has ripped the heart out of our communities and public services. Most people that I met during the campaign didn’t want to vote for either Johnson or Corbyn. This election did not see a groundswell of support for the Tories. They didn’t see the increase in support that they anticipated. This election was lost because the Labour vote crashed. It is a Labour problem. Neither party leader enjoyed widespread respect but at least Johnson wasn’t Corbyn. We were told this on doorstep after doorstep. And we knew it before we knocked a single door.

And this wasn’t an accidental election or one of Johnson’s choosing. Tony Blair was right back in September when he warned that we could not win an election until Brexit was resolved. Knowing that were woefully ill-prepared to win an election, many of us argued for and campaigned for a referendum with an election afterwards. But we were told that the party wanted a general election. And then Corbyn forced Labour MPs to vote for it. This was an election of Corbyn’s choosing. 

And finally we fought a campaign which was confused, self-indulgent and incompetent. Too many of the people speaking on behalf of the party simply weren’t up to it. They were not credible and were unable to articulate a compelling vision of the future. And now we’re told that these same people – Rebecca Long Bailey or Richard Burgon should be part of a leadership team? Seriously?

The decisions we take now will determine whether Labour can challenge seriously in 2024 or 2029. Or whether we continue with Corbynism without Corbyn. We don’t simply need a new leader. We need a cultural and political renewal. And unless we address these issues seriously then most people will assume that the party’s over and will act accordingly. 

We need a reforming parliament and not simply a remain parliament

The agony of this UK Parliament will end with its dissolution later this week. A parliament that no-one liked ended by an election that no-one wants. My own view of this unnecessary election chimes with that of most MPs – of all parties – it is the wrong time and for the wrong reason. Westminster would do well to understand the reality of fixed-term parliaments rather than to run screaming to the electorate whenever the Prime Minister sees an opportunity for personal and political gain. 

But that was last week. We need to focus now on how this election can be a turning point for the progressive voices in Britain and not simply for the right wing for whom Brexit is their talisman.

Against all assumptions Labour has probably had a better first week than the Tories. In Wales the Tories started the week refusing to comment on a key candidate and aide to the Secretary of State deliberately collapsing a rape trial. Even the BBC didn’t believe their explanation. The week ends with another key candidate apologising for suggesting that poor people should be put to sleep. They give the appearance of having selected their candidates from the Brexit Party’s B-list. 

Labour, ironically after the last few years, has a reasonable position on Brexit. But it is undermined by the failure of our shadow cabinet to speak purposefully or with any clarity on the matter. And Labour’s election slogan – for real change – will motivate existing supporters but can reach out to those people who feel disenfranchised, that politics has let them down.

My feeling is that we should go further and be far more radical. And in doing so make and change the political weather. We can dominate the campaign and reshape politics after it.

Labour should make this election one which can deliver real radical change rooted not only in our social and economic values but also rooted in a programme of far-reaching political change. 

And if we are radical in our policies then we must also be radical in our politics and radical in our approach to this election. And not simply radical when it’s over. And that’s where it gets difficult. Labour as a party has a strong cultural antipathy to coalitions and working across the aisle. Culturally Labour sees itself as a strong but singular voice. Which is ironic because as a party it is a coalition which is constantly making and remaking compromises with itself. 

My suggestion would be two-fold. Firstly we accept that this election has the power to change the future of Britain. For good or for ill. Secondly we recognise that we can create and lead a coalition for radical change but – and this is the difficult bit – we can’t do it alone. 

If we do this perhaps we may even save the union of the United Kingdom. And this is the unspoken truth about this election. 

Hundreds of thousands of people joined a rally for independence in Glasgow over the weekend. The latest of a series of marches which have attracted huge numbers of people over the last few years. It is clear to me that future generations in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have little cultural commitment or personal attachment to the UK. If Labour focuses on our manifesto alone there is a real danger that this may be the last UK election to a parliament that can deliver such a programme in the British Isles. 

An alternative is that Labour can put itself at the head of a movement which not only defeats the Johnson and Farage duopoly on radicalism but which also drives the change to empower and enfranchise people across the UK. 

But it won’t happen by accident. 

It means making painful and difficult decisions. 

