Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Welsh Labour Grassroots: Working on the Fringe

By Sophie Williams

Always engaging and informative, this year's Welsh Labour Grassroots fringe event at Welsh Labour Conference in Llandudno was particularly refreshing. Attracting a good turnout (including ordinary party members, AMs and even Welsh Government ministers) and featuring four excellent speakers, this was a rare opportunity for left thinking members to come together to discuss the Party’s current political direction, both in Welsh and UK terms.

Recently selected Gower parliamentary candidate, Liz Evans, kicked off with a revealing insight into the campaign in this marginal seat. Although one of the longest held Labour constituencies in the UK, Gower is facing demographic change and rising disillusionment with politics, a feeling undoubtedly influenced by the impact of divisive Con-Dem policies on the most deprived areas. Liz was keen to reverse this disengagement through adopting policies (the Living Wage, commitment to investment in the public sector and its workforce and the restoration of trade union and employment rights) to win back working class Labour voters and restore and reinforce the voice of ordinary people.

Welsh Labour’s number two candidate for the European elections on May 22, Jayne Bryant, contributed an invaluable overview of the need for a strong Labour vote and the need for more socialist MEPs, and highlighted the fact that currently only 13 out of 73 UK MEPs are Labour, a which serves as a reminder of the urgent need to strengthen the voice of socialism in Europe.

The final two speakers, the Welsh Government Finance Minister, Jane Hutt and Mark Drakeford, the Minister for Health and Social Services, were both in a reflective mood. Jane and Mark have been at the centre of Wales’ devolved government from its inception and currently hold two of the most demanding ministerial portfolios, both very much having to contend with the impact of austerity. Their contributions looked back over the years to re-engage with the fundamental philosophical and political principles that continue to motivate their decision making in power. Both were clearly angry at the mounting Tory attack on Wales and the Welsh Way of social governance. Jane gave a comprehensive overview of the Assembly’s many achievements under Labour since 1999 - highlighting key policy successes, including the ‘Flying Start’ early years programme which supports children and families in deprived areas and the youth employment scheme, Jobs Growth Wales. Mark was keen for members to consider the wider global picture, looking forward to the series of key political events taking place over the next year, from the European elections to the UK General election, and their implications for a changing political landscape. A key reflection centred on the potential impact of the Scottish referendum on Wales, and the pressing need to start a dialogue on this topic, and an assessment of the Tory attacks on Welsh public services and particularly our NHS – driven by the need for neo-liberals to destroy any indications that a non-privatised, pro-public sector model of governance can work well.

Questions to all four speakers were wide-ranging, from zero-hour contracts to Ed Miliband’s conference pledge to create a reserved powers model for Wales, akin to that of Scotland. The conclusion was that we need to fight back against Tory attacks and reinforce our message that, despite the strain of austerity, Welsh Labour’s policies are working.

This article appears in the current issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Welsh Labour Takes the Fight to the Tories

By Nick Davies 

Welsh Labour Conference is a strange beast. Despite the  matey atmosphere and the relative lack of political distance between the AMs and members, it’s still a controlled environment. Substantive policy issues  are shunted off to the Welsh Policy Forum, and if it’s an election year, which is usual, conference  generally consists of a sequence  of  prepared  speeches by MPs, AMs or candidates.  For more reflective political discussion, conference-goers need to make their way to the Welsh Labour Grassroots fringe meeting. This year’s conference was a little different, however.

Ed Miliband’s speech praised Labour’s record in Wales, while gliding over the fact that on education policy, Tristram Hunt is nearer  to Michael Gove than to his Welsh counterpart Huw Lewis. The one significant announcement was that a Labour government would introduce legislation so that, like in Scotland, power would be assumed to lie with the Welsh administration unless reserved to Westminster, as opposed to the present arrangement in which powers have to be specifically conferred on Wales. Behind this arcane-sounding formulation is an important principle: it would strengthen the ability of the Welsh government to act in defence of the people of Wales without interference from Westminster, such as the Attorney-General’s attempt to use the courts to prevent the Welsh government retaining the Agricultural Wages Board. 

