Is Labour leadable…?


Well. That was a terrible week. Probably the only thing that will unite the party at the moment is a recognition that this election is doing us more harm than good.

The media’s obsession with Jeremy Corbyn together with the social media-driven debate is taking us away from where most people in the UK would want the Labour Party to be. But it also seems to have clouded over the real issues confronting us a party. As a consequence we are discussing the campaign itself rather than having the debate that we need to have on the economy and society and how we transform ourselves back into a potential party of government. And that’s really not good news for whoever wins.

I had hoped that these summer months may have been spent having a real conversation as a party and as a movement with those people who did not support us in May. And understanding not only why we lost but why we lost so very badly. It may be that the shock of the actual result, a government with a small Conservative majority that has already been defeated in Parliament, has blinded us to the hard reality that this was not simply an election lost, but was an historically bad result for the party.

There seems to a sense in some quarters that we will be able to return to government through the back door. The cosy idea that Scotland will come back to a revitalised left wing party that will at the same time be able to advance through English marginals and win back those Welsh socialist citadels like Cardiff North. It’s a quaint and happy illusion. I am told in hushed and excited tones that there are tens of thousands of young voters and Green voters and those mystical disillusioned Labour voters who will drive this socialist movement to power. The really odd thing about this honestly-held view is that it entirely and completely discounts the influence, power and electoral position of the Conservative Party.

This conspiracy of collective denial does not recognise that to win in 2020 we need to persuade many hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of people, to vote Labour rather than Conservative. To win power we need to win Conservative votes and Conservative seats. And a party moving quickly and further to the left is unlikely to become more attractive to those people who didn’t trust us with their family’s homes and jobs and futures three months ago. And a leader who oversees this process is not going to be a more attractive occupant of Downing Street that Ed Miliband. And if you don’t believe it then read the Smith Institute’s report on why Labour lost and your blood will run cold.

However this is not simply a call to the past. To become electorally attractive we need to to do far more than rehash triangulation. Even Blair accepts that New Labour was of its time and place. Which isn’t now. And again it’s some on the left that seem unable to move on.

The aggressive, almost misogynist, bullying of Liz Kendall and the labelling of her and her supporters as “Tories” is appalling and is something that many of us will reflect upon and regret. Alongside this is the ritual recital that there is such a thing as a “true Labour” and this is defined by the endless repetition of tired cliches and unchallenged dogmatic banalities.

So where does that leave us? We need to move away from this Facebook-driven superficiality and root our discussions in the reality of real life facing most people and those communities that we would wish again to represent. We certainly need to be able to appeal to the different nations of the UK, but as well as recognising the new importance of identity in politics we also need to reach beyond it to articulate a vision of economy and society that is at one with our values but which is also rooted in the reality of where we find ourselves today. And the most important starting point is answering those critical questions on the economy.

I find it odd that as a party we seem unable to bring ourselves to celebrate the successes of the Blair Governments. One of the greatest successes was the economic growth that we were able to sustain over much of that time and in doing so we reduced society’s inequality, created jobs and this was the only time in recent history where we actually started reducing poverty in all parts of the UK. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, led an international response to a financial crisis rooted in the real estate market in the United States and which threatened to destroy the entire Western economy. Only two years after this hurricane struck our shores we were seeing the beginnings of recovery across the economy. The Conservatives’ success in both blaming Labour for the crisis and the aftermath is one of the great confident tricks of recent history. It was only surpassed by their ability to create a much worse situation and to blame us for that as well.

Our inability to win this argument is at the root of Conservative success and our continuing failure to articulate an alternative vision of the economy should be at the heart of this leadership election. And unless we argue that we were successful in government, why on earth would anyone trust us with the responsibility of government again? Rather than that we have a social-media election where slogans and easy solutions take the place of hard thinking and hard talking. And we also allow the right-wing to characterise and frame our debates for us.

When this harsh reality is pointed out, all too often we are told that what people want is an anti-austerity party that is true to itself, its history and traditions. But is it really what people want?

I haven’t seen any rush to support a party that regards Greece as a good model for its economic policy. And what is worse is that the people who would bear the brunt of this illusional approach to politics are those same vulnerable people that I went into politics to serve. Greece should be a warning to us and not a route map.