It is unlikely that Labour will win the 600-odd seats it is contesting in Great Britain. In many places there are other progressive parties which can win some of those seats. And constituencies where our participation in those local contests could help deliver not only the election of a Tory committed to a hard Brexit but an overall result which does not build a broad alliance for radical change either. 

This is especially true in this particular election. Polls are polls. People believe polls they like and dismiss those which tell an inconvenient truth. But what every single poll shows is that the electorate is volatile and fragmented. Seats in this election may be won on a little over 30% of the vote which is an appalling reflection of the weakness of our electoral system. But the question I want to answer is how we change it. 

And it is our first-past-the-post electoral system that makes such arrangements necessary. If we had a modern system of proportional representation then there would be no need for such a course of action. Under STV everyone gets to vote for both their preferred candidate and others representing their wider preferences.

The easiest thing in the world is to sit around and practice self-indulgence. To criticise the Lib Dems about their record in the coalition government, to criticise the Greens and Plaid and the SNP over many other issues. Easy. Comfortable. And ultimately futile. A thousand Twitter posts about the “Fib Dems” and condemning “separatists” achieve little in reality except to prove the political virtues and virility of the writer.

In Wales we have governed in coalition with the Libs Dems and Plaid in the past. Today we govern with the help of the former leaders of the Welsh Lib Dems and of Plaid Cymru. Both excellent ministers and both delivering not only a policy programme but a political programme as well. 

It’s a crashing irony but a surprise to no-one that those people who are most fiercely opposed to any sort of electoral agreement are also the same people who are most strongly opposed to the electoral reform which would make it irrelevant. They appear to prefer the Tories to sell the house rather than to take some hard and tough decisions. 

Anyway. It may be time for us to extend this more intelligent, far-sighted and mature approach to politics and political change to the rest of the UK – or at least to the rest of Great Britain. But any electoral alliance must go further than simply a second referendum on Brexit. I don’t want this election to be about Brexit alone. I want to see a commitment to a more fundamental and deeper political change. It could mean that this unwanted election in the depths of winter is a turning point in our history. 

Johnson is a catastrophically bad prime minister. His personal record is appalling and his gamesmanship in governing has been laid bare by both scandal and the judiciary. But his removal from office can be more than a return to the failed politics as usual that gave us austerity and Brexit. Real change would mean no more politics as usual. 

So for me a political programme which certainly delivers a final say referendum on Brexit but also a broad programme of political reform to include PR for Westminster, a truly federal UK and regulation in renewing and cleansing our politics may be the programme which begins to heal the wounds of the last few years. Such a prize would be worth the pain of compromise in an electoral alliance over the coming weeks.

A reforming parliament and not simply a remain parliament. 

It may even mean that there is a UK in which a subsequent election will take place. 

We need reform and renewal before we need another election – or referendum.

This evening Members of the UK Parliament will be asked to vote for a general election to take place on December 12th or if we are to accept the pure opportunism and self-interest of the SNP and Libs Dems maybe a few days earlier on the 9th.

But the sheer pointlessness of this evening’s tomfoolery reveals more than a ruthless gaming of the constitution. It reveals a fundamental weaknesses of a constitution when a Prime Minister and a group of different parties can come together to overturn the statutory parliamentary term to force an election on an unwilling population. And to do so at a time when our politics are broken and our national discourse poisoned by dark money, aggression and threat of violence is nothing short of criminal.

The background to today’s vote is not simply the failure of the UK Government to deliver on its Brexit policy but last week’s shocking, but not unsurprising, poll from Cardiff University which demonstrated that the threat of political violence is now an accepted part of our national life.

I hope that the majority of MPs will vote against Johnson. But I hope that they will also do more than walk around in a particular circle or whatever else counts as voting in the Palace. I hope that they will begin the work of reforming our democracy before we head to the polls either for a final say referendum on our membership of the EU or a general election to end the agony of this parliament.

So let’s start in the beginning. 

There are two reforms needed before we vote. The first is to reform the rules around the conduct of public debate and then secondly, reform to address the weakness of the UK parliament. We need a UK Parliament Reform Act. And in different ways both these issues crystallise the constitutional crisis that is unfolding in front of a deeply frustrated population.

