The contest for the leadership of the Welsh Labour Party – and the position of First Minister of the Welsh Assembly – is well and truly underway, with many union and CLP (constituency Labour party) nominations filed and weekly hustings being held.
Three candidates are in the running and have received enough nominations to participate in the ballot, which opens next month after the nomination period closes: Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan. However, the contest is seen by many observers as a fight between left-winger Drakeford and ‘centrist’ Gething – and between left and right for the soul of a party long dominated by the Labour right.
The SKWAWKBOX spoke today to Mark Drakeford, who comes from a Welsh-speaking family in West Wales.
In the first part of a two-part interview, Drakeford talks about his campaign chances and his vision for the Welsh Labour Party. He also talks, with considerable frankness, about the Welsh language, Labour democracy, the deputy leadership, devolution, regional economic imbalance, government investment, the loss of EU funding, motorways – and about Theresa May’s dishonesty about the Welsh NHS:
SKWAWKBOX: Mark, hope you’re well. How are the early stages of your campaign going?
MD: I think we’re where we had hoped to be. To get on the ballot paper, I had the nominations of more than half the Assembly group [Labour’s Welsh Assembly Members], I’ve had the nominations of all affiliated trade unions other than two – GMB and Community, I wasn’t holding my breath – but Unite, Unison, CWU and all the others supported me.
And last night we got to, I think it was nineteen constituencies nominating me, with more to vote tonight so I’m confident that by tonight I’ll have the nominations of more than half our [forty] constituency parties in Wales. And I think we’ll get to ten MPs, which will probably be more than half of the MPs who will make a nomination.
S: The Welsh leadership is OMOV (one member, one vote) this year for the first time, which a lot of Labour members are happy about.
MD: Yes, I’m very pleased about that too. The old electoral college system was very badly exposed in the election of the deputy leader. Julie Morgan won two thirds of the members’ votes, took two thousand more votes than Caroline [Harris] – and lost.
You simply cannot explain that – to people inside the party but also outside the Labour Party too, who look to the party to have proper democratic standards. They just can’t believe that you can have a person who gets a lot more votes and still ends up losing. That can’t happen this time and that’s very good news.
S: Yes, especially with the Tories looking for every opportunity to attack Wales as the country where Labour’s in power under devolution. I gather you’re a big believer in devolution and want to take that further?
MD: Yes, I’m absolutely a devolutionist, I believe that decisions that only affect people in Wales ought to be made by people in Wales. But I’m also a believer in a successful United Kingdom, so I’m not a separatist or a nationalist. We need a devolved Wales in a successful UK – and of course, working with a Labour government in Westminster as well.
S: One of the questions people have asked the blog since it first covered your candidacy is about your plans for the Welsh language, which a lot of people have seem to have felt has been under attack by the Tories. What are your plans?
MD: Well, we have a commitment to create a million Welsh-speakers by 2050. I’m a Welsh speaker myself so I’m very keen that we do support the language and to make sure that we do reach that target.
That essentially involves a lot more investment in Welsh-medium education, so we’re able to meet the demand for young people going through school in Welsh – but it also means creating more opportunities outside school for people to use the language.
I was brought up in West Wales so I grew up hearing it spoken around me all the time – but I was of that generation where my mother spoke Welsh as her first language, so did my grandparents, but they only ever spoke English to me because if you wanted to get on, you had to speak English. Mercifully, we’ve turned the corner on that as a culture, but while I’m very lucky because I work in the Assembly where Welsh is around you all the time. Like any language, using it is essential – but it’s not as easy for a lot of people.
You can learn Welsh and never have a chance to use it if you’re not in the right context. The Assembly is a genuinely bilingual institution and that’s an enormous help in improving and maintaining fluency. We need to make that kind of environment more available.
S: You’re from west Wales originally. One of the issues in Wales is the economic imbalance between the south-east around the capital and other parts of Wales. What are your plans to improve things for people in the west, north and mid-Wales?
MD: There are two strands. First of all we have to secure the same funding we’ve had through the European Union, which the Tories promised us in the referendum campaign. That money is spent in west Wales, the Valleys and north Wales and it’s been very important indeed in closing the gap in the economy between the south-east and other parts of Wales.
It’s succeeded, too, because growth in the Valleys and west Wales has been faster than in the south-east. It’s starting from a different base, of course, so it doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go. But actually economic growth in Wales is faster than in England – and within Wales it’s faster in the poorest parts.
EU money has been vital to that and as we keep saying, the Tories must deliver on their promise to the Welsh people during the referendum that Wales would not be a penny worse off outside the EU than we have been within it.
