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.

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. 

The case for radical change 

To me leadership is plural and not singular. It is a verb and not a noun.

This short note seeks to explain some the reasons why I decided to seek support for the leadership of Welsh Labour. This is A personal manifesto which goes into more detail on these issues. Please click on it, download it and see what you think.

Over the past few months many of us have been speaking about the future we want to see for our party and our country. I am anxious that we are all able to contribute to an open and wide-ranging conversation about how we make the radical changes that I believe we need to make in both the party, reinventing our socialism, changing the way in which we govern and how we meet the new challenges of the future if we are to continue to enjoy the trust of the people of Wales.

I launched this campaign above Tredegar at the Nye Bevan memorial. It is where I started my own personal journey and it is where our own socialist values have driven radical change which has transformed the Labour party and our country.

My leadership will be about this radical vision for change. To me leadership is plural and not singular. It is a verb and not a noun.

I believe that we need to rediscover the spirit of Nye Bevan and reinvent a new Bevanism for the 21st century. We all feel and share the anger that Nye felt over poverty and how it destroys lives and communities. But Bevan also brought those values and principles to life and used that anger to fashion a political and not simply a rhetorical response. And that is our challenge. My manifesto describes my own vision for a new democracy and a new politics which is rooted in an optimism and belief that together we can renew and reinvent Welsh Labour.

Fundamentally I believe that we need radical change because our politics is broken and that our democracy is facing a real existential crisis. Too many people believe that devolution and the National Assembly are immune from the international crises facing democratic politics across the West. I believe that democratic government in Wales is facing a real crisis of confidence and one which may even lead to a crisis of legitimacy unless it is urgently addressed.

Since I launched this debate we have seen how Gareth Bennett’s words of hatred and venom have generated enormous coverage over his attack on the Muslim community. This is a xenophobia and a chauvinism that should have no place in either our National Assembly or our wider public discourse. But at the same time in our own party the stain of antisemitism has also disfigured our own debate and has undermined our ability to hold the right wing to account. That is why Labour needs to address these issues and then on the basis of a moral authority confront the alt right populism which is one of the biggest threats we face as a party and as a community. And to defeat it we need to win hearts and minds and not just elections.

And in launching this campaign for change I am not proposing incremental or gradual change or a difference in emphasis. It is about asking hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions. I do not seek easy slogans or lazy populism – telling people what I think they want to hear – this is a radical campaign about challenging ourselves so that we are better able to serve and to reinvent ourselves for new challenges in the future.

We have succeeded in defending Wales from the worst of Tory austerity and we have created a Welsh politics unthinkable two generations ago. But to sit back and point at our record is the worst possible response to the political, social and economic change that we are witnessing today.

I do not believe for one moment that I possess all the answers but I do believe that by asking these hard questions and by making radical and challenging proposals for change that we begin the process of political change and political renewal.

The vote to leave the EU in constituencies such as mine in Blaenau Gwent was driven by many factors but I believe fundamentally the referendum was a referendum on our politics and how we do politics as much as it was a referendum on the EU. It may have been a vote against Brussels but it was certainly a vote of no confidence in Welsh and UK politics. And this is the emergency that we need to address – restoring trust and confidence in politics as a means of making and creating change. And politics as a means of ending austerity. We will not be taken seriously on social justice unless we address these fundamental issues.

How we fashion a political movement across the UK and in government in Wales that can invest in our people wherever in Wales they live. And how can we use the powers that we hold in Wales to follow a different political and financial strategy to a Tory UK Government – we cannot simply point and blame the Tories when we hold power in Wales. We have gone some of this way but we need to go much further.

I believe that so far our debate over the leadership and the future direction of the party has been too managerial rather than tackling the major issues that face us as a nation and as a party. I believe that we need to be more radical.

So my priority in this campaign is to make the case for that change to our politics and change to the way in which we govern our country. And this change will be rooted in my values of democracy and equality. I believe in the power of democracy as a force to empower our citizens and drive changes throughout government, the way in which we deliver public services and the way in which we manage our economy. And equality is how we achieve real social justice for all our citizens. It is my belief that equality will provide the test for all our politics.

And these values of democracy and equality will drive a policy agenda to address the three key and fundamental issues facing us as a country – how we eradicate poverty and its impact on generations of people in Wales; combatting climate change which is the crisis of our age, and thirdly, Europe. I believe that Brexit is the greatest disaster facing Wales today and is the biggest economic risk facing our most deprived communities. Brexit is not a technical issue which requires technical solutions. It is a matter of who we are as a people and our principles as a party.