Unless and until we answer these fundamental questions on the economy then we will remain angry bystanders in British politics. I remain astonished that people I know and whose views I respect seem quite comfortable with this notion of opposition. They almost seem quite relieved that we don’t need to take hard and tough decisions and to do government. They forget Nye Bevan’s advice to Jennie Lee at the time of the disaffiliation of the old Independent Labour Party – “You can be pure. Pure and impotent”.

Personally I have no patience with any idea that opposition is either comfortable or a good place to be. And anyone who disagrees should join me for my next advice surgery in Blaenau Gwent and bear witness to the human impact of the careless decisions taken by the new UK Government.

I wrote some weeks ago that I would be supporting Andy Burnham in this election. It is only Andy that has the authority and authenticity to both speak to people who worry about their family’s futures and who is as comfortable speaking of the wider vision for the future of the UK. And he is able to articulate that new argument for the future rather than simply refight old battles using the language of yesterday.

And there are millions of people depending on Labour to get this right. We simply cannot and must not let them down.

It suits England so it’s not going to change…


I will start with a warning. This is a post for agricultural anoraks.

One of those things that can sometimes dominate debate in agriculture and which is almost completely unknown to the rest of the population is the levy system. Without going into too much detail, the levy is a payment made by producers to a levy board in return for support in terms of marketing and business development. Despite agriculture being almost entirely devolved this levy system remains one of those few areas that continues to be administrated from London.

In Wales the red meat levy paid by pork, lamb or beef producers is paid to the Welsh levy board – Hybu Cig Cymru – the amount of that levy is determined by Welsh Ministers. Hybu Cig Cymru do a great job and is a model that could help other sectors. All other levies are paid to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, for Wales that means mainly horticulture and dairy as well as meat products from England. In addition to this there is also Seafish which, as the name suggests, is the UK’s seafood levy board.

These boards are responsible for providing support to producers, supporting the supply chain and marketing the goods. And in my view, their performance in supporting Welsh producers is dismal. In my experience the AHDB is an organisation that is almost completely devoted to the interests of the industry in England and cares little for producers in Wales.

This has been something which has tried the patience of many ministers and many government officials and over which there has been intensive lobbying over many years. And still there is no sign of change.

In three years in government I had the opportunity of meeting the chair and chief executive of the AHDB on one occasion. A sad 15 minute meeting in Aberystwyth. They appeared to have little to say to me. On the appointment of a new Chair I was persuaded by officials to write an effusive letter of congratulations and an invitation to Wales was issued. Even my most patient officials gave up the cause when we had received no reply some months later. “It’s very disappointing minister…” Too right it is.

This is a problem for us. I’ll give you an example. In terms of red meat, although we have our own board in Wales we lose over a £1m every year because the levy is collected at the point of slaughter and the processors are overwhelmingly concentrated in England. The same issue affects the Scots in exactly the same way. Together the Welsh and Scottish levy boards commissioned some research which was published in January 2013. I remember reading the first draft during a break in meetings in Brussels. Myself and the Scottish minister asked the UK (English) minister for his views. He didn’t challenge the findings, he simply groaned and signed a lot. He simply wanted the problem to go away.

The UK Government knows that the system doesn’t work but appears to have no intention at all of dealing with it.

Essentially there are three reasons put forward to maintain the current system. Firstly, that it’s easiest and simplest and we already have the structures in place to make it work – in essence it’s too much hassle to change anything. Secondly that the system works really well for Wales, the problem being that we neither understand or appreciate how good it is for us. We need to improve our communications. And then thirdly and finally, that there’s no pressure for change from English producers because the existing system benefits them.

This final reason of course is the true reason why change does not happen. I remember being told by a UK minister that change is impossible because the current regime suits England. He smiled and I smiled. We both recognised the unspoken truth. And a committee was duly established to improve communications.

And that’s why change is so urgent.

I have already written that Welsh agriculture needs more and faster reform. The levy system may hold a key to delivering this change. It is a system which is funded by the industry and one where control lies outside of government. It is industry-led and industry-focussed. The key for me is that the levy board must certainly include those who pay the levy but also those businesses who process and sell the produce – as well as crucially those who will be buying the produce. And whilst the inequity in red meat is an obvious and urgent imperative, it is not alone. Throughout my time in office I did not see the value for Welsh producers from either DairyCo or from Seafish.

