Constitutional reform for beginners

west_1638069c

It hasn’t been a good week for Britain.

I wrote earlier in the week to express my disappointment with the latest draft Wales Bill. A disappointment that appears to be widely shared across political parties and the Welsh political community. I am yet to see or hear of any non-Conservative speaking up in support of Crabb’s lasting settlement.

The Conservatives are not natural constitutional reformers and yesterday’s vote on English laws is an example of their intellectual confusion on such things. Yesterday the House of Commons was compelled to vote for constitutional change which is again ill-thought out and will create far more problems that it solves.

I cannot believe that Welsh Conservatives danced happily through the Aye lobby yesterday afternoon, excited at the prospect of losing their votes on whole swaths of legislation which is critical to the success of their government and in some cases will help define this government.

And this creates a real lasting problem for the whole of the UK Parliament and especially its Celtic members. Stephen Crabb has indicated that he would like, one day, to serve in the UK Cabinet in a different role. Which is entirely understandable and in the past a wholly reasonable ambition. But which role could a Welsh MP now fulfil? It would be curious at best to see a Minister taking through legislation upon which they themselves could not vote. And if it becomes impossible for an MP representing a seat outside of England to serve in a number of middle-ranking roles in the UK cabinet then the chances of our MPs reaching the great offices of state become reduced, and the chances of a Welsh MP becoming Prime Minister are reduced even further. And this is not simply an issue for the over-ambitious backbencher. It is a significant problem for the future of the UK as a multi-national state.

And if the location of an MP’s seat is the defining issue in terms of the legislation they consider then why do MPs from England continue to sit on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and take evidence on issues which affect only Wales? Surely consistency would demand their removal?

The hard reality is that this measure does and will create conflict within the legislature. And that is always a bad thing. And it creates conflict in the process of law-making. Take the Localism Act from the last Parliament. A UK Act where different clauses and different sections applied in different ways to different parts of the UK. Some clauses has a UK application, others a GB application, and then others applied to England and some to Wales and England. In the current Parliament such a bill would now have different MPs voting on different clauses and different sections. Would English MPs have a vote on sections which apply only to Wales?

It’s probably true to suggest that there has been a sense amongst many English Members that the Celts get an easy ride, voting on schools etc in England and then free to complain about the decisions of the devolved institution in their own country over which they have no control and little influence. The real tragedy here is that this is a Westminster fix for an issue which is a UK-wide and goes to heart of the sort of state we want the UK to be in the future.

Now it’s not for people like me to dictate how devolution should work for English communities but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that where the UK Conservative Government has a radical and reforming agenda which is at once exciting and far-reaching is where it speaks of a northern powerhouse and devolving significant powers, budgets and responsibilities to groups of English councils. It is done with consent and without referenda. A lesson there for Wales. It would appear that were this agenda to be pursued across large parts of England then the demand for English votes in the House of Commons would become irrelevant. Here the future House of Commons would have differential responsibilities for different parts of the UK. No-one is advantaged and no-one disadvantaged.

I discovered last week a document that had been buried deep in the background papers for the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. The document was the Welsh Government’s submission to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee’s enquiry into the Union and Devolution. The reason that I mention it is that it contains almost the only intelligent analysis on the future shape and nature of the UK state that I have seen in the last twenty years or so. It is recommended reading. Honestly.

It is a tragedy that the UK Government has been unable or unwilling to publish a similar document outlining their vision for the future shape of the UK state. The constitutional convention appears further away than ever at a time when it is needed more than ever.

At last. It’s over.

IMG_6014 (1)

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.

Is Labour leadable…?

20150212_191617-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading Labour

FullSizeRender

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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