The real red meat came  later. For months now there has been an increasingly bitter and hateful attack on the  record of the Welsh government by the Tories in London and their media allies. The motivation is to distract attention from their own  project of effectively privatising the NHS in England and to attack what they see as the threat of a good example: the Bevanite NHS Wales, community comprehensive schools and  government  help  for students with higher education. It’s difficult to say there’s no alternative to Con-Dem policies when they are at the other end of the M4. Grant Shapps has admitted that the Tories are using Wales as part of their general election strategy; presumably, attacking one of the devolved legislatures in the United Kingdom is part of their plan to win back UKIP voters!

First Minister Carwyn Jones went  to war on the Tories’ ‘War on Wales’,  setting the record straight on the Welsh government’s performance on health, education and job creation. Health  Minister Mark Drakeford followed with a warning to Cameron that he had picked an argument ‘on the wrong topic, in the wrong place and with the wrong people’. This belligerence from the Welsh government is welcome and it contrasts notably with the attitude of  Welsh MPs.

The phrase ‘fork in the road’ came up repeatedly. The next general election will, or should, be about what  kind of society we live in.  Wales cannot afford another year of the Tories, let alone another five after that. That prospect is disturbingly likely if Labour fails to prevent a clear alternative to the Tories. It is up to Welsh Labour, in combatting Tory smears and lies, to present that alternative.

This article appears in the current issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

NHS Wales: the threat of a good example

By Darren Williams

It is clear that Welsh public services – and especially the NHS – will be a key battleground in the next UK general election, as Westminster Tory politicians invoke the supposed shortcomings of the Welsh model in an attempt to justify their own ‘reforms’.

While English health care is increasingly fractured, marketised and handed over to the private sector, devolution has allowed Wales to restore the NHS to its original Bevanite vision, albeit in an updated form. Even before the UK coalition took office, Welsh Labour was following a very different approach from Westminster – abolishing the internal market introduced by the Major government, rejecting PFI, foundation hospital and independent sector treatment centres and scrapping prescription charges.

The Tories are therefore desperate to be able to rubbish Wales’ service delivery. Writing in The Spectator, Bristol Tory MP Charlotte Leslie described Wales as ‘a Labourite utopia of state supremacy with none of the so-called evils of alternative providers getting in the way of the tight grip of the state’. And the Tory chairman Grant Shapps told the Western Mail that service failures in Wales would be help up to warn people elsewhere the UK what would happen if Ed Miliband were to enter Downing Street.
Jeremy Hunt recently told Parliament that there had been a 10% increase in Welsh patients attending English A&E departments since 2010, suggesting that Welsh service failures were putting greater pressure on the NHS in England. The Welsh Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, pointed out on the Today programme, however, that attendances at A&E had increased by 11% across the country over the same period and it would be nonsensical to attribute increases in Newcastle or Nottingham to Welsh patients. Moreover there had been a 10% increase by English patients at Welsh A&E units, reflecting simply the ‘long and porous border’ between the two countries.

The Tories have also made much of an email sent last December by the English Chief Medical Officer, Sir Bruce Keogh, to the deputy chief medical officer in Wales, saying that he had given data that suggested there may be grounds for concern about mortality rates at certain Welsh hospitals. The email had been obtained by Charlotte Leslie and formed the basis of hostile coverage in the Telegraph, Mail and Express. In the face of such a concerted campaign – ‘a cynical, deliberate’ attempt ‘to drag the reputation of the Welsh NHS through the mud for nakedly political purposes’ in Mark Drakeford’s words – the Welsh minister has patiently attempted to point out that Keogh’s email did not give his personal view as to the seriousness or otherwise of Welsh mortality rates, and that the UK Statistics Authority has advised that the available data do not provide for safe comparisons between the countries of the UK.
The Tories’ relentless attack has also drowned out the many facts that show the Welsh NHS in a more favourable light. For example, waiting times for cancer patients are much shorter in Wales than in England, the experience of cancer patients is better, delayed transfers of care are at a ten-year low and Wales’ cardiac survival times top the  European league.

The Welsh NHS is, of course, far from perfect, as Drakeford is quick to acknowledge – and it faces growing challenges as a result of the UK government cuts. But, even in such difficult times, Wales continues to lead the way with legislation introducing a life-saving system of presumed consent for organ donation; obliging restaurants and takeaways to display prominently their food hygiene ratings; and seeking to recover treatment costs from companies that have exposed their workers to asbestos (the latter is being considered by the Supreme Court after being challenged by the insurance industry).

