Lets talk

The one thing that was striking in conversations in the immediate aftermath of Carwyn’s resignation was that many of us felt the need to talk about not simply the mechanics of a leadership campaign but also about the wider challenges facing us as a party and as a movement.

At first sight an eight month election campaign makes even the most enthusiastic activist tremble with fear.  But upon a more judicious consideration of the timetable allows a more stimulating and even inviting prospect. Carwyn, in his resignation, has given the party the one thing that very few political parties have the opportunity to exploit.

Carwyn had given us the gift of time. 

Normally a leadership election is forced upon an unwilling leader and an unhappy party by the electorate after an election defeat. Even when Rhodri resigned back in September 2009 he did so in such a way as to enable a contest to take place immediately. Carwyn has done something different. He has given us a timetable for his resignation.

And this means we have an opportunity now to do something different. Maybe even something special and unique in politics. 

We have the time and the space to have a debate before we actually need to have an election campaign. Over the coming months and until nominations open in September we have the opportunity to have a wide-ranging and open debate about the future of Welsh Labour and how we as a political movement respond to the enormous challenges facing us across Wales. From Brexit to populism to defeating austerity. How we campaign, how we involve people in our politics and how we organise ourselves. 

And this is a debate that will better happen if it is not seen through the prism of which candidate from whatever wing of the party is taking a position on a particular issue. I fear that such considerations will lead to our debate being reduced to a tired and dispiriting conversation based upon preconceptions and some entertaining and usually misplaced Kremlinology. Some of my colleagues have already made the point there is no immediate need for potential candidates to worry about having a list of supporters. Whilst others are exercising themselves by writing and rewriting lists of Assembly members. My message is to relax. Lots can happen in a few months.

Whilst I accept that my optimism may be seen as an unexpected innocence in some quarters. And obviously I do understand and accept that some campaigning is inevitable. But I also hope that there will be a recognition that an exhausting election campaign which lasts eight months without this debate will let down the people who want and need a debate on the future direction of Welsh Labour.

By the time of the next election in 2021 we will have been in power for over twenty years. This is a testament to the roots of the party in Welsh communities and also the campaigning strength of the organisation. I do not believe for a moment that we should be shy or even slightly embarrassed by this electoral success. But I do believe that this success and longevity in government demands a fundamental and honest debate about our approaches to the questions that will face us in 2021 and beyond.

I wrote on this blog yesterday about some of the opportunities we have as a party in terms of our democracy review. For too long the party’s approach to determining our priorities for government have been driven by Members in Cardiff with little involvement of the wider party. I want to see this change. It is time to to acknowledge and recognise the role of our MPs, members, councillors, CLPs, and affiliated bodies.

I have been a strong supporter of the strengthening of Welsh Labour as a political party, movement and organisation for some years. All too often people misread this determination to create political structures which mirror the constitutional reality as a means of creating distance between ourselves in Wales and the UK structures in London. This has always been a mistaken belief.

The reason that I have supported the strengthening of Welsh Labour has been to create a more powerful and a more open political party which is able to both determine our policy outlook but also to create the means by which the wider party can hold ministers like myself to account. In this way my ambition is to widen the debate over our party’s political programme and deepening the democracy within the party. For instance, I want to see my approach on local government reform to be tested not only by Assembly Members and councillors but also our MPs and members, trades unions and affiliated bodies. Together we have a great deal of experience, knowledge and expertise across the whole of the party and movement and we are stronger when we maximise the input of this expertise into policy-making and holding Welsh Labour ministers to account.

On Monday I attended the latest meeting of the Valleys Taskforce. Our discussion was focussed on delivering digital services to communities which have all too often been excluded. Our last meeting discussed local transport priorities and our next will focus on automation and the opportunities for our economy from this revolution. As politicians in the valleys (and elsewhere) we are all aware of the populist politics of our opponents and their easy answers to difficult questions. The valleys have all seen swings to UKIP, Plaid and voted to leave the EU. Taken together these issues, and others, will define the political debates for the next few years. Communities across Wales are on the frontline of austerity. Well-fed and well-upholstered politicians in the bars and restaurants of Westminster may talk austerity but it is the people of Cwm, Rassau, Blaina and Nantyglo who feel its affects. Their lives pay for those politicians’ theories. And we, as Welsh Labour, need to stand up for those people. 

But we also need to do more than that. 

We need to find and articulate not only a well-placed anger but solutions. And sustainable solutions to deep-rooted problems. I told the National Assembly yesterday that we are not paid to list problems but to solve them. And in doing so we also need to be honest with ourselves. 