The House of Commons’ Culture and Media Select Committee has done some sterling work over the last two years to uncover and explore the attack on our democratic structures and our democratic culture which is taking place in front of our eyes. So let’s make use of this work. I would like to see the Conservative Chair of that Committee, Damian Collins, be given the time and space and resources to put in place some legislation, with the same all party support he has enjoyed in the committee, to stop the use of social media and dark money from subverting our political discourse. And to do so immediately. Such legislation would need a sunset clause of about two or three years to provide us with the safeguards and the space to consider, and to put in place, a more enduring statutory framework.

The hard truth is that the UK is not a safe place for democracy and democratic debate today.  

And for anyone who does not believe last week’s Cardiff University poll?

Then take a look at this….

IMG_1230.jpegThis shocking image was posted on the Facebook page of the Brexit Party candidate in Blaenau Gwent five weeks ago in response to some low level abuse aimed at me. But it is not an attack on my words or actions. It is a direct personal threat towards me as an individual.

And over a month later, it’s still there. 

The image is shocking enough but the words “Karma is coming” constitutes a direct threat. The Police have taken no action and the Brexit Party appear to think that it is has a place in our public discourse. 

I do not. 

I’m happy to take part in robust political debate. But in my view this is not simply the acceptance of political violence but the active encourage of political violence and is the same threatening behaviour which is undermining our democracy.

And this is something which should play no part in our politics.  For me it is clear that the Brexit Party and the hard right wing who are responsible for this image are also responsible for the same sort of imagery which attacks ethnic minorities and the thuggish images we all see disfiguring social media which are designed to incite or encourage a violent reaction. Fundamentally my view is that Brexit needs to be sorted before we hold another UK General Election. But I do not believe that we can do that at present. In fact until we address the violence and brutality in our political and public discourse I would not support either a referendum or an election taking place.

And then the second issue is that of a constitution which has collapsed. We witness the spectacle of a government unable and unwilling to govern and a legislature unable to force the government to act. This is a lesson in the frailties of the UK constitution which have been ruthlessly exposed and exploited by the current Prime Minister. 

So whatever comes out of this mess I hope that a UK Parliament Reform Act is one of them. All too often we believe that parliamentary reform starts and ends with the Lords. But the Commons is not fit for purpose either. And this reform needs to be led from outside the institution. All too often reform process are led by MPs for whom the current structure is too comfortable and too easy.

The Palace by the Thames is fond of lecturing the world on its own virtues. But it has become a laughing stock and a model of a dysfunctional parliament. Imagine what those MPs – who happily and breathlessly run out to College Green to explain to a bored nation the ludicrous nature of their decision-making – would be saying if the Welsh Parliament acted in this way? Imagine what those commentators who are happy to enthral themselves in the detail of Westminster gossip would say if in Cardiff, our government, ministers and members behaved in such a way?

All too often over past months Westminster has been exposed not as a sovereign legislature but as a puppy parliament. Compelled to do the government’s bidding. Obeying its masters voice. 

Without the intervention of the Supreme Court and some courageous parliamentarians who put our democracy ahead of their personal interests and their party’s interests we would have already seen the birth of an elective dictatorship.

A strong and effective legislature has space and time for a government to govern and rules which allow a government to get its business done. But that legislature must also have rules which provide for proper scrutiny and for that legislature to determine its own business, when it will sit and how it is able to control its own order papers. Virtually none of the chaos of the past few months would have been allowed in modern parliaments such as those in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

But parliamentary reform must follow political and democratic reform and renewal.

In Government civil servants always advised me never to waste a good crisis. And there is as deep a crisis facing us today as we have experienced in our lifetimes. So I hope that in this crisis lies an opportunity. An opportunity for change and an opportunity for reform. An opportunity to renew our politics and to cleanse our public discourse. 

But I will finish with a warning. Unless that change happens then someone else will be hurt and that will not be either an accident or an unforeseeable tragedy. It will be the direct consequence of inaction. 

They’ll be coming for us next….

This is an article I wrote last week for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. In a week with lots happening and us trying again to get our constitution fit for the future. Again. I’m arguing that essentially too many people think that the struggle and campaign for Welsh democracy is won. My view is that whilst there are real opportunities over the coming years to achieve the sort of constitutional settlement that will allow us to move forward after over a quarter of a century of argument, there are also significant and serious threats facing us. 