Unfortunately, Labour in Westminster is sometimes slow to defend Wales’ record, and the Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd, has, in effect, a become a mouthpiece for Tory attacks, after her concerns over her dying husband’s treatment in a Cardiff hospital led to her appointment by Cameron to advise on the handling of complaints.

Whatever its faults, the NHS in Wales represents the demonstrably fair and viable alternative to the privatised Tory model and, as such, it should be defended by socialists.

This article first appeared in Labour Briefing magazine.

What happened to the Clear Green Water?

By Nick Davies

Throughout the history of devolved Welsh government, a distinctive theme of Welsh Labour and, therefore, of Welsh government policy has been a commitment to sustainability. This commitment was pursued most energetically by the former minister Jane Davidson under whom, between 2007 and 2011, sustainability had its own cabinet portfolio.

Since then as the gap between rhetoric and reality has grown ever wider, there appears to be a real risk of that commitment being misunderstood as simply ‘the environment’ – something to be bolted on, rather than baked in.  Without a real understanding of what it is, sustainability looks in danger, in the present grim period, of  being  repeatedly trumped  by a  perceived need to create jobs at any cost and therefore effectively abandoned as an effective driver of policy.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 imposed on Welsh government ministers a duty to make a scheme setting out how they proposed to promote sustainable development. ‘One Wales, One Planet’ was the result. This had as its aim a sustainable Wales using only its fair share of the earth’s resources; sustainable development was the overarching strategic aim, cutting across all policies, programmes and ministerial portfolios. Sustainable development was to be the central organising principle of the Welsh government and of the public sector throughout Wales.

At the start of the 4th Assembly, speaking on the Welsh Government’s flagship Sustainable Development Bill which sought to put the scheme into effect. Carwyn Jones pronounced that sustainability was at the heart of the Welsh government’s agenda for Wales and of his government’s legislative programme. In 2013, he announced that an independent body would be created to provide guidance, expertise and advice to ensure that sustainable development would become, as intended, the central organising principle.

Since 1999 has been possible to criticise the gap between aspiration and achievement, the lack of mainstreaming, the apparent reluctance (or inability, given the weak and unstable devolution settlement) of the Welsh Government to intervene effectively, in defence of its own professed political principles as against Westminster or local authorities – issues such as Ffos y Ffran, the open-cast mine near Merthyr Tydfil, spring readily to mind. However, what was present was a greater understanding, certainly than in Westminster, of what sustainability means and a commitment to genuinely sustainable policies, a commitment which won high praise in environmental and ecological circles well used to governments falling short of promises and expectations.

However, according to the previously well-disposed Jonathan Porritt, writing in The Guardian: ‘despite the laudable aims behind Wales’s sustainability bill there is now a serious risk that it could be watered down by nervous civil servants and lawyers who are under pressure from backward looking elements in government, industry and the public sector’. While still happy to contrast favourably Wales’ record with that of Westminster (he cites the coalition government’s abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission) he strikes a note of caution, stating that carbon emissions are still too high, progress on renewal energy held up by a ‘slow planning system’ and progress at government level being ‘patchy’; in particular, sustainable ideas need to be taken more seriously in relation to economic development. Most fundamentally, according to Porritt, under the proposals for the bill, then out for consultation, the duty to be imposed on ministers was not sufficiently onerous and the meaning of sustainability was not sufficiently defined.

Anne Meikle of WWF Cymru  has also highlighted  the gulf developing  between the Welsh government’s own narrative and what the proposed legislation actually says, pointing out that the white paper requires only that ‘consideration (my emphasis) of the effect on  the social, economic and environmental well-being of Wales will be a fundamental requirement of the duty so that decisions are informed by the likely effects on each and the integration between them’  Presumably, having ‘considered’ something, the duty is then done.

