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.


Here we go again…

I’ve decided to start writing my blog again.

When I was appointed to government after the last election I felt that a certain degree of discretion was probably the best approach and whilst the blog provided some opportunity to contribute to a wider political discussion it also provided an opportunity for mischief to be made by those people for whom such things are a way of life.

So the keyboard was folded away.

My friends were relieved. Others looked clearly disappointed.

So why the change of mind?

The last few months have been amongst the most traumatic that I can remember. Carl was a dear friend as well as a trusted colleague and comrade. He was one of the first people I met in Cardiff after being first elected. Many of us are still trying to come to terms with losing him in such terrible circumstances. The various investigations into the circumstances of his death will continue to dominate people’s thoughts over the coming months and I hope that they will provide an opportunity for us all to better understand how and why Carl felt that he had no alternative and no way out. At the very least Carl’s family need to know why they have lost him.

But losing Carl has also dominated the life of the government. It is difficult to overstate the depth of the shadow that his passing has shed over those of us who served alongside him. It has been difficult and sometimes impossible to focus on how we move forward and deliver the government’s programme.

And this again is another reason to start writing again. I want to help move the focus back onto our politics and what we wish to achieve over the coming years.

These are the most depressing and difficult times that I can remember for the politics of Wales, the UK and the wider world. Carl’s death took place against a backdrop of anger against politicians and a deep disbelief in the power of politics to achieve real and lasting change. All too often people who are facing the hard reality of austerity simply do not believe that we as politicians have any understanding of their lives and the difficulties they face. In the debate on Brexit many people looked at their political leaders and decided that they didn’t believe a word we were saying. And this represents a real crisis in politics that goes far beyond Brexit.

But I do believe in politics. And I believe that it is only through politics that we can create change. It was politics that created our democracy, that created our NHS and it is only through politics that we can create real equality in our society – only politics gives us the platform to take on powerful vested interests.

In the last few decades it is politics that gave Wales the right to pass our own laws and create our own government and parliament. And as a member of that government and that parliament I want to play my part in repairing our politics. And without wishing to appear too precious or pompous I do believe that being elected is a privilege and a part of repaying that privilege is to use whatever knowledge or experience or understanding that I may have to contribute in a positive way to a conversation about our futures.

So this is my contribution to that debate.

It is not a ministerial blog, although I will from time to time discuss the issues for which I am responsible in the Welsh Government, but I make again the plea that nothing I say here should be over-interpreted or misinterpreted as the view of that government.

It’s my view. No more. No less.

I will endeavour to update at least once a week but such things are a movable feast.


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.

Leading Labour


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.