Since they were elected two years ago UKIP has disfigured both the National Assembly and our national debate. For the first time I can remember we heard words like “foreigner” in our debates. But the election of Gareth Bennett as their leader last week and his words over the weekend cross a line. It would be easy to argue that a leader with a mandate of a few hundred votes shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. After all there are local councillors who have won with more votes and a bigger majority. But to not take him, and the direction where he wants to take UKIP, seriously would be a mistake. As leader of Welsh Labour I will take them on and confront them and their prejudice.
At one level they are a comedy outfit of inadequate, ineffective and mediocre individuals. Their performance in the Assembly has been wretched, woeful and feeble. But their inability to make any intelligent, rational or coherent contribution to our debates has not been questioned by either the media or by other parties. Sometimes Cardiff Bay is too comfortable.
They succeed in making headlines either by their poor behaviour or conduct or by a series of confrontations in the chamber and elsewhere with their attacks on minorities or vulnerable people. Their use of ugly and unacceptable language leads to suspensions and interruptions to the business of the place. All too often the chamber sits in embarrassed silence whilst the UKIP spokesperson tries to read a poorly-written contribution onto the record.
I can think of no positive contribution that they have made since their election.
And this is where scrutiny is important. During the parliamentary passage of the Additional Learning Needs Act, the UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown, made no contribution to the debate over the legislation. She was clearly ignorant of the policy area and made absolutely no effort to either learn or to understand either the legislation – or – and this is important – the needs of this vulnerable group of children and young people. As a minister I was put under a great deal of pressure by both Plaid and the Tories – Darren Millar and Llyr Gruffydd – as well as the Welsh Labour chair – Lynne Neagle – all of whom worked hard to scrutinise and test the legislation. I made a number of changes as a consequence of this scrutiny and the Act is a better piece of law as a consequence. But UKIP played no part in this essential work of the parliamentary process, there was no UKIP amendment and apart from a few poor contributions virtually nothing said on the record. And this is what they are paid to do.
And this inability to play even the smallest part in the work of the institution they they want to abolish and to do the bare minimum is not called out by either other politicians or the media. As a consequence they get away with their inadequacy, their idleness and their negligence.
Some of us have refused to socialise with them, preferring to keep them at a distance. But at the same time some, including me, have felt inhibited from taking them on in the chamber because of their obvious inadequacy. It’s time to take them on and to expose them as a bunch of lamentable chancers with little talent and no commitment to their roles and their responsibilities.
I am not worried by Bennett’s quaint views on devolution – returning Wales to direct rule – all of our constitutional arrangements should always be contestable and always subject to test, debate and challenge. What is completely unacceptable is his views on our national community.
After a week of witnessing the best of Wales at the National Eisteddfod we now see the worst of Wales. And Bennett’s inadequacy should not stop us from taking him on. His brand of naked alternative right populism is the same hard right wing chauvinism that Steve Bannon is in Europe to promote. Bennett is probably copying Boris Johnson but it is this validation and repetition of prejudice that is dangerous. It is the same prejudice and same politics as the Front Nationale and the rest of the European right. And in Welsh Labour we need to campaign and to argue against it. We can no longer ignore them hoping that they will go away. Or even blame the electoral system for their election. People voted for UKIP because we failed to win the arguments against them.
But we must also work harder across the political spectrum to campaign and to argue for the Wales we want to see. The Wales of inclusivity and tolerance. The Wales where we enjoy and celebrate the diversity we saw in Cardiff Bay last week. The Wales where we reach out with a cwtsh rather than point fingers at differences.
So let’s call them out. Let’s tell the truth about them. And let’s expose them as the nasty bunch of xenophobic chauvinists who will deliberately use their prejudice to create divisions, misery and distress because of their weakness, their ignorance and their cowardliness. And this isn’t simply an attack on Islam and the muslim community. It is an attack on us all.
The alternative is that this hatred, venom and this rancour will enter the Welsh political discourse and will become a normalised part of our political experience. And the consequence of that will be an increased threat to our whole national community across the whole of Wales. Wherever we live, however we live, whoever we worship, whatever we wear and whatever language we speak.
But calling them out is not enough. We have to defeat their views and replace their prejudice with our values of liberal tolerance and compassion. And that means winning hearts and minds and not simply votes.
And this campaigning against populism and the alt right is part of the reinvention of our politics and our democracy that I spoke about when launching my leadership campaign last week. Last week I spoke about the structures and the process of politics. This, today, is about the principles and the values of our politics. The values of Nye Bevan and Paul Robeson that I tried to describe last week. Those values that reached out across an ocean to bring an American civil rights campaigner to sing at a Cymanfa Ganu at a National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale. It is those timeless values that must now drive our actions and our work.