These values and principles represent my strong and compelling beliefs which will be the key driving principles for any government that I lead. Too often in Welsh Labour we spend too much time explaining why things cannot happen. We can be imprisoned by process and held hostage by our past. Bevan was a creative, imaginative and far-sighted political leader. We need the same energetic, dynamic and vibrant leadership today.

I look forward to that debate and conversation across Wales over the coming months. I hope that this manifesto – A personal manifesto – will be a positive contribution to that debate.

It’s time to confront UKIP and their prejudice 

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. 

How will we nominate and elect a new Welsh Labour leader?

Constituency Labour Parties across Wales are being asked what they think about the way in which we elect our leader. Until that weekend in Llandudno in April this was an obscure issue which excited only those who get excited about such things. Now Carwyn has ensured that we are all talking about it. And like others I will be writing to Paul Murphy with my own views on the issue.

In short the question is – do we replace the electoral college which provides for a third each to parliamentarians, the trades unions and other affiliates and the final third for our members? Those who argue against change point out, quite rightly, that the college has done its job. It has provided for leaders who can claim a wide mandate across the party and movement. It has delivered stability and a strength which has sometimes alluded other parts of the Labour party and movement. So why change they argue? Why disenfranchise socialist societies and the collective voice of trades unions?

The short answer is because we are now a much changed party and organisation. The longer answer is that any electoral system that delivers multiple votes for some individuals and where each vote carries a very different weighting is one which is difficult to describe as democratic. 

Whatever anyone’s views on the changes that have taken place in the party over the last few years, there is no argument that those changes are real. And the party needs to evolve and change as well.

Today it would be simply unacceptable for anyone to become leader without the support of the party members. The imposition of a leader by the weight of votes of either our affiliates or by our parliamentarians is unthinkable and would make their position untenable. 

Speaking personally I want to protect the place and role of the trades unions in the structures of Welsh Labour. In fact I would like to strengthen and expand the role of trades unions in other aspects of the party’s policy-making and decision-taking. But that’s for another day. 

So my preference would be to move to a system of one member one vote where we all share the same single vote. And for the purists reading this I would support the option in the consultation which allows all individual levy-paying trade unionists to vote alongside individual members in an OMOV ballot. This means that the place of trades unions and trades unionists is secure in our structures and elections.

However I also believe that we need to go further than simply change the way in which we vote for our Welsh Leader.

And this is important. 

We are not electing the leader of Welsh Labour at the National Assembly. We are electing the leader of our party in Wales. 

Not for Welsh Labour the tortuous and tiresome debates that have taken place in the Welsh Conservative Party where they are not electing a leader of the party, but only the leader of a group. Whosoever wins our election when it finally takes place in the autumn will not only become Welsh Labour’s candidate to be First Minister but will also be the party’s Welsh Leader. And that demands a wider and more inclusive approach to the whole election process.

And this is something that we have not yet even began to discuss.

At present it is only Assembly Members who have the right to nominate candidates. I believe that the right to nominate should be extended to include our MPs ( and for this election our MEP) and to Welsh Labour council leaders. We may even wish to consider the role of our Police and Crime Commissioners in the process.

I have argued before that Welsh Labour council leaders should be brought more fully into the family of Welsh Labour and this is another area where our councillors need to be more fully integrated into the structures of the wider party. 

But by ensuring that any candidate would require support from both Westminster and council chambers across the country the leadership debate would extend beyond Cardiff Bay and would force potential candidates to think about the wider party and not simply the hothouse of the Senedd. 

In terms of a threshold I will argue that 10% provides the right level of challenge with restricting the field or establishing too high a barrier for potential candidates.

Two final points.

Firstly, Carwyn’s intervention a couple of weeks ago on the issue of equality and gender balance was important. And it exposes a fundamental weakness at the heart of our politics. It is clearly unacceptable for Welsh Labour to polish up its credentials as a party which has led the way on equality to hold its only leadership election in a decade without a woman on the ballot paper. I agree with Carwyn – there should be a woman on the ballot paper. But unless the current position changes then this is becoming increasingly unlikely. And this will reflect poorly on Welsh Labour and our sense of priorities. It would be well for all members of the National Assembly Labour Party to reflect further on this. 

Secondly, since the creation of devolved government nearly twenty years ago we have had three First Ministers. And in reality this period of time has been defined by Rhodri and Carwyn’s tenure. I can think of no-one in the group in Cardiff Bay who wants to see another long ten year stretch. And in an institution such as the National Assembly a long period of leadership certainly creates stability but sometimes the price of that stability is also a sense of stasis. Certainly one of the characteristics of the current non-debate in the Bay is a wish not to elect someone else who may wish to be in office for an extended period. Best elect an interim leader rather someone for the long term. My view is that we should elect a leader for a five year term. Long enough to fight an election, establish and run a government but not so long as to create the impression of permanence. Whether the leader wishes a second term would be a matter for debate. But I would certainly not want to see any leader serve more than two terms. 