And we can only do this with and through an open debate. Which takes us back to Carwyn. We are not facing an election and we are not recovering from one. The party is in good shape and and we can afford the time to talk. The Tories may believe that it’s impossible to drive through a programme of radical reform whilst having a serious conversation about the future but I do not. As a party we will be refreshed, united and reinvigorated by such a conversation.

Which, of course, is the real reason why they hate the idea of it. 

Some reflections on a weekend in Llandudno

Until about 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon conversations in Llandudno had been dominated by the deputy leadership contest.

Carwyn’s speech changed everything.

But in many ways his announcement also served to deepen, sharpen and provide a new focus for those pretty intense conversations which were already taking place.

It was immediately clear that the electoral college could not be used to elect our new leader. I hope the Welsh Exec will now move quickly to ensure that we have a democracy where people feel empowered in the debate over the future direction of the party. For anyone with any doubts let me be clear: the argument over OMOV is won. And those who still have objections would be best advised to find a way of coming to terms with this new democracy rather than finding novel, inventive and bureaucratic devices to obstruct the clearly-expressed will of the party.

But in this new democracy we also need a debate which goes beyond OMOV. In many ways the dominance of OMOV as an issue in the deputy leadership contest ironically served to cloud the debate and actually prevented us from having a much richer debate about our democracy and how the new role could help strengthen the party. However for me it is not enough to simply demand OMOV for the election of the leader. This is a limited view of our democracy and not one which I believe is an adequate response to the challenges facing us as a party.

One of the most striking aspects of the deputy leadership contest which has not attracted any real comment was the low participation of our members. Some of us received multiple ballots – as members of an affiliate or individual members – in the future we need to ensure that we all receive a single ballot. And then we need to motivate people to use it. The party likes to make much of the enthusiasm of our new mass party but that was not what we saw in this election. Only 36% of our members voted. Amongst affiliates the the turnout was a disastrous 4%. This does not speak of enthused and enfranchised membership. And it needs to be addressed. There is no purpose in changing the system if we cannot persuade members to take part.

We now need to have that debate.

In another decision in which now seems like a watershed conference, the decision to launch a democracy review is crucial for us as a party. But it needs to do far more than simply provide a new opportunity to rehearse existing arguments on re-selections and CLP standing orders. My own decision to support Carolyn was based on a belief that we all need to do far more to bring the party together. In this way it would have been a mistake for the whole leadership team to be based in Cardiff Bay. As a member of the party’s NEC I regularly tried to contribute to discussions on the policy approach that the party is taking across the whole of the UK – from Brexit to justice policy to economic policy. We need the structures to develop a policy platform for Wales whilst at the same time recognising a coherence – or at least an awareness – of the policy positions, outlooks and approaches of the party across Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. This means we need to address the fundamental shape of the party.

We are in power but we do not have anything like the internal political structures to reflect this position. If our party democracy is to mean anything then we not only need to actively involve people but we must also create a new architecture of accountability and political decision-making. We need to find new ways of involving this new membership in making policy and to maximise the input of our trades unions colleagues and also of councillors and MPs. We have a fantastic strength in terms of the experience and knowledge and skills within the party but we do not have the means to use this power to create policy or hold our elected representatives to account for actions and decisions taken in the name of the party.

And whilst we are considering the fundamentals of our democracy I also want to say a word about a deputy leadership candidate who wasn’t even on the ballot paper.

Our local government leader, Debbie Wilcox, has made a real impression in her determination to place local authority leaders at the heart of the debate over our leadership. Her campaign for nomination means that at very least the party now needs to make immediate changes to ensure that the threshold for future elections is changed to allow Welsh Labour local authority leaders to nominate and to play a much fuller part in our party. Of course this should have happened already. It’s ridiculous that a politician who leads a political group with executive responsibilities and a budget of many tens or hundreds of millions of pounds does not have the same rights within the party as a backbencher in either Cardiff or Westminster. If we are to reach out and create a more inclusive leadership team then it needs to change and it must change quickly.

With a leadership election taking place later in the year it is essential that this wider debate now takes place. And it is essential that we actively create the time and space to debate these issues before we turn our attention to the question of our leadership.

But more about that tomorrow.

It’s time for a new relationship with local government

I like to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.

Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.

Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.

What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.

And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.

And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.

As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.

In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.

Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.

So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.

So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.

In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.

So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.

But I cannot travel on this journey alone.

The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.

So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.

It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.

I certainly hope so.