Failing the Blaenau Gwent Test

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One of the few statutory task left to the Secretary of State for Wales is address the National Assembly on the Queen’s Speech and the implications for Wales of the bills and policies announced by the UK Government in its new programme.

This was a task that Stephen Crabb performed for the first time at the end of June. He spoke well and fluently, attempting to reach out, being generous both to the Welsh Government and to the institution. In his opening speech he made the case that the new UK Government would be on the side of the ordinary family – “Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the mission statement of this new UK Government is to help working people, to champion social justice, and to unite all the peoples of the nations. Through the Queen’s Speech last month, we announced our legislative programme to build on the important work we started five years ago, to improve the lives of everyone in our country”.

It was a remarkable statement for a Conservative Minister and in my contribution to the debate I set Crabb what I described as the Blaenau Gwent Test – “the test I will set you, Secretary of State, for the success or failure of this Government is what happens to the people of Blaenau Gwent. Welfare reform has already taken £30 million a year out of the communities of Blaenau Gwent. That’s not £30 million taken away from the strongest, the most powerful and the wealthiest—it’s £30 million that is increasing child poverty and leading to greater and more intense hardship than ever. If you are up to your words, and if you stand by the challenges you’ve set yourself, you will protect the poorest and most vulnerable and you will ensure that it is the wealthiest and most powerful who share the burden”.

It was a test that he readily accepted, in replying to the debate Stephen Crabb said, “The Member for Blaenau Gwent, Alun Davies, threw out a challenge to me about Blaenau Gwent. He called it the Blaenau Gwent test and I’m very happy to accept the Blaenau Gwent test. And just to remind him that under the watch of the previous Labour Government, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent went up 83% and youth unemployment went up 61%. In the last five years, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent has come down by 40% and youth unemployment down by 52%”.

It is fair to say that the first challenge for the Secretary of State in meeting the Blaenau Gwent Test was the UK Government’s budget in July since it was this budget that out the UK Government’s approach for the next five years. Predictably it contained a lot that appalled me. But rather than simply issue a press release I decided to ask the National Assembly’s research service for an independent analysis of how the budget would impact the people of Blaenau Gwent. I received their findings last week. And it is shocking.

In short, the people of the borough can expect to see a reduction in their incomes of around £33m as a direct result of the measures contained in that budget. Here’s the overview.

Budget impact overview table

In reading this, today’s debate in the House on Commons on tax credits is well-timed. And in criticising their decisions on these individual matters we also need to take issue with the Conservative ideology and philosophy. It is clear from this analysis that the Conservative UK Government is making poor people pay for the mistakes which led to the financial crisis. Those people who have least are being forced to pay the most. The people who have least influence on the banks are paying the greatest price. This is class war at its most brutal.

Stephen Crabb made great play of the compassion of the new Conservatives. Has he raised the impact of the budget on the most fragile communities in Wales with his cabinet colleagues? Has he argued to protect the most vulnerable families? Has he made the case for those people who are working hard at two or more jobs to make ends meet? If he cannot answer those questions then he faces the real acquisition that his approach is all PR and lacks any real substance. His words will count for nothing.

The cuts to benefits will increase poverty directly. The cuts to tax credits will increase in-work poverty. For too many people they will see no hope and no future for them and their families. The Secretary of State is very fond of quoting employment statistics when he is confronted with the consequences of his policies for real people. This research shows clearly that for too many people work is no longer the route out of poverty. By making work a less viable way of moving out of poverty the Chancellor has take away any realistic hope for the future for those very people who he claims to want to help.

Taken together with the wider reductions in public spending which will lead to significant reductions in public services this analysis draws a picture of increasing deprivation in many of Wales’ poorest communities. It also paints a picture of a desperate daily struggle for too many people. And in making these decisions, it is not only those who will see these reductions in their personal incomes that will suffer, it is the whole community. This is money that will be taken out of the local economy, from local town centres, local shops and local businesses. In attacking the poorest people this is a wider attack on the economical viability of the whole community.

After an over-long summer of looking inwards it’s time for Labour to oppose this government, not only their decisions but the philosophy that underpins those decisions. And to do so with a renewed vigour and determination. As this analysis shows all too clearly it’s the poor and vulnerable who need desperately a Labour UK Government and who pay the highest and harshest price for a ruthless Tory ideological warfare dressed up in reasonable language as economic and financial good sense.

At last. It’s over.

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How quickly we forget. I remember hearing the exit poll at 10.00pm on May 7th sitting in my car outside the leisure centre in Ebbw Vale. I remember my heart sinking. It couldn’t be right. And of course it wasn’t. The result was actually worse than it predicted.

In the count we walked around like zombies. I made a point of saying a word of congratulations to the Conservative candidate who was even more surprised than we were to see the exit poll result.

It was this sick feeling of defeat that I brought to mind when I voted. I also had in mind the very real anger that I feel when I see the callousness and carelessness of a government that seems to think little of the impact of its policies on people who are vulnerable and who are already terrified of what the summer’s budget will mean for them and their families.

