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‘I have always believed that the place for Labour to be is left of centre’

Wales Finance Minister and Welsh Labour leadership candidate MARK DRAKEFORD talks to the Star about his political beliefs, devolution and wealth redistribution in the UK

WELSH Labour Grassroots immediately welcomed Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford’s announcement last week that he will stand for election as Welsh Labour leader in succession to Carwyn Jones.

The group, which predates the founding of Momentum in England but complements its political and organisational approach in Wales, called it “excellent news for the left and for Wales.”

It described Drakeford as “a truly outstanding figure whose contribution to progressive politics is already incalculable. He deserves the support of every socialist and trade unionist and everyone who wants the best for our country.”

This quietly spoken but convincing son of Carmarthen didn’t grow up in a particularly political household but he recalls politics always being there, from being called out by his farmer grandfather — “from a classic Welsh Liberal chapel-going Welsh-speaking, radical nonconformist tradition” — to see Megan Lloyd-George knocking doors to attending the traditional eve-of-poll meetings that all political parties held in his home town, at one of which he saw Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

“Electoral contests were dominated by Labour and Plaid Cymru and I remember 1966 and Gwynfor Evans winning the Carmarthen by-election [for Plaid]. You had to make your mind up pretty early if you belonged to the nationalist tradition or Labour tradition and I made my mind up early on,” he says.

He first knocked doors for the Labour Party in 1974 for Gwynoro Jones, who won by three votes before losing to Plaid’s Evans in that year’s second election, in the depths of rural Carmarthenshire, and has been involved in Labour politics ever since.

Drakeford was always a strong supporter of devolution and remembers the “awful failure” of the 1979 devolution referendum in Wales and the sense it was over.

“It was such a decisive defeat and I couldn’t imagine us ever coming back from it,” he says, crediting Margaret Thatcher with being “the architect of devolution” in response to her governments in the 1980s.

“[Former first minister] Rhodri Morgan used to tell me that, on the doorstep in 1997, the argument that worked best with people was that you needed devolution to be a bulwark against the day when the Tories might come back again,” he recalls.

The argument that an assembly could provide a defence against policies being pursued in Wales which it had consistently voted to reject contributed to the narrow majority won for devolution then.

Drakeford doesn’t believe that the devolution process is over yet and is keen that aspects of the criminal justice system should be devolved to Wales, although discussions with Westminster continue on this issue.

“There’s more to go, but I found myself recently departing slightly from some in the devolution camp in that I’m not an enthusiast for the devolution of tax and benefits systems. They seem to me what binds the UK together,” he says.

“If you are redistributionist, the tax and benefits systems are the way to do it. On the key question of poverty I believe that Wales benefits from a UK redistributive model.”

His firm belief in the United Kingdom is not about being “sentimentally attached to Britishness and that kind of stuff” but because the UK is “a great social insurance policy in which we pool our resources and redistribute them according to need.

“As we move away from that, the case for the UK is weakened,” he warns.

Drakeford is happy with current relations between Welsh Labour and the Labour leadership in Westminster, paying tribute to Keir Starmer and the Labour Brexit team for ensuring that the devolution agenda is not forgotten in discussions with the government.

He remembers going to London every quarter in the early days of devolution to give an account of what was going on in Wales to Tony Blair’s advisers.

“It was all very friendly and cordial, but it always had a flavour to me of being called to the head teacher’s study to ensure that the unruly pupils on the playground weren’t getting out of hand. It didn’t last very long and maybe it was inevitable at the very beginning.”

Surprisingly, however, for someone who “was never a Blairite of any description,” he credits Blair with getting devolution right after his initial interference to thwart Welsh Labour plans to elect Rhodri Morgan as first minister.

“I listened to a number of conversations between Rhodri and him which used to end with Blair saying: ‘Well, as you know, Rhodri, I wouldn’t do it that way myself, but you’re the first minister of Wales. You must do it the way that’s right for you’.”

The left candidate’s well-publicised backing for Jeremy Corbyn, together with his close association with both Labour first ministers, has seen him face questioning over whether he plans to tear up everything Labour has stood for in Wales and back revolutionary change or is simply the “continuity candidate” with no new ideas.

“Neither of those things is true. I don’t represent a break from Labour’s past in Wales because I don’t think there is a case for doing that,” he explains.

“We’ve been successful in government and been re-elected to government. We have a manifesto we’re elected on and I’m not turning my back on that at all.”

Drakeford points out that Wales has been the most consistently left-wing part of Britain. While Scotland was dominated by the Tories for a long time, they have never won an election in Wales.

“The centre of political gravity in Wales is to the left of the UK and that drags all parties to the left. I have always believed that the place for Labour to be is left of centre,” he says.

He justifies his recent comment to the Welsh media that he sees himself as “the unity candidate,” pointing out that the assembly Labour group has gone through a difficult time recently.

“The last six months have been in some ways the most distressing The loss of a much-loved colleague [Carl Sargeant], who worked in the next office to me since last election, had a real impact on the group.

“We need someone who is able to reach across the different interests the group has, partly because I’ve been there for so long and know people and partly, I hope, because I do a decent job in the responsibilities I’ve had to make that group additionally effective in the second part of this assembly term.”

Drakeford acknowledges that the first minister has had “a torrid time … and it is inevitable and right that questions are asked to see what else could have been done and what lessons can be learnt.”

Nonetheless, he insists that “Carwyn’s record of service to the Labour Party and the people of Wales entitles him to set the terms for his own departure rather than  being forced out.”

The recent Welsh Labour deputy leadership election between Carolyn Harris and Julie Morgan, which Harris won despite two-thirds of individual members backing Morgan, has meant that one member one vote (OMOV) is again in the news.

Drakeford’s backing for OMOV goes back to 1982 when Roy Hattersley proposed it — “and I didn’t agree with Mr Hattersley about a lot either” — because he believes that the party belongs to its members who must have the decisive say.

“Membership extends to levy-paying trade unionists, not just individual members of the party, but every vote must be of equal value. All those within the franchise, their decision should stick,” he says.

While insisting that Harris won “fair and square” under the rules and “is entitled to be respected in the job,” he notes that 33 per cent of overall votes came from the party’s trade union affiliate section on a turnout of 4.7 per cent in that section.

At the recent Wales LP annual conference, it was agreed to set up a democracy review, including conduct of leadership elections, to report back to 2019 conference.

Drakeford addressed a fringe meeting on OMOV — “it was packed, standing room only, passionate. The quality of the contributions and ideas was outstanding.”

As the audience filed out, he reflected on the meeting, realising that his vote as an AM in the electoral college was worth more than everybody else in that hall put together.

“How can that possibly be right? So I think the case for reform is unambiguous,” he says.

A letter from four trade unions — GMB, Unison, CWU and Usdaw — takes issue with members’ clamour for OMOV, highlighting the contradiction between setting up a review and prejudging the outcome.

But Drakeford points out that the review report-back date was set before the first minister’s decision to stand down, suggesting that the review group should divide its workload, making proposals to change leadership election rules to a special autumn conference and dealing with other issues by next year’s conference.

He is also keen that the party should have a political choice in the leadership election.

“A diverse group of candidates on the ballot paper will be a very good thing, but people should make their mind up on the basis of the views that people represent, not on identity or where you’ve come from.

“That’s why I supported Jeremy Corbyn at the very beginning when he just managed to get his name on the ballot paper.

“I didn’t imagine that he was likely to be the winner, but I wanted to say that I supported him to demonstrate that the ideas he represented continued to have a solid strain of support in the Labour Party.”

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