“What are seen as radical solutions are often common sense ones – but common sense is not always that common in British politics.”Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales
By Ben Hayes, Arise Festival volunteer & Islington North CLP
Last week, hundreds of activists tuned into an inspiring socialist policy seminar focused on “Learning from Welsh Labour’s Radical Agenda” with elected representatives, trade unionists, campaigners and policy experts contributing to the discussion.
The meeting was hosted by the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs in partnership with the Labour Assembly Against Austerity and Momentum. You can read the report-back or watch it back below:
Chairing the event, MP for Cynon Valley Beth Winter outlined some aspects of the country’s history of radicalism, with the Chartist movement and trade unionism both having strong support bases. With this year marking the 100th anniversary of Wales returning a majority of Labour MPs to Parliament for the first time, she reflected on how, in a period where there has been much discussion of ways in which the party can reconnect with areas it was once strong in, Wales delivered the best local election results for Labour anywhere in Britain. This was achieved after championing policies such as free prescriptions (and rejecting PFI), banning fracking, votes at 16, launching a Climate Assembly initiative, introducing free universal primary school meals, and a living wage for care workers.
Winter noted that last year’s co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru has helped ensure a solid majority in the Senedd (formerly the Welsh Assembly) for a progressive platform, and emphasised that First Minister Mark Drakeford “makes no secret of his left politics”.
MS for Alyn and Deeside and Chair of the Petitions Committee Jack Sargeant drew on Welsh Labour garnering the highest number of votes in any election in the body’s history last year- an achievement which was all the more remarkable given that it occurred on the same day that the Conservatives won the Hartlepool by-election and Labour endured disappointing results in local elections across many parts of England. Commenting that “we were brave enough to stand on a bold manifesto and be different – and it worked”, he argued that the party “should never be too afraid or too shy” to offer a strong vision of a better future.
Outlining the scale of the challenge faced in Wales, he noted that the country was hit particularly hard by the destruction of numerous industries in the 1980s, with Shotton steelworks seeing the largest mass redundancy in Western Europe. He went on to describe the issues of today as being even more severe than deindustrialisation, with a series of crises pushing more and more people towards poverty.
Sargeant explained the importance of having rejected the “workers and shirkers” narrative pushed by Westminster governments, and discussed the policies being put forward to tackle these issues in Wales. These include a trial Universal Basic Income scheme for those leaving the care system, and pioneering community banks to ensure local investment with a view towards helping create “a more sustainable economy with a clear sense of social purpose – with evidence on a four day week being put to the Committee next week. Encouraging party members from across Britain to find out more about the agenda of Welsh Labour, he argued that it demonstrated “bold ideas are not a barrier to electoral success”.
Ceri Williams, Policy Officer for Wales TUC, described the new Social Partnership and Public Procurement Bill as representing a “new chapter in industrial relations” for Wales. Whilst acknowledging the labour movement contains a range of views about historic social partnership models, he stated that there was a widespread consensus amongst unions in Wales that this legislation offered an exciting opportunity to “bring workers into policy making” and help shape the agenda of the government and public bodies. The bill also introduces a Socially Responsible Public Procurement Duty, requiring public bodies to aim to “improve economic, environmental, social, and cultural well-being” when carrying out procurement. Williams outlined some of the differences between the approach taken by the Welsh government as opposed to Downing Street- such as taking action to ensure serious COVID workplace risk assessments were carried out and putting a sick pay scheme in place for social care workers, as well as providing backing to ensure the Union Learning Fund continues in Wales after being cut by the Johnson government. He concluded by emphasising the potential of what could be achieved if the spirit of this agenda was taken forward across Britain and urged the labour movement to take it forward at all levels possible.
Labour MS Carolyn Thomas thanked the Socialist Campaign aground for helping to organise the event, describing them as “a source of hope for members across Wales in challenging the cosy neoliberal consensus at Westminster”. Slamming the Johnson government’s response to the energy price hikes as “predictably timid and subservient to private profit as always”, she argued that privatisation was at the heart of the crisis. The stark comparison of state-owned companies in France increased bills by just 4%, compared to 54% in Britain was noted as a clear example.
Making the case that the private sector “can not and will not end our reliance on fossil fuels”, she gave her backing to the Welsh government’s work looking at the possibility of setting up a publicly owned energy firm. Praising this as one of the “ambitious socialist solutions” being offered in Wales, Thomas also pointed out that a White Paper on rent controls will soon be published – describing this as a crucial step towards ensuring “that a home is a human right, not subordinated to the demands of the market and private profiteers” whilst warning that “we will have to face down the interests of capital”. Concluding her contribution, she stated that the legacy of Labour’s 2017 manifesto was being continued by Welsh Labour and called on the left across Britain to “work together to win the battles of the future”.
Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, argued that “what are seen as radical solutions are often common sense ones – but common sense is not always that common in British politics”. Outlining her role, she discussed how all government and public bodies are required to take into account the ability of future generations to meet their needs, with the issue of climate change obviously being particularly relevant to this.
The Welsh government has taken measures including halving infrastructure investment spent on roads and investing it into public transport, divesting pension funds from fossil fuels, funding recycling schemes (meaning recycling went up in Wales during the outbreak of the pandemic, in contrast to the rest of Britain), and ensuring 59% of the capital budget has gone towards the newly-created Climate Ministry. Howe also explained how this principle has been applied to areas such as education, with a shift away from rote learning to aiming to ensure pupils “can enjoy a life well lived”, and how trials of basic income and four day week policies are being used to help develop an economic model that can meet the needs of future generations. She argued that central government has failed to respond to “the rise of zero hours culture”. Noting that the United Nations have cited the work done by Wales as an example to learn from, she emphasised the importance of having a “fundamentally different framework” from Westminster.
Secretary of Welsh Labour Grassroots Darren Willians viewed the achievements of Welsh Labour as a legacy of the “clear red water” established from the central party leadership during the New Labour years, rejecting the agenda of privatisation and letting markets run wild in public services. He argued that there was a clear link between its policy achievements (ending Right To Buy, leading the way on banning the smacking of children, plans to give local authorities the ability to set up municipal bus companies) and the preservation and strengthening of party democracy, as championed by Mark Drakeford. Pointing to the Welsh government’s handling of the pandemic as an example of just how different Britain’s response could have been, Williams described Wales as “continuing to carry the flag” of the last two Labour manifestos, and proudly embracing the party’s link to the trade union movement. Despite noting a “lack of interest” from Keir Starmer, he called for members across Britain to spread the spirit of Welsh Labour.
Counsel General for Wales and Pontypridd MS Mick Antoniw praised the gains made as “a lesson that you can be radical whilst carrying people with you”. Emphasising the importance of not taking any voters for granted, he stated that “where Labour is seen to stand up for communities, people will support it – where it is seen to equivocate or sit on the fence they abandon it”.
Arguing that “it is vital not to be ashamed of what we are: socialists”, he asked: “if we don’t believe in basic labour movement values, what is our purpose?”. Antoniw outlined some examples of different paths Wales had taken to the Tories: including making Wales a nation of sanctuary as they push through the Nationality and Borders Bill, setting up Transport for Wales instead of propping up private rail profiteers, and looking at ways to use technology to make voting more accessible whilst the British government seeks to introduce compulsory voter ID.
Warning that attempts to restrict the power of the Welsh government would “pose a threat not only to devolution but democracy”, he cited the metro Mayoral administrations of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region as examples of lessons bring learned from Welsh Labour’s model: “a radical, democratic agenda making a positive difference in difficult circumstances”.
Questions from attendees covered topics including electoral reform, plans to expand the Senedd, workers’ rights, reversing outsourcing, equalities, and key lessons for Labour.
Mick Antoniw discussed the steps taken to empower local government in Wales, and expressed hope that expanding the Senedd could lead to great diversity amongst its representatives. He described Welsh Labour’s message as being about “vision, belief, and hope. Voters will respond to a party that represents their interests effectively”.
Ceri Williams credited the “instance” of the Welsh government on including unions in policymaking as an important factor in avoiding anti-worker policies seen in other parts of Britain, and discussed the positive steps being taken to address “savage” outsourcing in the care sector.
Jack Sargeant echoed this emphasis of listening to unions, and added that he “will always be ready to stand on a picket line when called upon”. He described a key objective of the Welsh government as being “rebalancing the scales in favour of the worker”.
Sophie Howe outlined some of the measures taken on equalities issues in Wales: including setting equality duties for public institutions, launching a Race Action Plan, a ground-breaking Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Act, work done on gender budgeting, and plans for embedding the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Disabled People into Welsh law.
Carolyn Thomas argued that Wales was living proof that “progressive policies are deliverable” and can provide a model of leadership for Labour authorities to follow.
Concluding the event, Beth Winter thanked all who took part, and summarised that “clear red water is leading to clear red action”- as well as calling on all attendees to support the RMT’s ongoing campaign as part of the same fight for a “fairer, greener, socialist future”.
- You can watch the Socialist Policy Seminar “Learning from Welsh Labour’s Radical Agenda” here.
- The seminar was hosted by the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs on June 20th, 2022.