I would like to see a Welsh Food Board, funded by the levies, and which would work with producers, processors, retailers and government to strengthen food production in Wales and to develop new markets for that food produce. This is an industry with not only the potential to transform the economy of rural Wales but also to be an example of what the sustainable green economy can achieve in terms of jobs and incomes and tackling poverty.

And a Welsh Food Board will make an immediate impact. Take the dairy sector for instance, currently suffering some real difficulties due to the Russian boycott of EU produce, a Welsh Food Board could provide the same support for this industry in both business development and new market development that HCC already does for Welsh lamb and beef. And that could help deliver real improvements for Welsh producers. I would guess that on-farm support would be more valuable to producers than the stream of increasingly-gloomy market data that DairyCo currently produce. This is an area that is never going to dominate the debate on the future constitutional settlement but it is an area where change must come as a part of the wider discussions on the next Wales Bill.

The Welsh food industry has the potential to grow significantly over the coming years. But it is crucial that we maintain as much value within Wales as possible, that we export value-added products and not simply the raw materials. Working with the new Rural Development Plan a Welsh Food Board has the potential to transform how this industry grows over the coming years. It can also create new employment in some of our poorest communities and provide much wider and great economic value for the whole rural community.

And if you want to see how it will work then you simply need to look across the Irish Sea where Bord Bia with an annual budget of over €40m is driving forward the Irish food industry. With a focus on industry development, marketing and the highly innovative Origin Green programme it is doing today what we talk about doing tomorrow. And that’s why change is not only important but urgent.

Leaving the EU – the nightmare facing Welsh agriculture


The new EU Agriculture Commissioner visited the Royal Welsh Show on Monday. Later in the week the UK Prime Minister will visit the Showground. It’s a shame that they didn’t meet.

The Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is a former Irish Environment Minister who found the reform of local government there every bit as difficult as our own Leighton Andrews is finding here. He is the first Irish Agriculture Commissioner since Ray MacSharry whose name is still quoted in certain circles as the man who finally managed to set CAP on the road to reform. It was his 1992 agreement which, although a compromise, is widely seen as the beginning of a process that saw a move away from guaranteed high prices to a system of direct income support which is more easily managed by governments. A double-edged sword maybe, but without that fundamental change it is difficult to see how the CAP could have survived in any form at all.

So now all eyes are on Phil Hogan. And expectations are high. And for those of us who favour further reform he has made a good start.

He was very clear earlier this month that he would not intervene in the dairy sector, telling an unhappy Council of Ministers that the industry will need to recognise market signals and respond to market pressures. His good friend, and former Council President, the popular Irish Minister, Simon Coveney, must have been disappointed. Hogan has shown every intention of pursuing a reformist agenda and one which will reflect the wider political, financial and economic priorities of President Juncker’s Commission.

And this is important. CAP is one area of policy that is quoted by both those people who wish to leave the EU and those of us who wish to remain in the EU as justification for their position. It will be a central part of our political debate over the coming years and the positions adopted by Hogan and the Commission will influence that debate. Many farmers will be disappointed or will disagree with the way that CAP is being implemented in their country and certainly many people disagreed with my decisions as minister but I can think of no farmer who believes that they themselves, or the industry as a whole, would be better off outside the European Union.

The Welsh Minister, Rebecca Evans, is absolutely right to focus on the importance of the EU to Welsh agriculture and to rural Wales during the Commissioner’s visit. The simple fact is that without CAP and without the payment system that it brings with it, Welsh agriculture and the rural economy would collapse tomorrow. Taken together CAP funds provide over £250m to invest in individual farm businesses and the wider agricultural economy every year. But it does far more than that. In terms of welfare and husbandry standards it provides a quality standard that is recognised across the world. It also provides access to a structured and regulated market which underpins consumer confidence and despite current difficulties it is essential to the future success of the industry.

And if we were not in the EU we would still need to maintain these minimum standards and meet these demands. We would still have to fill in the forms – the red tape wouldn’t disappear but the funding that CAP also delivers would disappear. And we would also have to comply without any influence at all over the rules and how they are agreed. In short it would be the worst of all worlds. This is also where the debate on EU membership becomes entirely disingenuous.

