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Conference Review: Welsh Labour

Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th March 2017

Welsh Labour’s Spring Conference took place at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, where Labour MPs, AMs, councillors and supporters came together to map out the party’s future. This was the final spring conference to be held by a Welsh political party before May’s local government elections, and followed comments made by First Minister (Carwyn Jones) that Welsh Labour would find it tough to avoid losses in the council elections, having performed well in 2012. A constant theme throughout the conference was one of promoting fairness.

Carwyn Jones began his speech by noting that Welsh Labour “must do better” in facing the challenges of the prospect of a decade of continuing Tory austerity, an ageing population, President Trump and the UK’s impending departure from the EU. Ahead of the triggering of Article 50 this Wednesday, Mr Jones stressed that the next task for the Welsh Government will be to make a success of the process, and get the best possible deal for Wales, reiterating his calls for “full and unfettered access to the single market”. The First Minister stated that the challenge of Brexit cannot deflect from the work of the Welsh Government, using his speech to focus on Welsh Labour’s efforts in the forthcoming council elections. Mr Jones made a number of policy announcements and commitments, including an extra £20m for social care to “ease the burden on the NHS”, introducing free wireless internet on Welsh trains and stations, and a 12-month pilot of free weekend travel on long-distance TrawsCymru services. Mr Jones’ announcement that the Welsh Government will scrap burial fees for children was met with great applause, as he praised the campaign work by Carolyn Harris MP (Swansea East)(Lab). He also announced the establishment of a fair work commission with Wales TUC and business groups, saying: "I want to make Wales a fair work nation where everyone can access better jobs closer to home – developing skills and careers; where we can all expect decent, life enhancing work – without exploitation or poverty; where we all build prosperity and all share in that prosperity."

Leader of the Opposition (Jeremy Corbyn) addressed conference against a backdrop of continuing division within the Labour Party over his leadership. Mr Corbyn praised the work of the First Minister, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government (Mark Drakeford) and Shadow Secretary of State for Wales (Christina Rees). He highlighted the achievements of Welsh Labour despite budget cuts, saying it “stands as a beacon – a beacon that shines a light on the Tories' abject failure, socially, economically and morally”. Mr Corbyn was generally well informed on Welsh issues and devolved policies, referencing Welsh Government investments in the NHS, social care and improvements in Welsh ambulance response times, as well as the challenges faced by Tata Steel in Port Talbot and the damaging prospect of Brexit for manufacturers in north Wales. He did slip up, however, by referring to Llandudno as being in Denbighshire, rather than the county of Conwy. Then Mr Corbyn set out Labour’s commitment to build homes, make the minimum wage £10 an hour by 2020 and repeal the UK Government Trade Union Act. He said that we should not be afraid of debt or borrowing, saying that debt did not stop Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour Government from reforms. He urged the Conservatives to stop “dithering” and start investing. He concluded his speech with a plea for Labour unity, saying: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Prof Drakeford led discussions on the forthcoming council elections and told delegates the Welsh Government would lay an amendment to the Trade Union Bill to prevent agency strike breakers from being brought in. He said that the Welsh Government’s social partnership model goes beyond this, and the party will go into May’s elections with proposals rooted in the shared belief of the fundamental importance of local government services.

Councillor Bob Wellington said details of the Welsh Government’s White Paper on Local Government reform will need to be considered by authorities in the run up to the local election. He also praised the work of Welsh Labour councillors, and welcomed the signing of the Swansea City Region Deal. Newport City Council Leader, Councillor Debbie Wilcox praised the regeneration work across Wales, and the importance of having more woman leaders.

Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language (Alun Davies) opened the debate on education in Wales by criticising the Tories’ stance on education. Mr Davies said the Welsh Government’s approach to delivering education and schools is rooted in Welsh Labour values, adding: “We understand the difference between excellence and exclusivity.” He focused on breaking down the link between poverty and achievement, the Additional Learning Needs Bill, and investment in Welsh language schools, stating: “We will not allow a single child to be left behind.”

Jeremy Miles (Neath)(Lab) spoke in favour of the Welsh Government’s commitment to 100,000 apprenticeships and called for complete equality between apprenticeships and higher education. Rhianon Passmore (Islwyn)(Lab) highlighted the Welsh Government’s commitment to making arts education available to all. Responding to the debate, Minister for Skills and Science (Julie James) highlighted the challenge of “in-work poverty”, and the need to help people progress into more advanced, better paid roles. She welcomed the Welsh Government’s work on this, “We are not following the Tory model in England of diluting the apprenticeship brand”, and its commitment to delivering high-quality apprenticeships in Wales.

