Welsh Labour in power: 'One Wales' vs. 'One Nation'?

Author:Moon, David S.
 
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Here be dragons

As working people across Britain marched on May Day 2007, the Labour Party was in government in Wales, Scotland, London and Westminster. Five years on, only the Welsh Government remains under Labour control and, as First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM is the party's most senior elected figure. Governing alone since the 2011 Assembly elections, the minority Welsh Labour government thus finds itself tasked with demonstrating what a Labour administration stands for as a viable alternative to the harsh and economically dangerous cuts of the Conservative-led Coalition Government at Westminster. It is in this light that Ed Miliband describes the Labour government in Wales as 'charting a course' for a future Westminster government and Ed Balls declares that 'the UK can learn from what Carwyn Jones is doing in Wales' (Williamson, 2013).

Yet strangely, like ancient mariners' charts, today's maps of British politics might as well read 'here be dragons' across the Principality for all that is widely known of Welsh politics. Whilst the forthcoming Scottish referendum leads to breathless commentary from politicians and columnists, mentions of Wales mainly arise as ricochets from adversarial sniping, such as David Cameron's repeated attacks upon the Welsh NHS at PMQs, or Michael Gove's insinuations that employees should view the GCSEs of Welsh pupils as of lesser worth than those set in England. In all such cases Wales exists not in and of itself, but as a point of reference (and warning) for English concerns; even discussions over devolving tax powers to the National Assembly are reported (see Wright, 2013) in terms of how 'English people who relocate to Wales may get tax breaks' (and what of the Welsh already living in Wales one hesitates to ask?).

This entirely negative, Tory-framed image of Labour Wales is an embarrassment. In only 14 years Wales has been transformed, constitutionally, from a country without a directly elected devolved body, to one with a National Assembly wielding primary legislative powers. In this newly enhanced governmental context, the Welsh Labour government is forging its own, different path to the neo-liberalism practiced at Westminster--much as it did under Rhodri Morgan during the periods of the Blair-Brown governments. Yet, since the economic crash, the 'classic' social democratic politics practiced by Labour in Wales has found itself closer to the party's national leadership than it was--a step ahead of comrades in England even--and if Welsh Labour is indeed charting possible routes Miliband's 'One Nation' agenda might follow, then it deserves greater attention.

The constitutional is political

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to identify and present several interesting elements of Welsh Labour politics which may provide insights into the wider issues the labour movement is grappling with as it struggles to return to power at Westminster. This includes matters of social policy, ideology and rhetoric. It can only be a rough sketch and in selecting topics to discuss areas of very real significance are relegated to secondary concerns. Foremost among these is the issue of seemingly greatest interest to the Welsh Government itself, the ever changing constitutional settlement in Wales. Others have written in greater detail regarding this agenda than is possible here. Furthermore, whilst the future constitutional balance of the Union is important for all of Britain's component parts, it is arguably of less salience to the issues broached in this article. Still, a brief catch up may be in order.

From 1998 to 2011 the National Assembly for Wales had only secondary legislative powers and none regarding tax and borrowing, curtailing its ability to institute major changes. With the unlocking, via referendum, of the primary legislative powers held in the Government of Wales Act 2006, this situation has changed and in November 2012 Royal Assent was given to the first ever Bill passed by the Assembly (notably, an Official Languages Bill giving equal status to the Welsh and English languages inside the Assembly). The 'debate' over devolving additional powers never stops, however, and focuses now upon the Silk Commission and its 2012 report advocating greater financial powers and responsibilities for the Welsh Government, as well as recent calls from Jones to devolve extensive additional powers over areas such as policing and the criminal justice system (Henry, 2013). While Jones's 'wish list' appears, questionably, to have not been run past Labour's Westminster leadership first, in the context of such vocal pressure for change Miliband, Balls et al. nevertheless need to pay attention to Wales as well as Scotland, apropos the future nature of the Union. What of more immediate and transferable policies, however?

Social democratic still

With regards to policy, Labour Wales demonstrates alternative routes in a number of key areas, though not all will appeal. In education, the ill-tempered parries between Leighton Andrews AM, the Welsh Government's ever ambitious Minister for Education, and Michael Gove point to the two governments' different approaches: Welsh Labour have rejected any two-tier system in secondary examinations. Gove's back-tracking over scrapping GCSEs was a small vindication of this, yet Assembly plans to take direct control of schools away from local authorities speaks to continuing problems.

On jobs, meanwhile, recognising that leaving youth unemployment to the market in a liquidity crunch is folly, the Welsh Government have invested heavily in interventionist schemes such as Job Growth Wales, which aims to create 4,000 new jobs a year for young people and was recently praised by Ed Balls for showing the way forward on unemployment (Welsh Government, 2012). Other large scale investment includes 'Superfast Cymru', boosting the roll-out of high speed fibre broadband to 96 per cent of the population with the related aim of creating further jobs. Also hugely ambitious and symbolic is the decision to bring Cardiff Airport into public ownership after years of declining passenger numbers; as London dithers over Heathrow, the Welsh Government intends to sell the national airport as 'Terminal 6', opening up the South West for commuters and business. Devolution of borrowing powers should also liberate additional capital revenue for investment in infrastructure.

In each case Welsh Labour displays an overt recognition of the need for interventionist government to stimulate the economy with injections of public capital at the point at which private capital has dried up. In terms of debates at Westminster, however, one key policy area deserving particular attention is Labour's management of the NHS in Wales.

Caring for Bevan's baby: NHS Wales

Cameron, as noted, has repeatedly used PMQs to attack the NHS in Wales, arguing that people in the Principality are waiting longer for operations and accusing the Welsh government of cutting funding: 'That is what you get if you get Labour: no money, no reform, no good health services.' As Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt has continued this assault, batting back any criticisms of his policies of privatisation with claims Labour is cutting health in Wales. Welsh politics' low salience means that...

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