The Tory/UKIP argument that either the UK or Welsh Governments would introduce a system of domestic subsidies is fanciful at best. Which party would prioritise direct funding for farmers over the NHS or over schools or over new roads or railways? And if they did so then how would they win an election? I actually believe in the importance of these funding streams. I argued for the maintenance of direct support for farmers whilst listening to UK Tory ministers arguing for the immediate abolition of CAP direct payments. But I’m not sure that I could go to the voters of Blaenau Gwent and argue for those payments rather than funding our local NHS. And I can’t think of many politicians in any party who think differently – whatever they may say in Llanelwedd.

And despite all the criticisms made of CAP, there is one aspect of it that is inescapable. It works.

I well remember the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, happily launching the UK Government’s Balance of Competences exercise which would examine all aspects of the Uk’s relationship with the EU. This, he told a hushed and expectant meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, would dominate the 2015 General Election. It would frame and shape the manifestoes of all the political parties, it would enable us to make judgements based on a hard-headed analysis of the pros and cons of EU membership. He could barely contain his excitement. Unhappily for the Tories and UKIP this hard-headed analysis demonstrated that, on balance, EU competence over agriculture made sense and was beneficial for Welsh farmers. It proposed no change to the status quo.

In fact the whole exercise was a disaster for those who expected it to make the case for a UK exit. A whole new department was created in the Foreign Office where their greatest minds were set to work on this career-defining work. And page after page and chapter after chapter it finds that the current balance of competences between the EU and member states broadly makes sense. It should therefore be a surprise to no-one that Hague’s great bright hopes for the exercise turned to dust. Today, only three years after it was launched, no-one remembers the exercise. And it certainly did not dominate the general election, inform our judgements or influence our manifestoes. It’s been so deeply buried that it’s even difficult to find on Google. A lesson learnt.

Cameron’s policy of seeking a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is potentially the most destructive threat facing Welsh agriculture today. Many on the Conservative benches in Cardiff Bay criticised me for my decision to transfer 15% of the subsidies paid to farmers to another budget to support not only agriculture but the wider rural economy. But their own Prime Minister doesn’t simply  appear to care little for this 15% but wishes to abandon the other 85% as well.

It is first time that I can remember any UK Government actively pursuing a policy that is so detrimental to Welsh national interests. I know that Rebecca Evans will be making the case for Welsh and UK membership of the EU and I trust that everyone who wishes to see Welsh agriculture grow and flourish will join her in doing so.

Agriculture needs honesty and not easy soundbites


Today Llanelwedd again becomes the centre of Welsh rural life. The Royal Welsh Show is a sparkling, vibrant and life-enhancing event. It is something which we have created in Wales of which we should be intensely proud. For four days we celebrate Welsh life at its richest, from food to environment, to recognising the value of excellence in all sorts of rural skills and an appreciation of knowledge and love of the countryside. Throughout all of this a unique culture inheritance which has been bequeathed to us. And at its heart it is a celebration of people.

And as such it is the exact opposite of the political debate on agriculture. Which is shame because farmers deserve so much more.

Whenever a debate on agriculture, or in fact any aspect of life in rural Wales, takes place in the National Assembly it follows precisely the same format. Every time. Today it is inevitably led by Llyr Gruffydd for whose approach to rural policy Dylan’s vivid “Bible black” description may well have been written.

Using his best funeral tones Llyr lists all the problems and difficulties facing farming. He paints a picture that would have given Dante nightmares. And at the end of this description of an industry and community that is beyond all hope, he delivers his verdict. Which is always that the only solution is ever increasing amounts of public support.

If the electorate were ever to be unkind to Llyr then he would soon find himself in demand as a professional mourner.

I am, of course, being terribly unfair to Llyr who is one of the most effective voices on the opposition benches and will certainly fancy his chances if Leanne falls from grace. And he’d be a serious candidate. But my wider point on the nature of the debate on agriculture in Cardiff Bay is what is important here – whoever the opposition spokesperson happens to be – the story is always the same.

When replying to such debates as a minister I asked my officials for two things – firstly the numbers on prices, production and efficiency – and secondly the latest press releases from the farming unions. I worked on the basis that opposition parties would not do their homework but would simply repeat the lines from the latest press releases. I remain disappointed that I was rarely wrong.

And it is this which does a great industry a great disservice.