There’s a common assumption amongst many commentators that Brexit is breaking up Britain. And that may be true. The potential of a border poll ending the Northern Irish state would be quite a way of marking its centenary. At the same time the Scots may also be driven by a combination of an English nationalist government and a careless London-centric culture to believe that they can do better themselves. And as things currently stand who can blame them?

The received wisdom is that this will naturally drive the ever-cautious and more-conservative-than-we’d-ever-want-people-to-know Welsh to follow a similar route. Many people, including myself, have been clear that a United Kingdom of Englandandwales is no union at all. Of course, the major flaw with the inevitability theory of the future is that it has a terrible tendency to keep letting down those people who happily believe that it will somehow change the future for them whilst they enjoy a cup of tea.

But this assumption fails to understand the volatility and power of the right wing populism that is driving not only the debate over Brexit but has captured the Conservative Party and is driving a new more aggressive and narrow sense of Britishness and using the machinery of the UK Government to help it do so. Rather than the end of Britain as a political construct I fear that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new authoritarian Britishness that recognises the plurality of political power across the countries of Britain in theory but which in reality works to undermine and to dismantle devolved political power, building a new centralised British state in its place. 

It is this ruthless and relentless Brexit populism with its intolerance of dissent that is actively creating, driving and reinforcing the divisions that have characterised and disfigured our public discourse in the last three years. And if it is prepared to describe our independent judiciary as “enemies of the people” and to challenge the democratic legitimacy and authority of the UK Parliament then just imagine the attitude towards a National Assembly which actively seeks to oppose, challenge and question its new hegemony. We can’t say that we haven’t been warned. 

And here lies the hard reality and the challenge facing those of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for Welsh democracy.  By a small margin Wales voted to leave the European Union. And it was a vote that was certainly driven in part by this new assertive British nationalism. But it was more driven by this populism. A populism rooted the failures of our current democratic institutions and political parties to respond effectively to austerity and the economic reality of life for too many people. And we shouldn’t be surprised. It is the same populism that has driven the electoral successes of right wing parties across almost every one of our Western liberal democracies. 

The unchallenged messianic appeal of Farage and his little coterie of angry shouty privately-educated millionaires means that these rich and powerful individuals can now label comprehensive schools as the incubators of entrenched privilege and the occupants of castles dismiss the sons and daughters of council estates as an elite that needs to be defeated in the name of the will of the people. And which allows them to get away with such hypocritical and sanctimonious cant. 

And it probably goes further and deeper than this. Welsh politics is completely out-of-step with this outraged and enraged right wing demagoguery. Traditionally our political debates have been marked by an acceptance of many left-of-centre and liberal ideas and assumptions. Whilst it is always a good thing to challenge the status quo and lazy assumptions, without an indigenous press and media we cannot easily hold a conversation with ourselves. Our news media and our public discourse are dominated by a London-centric view of the world, all too often our own debate is drowned out in the noise emanating from London. And for many people that’s just fine. But it means that we have far fewer tools at our disposal to challenge this new right wing. 

And I see it at first hand. I represent Blaenau Gwent. It is the place which recorded the highest leave vote in Wales. I am repeatedly told that this proves the people I represent are determined to leave the EU under any or all circumstances and that they want a return to a British Imperial Government – union jacks and blue passports. And it is true that there are a proportion of people who do want this – as there are in many places – those same people who cannot believe that the threat of a British gunboat doesn’t bring Johnny Foreigner to heel. 

But overwhelmingly my real experience is different to that. And this is another reality. 

Many, and possibly most, people in Blaenau Gwent feel that politics (and politicians) have let them down. Canvassing in the referendum campaign I spent less time discussing the rights or wrongs of the EU and more time discussing the failures of the local council and the failure of those of us on the centre-left to respond adequately to the impact of the 2008 financial crash. Austerity may have originated in SW1 but its impact is not felt in the restaurants and bars of the Palace by the Thames. The hard human impact of austerity is the daily reality of life for many of the people that I represent. And many voted to leave the EU because they couldn’t see any benefit from a status quo that had failed them. And the same right wing Brexiteers who champion the abolition of inheritance tax – which affects almost nobody in Blaenau Gwent – also tell us that the EU funding which has paid for apprenticeships and investment in our local infrastructure is simply a gravy train for a Cardiff Bay elite. 