I have already discussed too many times the rationale for my thinking on this leadership election and why I decided to support Andy Burnham.

Despite the excitement of an over-long summer I have seen nothing which has changed my mind. Andy can return Labour to power and to Government. Rooted in Labour principles and Labour values, he has a radical vision for the future but is able to turn the rhetoric into the hard reality of policy. His is the authentic voice that can speak to millions of people of their hopes and ambitions for their families. I believe that he can win the trust and confidence of the British people and he can reach out to all those people who simply weren’t convinced of us in May and are not likely to be convinced by us if we walk away from those fears today.

With my second and third votes I tried to vote for those candidates who I felt would drive change both within the party but crucially who also recognise the fundamental nature of the social and cultural changes that are taking place with our society today as well as the wider economic, technological, environmental challenges of our age.

At the beginning of the summer I was optimistic that we would enjoy an engaging period of active debate about how we as a party and as movement would face those challenges. I was also hopeful of a wider debate over the nature of social justice and a new approach to eradicating poverty in a country and a world that is trying to find a way of dealing with extreme economic and social shocks. I fear that I was one of those who argued for a longer election which I believed would allow us the space and time to find a way of articulating a different but compelling argument to that of the Tories who are now driving profound political change with a government that appears to be living in daily terror of its right wing. How could I have been so naive? I assume that the mistakes over the vote on the Welfare Bill remains at the heart of all of this but its all too easy to blame others.

My view remains that Labour is neither a protest group nor a pressure group. It is a political party that seeks to govern on behalf of the ordinary people of this country. It is only by governing that our values and principles can be turned into actions. It has been this basic truth that has driven our most successful leaders for a century. Nye’s admonishment to Jennie Lee over her enduring support for the ILP still rings true – “pure and impotent” is a rebuke to anyone who believes that we can ignore the feelings of the electorate who hold the keys of power.

And Labour in power has always needed to compromise. There’s nothing new and nothing wrong in shaping and moulding our beliefs and values in the face of the sometimes harsh reality that government forces us to face. Many people today today forget that it was Clem Attlee who insisted that Britain must have an atomic bomb. Not him a unilateralist or seeking to withdraw from an interventionist foreign policy. And it was support for this policy that led Nye to break Michael Foot’s heart in Brighton in 1957. We can go on through the stresses of the sixties and seventies. Perhaps the many people who have spent the summer happily tripping over themselves to attack Labour’s most successful leader in a century have also forgotten that Blair led the only recent government to have reduced poverty and inequality in some of our poorest communities whilst Brown also managed the biggest international financial crisis of our lifetimes. But i don’t suppose those minor details matter.

Following May’s election, we need to face some hard truths. And as hard as facing those truths may be – it will be far harder for those people we let down by not doing so.

And we need to be clear as we move forward after Saturday’s result is known. Anyone whose economic policy is based on printing money whenever its needed or whose energy policies are based on reopening the mines is not someone who is facing the same hard truths as those people who are bearing the brunt of Tory attacks. And Labour must not go down that route. Whoever leads the party, we must remain a credible opposition and a credible alternative government. We cannot sacrifice that credibility on the altar of political purity.

This is not an academic exercise. In Wales we will face Assembly elections in eight months. I do not subscribe to the theory advanced in some parts of the Bay that our UK Leader is no importance to us. We are a part of the UK Labour Party and the UK Labour movement. Wales is a part of the UK political culture and the impact of the new leader will be felt as keenly in Tredegar as it will be felt on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

I have already made clear my view that this Welsh election will be more focussed on the record of the current Welsh Government than any other Assembly election we have fought since 1999. And that record will come under a ferocious attack from the Conservatives with Plaid and the Lib Dems in their slipstream. We had a taste of that this morning with a thinly disguised political attack based upon a letter leaked by a UK Department of State. We can expect a lot more of that over the coming months. I only hope that the BBC will become more suspicious of such things. And the Bevan Foundation’s report on the future shape of Wales sets both challenges and an agenda for next May.

The argument that about 30% of the electorate didn’t vote Labour in May because there was no socialist option available to them is difficult to take seriously. The proposition that these people would then be marshalled into the polling station by a resurgent socialist insurgency urged on by late middle aged revolutionaries is unlikely. I’d prefer a strategy that reaches out to those people who feel that Labour may represent their family’s hopes and ambitions but feel uneasy about trusting their children’s education or their parent’s health to a government that they may feel is distant, remote and impervious to their fears or concerns. A strategy that seeks to rebuild trust and does so without hubris and without an assumption of power.

And whilst that may not be as appealing as revolutionary socialism, my guess is that it’s closer to the message that people were trying to send us on that spring day in early May.

The tragedy of Aylan


I hope that both The Sun and Katie Hopkins are deeply ashamed of themselves. Those words and the decision to publish them were both not only wrong but immoral. And this week those words have become haunting. Does Katie look at Aylan’s body and still not care? And what of The Sun’s editor? Does The Sun feel any responsibility for any of this?