So let’s extend our democracy. Let’s involve and fully enfranchise our membership. But lets also think more creatively about how we bring the party together and how we reach out to unite the whole of our democracy and the points of political power that Welsh Labour would seek exercise on behalf of the people we represent. 

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.

Sometimes we need a little more UK and not less…


Last week the Secretary of State essentially withdrew the Wales Bill that he published with a great fanfare only four months ago. In doing so he demonstrated that neither the Wales Office nor any Whitehall department has the experience or the expertise to understand how devolution works – either in principle or in practice. And this is of profound importance to all of us because it suggests that the UK Government no longer understands the constitution of the UK or appreciates how the UK actually works today. And that’s a pretty serious thing. If not entirely surprising.

Anyway. We are where we are.

The “pause” is only worthwhile if good use is made of this time. And by that I do not simply mean parliamentary draughtsmen working furiously to write a bill which is fit for purpose. The First Minister’s intervention on Monday did that for them. And by publishing a draft bill the FM demonstrated that the Welsh Government has a shared vision of a settlement which is coherent and intelligent and which hardwires stability into the constitution. The sad voices grizzling about process from the sidelines – I heard no real criticism of the substance – need to understand that that the vacuum created by the Secretary of State’s failures has to be filled. And it is absolutely right and proper that the Welsh Government does so. Not to have done so would have been an abrogation of its responsibilities.

But this “pause” must do more than teach the Secretary of State about the basics of the British Constitution. It must also allow us to start having a serious debate about how the new UK, which is currently being created in an haphazard, confused and chaotic way, is actually going to work in practice. In short we need the sort of discussion that we should have had prior to last year’s St Davids Day Announcement and at the same time as the debate on the new powers to Scotland and the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”.

And central to this debate is not only a discussion over the devolution of powers and where those powers should properly rest. It also means a conversation about the future purpose of the United Kingdom and how will it will work in the future.

One of the very welcome suggestions made belatedly by the Secretary of State was that the debate over powers and reservations will now be based upon a principled approach. Hallelujah. All we need now is to find out which principles the Secretary of State will employ. I have commented previously that the only serious analysis of this matter was presented by the Welsh Government to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee. Someone in the Wales Office would do well to google it. It describes the UK as an economic, social and political union based upon the principle of subsidiarity. If we could agree on that then everything else quickly becomes easier and clearer.

Such an agreed vision of the future UK would have profound consequences. It would start the process of settling the over-long debate on devolution and it would begin to create a broad public understanding of the differing roles of different governments and parliaments. It would also enable us to build the new structures that would provide the UK with the constitutional architecture needed to underpin the stability that we all want to see.

Fundamentally, the United Kingdom needs a formal agreement between its constituent parts on how it will operate in the future – placing respect on the statute book. But it also needs the machinery of a federal state. At the moment the UK Government is the only shared institution we have – and all too often it acts as judge and jury on its own decisions and actions. This is neither fair nor reasonable and nor is it acceptable or sustainable.

The First Minister agreed whilst giving evidence to the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee a few weeks ago that there is no structure or process to resolve disputes on either competence or individual pieces of legislation between governments short of reference to the Supreme Court. This cannot be right.

At the same time wherever there is a dispute on financial matters such as the spending on the Olympics or HS2 or the fundamentals of Barnett then the Treasury simply imposes its own views. Again this is not sustainable as we’ve witnessed recently with the negotiations on the Scottish fiscal framework. The First Minister has also made clear that at least part of his rationale for not increasing income tax levels in Wales when that power is devolved is because of the continuing dispute over the Barnett Formula. The dispute has lasted almost as long as the formula.

To date the UK Government has been reluctant to recognise the constitutional reality that its policies and approach is creating. Its approach has been piecemeal and all too often the suspicion that partisan advantage lies too close to the heart of its decision-making. From English votes in the House of Commons to the reduction in the size of the Commons there has been a reticence to engage in the principled debate about the future nature and shape of the Union that Stephen Crabb seemed to indicate that he would now prefer to see.

An inter-governmental and inter-institutional agreement established in law and sustained by UK-wide institutions independent of all our governments are now crucial to underpinning our new constitutional architecture. And will benefit everyone except well-suited constitutional lawyers. At the same time the UK’s parliaments must learn to work together in a formal structure to provide a much richer, wider and deeper scrutiny in an institutional relationship to oversee the work of these governments and this UK-wide scrutiny is an essential part of this jigsaw.