And here is the danger for our own democratic institutions in Wales. Our National Assembly and our emerging democratic institutions mean nothing to the new right. The intense and angry intolerance of dissent that I see on social media is shaping a different sort of national debate. For these populists democracy stopped when polls closed in June 2016 and if we stand in their way then our institutions – which do not have the advantage of a centuries of cultural acceptance – will also be a target for abolition or emasculation “in the name of the people”.

Ironically this is a very un-British approach to politics. The fundamental tenets which unite most parts of our different British political traditions is a tolerance, a belief in freedom of expression, political pluralism, a respect for political opponents and for our shared institutions. The authoritarianism of this New Right is foreign to us and our history and it has no respect and no place for either those institutions and cultural norms which have been the bedrocks of British democracy over the centuries. A campaign which was founded on the belief that we need to restore our sovereignty and our democracy has now turned its sights on that sovereignty and that democracy. Again our parliaments and any democratically-elected representative who questions the will of the people is angrily dismissed. Only the Queen appears to have escaped their wrath.

So I believe that we need to make the case again for a Welsh politics and re-make the case for Welsh democratic institutions and governance. And also make the case for a politics which is tolerant and generous. A politics which is rooted in a democracy in Wales and across the UK with checks and balances and underpinned by an intelligent and open debate and a democratic culture. And of course it is this openness and this tolerance that the new right wing Brexiteer populists hate and fear most of all. 

It’s time to call out the hard right wing and end the consensus that gives them oxygen

It’s a surprise to no-one that Mark Reckless has re-ratted. His reputation was already tarnished in Conservative circles when he arrived on the Conservative benches. That reputation now lies in tatters on every side of the chamber. 

But it is all too easy to simply attack the self-abasement of the carpetbagger from Kent. In reality this exposes something which has been the untold story of the current Assembly. 

It is only three years since the election of seven UKIP members was supposed to shake things up.  In fact for much of the time they haven’t even turned up.

They were going to break the “cosy consensus” in the Bay. 

Since then apart from smoking some curious substances in hotel rooms, making nasty tacky abusive videos, wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayers cash on offices which are never open,  it is difficult to see what they have brought to the Bay apart from bile, hatred, xenophobia and idleness.   

They have never been subjected to same scrutiny as other Members and as such they have managed to get away with…. and whisper it gently… a widespread recognition that these “independents” and “Ukippers” do not deliver the goods. They do not work as hard or undertake any of the representative roles that other Members (of all parties) undertake as a matter of course.

But today’s events mean that we are at a crossroads. And our democracy is being undermined by a hard right wing who practise xenophobia as a political weapon and prejudice as a political cred. These people have never stood for election in Wales. Their names have never appeared on a ballot paper anywhere. They have never subjected themselves to the scrutiny of a constituency or accountable to the party that selected them. They are an organised fraud. Chancers and clowns who believe that the rules do not apply to them. And they want us to pay for it. 

And it is a challenge to all the other political parties.  Today’s events are making a mockery of our democracy and our democratic structures and processes. It is fundamentally unjust that the people who voted for a particular political party now see that vote being stolen and used by people they did not elect to be treated as their own personal property. 

So what do we do?

I believe that we do a number of things. Firstly we make it absolutely clear that none of these people have a personal mandate which enables them to join or create any political grouping as they choose. They have never won an election. And despite their loud and shrill complaints that the “will of the people” is supreme and sovereign they appear happy to dispense with that same “will of the people” when it is inconvenient. Reckless was elected as a UKIP member. He walked to the Conservatives. And now he has walked again. He has no legitimacy. And no democratic mandate. And neither do any of his friends. 

As a consequence of this illegitimacy we should not recognise them as a group and not accord them the rights and privileges (and taxpayers funding) that this status would normally demand.

And then we look hard at how taxpayers resources are allocated within the National Assembly. It is neither right nor proper that people who walk away from the parties that elected them are funded to do so. At present additional funding is provided not only to groups but to independents as well. This should stop immediately.

Finally we should review the standing orders that allow this nonsense to happen. The National Assembly’s standing orders were written in order to promote a consensual and an inclusive approach to politics. And I agree with this laudable ambition. But this is now being systematically abused. And our standing orders should reflect the hard reality of this abuse rather than the hopes and aspirations of twenty years ago. 

And we cannot forget the politics of this either. These people and their poison are able to thrive because all too often our politics fails our people. 

