Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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.

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