We’re implacably hostile to the Tories’ ‘Shared Prosperity Fund‘ idea, which we feel is a plan to share money that comes to Wales with other places and to take control over how it’s used away from Wales and make those decisions in Whitehall. The Tories are showing no signs of keeping their promise – that’s a big battle and we need to win it, because the future prosperity of those parts of Wales is very connected to it.
I’m also very keen to have a focus on what is called the ‘foundational economy’ – the jobs that are not mobile in the global capitalist world, the jobs that you’ll always need people to do, so jobs in social care, in food production, retail, tourism. Things that you’ve got to have people to provide – and which we’ve rather overlooked, really.
We tend to think of those as part of a mundane, taken-for-granted world, but in many parts of Wales the foundational economy is the economy. We’ve spent a lot of our time, successfully too, attracting inward investment and getting jobs into Wales and of course we need to go on doing that – but I want to focus as well on indigenous businesses that are going to be there year in, year out and aren’t footloose in the way that some big multinational companies can be.
Steel industry and intervention
S: The travails of the steel industry were in the news a lot and steel is an important part of the Welsh economy. How do you see the Welsh government’s role?
MD: We worked very hard, particularly with Tata, to help them get through the very difficult position they were in at the beginning of 2016. That’s now stabilised somewhat, but it’s still precarious because of things like Trump’s tariff wars. We are completely committed to going on supporting the steel industry.
I know the First Minister has been in discussions recently about the extent to which the Welsh government might be able to go on supporting some important developments at Port Talbot which would help secure the longer-term future of the site, but also deal with some of the de-carbonisation issues you face if you’ve got heavy industries operating.
S: And those are things you’ll be looking to continue if you win?
MD: Yes. It has to be proper bargain, a proper bargain with the companies. If public money is being invested in them, the public is entitled to see a return on that investment through guarantees of jobs and continued presence in Wales. If we can reach that sort of bargain where we’re confident our money will make a different to securing that future, then we will always look to find money to help. But it has to be on that ‘something for something’ basis.
S: In the run-up to the first hustings, Vaughan Gething was making quite a bit of noise about the M4 development. What’s the importance of that?
MD: The M4 round Newport is an important strategic route into Wales. Businesses and other sorts of activity do need to be confident that that part of our road network is working effectively – and too often it isn’t, if an accident happens it’s very quickly clogged and peak times the traffic flows can make it difficult.
So there is a plan to potentially build a new relief road that its supporters say would help to solve that problem. There’s been an independent report on it and my position in hustings has to be that we haven’t seen that report yet, we don’t know how much it’s going to cost, so a sensible government waits to see the evidence and then makes the decision. I haven’t seen the report yet but I’ll be studying papers on the financials at the weekend.
Where I agree with Vaughan is that the choice cannot be between building the relief road or doing nothing. If in the end, the relief road is not the best way, we still have to do a series of things to make sure that traffic flows around Newport and that part of our motorway network.
And there are other plans that have been put forward, particularly by environmental groups, that they say would allow the motorway to flow without the environmental impact of a new six-lane highway through the Gwent Levels, which are sites of special scientific interest because of wildlife and so on. I’m still in the weighing up phase and I think others would be sensible to be too.
The Welsh NHS – and Theresa May’s fictions
S: The Tories never waste an opportunity to deflect attention from their own disasters by pointing at the Welsh NHS and claiming it’s failing under a Labour government. What’s your perspective on that?
MD: The Health Service in Wales continues to be a modern miracle. It treats more people than ever before, more successfully than ever before and by and large it treats them more quickly than ever before.
The NHS is in Wales a service that remains publicly funded and publicly provided and which continues to operate on the essential Bevan principle that it is the acuteness of your need, not the depths of your pocket, that determines who gets priority.
We will go on running our health service in exactly that way, certainly as long as I am Labour leader. There’s no service in Wales that is more important to the population or to which people are more firmly attached.
In an age of austerity, when our budget shrinks every single year and is about to do so for the ninth year in a row, all our public services are under pressure and the NHS is no exception to that.
But for the Tories there’s no question it is just the ‘dead cat’ that they like to throw on the table when their lamentable record of privatisation and neglect is highlighted. They think they can distract attention from that by throwing the Welsh NHS onto the table.
This often involves telling lies about it. The statistics that the Prime Minister uses – and I’m sure she knows this – are not accurate, but it is a convenient way for them to distract attention from their own record.
In the second and final part of this interview, to be published tomorrow, Drakeford talks among other things about the tragic death of Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant, about radioactive mud being dumped in Wales – and his withering verdict on Neil McEvoy, the independent but Plaid Cymru-supporting Assembly Member some have speculated might be a threat to Drakeford’s Cardiff West seat.
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