The people that I represent in Blaenau Gwent want more than a daily struggle to make ends meet. Austerity is the reality of life for too many people and the easy lazy lies of the Leave Campaign promised the opportunity to make a fresh start. The Leave Campaign was always a tool of the hard right wing. Now they are an organised force that plants the seeds of hatred and prejudice in communities across our country. 

Our response must be to lock them out of our democracy. In the first instance we do not allow them to undermine our national parliamentary democracy. And then – and more importantly – we defeat them. I want Welsh Labour to recognise the threat from this right wing and to lead this political movement. To win not only the next election but to win the hearts and minds of the people who currently feel that well-meaning speeches and resolutions do not reflect the day-to-day reality of their lives. And creating that political movement must be our priority. 

You can’t simply wish for a million Welsh speakers. You need to legislate for it as well….

The Welsh Government has today announced that it is withdrawing the Welsh Language Bill. This was a reforming piece of legislation which was designed to breathe life into our manifesto commitment to create a million Welsh speakers by 2050. I launched it with a consultation in the National Eisteddfod in 2017. And despite the noisy opposition from a few in the Welsh Language Society, its broad vision was welcomed and it began a serious debate about the future of Welsh language policy.

My initial reaction on appointment was to scrap the standards and legal minefield that they had created. But I was persuaded that the standards were working in creating new statutory rights for those of us who speak and use the language. The proposals were designed to provide a solid basis for the development of policy and planning for the future of the language.

I greatly regret the Government’s decision today to withdraw the Welsh Language Bill. This was a radical proposal to not only overhaul the bureaucracy that has turned Welsh language support into a quagmire of regulation and red tape. But it also underpinned the vision of creating a million speakers.

Without a firm statutory basis for the delivery of this vision I fear now that the government is not only shooting itself in the foot but is preferring the easy route of no change and no ambition.

The legislation was designed to create a Welsh language powerhouse. A powerhouse that would promote and encourage and normalise the use of Welsh. It was to become an international example of minority language planning. We certainly now cannot move beyond the limited ambition of the 2011 Measure and will not be able to legislate for language use in the private sector.

This is letting down all the thousands of people for whom the million speakers vision was creating a momentum for fundamental change not only in policy but how the Welsh Government operates. The legislation had the support of a broad consensus across the Welsh language community. That community will be left wondering what the policy is and what is the ambition for our language?

The Welsh Government had an opportunity to realise a radical vision that would have transformed the future of our country and secured the future of our national language. Radicalism and reform in government is difficult. I know. I have always pursued a route of reform. And we must not retreat from a reforming agenda.

I am grateful to the minister for discussing this with me prior to the publication of her decision. I hope that she will reflect on this decision. I fear that this will be seen as the point where the seriousness of the government on this policy was brought into question. And I fear that it will also be seen as the point where those voices for whom this policy and this vision were never a priority will feel emboldened to dismiss language policy and pour scorn on the objective we set ourselves in our manifesto.

It’s time for Labour to rediscover its radical roots on Europe

Standing amid the wreckage of her government and her authority Theresa May has got one thing right. The UK Parliament is clear on what it does not want but doesn’t have a clue what it does want. But unhappily that also seems to be the position of the UK Government. Openness and flexibility do not make a policy. And neither are these laudable ambitions a substitute for a policy. 

Somehow in a little over two years we’ve moved from a debate on Brexit which is rooted in more cash for the NHS to martial law, food shortages, empty shelves and drugs running out. From the sunlit uplands of new and open trade but closed borders to a situation where the UK Government is hiring every ferry – and even ferry companies with no ferries – simply to keep our people from starving. And whilst they are hiring these ferries every day brings another announcement of another business leaving the country. Even the Brexiteers are on the move. And the Government that has presided over this catastrophic failure of policy is not even crashing in polls. 

And being a member of the Labour Party, simply pointing out the chaos caused by Theresa May’s incompetence is not a policy either. I have worried for some time that the UK Party Leadership doesn’t have a clue what to do or where to go on Brexit. And unhappily over the last few weeks they’ve proved it. And on the biggest issue of our time. That’s really something. 

