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.

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