Agriculture is the backbone of not only the rural economy but also our culture. As well as a food producer it is the custodian of our water resources, environment and biodiversity. It is critical to all of us that farming not only survives but flourishes. Most farmers know that they are being infantised by politicians who are more interested in their votes than giving them good advice.

From the moment of my appointment as a minister for agriculture I had a clear agenda and vision which I knew that would probably not be wholly welcomed throughout the industry. I was also determined to do things differently. I had seen previous ministers managing for the next week or month, throwing money at fundamental problems which needed more thought than cash. And I had watched as ministers tried to placate and almost buy favour with vested interests. I was determined to put in place structures for the long term and not seek short term popularism; determined to shape the new Common Agricultural Policy and determined that we put in place new structures to support a sustainable food production system in Wales; determined to put in place sustainable means of production that would be both financially and environmentally resilient. And finally and perhaps most importantly, I was determined to tell the truth as I saw it, to lead a serious debate about how we support change and reform in Welsh agriculture. And I hoped that it was this commitment to honesty and reform which would become the hallmark of my time in office. It’s for others to judge, and for time to tell, whether this will be true or not.

So where are we today? We’ve probably had a far more serious debate about the future of agriculture in Wales over the past few years than we’ve had at any time in the past. My first significant decision was to appoint Gareth Williams to conduct a thorough audit of how we manage and regulate agriculture. Others had demanded a “red tape” review which placed the onus for reform on government alone. I was clear that reform was needed in both government and industry. And that this reform included cultural change and not simply a bonfire of grant application forms. Initially welcomed cautiously by the industry and equally as cautiously by my own officials, Gareth created the basis for a different way of working. We succeeded in changing the way that government does business more than we achieved cultural change in the industry but that was always going to be the case.

In retrospect it was my decision not to offer compensation for the snowfall in the spring of 2013 that crystallised this debate and clearly signalled the later decision to transfer 15% from pillar one – direct payments to farmers – to pillar two – the wider rural development plan. And it was the excellent advice from officials to appoint former NFU officer, Kevin Roberts, to write a report on the future resilience of Welsh agriculture which gave us both the practical tools and the intellectual case to help create the future pattern of public support for the industry. It was this report and this approach to business resilience which laid the basis for the current £1 billon Rural Development Plan. I’m delighted that the current minister, Rebecca Evans, has decided to carry forward this approach – albeit with a more ready and infectious smile than I could ever manage.

Kevin argued the case for reform in agricultural production and management and set out the argument that it is in the interests of farmers that more reform takes place and does so at a pace which gives Welsh agriculture an advantage over its other European competitors. And he also demonstrated that many producers are already changing the way they farm. In all sectors we have seen farmers driving change and investing in the future of their own businesses. Our ambition now must be to use public resources to help make this the norm throughout the industry.

Any hope for those opposed to reform that a the newly-appointed Irish Commissioner would slow down the pace of reform were pretty comprehensively shattered a couple of weeks ago when he made clear that there would not be any additional aid for the dairy sector and that he remained committed to further market-facing reforms of CAP. This commitment reinforces my own judgement that investment in greater efficiency and market-development is the best way to secure the future for agriculture in Wales. Reliance on subsidies has not provided farmers with either a decent standard of living or with business sustainability. The old system has simply allowed inefficient producers to dominate the debate and to hold back the industry as a whole. It’s time that the best producers were supported to become world-beaters.

Which brings us back to where we started in Llanelwedd. Like many others I want to see my children enjoy not only the Show but also the cultural vibrancy that it represents. I want to see an agricultural industry that not only creates world-class produce but one that is sustainable for the future. And that means more reform and not less. And a faster pace of reform and not a slower pace. And that will not be achieved when we have a political debate which is based on easy speeches and soundbites which please vested interests but avoids tackling the fundamental economic issues that will underpin future success for the industry. My experience tells me that many farmers will welcome and would prefer a debate which is based on the economic and environmental realities of agriculture – today and tomorrow. With a subsidy regime that is being eroded by public opinion, political decisions and by market forces it is only a hard focus on efficient production and investment that will secure the future. Farmers understand and recognise that. It’s a tragedy that politicians try to duck it.

