The recently-announced Welsh Labour leadership election, scheduled for later this year, comes at a good time for the party’s left. After years of being frozen out in Wales, socialists are once again finding political relevance. This is reflected by the fact that the frontrunner to replace Carwyn Jones as leader is Momentum-backed Mark Drakeford.
Drakeford’s campaign aims to bring Welsh Labour back to its roots, with a program of supporting free and universal public services, improvements to the education system, and backing Welsh industry. This platform comes as no surprise from the only Welsh cabinet minister to endorse Corbyn in both of his elections.
Drakeford was a special advisor when former Welsh leader Rhodri Morgan made his ‘clear red water’ speech in 2002, outlining the distinctions between his vision of ‘socialism of a Welsh stripe’ and Blair’s New Labour. Its defence of ‘free, universal, and unconditional’ public services against means-testing remains relevant today. In many respects, the Corbyn leadership is pursuing a similar line against similar ideological opponents in the party.
But whereas Rhodri Morgan’s speech may have secured lasting relevance, the same can’t be said for Welsh Labour. Since Carwyn Jones won the battle to succeed Morgan, his party has moved to the right. This shift didn’t manifest itself only in a departure from Morgan’s policies, but also in a ‘professionalisation’ of the party and a decline in the number of working-class representatives. Since 2015 at least, the ‘clear red water’ has flowed in the other direction.
But this has begun to change. The dominance of the right in Welsh Labour, which was demonstrated in the make-up of both the Assembly group and the Welsh Executive Committee (WEC), has recently been challenged. The latter has swung to the left with the election of ten candidates backed by Welsh Labour Grassroots — a socialist grouping now referred to as the ‘home of Momentum in Wales.’ These candidates include established figures on the Welsh left such as Darren Williams, Catherine Thomas, and Mark Fisher.
This shift in the balance of power on the WEC is likely to have a significant impact on future leadership contests. The left slate ensured that Welsh Labour committed itself to a democracy review, which will be published in September. It is likely it will conclude that leadership elections in Wales follow the One Member, One Vote (OMOV) format that elected Jeremy Corbyn.
This should give a major boost to Mark Drakeford’s chances of becoming the next leader, and taking the party back towards the left. But it won’t be a radical shift — even Drakeford’s opponents acknowledge that he’s a pragmatist. ‘We’ll be leaning to the left, not lurching to the left,’ he said in a recent interview, before adding ‘we won’t be abolishing capitalism tomorrow.’