In a debate on the EU and Wales’ future, Derek Vaughan MEP said a hard Brexit, or no deal at all, would be detrimental for businesses and the economy in Wales. He stressed that the Labour party should keep its options open to a public vote at the end of Brexit negotiations. Leader of the House (Jane Hutt) applauded Mr Vaughan, saying that he will “fight right up until the very last day of our membership”. She stressed that the Welsh Government will not accept any dilution of human rights as a result of leaving the EU and urged conference to support the Welsh Government motion on securing a fair deal for Wales.

Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure (Ken Skates) spoke on building a prosperous and secure Wales, referencing a new Employability Programme built around the individual, the promise of 100,000 all age apprenticeships, a new Development Bank of Wales to support SMEs, and investment in more integrated infrastructure to “build a stronger, fairer economy”. Mr Skates said that the Welsh Government will set out a new approach to development in Wales over the coming months to ensure everyone gets a share of economic growth.

Other speakers included Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children (Carl Sargeant), who welcomed the Welsh Government’s work towards banning letting agent fees, providing decent and affordable housing, creating a generous childcare offer, and providing support for children who face adverse childhood experiences. Welsh Labour Party General Secretary, Dave Hagendykm who is stepping down from his role this year, turned attention to local elections and his hopes for more diversity and a record number of woman councillors to be elected this year.

On Sunday, South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner (Alun Michael) gave a speech to celebrate the centenary of the Co-operative Party. The former MP told conference it was important to remember that co-operation had always been at the heart of Labour politics. He said that over the past few years Welsh Labour had legislated to make it easier to set up and expand a co-operative business, supported co-operative schools and the rapid growth of credit unions, backed football supporters' trusts to put fans in the driving seat and championed a new generation of energy co-ops. Mr Michael said the 100-year milestone also provided an opportunity to look forward and the party will consult on co-operative solutions for housing and education this year.

Shadow Secretary of State for Wales (Christina Rees) began her speech by paying tribute to PC Keith Palmer who “sacrificed his life, doing us job, keeping us safe” during Wednesday’s terror attack in Westminster. Ms Rees focused much of her speech on Brexit. She said the Welsh Government should have more of a say in shaping the terms of the UK’s exit. Describing the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) as “shambolic”, Ms Rees told delegates: “No minutes or agenda before the committee meetings – no local council committee meeting would get away with that.” The Neath MP warned that there must be no grab back of powers from Cardiff Bay to Westminster as the UK takes a “leap into the unknown”. Ms Rees then criticised the Chancellor (Phillip Hammond)’s Spring Budget and his subsequent U-turn on national insurance contributions for self-employed workers, saying: Spreadsheet Phil's UK Government budget wasn't good for Wales – it wasn't good for him either.” She said the Budget lacked good news for Wales on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, rail electrification and the North Wales Growth Deal. However, Ms Rees hailed the signing of the Swansea Bay City Region Deal as a “great example of cooperation between councils, Welsh Government, UK Governments and private investors, working together for Wales”. In closing, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales paid tribute to the party’s councillors in Wales who she said had a proud record of delivering public services despite “brutal” cuts from Westminster. But, echoing the First Minister's comments, Ms Rees also warned that the forthcoming local government elections would be tough for Labour.

Minister for Social Services and Public Health (Rebecca Evans) led discussions on creating a healthy and active Wales. Ms Evans highlighted the progress that the Welsh Government is making right across the NHS in Wales. She said that Wales is the only nation of the UK to show improved ambulance response times for the most critical 999 calls. Ms Evans also pointed to improved outcomes for stroke patients, a five-year low for cancer waiting times and record-low figures for delayed transfers of care. She warned that the next five years will be difficult with an ageing population, a rising tide of poor health, and significant challenges in training, recruiting and retaining medical staff.

Finally, a vote to formally give Carwyn Jones the title of Welsh Labour leader, rather than leader of the Labour group of AMs in the Senedd, was passed by more than 90% of members. Meanwhile, a motion to change leadership election rules to one member one vote, the system which saw Jeremy Corbyn become UK party leader, was rejected by more than 70% of members.

newsdirect wales is a political monitoring company. We watch all proceedings of the National Assembly for Wales live and check hundreds of online sources to keep our clients in the know about the developments that affect them. We’d like to help you too. Give us a call on 029 2009 0693 to find out more.

Photo credit: Ashley Perkins // Flickr

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