In a retrograde step, the 2013 reshuffle saw the end of the Sustainability portfolio, John Griffiths moving to Culture and Sport, taking part of his responsibilities with him. (Alun Davies has the ‘other half’ of the Sustainability portfolio, ‘Natural Resources and Food’). An illustration of how this has involved a loss of focus on sustainability was that department’s ‘adoption’ of the Active Travel Bill. This bill’s purpose is to require local authorities to promote walking and cycling at the expense of the car, in other words to promote sustainable travel.   Therefore the focus of the bill was is on utility journeys, not with sport and recreation. To conflate the two appears to miss the point of the legislation

Welsh housing minister Carl Sargeant’s announcement of a watering down of plans for better insulated, more fuel efficient homes amounts to a climbdown in the face of pressure from the building industry, as WWF Cymru have pointed out. It means higher energy bills, where there are already unacceptable levels of fuel poverty, and a delay in dealing with Wales’ carbon emissions.  In 2012 the Welsh government claimed that in keeping with its commitment to sustainability, from 2013 it would use its new powers over building regulations to achieve an improvement in energy efficiency of 55% over 2006 levels and 40% over 2010 levels. When building firms complained about the cost of building homes in Wales, the government’s initial response was that it was an opportunity for them to gain a competitive advantage in new home-building techniques. However, the climbdown was not long in coming. The new regulations will result in a reduction of only 8% from 2010 levels, and then with a commitment to do so only from 2021. Irony of ironies, the Westminster government is committed to matching Welsh standards by 2014 and building zero carbon homes by 2016!  Cameron’s claims that his would be the ‘greenest government ever’ are treated with deserved ridicule, yet Westminster appears to be ahead, at least in this respect, of the ‘sustainable’ Welsh government.

As planning minister, Carl Sargeant also oversaw, in October 2013, the granting of planning permission to a ‘factory’ dairy farm in mid-Wales, in the face of contrary advice from a range of environmental and animal welfare organisations. Notwithstanding the effect on the environment, animal welfare and tourism and the presence of a school next door, the minister decided that these considerations were outweighed by the benefit of a mere ten new jobs.

Finally, there is the running sore of the M4 relief road in which the Welsh government is exposing itself to potential legal action by running a ‘consultation’, which appears to be confined to different versions of the same thing, namely a relief road running across the Gwent levels, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, excluding a possible South East Wales metro system, or a less environmentally destructive (and cheaper) road project involving the former Llanwern steelworks.

Surely if the Welsh government were to sign up to the cargo-cult of motorway building, at the expense of, a Site of Special Scientific Interest; sustainable, integrated public transport; or even a cheaper road option, it will be dragging Wales back into the dark days of 1970/80s UK transport policies and effectively forfeiting any right to have its sustainability claims taken seriously.

It is not difficult to see what is going on here. The Welsh economy is receiving such a battering as a result of the financial crisis and the Westminster government’s determination to make  anyone but the bankers  pay for it,  that ministers have adopted a default position of ‘if there’s jobs promised, do it’. Once on this slippery slope,  Carwyn Jones, albeit ‘on the hoof’ and without speaking for the Welsh government or Welsh Labour, ‘volunteered’ Wales to host the UK’s nuclear–armed submarine fleet at Milford Haven in the event of Scottish independence, presumably on the basis of  it creating ‘jobs’. Why anyone would decide to move themselves or their families to somewhere which was likely to be the epicentre of a nuclear holocaust appears not to have been fully investigated.

Despite the commitment, sustainability is not, on this evidence, what informs decision-making nor does it appear to inform any wider economic strategy.

It is up to socialists and environmentalists in Wales to demand that the Welsh government sticks to its own avowed principles so that economic renewal in Wales is not based on the outdated and discredited false dichotomy of ‘jobs v. the environment’ (sic), is based on the development of renewal energy and sustainable transport and does not harm the interests of future generations.

Tony Benn: the best leader Labour never had?

By Nick Davies

Almost exactly thirty years ago I was at Lambeth Town Hall, Brixton, where Tony Benn held a packed house of trade unionists, socialists and members of the local black community in the palm of his hand as he explained at length, fluently, and with passion that the miners’ strike was not just about the coal industry, it was about class, power and the use of the state apparatus against the labour movement. Benn made many such speeches at that time, but on this occasion in particular he and his audience understood each other; in the 1980s the people of Brixton were no strangers to the use and abuse of power by the state apparatus.  Although, despite the allegations of his more puerile critics, Benn was never a Marxist, his analysis of the use of the state against the miners owed much to the ‘armed bodies of men’ of Marx and Engels. How many of today’s Labour MPs would even know what Benn was talking about, let alone be able to make that speech?

