Gareth Morgan: What to watch out for in the race to replace Carwyn Jones

Written by Gareth Morgan on 24 April 2018 in Opinion

Jones is standing down after eight years First Minister and Welsh Labour leader

I moved to London from Wales around 15 years ago and soon after my arrival I grasped that no-one “here” really cares about what happens “there”.  I’ve made my peace with that (honestly) but there is the prospect of this changing in Labour circles, albeit for a short period, with the contest for the leadership of the party in Wales. Like a regional hot war during a Cold War face-off there are lots of different actors and agendas at play that bear considering.

We are here because Carwyn Jones AM on the weekend caved to the pressure that had been building since the death of Carl Sargeant and announced he was stepping down from the leadership position. He’d already been expected to stand down in this term, but the tragic event and its fallout brought things forward.

The left and right wings of Labour obviously want their candidate to win because of the role. They’ll have the devolved powers of the Welsh Government to pursue a distinct agenda, deliver services and highlight issues. But the significance for Labour will include how we get there as much as the destination.

First off, it’s about gender.

The mooted contenders include two moderate figures in Vaughan Gething AM (the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care) and Ken Skates AM (the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport). The Left’s dog in the fight will be Mark Drakeford AM (Cabinet Secretary for Finance). This is no surprise, they’ve been expected to scrap it out for some time, but what is conspicuous is that there are no female candidates talked about in the first instance.

The Welsh Party has just finished the election of their new Deputy Leader (itself an all-female contest to balance the male Leader) but that isn’t likely to be enough (and nor should it) to placate those wanting to see a greater balance in Labour’s leadership positions. Labour’s leadership core consists of Corbyn and McDonnell with Watson as the formal back-up, the leadership contest in 2016 was an all-male shoot-out after Angela Eagle stood aside, there were no female candidates for any of the city-region Mayoralties in 2017 and, as Tories love to point out, they’ve had two female PMs to Labour’s zero.

It just shouldn’t be possible for another contest to take place without a female candidate and there are whispers that former MEP and House of Lords member, Eluned Morgan AM, will put herself forward and will surely secure the nominations.

Secondly, it’s about party democracy.

One of the central tenets of Corbynism, and Bennism before it, is party democracy. Putting power into the hands of the membership (and even just “supporters”) is key to their mission. It is already evident in UK-wide leadership elections and the forthcoming Democracy Review is expected to boost it still further. The one redoubt against this is the Welsh Labour Party. Even though the pressure is building for this to change it is the Welsh Executive Committee that will decide on whether to stick with the current electoral college of MPs/AMs, Trade Unions and Affiliates and the membership block.

The past weekend has probably ramped up the pressure still further. At the Welsh party’s conference the excellent Carolyn Harris MP was elected as Deputy Leader of the Party. That result (overall 51.5% vs 48.5%) was based on Harris securing the support of the AMs/MPs and the trade unions/affiliates but losing the membership block. Despite Harris being popular and a campaigner that has secured huge wins on FOBTs and child funerals there are a number of people who resent that the will of the membership has been thwarted.

The Left of the party will be watching, and actively lobbying, the Welsh Executive Committee to see the rules changed for the Welsh Leader election to shift to a OMOV rule and bring it in line with the rest of the party. The Right will presumably resist this. Whoever wins out will have a struck a blow for an ongoing debate on this across the party.

Thirdly, it’s about the NEC.

A package of changes in the Labour Party in 2016 saw the Scottish and Welsh parties gain power over Westminster candidate selection, disciplinary matters, and the election of their respective leaders. They also had new NEC seats thrown into the deal for good measure.

The Leader of the Party will also be First Minister so too busy for marathon NEC sessions in London but they will appoint a representative from Labour's assembly group (something that itself was hotly contested by Corbyn supporters in Wales).

As we all know the NEC is keenly contested by the various wings of the Party and, despite advances by the Left in the past year, can still be swung by a relatively small number of changes. The prospect of a tilting the balance or holding the line is a significant one and adds an extra dimension.

The election of Richard Leonard MSP was seen as a victory for Corbyn and his team. The governing position of Welsh Labour means the dynamics are different but the internal repercussions in the party will remain.




Gareth Morgan is a Labour activist and a director at Cavendish Place Communications.


Picture by Press Association.


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