It’s all too easy to fall into a state of utter despair with politics today. The collective failure of the political class to lead over the last few years is an indictment of not simply individuals but the system as well. And on the left we have to bear a significant part of this guilt. Our collective failure to provide a coherent and convincing response to austerity has led to Labour voters voting for Brexit. Forget what the pollsters tell you. Brexit is happening because working class communities voted for it. 

And that means we in Labour have a special responsibility to lead. And leading is more than running scared from difficult issues or buying into a right-wing agenda born of a rotten media and fuelled by despair with politics as usual. 

The confusion from Labour’s Westminster front bench has made me wince in pain. I have seen no senior UK Labour leadership figure provide reasoned intelligent leadership over these frenetic weeks. Not on principle or based upon our values. Every interview a different policy. Every statement a new approach. I have seen equivocation, excuses and hand-wringing. And after all of that do we still claim that we want a general election? Wow. 

And all of this drift came home to roost on Monday evening where the UK Labour leadership didn’t appear to know where it stood on the UK Immigration Bill. Diane Abbott stood at the despatch box making a poor speech where the policy had changed by the time she sat down. The compromise was a typically cynical attempt to have and eat cakes. Even Boris would have blushed. Voting against the Bill but doing so on a one-line whip is the worst of all worlds. No courage. No conviction. No leadership. This is not simply abandoning our values. It is trampling them underfoot in an unseemly and desperate attempt to appease a nasty hard-right agenda. And all this from a leadership that constantly lectures us on their socialist purity. 

So there needs to be a fundamental change in Labour’s approach.

And allow me make an unusual and novel suggest. Why not do the right thing?

Labour cannot continue to treat Brexit as a rather tiresome management issue. It is the defining issue of our age and that means rooting our approach in our principles and values. The Welsh Labour Government was right to set out last week the measures they are taking to protect Wales in the event of a catestrophic no-deal failure. But you can’t take the politics out of politics.

And no longer can we continue with the fiction that whatever happens with Brexit we will continue with our spending plans and with our UK programme for government. Any sort of Brexit will hit the poorest communities hardest. It will reduce economic activity and with that the tax income available to spend on key services. In short if we continue our current path then we will not be in a position to deliver our manifesto. And that’s even if there is a general election. And if we win that election. And I’m not convinced that the people of Britain will vote for a party that does not know it stands on this crucial issue. Thatcher was never liked and never popular. But she was respected because she stood up for what she believed to be right. There’s a lesson there for Labour. It may not be popular everywhere – and I represent Blaenau Gwent – but I believe that the people have more respect for politicians who believe in enduring values more than courting passing popularity.

So where does this leave Labour’s policy on Brexit?

It means that we stand up for internationalism and against the thinly-veiled chauvinism that we’ve seen take root in our politics over recent years. We stand up for open-borders and an inclusive politics. An economy rooted in fair work and a fair distribution of wealth. In short we argue for a different economic model and one shared with our friends in the EU. We argue for the EU as the future for nations to share sovereignty in the common interest of our citizens. We celebrate our common European heritage, history and civilisation. And we seek to play a leading role in shaping the EU of the future and not shrink away from difficult challenges. So we argue our case based upon our values. We stop the Brexit bandwagon today. Certainly we stop a no-deal Brexit but we must also vote to suspend Article 50 as well. We do not facilitate Brexit either by accident or design.

And then we campaign for a second referendum. Our party’s democracy is not served á la carte. It is a fixed-price menu and conference was clear. The UK leadership cannot argue for greater internal democracy and then ignore it when it does not suit their prejudices. And a second referendum will be the crucial first step in rebuilding trust in our broken politics. It should be no surprise to anyone that people do not believe or trust politicians after the last few miserable weeks. 

That means we need Labour to state clearly that Brexit simply cannot take place in March and neither can it happen without a clear democratic mandate based upon the facts and not the easy, lazy and fake assumptions of two years ago. And then in that campaign Labour will speak up for those people who have borne the brunt of austerity and who have faced the reality of welfare reforms and public service cuts. But we will not blame others from elsewhere for the problems caused by the policies of our own government. We will not stand by whilst people are labeled by their accents, the colour of their or where they happen to worship. And we will not vote for legislation that places those prejudices on the statute book.

It’s a time for leadership. And leadership based on principle rather than expediency. I do not believe that future generations will thank those politicians or parties who ducked these fundamental issues.

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.