Such a speech did not come from nowhere, but from the arc of Benn’s political career. Originally a man of the Labour establishment, an articulate and telegenic representative of Wilsonian technocracy, he was radicalised by office and the realisation that when he had his hands of the levers of power, those levers were not connected to anything. Once convinced of the need to democratise society at large, it was logical to start with his own movement. Thus was born the current which,  for the sake of political shorthand, bore Benn’s name, but was, in truth, a movement of grassroots activists, politicians, trade unionists and academics reacting against the drift, demoralization and move to the right of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations of 1974 to 1979.

This movement’s purpose was two-fold. It sought to develop a policy agenda for Labour, the Alternative Economic Strategy, to counter the abandonment by Labour of post-war Keynesianism and the move, spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan, towards an aggressive free market fundamentalism based on cuts in public expenditure, privatisation and attacks on the labour movement, together with a renewal of the Cold War. (Personally, I did not, and still don’t agree with aspects of this programme – such as import controls and outright withdrawal from the then EEC – but nevertheless, it laid down an opposing line of march to the new orthodoxy).   The other aim of ‘Bennism’ was the democratisation of the Labour Party: the right of members to reselect or deselect their MP, to determine policy and to elect the leader.  The movement’s high point was in 1981, the year I joined the Labour Party, when it galvanized the Labour rank-and-file behind Benn’s almost successful campaign for the deputy leadership.

It was the growing influence of this movement that precipitated, in 1981, the split from Labour to form the Social-Democratic Party. But for this split, the Tories would probably have lost the 1983 election, but then, the SDP splitters’ whole purpose was to respond to the needs of capital, as opposed to those of the labour movement.  The Labour Party had also to be brought into line; that was the job of Kinnock, who had abstained in the deputy leadership election, went onto betray the striking miners and paved the way for New Labour. Although New Labour subverted party democracy in practice, the formal effective abolition of Labour’s collective, collegiate democracy had to wait until 2014. With the resulting donation to the party of original SDP splitter David Owen there is a sense of the wheel having turned full circle.

But back to that night in Brixton. What impressed me the most was Benn’s clarity: one of the greatest literary or oratorical gifts is to be able to explain complex ideas simply, and Benn had this talent in abundance. It was his clarity that shone through the obfuscating smoke of ‘consumer choice’ and ‘modernisation’ which has polluted political discourse since the 1980s. He spoke the truth about class, power and inequality: how mining communities were pauperised and criminalised, how Iraq was invaded and its resources looted on the basis of a lie, how our public services were stolen from us and sold on the cheap to the Tories’ friends, for them to sell back to us at a profit and how we have to work harder, for less, with fewer rights and end up deeper in debt.

The official reaction to Benn’s death was significant. Praise for his kindness, courtesy and eloquence was automatically qualified by an assertion of the UK’s official ideology: that despite Benn’s sincerity, be was utterly wrong, and aren’t we all fortunate that he did not succeed, otherwise we’d all be living in a European version of North Korea. It’s redolent of the media treatment of the death of Thatcher: a celebration of our escape from the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s.  But there’s almost an air of desperation in the way this line is constantly peddled: as if it betrays a creeping  realisation that, for most people, the free-market god has failed and that after all, Benn had something to say about the banks, the City, globalisation and the dangerous unaccountability of EU technocrats

Among many of Benn’s supporters there’s also a misplaced air of finality, as if an era has passed. Benn, according to this version, is ‘irreplaceable’. On a personal level, of course, he is, but then so is everyone. Politically, however, such an assertion is an admission of defeat. When our movement is as weak as it is, individuals such as Tony Benn and Bob Crow appear to carry the hopes and expectations of millions on their shoulders, when they, as all of us, should be just links in a chain.

The most significant tribute to Bob Crow was from Ken Livingstone when he said that RMT members were the only working class people in London with decent wages; a situation that should be the norm was now the exception. It reminded people of what they have lost.  And just as we need many Bob Crows – so that the cleaners and call centre workers who work in the 21st century’s sweat shops can have security and dignity at work and a living wage – so we need to find many Tony Benns who can speak with clarity and passion about inequality and power and the need to build a better world.