And the irony is that by avoiding this debate we threaten the long-term future of an industry and a community that we claim to be supporting. No change and no reform and a continued reliance on a declining subsidy will cause hardship and business failure for too many people – the numbers tell an unavoidable story. So let’s change the way that we do things in Wales. Let’s be honest with ourselves and embrace a reform agenda which will establish Welsh agriculture as the market-leader across the European Union. And if we can do that we would do something very special for all of our children.

Tally ho


Most politicians become used to reading colourful and sometimes not entirely flattering descriptions of themselves on social media. One of the more surprising descriptions of myself that I have read recently was “Alun Davies – the farmers’ friend”. It wasn’t meant to be kind. And I must say it didn’t always feel like that either.

The context was the forthcoming vote on hunting and the author appeared to be sure that they knew my views on the matter. They clearly didn’t. I oppose hunting with dogs and I hope that the House of Commons will vote down the UK Government’s grubby little attempt to undermine the Hunting Act when it is eventually put to the vote. In withdrawing the vote the new UK Government appears that it is not only duplicitous but incompetent. It is also demonstrates the power that the SNP block can exercise on a government with a tiny majority and MPs that it cannot control. So much for the “Vote Labour – Get SNP” line we were fed in May.

But back to hunting. Over the three years that I was an agriculture minister I never faced any requests to find ways of re-introducing hunting with dogs in Wales. It was never raised with me as an issue by either the farming unions or any other well-respected countryside group such as the CLA. It was raised with me once by the Countryside Alliance but that seemed only to confirm that despite their re-branding they remain no more than simply a pro-hunting pressure group.

In fact throughout those three years I held a series of meetings which discussed country sports and the rural economy but the re-introduction of hunting with dogs as either means of pest control or as an economic activity was never a part of those discussions. It simply wasn’t relevant.

And this is the key point. Despite all the noise and the fury and the commotion caused by the pro-hunting lobby, it represents only a small minority of people in the rural community. One of the most destructive and far-reaching aspects of the last debate on hunting was how the Countryside Alliance succeeded in turning the debate into an “us against them” – rural against urban – struggle. And they did this quite deliberately and for purely narrow self-serving reasons. They knew the truth. They knew that there was – and that there is today – a significant majority of people in both urban and rural communities who detest hunting. A straight campaign for hunting could never succeed. So aided by lazy and short-sighted opposition politicians, they turned the campaign into one which was not about hunting but about the “rural way of life” and to defend rural people against an attack on their “culture” and their “rights” by an urban Labour Party which cared nothing for rural communities. And in doing this they succeeded.

I remember feeling a real concern about this in the last Assembly, so much so that I led a short debate on the subject which sent some Tories potty with rage. As a minister and as someone who has represented the Mid and West Wales region I have been struck time and time again by how completely this confidence trick has succeeded in creating division, a very real and wholly destructive cultural divide between people sometimes living only a few miles apart. I have met numerous people who are either farmers or who live in rural Wales who are afraid to speak their minds about hunting because they fear the consequences of being seen to be letting down their community.

I hope that later today the House of Commons will send a clear message to Cameron and the rest of his government that hunting with dogs needs to be not simply regulated and limited but banned completely. But that’s not enough. Blair’s equivocation over hunting for the whole of his first government and the first half of his second government created the space for a campaign whose malign legacy still lingers and disfigures too much of our popular debate in Wales where it also affects other aspects of policy from agricultural support to the rural economy, environmental and conservation policy. And it is this almost-cultural legacy and not simply the campaign against hunting that we must now address and overcome.

And we need to do so in a way which takes seriously the real concerns that many people will share about the future of our rural communities. Whether that is about the future of agriculture and the family farm, jobs in rural settings, the future of the Welsh language, housing or access to services such as social care or mobile phones or broadband – essentially there is a whole rural policy agenda which is basically a Welsh Labour agenda. And it could be a Welsh Labour voice that can reflect, articulate and deliver these priorities. The new Rural Development Plan may be the best place to start. In government I was able to negotiate the biggest RDP that we’ve ever seen in Wales – against a backdrop of public spending cuts and huge pressures in departmental spending – as well as some fierce opposition from all opposition parties egged on by the farming unions. This is an opportunity to not only make an historic change in the way that we do environmental management but to invest in the future of agriculture and to address issues of rural poverty for the first time and to invest in the wider rural economy. This is potentially one of the most exciting new agendas that we can pursue in Wales. And if we do so successfully then we will not only remove hunting from the political agenda once and for all but we will also bridge and then remove this cultural legacy of that campaign. And that will do more for the future of rural Wales and those people living in rural communities than any amount of hunting with dogs will ever achieve.

