Welsh Labour’s annual conference, held in Llandudno last weekend, saw the party united in condemnation of the Tories’ devastating policies but upbeat about Labour’s chances of victory of 2015. During a refreshingly open Q&A session, Ed Miliband paid fulsome tribute to Carwyn Jones’ Cardiff administration, from which he said the British party could learn.
The main architect of that administration’s centre-left policies, Mark Drakeford, had his first major public platform at the conference since taking over as Welsh health minister in a cabinet reshuffle a week earlier. Mark’s well-received speech emphatically reaffirmed his commitment to the Bevanite founding principles of an NHS now facing the challenge of reconfiguration under circumstances of austerity.
The most significant resolution carried by conference was a composite on ‘anti-austerity action’ initiated by Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) and submitted, with slight variations, by Unison Labour Link and by Cardiff West, Gower, Pontypridd and Swansea West CLPs. Although the final version was somewhat watered down – in particular, by removing the explicit commitments to support industrial and community campaigns to defend local services – it still represents a significant advance on previous Welsh Labour policy, adopting the principle that the party should provide political leadership to the anti-cuts movement, as well as the position that Labour councils should explore every available means of protecting their communities before passing on spending cuts.
WLG’s fringe meeting considered in more detail the challenge of austerity and the response of the left, with three excellent speakers each providing their own distinctive perspective. Mark Drakeford talked about the choices facing an incoming Labour government in 2015, which will have inherited a disastrous economic legacy from the Con-Dems.
He argued that the party could address the country’s fiscal shortfall equitably, by measures that might include a financial transactions tax; a land value tax; a more progressive National Insurance system; a minimum taxation level; and serious efforts to close the ‘tax gap’. Mark also touched on the need for a more far-reaching long-term strategy, reflecting the depletion and maldistribution of the world’s resources, which would involve a fairer allocation of those resources and a greater focus on quality of life.
Cardiff councillor, Siobhan Corria, highlighted the difficulties of local authorities trying to protect services while managing austerity. Reviewing the capital’s recent budget process, she argued for a more strategic approach in future, both to in-house services and the funding of third sector provision; earlier and fuller consultation on the budget; and greater engagement by Labour councillors with communities campaigning to protect services. She also addressed the threat represented by the Bedroom Tax and the need for a clear commitment that the tax would be abolished by an incoming Labour government.
Finally, Mike Payne, GMB political officer for Wales and the South-West, reported that 380,000 public sector jobs had been cut over the previous two years, stretching services to breaking-point and thereby serving the Tories’ privatisation agenda. He argued that unions need to overcome the complacency to which some succumbed in the New Labour years and set out the GMB’s new political strategy, which involves taking a more proactive role in the Labour party, stepping up political education for stewards and campaigning politically around industrial issues.
The lively debate that ensued demonstrated the wealth of ideas and experience collectively possessed by Labour’s left and centre-left. Those resources need to be marshalled more effectively, given the insidious influence of the party’s Blairites, who are using austerity to legitimise their own neoliberal agenda.