This is not difficult to achieve. In terms of a financial framework for the UK Government and devolved governments, the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission seems to be a good model and a good starting point. The CGC distributes an equalisation payment to all states in Australia based upon an agreement reached between the states and the federal government. Its independence of the federal government is key to its ability to take rational and fair decisions acting as an independent arbitrator. The last UK Government created the Office of Budget Responsibility to provide external and independent advice for the Chancellor and the present UK Government agreed and accepted that an independent review of the Scottish fiscal framework would be appropriate and so this suggestion or model cannot be a bridge too far in principle. The Treasury would hate it but it would take the heat out of all of our current disputes on money and may even resolve the issues with the Barnett Formula.

In other matters, the Supreme Court is a constitutional court in all but name and I’m sure that within the structures of the Court a constitutional tribunal could be created which would resolve issues of competence before legislating and before any dispute escalates out of control. Far better that than years of arguments between ministers followed by very expensive litigation after a piece of legislation has been enacted.

Sometimes the debate around devolution seems to be about how many powers can be levered out of London and not about a collective vision of a future United Kingdom. Hopefully we can now have a debate about the UK as a whole and not only about what powers we want in Wales.

The elephant is back…

The Secretary of State’s news conference this morning was probably the most wretched affair since John Morris unhappily faced the cameras almost exactly 37 years ago. It’s difficult to think of a Secretary of State in the intervening decades whose proposals for change have been so comprehensively rejected. In rejection both men were characteristically forthright. John Morris had little alternative and in truth neither did Stephen Crabb. Both had seen their proposals for devolved government roundly rejected. By the electorate in the first instance and by everyone else in the second. If Crabb couldn’t muster a majority in the Welsh Affairs Committee with it’s drafted-in majority then the unanimous rejection in the National Assembly must have been little surprise.

But let’s not be too churlish.

Crabb’s proposals were poorly thought-out, had little coherence and convinced no-one. His only achievement was to unite True Wales and Plaid Cymru. But his belated recognition of this is to be welcomed. I assume his announcement on the reductions in reservations, the abolition of the necessity test, his commitment to look again at ministerial consents and the establishment of a group to look at the issue of the legal jurisdiction along with his enforced “pause” for further thought will all receive a widespread welcome. And we must all recognise that this retreat is one which will allow further debate and discussion. And that is also a good thing.

However this is only half the story.

We are in this unsatisfactory situation because the Secretary of State made grandiose statements which he did not follow up with a robust and open process. Had he involved both the Welsh Government and the National Assembly as well as a broad section of Welsh society then he would not have been in this sad position today.

The new bill must be made-in-Wales and not simply presented to Wales.

The Secretary of State would now be well-advised to create a convention (on which he has been pressed for some time) or at least a joint Assembly-Parliamentary body to review and agree a new bill before its introduction. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the Assembly’s Constitutional and legislative Affairs Committee have both examined the bill and held a successful joint meeting. That model may be a good model to keep in mind either for a meeting before dissolution or to be revived once the new Assembly is elected on May 5th. By doing so and achieving a broad cross-party consensus the new bill would have a degree of legitimacy that the draft bill has failed to command. And it would at least help keep the trouble-makers quiet.

By creating this new consensus – and there is a broad consensus over many matters – then the Secretary of State will be able to proceed to legislate in good time and with goodwill restored. But he must also recognise that demanding a referendum over the somewhat obscure matter of the jurisdiction whilst at the same time rejecting the need for a referendum on tax powers is not something which has any credibility or intellectual coherence. Best put in the same bin as the necessity test.

And neither is it acceptable that the provisions of this bill will sit on the Statute Book for two or three or four years until 2021 before being commenced. All provisions should be enacted and commenced with no such delay. In Scotland there is an election taking place with powers that were announced, debated, enacted and commenced in less than two years. It is simply not acceptable that in Wales we need to wait at least five years for far fewer powers. And this will mean that the new powers on elections and structures will not be available until the 2026 election – a full decade after they were announced.

If the Secretary of State is able to recognise that there are many of us in all parties who wish to move from a decades-long debate on the constitution and want to focus on the major social and economic issues facing the country then he will achieve his ambition of a robust, stable and long-lasting settlement. However I believe that many of us will not simply agree to any settlement and will not feel well-disposed to a bill which is made in Whitehall for Whitehall and not made in Wales and for Wales. However we are, this evening, closer to a potential settlement than we were this morning. Crabb has recognised, as did John Morris, that there was an elephant on his doorstep. Back in 1979 that was the end of it. The people had spoken. And had spoken in primary colours.

Today in a much different and changed world the message is also different but in some ways is unchanging. Constitutional change cannot be either forced or imposed. By working together the changes that most people agree are needed, can be made, and made with consent and support. It is now a matter for the Secretary of State to reach out and to work with Wales.