Leading Labour


Rarely are politicians floating voters. It’s the nature of the job. Whatever the election we’ll vote for our tribe. It’s true that sometimes we’ll do so more cheerfully and enthusiastically than at other times. But we’ll look down the ballot paper, find the name, put a cross in the box and that’s that.

Internal elections are different. The hunter becomes the hunted. No longer do tribal loyalties save us from the pain and terror of decision-making. We do not even have the party whip to protect us. And the current Labour leadership election has probably made floating voters of more battle-hardened politicos than any other election I can remember.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure to meet with and to talk with three of the four candidates – Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper have all made the journey to Cardiff Bay and I’m glad that their efforts were appreciated by most of those that they met. Clearly the visit was more fruitful for some than for others but that is the nature of such things.

Yesterday’s hustings event in Cardiff was another opportunity to see all the candidates on the same platform. Most sparkled. I was more impressed with both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper than I expected to be. And ironically Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be the least interesting and most conservative choice. He said nothing that either surprised me or challenged my thinking.

But all of this is a preamble. Let’s cut to the chase – I’ll be voting for Andy Burnham.

And here’s why.

Deciding how to vote is always a very personal thing. For me there are some questions about the future direction of the Labour Party and our place in Wales and the UK which stand out – the economic challenge is first amongst equals but the future shape of the UK; our place in the EU and the world; and then the inequality that almost defines the UK are all essential issues for me.

Over the course of these conversations and meetings many of the candidates articulated a vision that spoke of a party that is at once more settled than I anticipated but also one which is feeling curiously and strangely out of place with many of the communities we seek to represent. We know that we’ve been beaten not only by the Tories and the SNP but we’re also aware that we’ve lost touch with traditional Labour voters who all too often feel disappointed by today’s Labour, turning to UKIP or turning off. And the answer to that disappointment is not to either chase the Tories or – even worse – UKIP. So what do we do?

Happily there has been widespread agreement that we need a new fair funding structure for Wales to protect our public services and to provide the means to invest in the future for our people; that we need to strengthen and deepen the devolution settlement and then that we need a federal Labour Party which mirrors this new settlement. All of this is a good and positive but its only a start. It creates a basis for a much more fundamental and shared agreement on the shape of the UK than we’ve seen in the past. It also means that we can focus on economic and social policies without the seemingly endless debates about the constitution that we’ve seen for the last twenty years and more.

Andy Burnham stood out for me because he grasped the need to speak with, and to stand up for, communities outside London and the need to rebalance the UK economy.  He is also the only candidate that has made me change my mind.

Challenging the Tory economic analysis, which is by now the accepted wisdom of not only the BBC but everyone that I ever meet, remains the only route back to power. No-one will ever elect a government that they do not trust with their family’s future. And if we are not convincing on the economy then we are not convincing on anything. It was refreshing, and frankly a relief, that there has been something close to a consensus between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall on this fundamental political truth. But for me, only Andy went further than this and argued for a fundamental rebalancing of the UK economy and fairness for not only Wales but the north of England and elsewhere as well.

Without this fundamental change to the way in which we do economic policy then we will never be able to invest in some of our poorest communities. The Tories with their Northern Powerhouse also recognise this reality and its time we supported that approach. I am driven by a determination to eradicate the poverty and inequality that disfigures not only Blaenau Gwent but many other of our  communities elsewhere. But we will not be able to do that without a new and different approach to rebalancing wealth in the UK. All too often we are able to analyse and describe our problems at great length only to be met with a nervous and uncomfortable silence when it comes to finding the answers to these problems. But the answer must start with the redistribution of wealth and I believe that Andy sees this in a way that other candidates do not.

At the same time as Andy is able to speak to the Party he is also able to speak beyond it. He has rescued Alan Watkins’ description of Labour as the “Peoples’ Party” which had fallen, unhappily in my view, out of fashion, and he has made it real. He made it real by describing how a revitalised Labour Party can help people achieve their ambitions for themselves and their families, whether it is through a new emphasis on education or care for the most vulnerable, he articulates a compelling vision of a different sort of society, challenging inequality and hard-wiring fairness. It is a vision which I believe will be compelling for people throughout the UK.