The image of Aylan Kurdi has dominated the front pages of newspapers this week, including with some extraordinary hypocrisy, The Sun itself. The heartbreaking picture of his small body lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey is powerful and made all the more powerful when it first appeared on social media alongside hundreds of photos of smiling children on their first day at school.

It is one of the most distressing and painful images that we’ve seen for years. He could have been my son or anyone’s son. And subsequent photos of him with his older brother and an interview with his dad paints a picture of a happy little boy which helps make this tragedy all the more real for all of us.

His death is a direct challenge to the position taken by the UK Government and by governments across Europe. It is a test for Cameron and it is a test for Europe. And it speaks volumes of the crisis of leadership across our continent that Germany appears to be the only state that recognises the scale of the response needed. It is a crisis of morality in our society, in our media and in our politics.

In Aylan’s death I hope that we will all face, and try to answer, the question as to why are we so resistant to the idea of taking people to our homes and protecting them from extreme violence? Surely this is at the heart of our humanity and who we believe ourselves to be as a nation and as a country?

Our history is one where we have welcomed people to our shores and offered them the protection and support that they need and that we can share. Such headlines attacking the kinder transport in the thirties would have been inconceivable so why is escaping from Kobane so different today? Clearly the scale and the numbers are huge, but we are richer today, we have the experience of the past and we have the structures of European governance that we didn’t have 80 years ago.

This summer has been one where our screens and papers have been filled with the human impact of the wars in the Middle East and Africa. As we’d expect parts of the press have been most guilty of creating a an image of desperate people trying to escape war, slaughter and genocide as a threat to our holiday plans. But I can think of no part of the media that has emerged from this summer with much integrity.

Where was the public outcry when the article described above was published in The Sun? At what point did describing human beings as “cockroaches” become an acceptable part of our public discourse? At one level it’s possible to dismiss Katie Hopkins and The Sun as examples of the worst parts of the gutter press, but what of David Cameron describing people in Calais as a “swarm”? In terms of creating a national mood are they really so different? What is certainly different is that David Cameron should know better than to play to this particular gallery.

But why are we surprised? The events and coverage of this summer are not new. For too long we have allowed a debate on immigration which has been largely driven by anti-Europeans and the rest of the right wing all fuelled by their cheerleaders in The Sun, Daily Mail and the rest. And their hypocrisy when confronted with the reality of the atmosphere that they themselves have helped create is simply sickening. Rather than confront and challenge this debate, all too often we have run away from the difficult choices involved in taking on these arguments and winning a public debate based on principle, doing the right thing and our basic humanitarian instincts.

It’s nearly 70 years since Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language and it is striking how his invective against weasel words and opaque phraseology would be true today and never so true as now. We have used terms like “migrant” or “Asylum-seeker” as pejorative terms to disguise the real human impact of policies that have been pursued by the government in our name and on our behalf. The media have, either through idleness or intent, also made use of the same language to perpetuate a story that poor people who are risking everything to survive the horrors of Syria and escape the genocidal Islamic State are a threat to our lives and our communities. Again language is defining not only the terms of the debate but helping to create a nasty intolerant culture which has dehumanised both them and us.

And Alylan’s death is the direct consequence of this culture and this political failure.

And the political failure is profound. For far too long we have run away from challenging the rhetoric of UKIP and their friends on the far-right. We have become accustomed to the language of chauvinism and the fear and intolerance of those people who are not from around here or who are different to us. We blamed Eastern European nurses and African cleaners for the depth of the economic crisis because its easier than asking the really tough questions. It’s no wonder that we haven’t heard from Farage over the last few days.

The language and tone of the UK Government and particularly Cameron over the last 24 hours has been appalling. Ironically the UK’s approach to securing safety and security for people close to their homes is not intrinsically wrong or bad. But their failure to recognise that approach is a wholly inadequate response is criminal. My fear is that the reality of this policy is that it is driven by fear of the press and the right wing than it is driven by the desire to do the right thing

It is telling that it is Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon as First Ministers in Wales and Scotland who are making clear that both countries are ready and willing to play our part. The optimist inside me believes that is a further example of how the politics of Wales and Scotland are becoming increasingly different and more tolerant than that of the hot-house of Westminster. I hope that since some Conservatives, all the candidates for the Labour leadership and other backbenchers are also demanding urgent action that the culture of that place may change as well.

Given the scale of the media coverage of Aylan’s death it appears that in death he will be accorded more respect than in life. But it is a real tragedy that it has taken this little boy’s terrible death to galvanise European leaders to take action and to shame the UK press into silence. Why is it always this way? I remember witnessing at first hand the human impact of genocide in Rwanda and again in the Balkans. In both cases it took a public outcry over the deaths of thousands of people before politicians took action. As politicians we really must live up to the post-Rwanda slogan of “Never Again” and to make it real.

But let us be clear. Doing the right thing today means going beyond refugee quotas and protection of the aid budget. It means a determined challenge to those chauvinists who have stigmatised and demonised other people because of where they were born, their language or their customs.