And he made me change my mind. Generally when choosing between candidates we would seek the candidate who most shares our prejudices. We rarely vote for a candidate who challenges us to think a little harder. Andy is strongly in favour of our membership of the European Union but he also argues for reforms – not the Cameron “Little Englander” approach to reform – but reform which protects wages and jobs and seeks to ensure that a contribution is made before benefits are paid. And it is that focus on reform which has forced me to think a little harder and to change my mind.

And finally, Andy Burnham is personable and friendly and he’s authentic. And this is important. He speaks with authority but also with a conviction which is born of values which speak of our shared experience. He easily passes the “can-you-imagine-him-in-Downing-Street- without-having-a-panic-attack” test whilst also appearing human. Unlike the current Prime Minister he knows which football team he supports and you can imagine him taking the children to the park on a Saturday. At a time when politicians have all too often seemed to be a different species inhabiting the Westminster bubble venturing out to speak only to either friendly journalists or pre-vetted party members he is also a breath of fresh air. I think that people are looking for this authenticity in politics today.

He can lead Labour and he can win for Labour. And that’s why I will be supporting him.

A blog

I’ve decided to start a blog. I have for most of the last few years avoided these things, often taking an unnecessarily antagonistic view of both blogs and their authors. This may be an opportunity for those people to enjoy their revenge.

In doing so I recognise that this a potentially perilous venture. The late Conservative MP, Julian Critchley, once wrote that all which is required of a backbencher is silent service. He would probably have regarded a few short words to either open a fete or to pull the raffle as being a necessary evil but would certainly have taken a very dim view of the social media that dominates and shapes much of our political debate today. His view that all speeches should be mercifully short is something that comes to mind whenever I get to my feet in the chamber.

So what has changed my mind?

It is often suggested that independence in thought, or worse, in deed, is something that is frowned upon and discouraged. To go further and start a blog would be a vanity too far. This has not been my experience. I have found a welcome for, and sometimes even a thirst for, fresh ideas and vigorous debate. The Labour Leadership election saw over 600 people gather in Cardiff City Hall for the best part of three hours over lunchtime on a Sunday with no lunch on offer. And we all enjoyed it. Wales is a country full of very talkative people but with very few public spaces where we can speak with each other. For us, Twitter and Facebook and the rest of the social media, have together played a relatively more important role in helping to create a wider and more democratic national conversation by filling a space that remains dominated by more traditional media in other countries.

And that’s why I hope that this space can be used to share ideas and to contribute to the debate about the future of our country. Clearly there will be a focus on my work in Blaenau Gwent and in Cardiff Bay. However I hope that it will not be limited either in terms of geography or in terms of topic. I hope to range across all those subjects where I have an interest or which cross my horizon from time to time. As our thoughts begin to turn towards next May and the next Assembly election I believe that there will be a greater wish and desire to explore and debate new and fresh ideas for Wales. I hope that in some small way I may be able to contribute towards that richer discussion and that more varied debate.

This blog will not be updated daily but I do hope to be able to do so on a regular basis during the week. I also hope that in writing this regular column I will be able to do so without the (unhappy but probably inevitable) screaming headline that I disagree with a minister or the government and the intensive and forensic search of syntax and vocabulary to identify any potential “split” or unintended criticism. Such things diminish and undermine a wider debate of substance.

But let me also say this. It is not my intention to be deliberately provocative but neither is it my intention to use either weasel words or a deliberate ambiguity in an attempt to obscure a clearly-signed meaning. My thoughts will clearly be shaped by my experience in representing Blaenau Gwent and as someone who will campaigning hard for the re-election of the current Welsh Government. I believe that both the best interests of Blaenau Gwent and the re-election of the Government are served by the active discussion of radical ideas and the shaping of a new agenda for Welsh Labour.

With these few words I welcome anyone who wishes to read on to do so. I thank you for your interest. And I do hope not to either bore you or cause unnecessary distress.

So it is with these thoughts that I offer these short articles. I started by quoting Julian Critchley and I will end by noting his dictum that the only safe pleasure for a politician is a bag of boiled sweets. I can’t say that I wasn’t warned.