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The most powerful Labour politician in Britain? Carwyn Jones in the spotlight

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While the Labour party goes mad for Miliband’s speech, the First Minister of Wales is leading a nation. Time for those outside of Wales to pay close attention to the most senior elected Labour politician in the UK.

Daran Hill
3 October 2012

In May 2010, a little noticed result of the UK General Election was the impact it had on one man – Carwyn Jones. For those who are not familiar with him, just six months earlier Carwyn had become leader of Welsh Labour and therefore First Minister in the Welsh Government. The impact was considerable because overnight it made Carwyn Jones the most senior elected Labour politician in the UK, although perhaps it has taken until now to show what that really means.

Maybe people have also been slow in properly recognizing that in Wales at least the picture is different, even if Labour’s performance in other parts of the UK has been patchy. The General Election of 2010 was not as bad in Wales as other parts of the UK, with several marginal seats being retained and Labour emerging with nearly three quarters of the representation even if its vote share was significantly down. Similarly, earlier this year Labour won back control of the majority of local authorities in Wales: it had a ‘stunning’ night in Wales, better than any other part of the UK, winning Cardiff, Swansea and Newport at the expense of the Liberal Democrats; Caerphilly from Plaid Cymru; Flintshire from the Independents; and the Vale of Glamorgan from the Conservatives. In doing so, it reversed a decade of decline for Labour in local government in Wales.

But between these two elections was the less noticed election of May 2011 when Labour climbed from 26 to 30 seats in the National Assembly for Wales. The fact they took outright control of the Assembly that night, ditching their Plaid Cymru coalition partners of four years, was an interesting counterpoint to the Labour meltdown in Scotland happening at the same time. As Carwyn Jones told the Labour conference in Manchester the other day, “We offered them policies based on fairness, justice and opportunity – policies based on Labour values. And the people of Wales responded to this promise by giving us our best result in the history of the National Assembly for Wales.”

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Since losing power in Westminster – and at the same time as being cast further afield in the Scottish Parliament – Labour has faced a couple of years of deep soul searching and identity crisis. Unable to quite work out why power just slipped through their fingers without divorcing it from a leader who “lacked the fundamental qualities” to be Prime Minister, it has taken Labour a while to recover and examine why exactly it lost in 2010 and to what extent Gordon Brown was ‘to blame’ for that. Undoubtedly Brown was responsible for a great deal, but the failings of a Scottish Labour politician in Westminster do not explain away quite why Labour continued to do so badly in Scotland compared to Wales a year later. 

Carwyn Jones is arguably the key factor here. I am not dissecting him as a person but more as the leader of the government. Having that power is what unites him and Alex Salmond. Both of them have the ability to stand up to Westminster and to do things differently and with political purpose. It was why in May 2011 both incumbent governments were returned with increased majorities in Scotland and Wales, they had shown themselves to be ‘defenders’ of their countries against the interests of the UK Coalition Government made up of two parties that, to them, did not embody Welsh interests.

The style, priorities and preoccupations of the Welsh Government continue to be focused very firmly on demonstrating how different they are from the UK Government. It is no coincidence that the Programme for Government in Wales is founded on three principles – social justice, sustainable development and ‘defending Wales’. The latter does not reflect an ambitious programme of castle building in the Welsh Marches, but rather the proofing of the impact of UK policies on Wales to see which values and intentions they embody. It was clear too in Carwyn Jones’ UK Conference speech where he stated: “As a Welsh Labour Government, we have worked to protect the people of Wales from the worst excesses of Tory and Lib Dem devastation.”

This is evident on a weekly basis at First Minister’s Questions in the Assembly where policies are set against each other with only a border between them. Carwyn Jones’ stockiest stock phrase relates to challenging the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over what ‘your government is doing in England’ every time he is challenged about a potentially failing service in Wales. Sometimes it has hard to tell the weekly outings apart. Even David Cameron has emulated the tactic, challenging Labour at the dispatch box in the Commons to defend the performance of the NHS in Wales.

But Labour in Wales is also putting in place investment programmes that match the type of plans for growth Ed Miliband has been calling for. The Welsh Government’s £15 billion Investment Plan for the next decades will build new roads, schools, hospitals and will therefore stimulate the economy. At the same time the Jobs Growth Wales scheme has protected the employment of some 1,500 young people. 

In every field there is now ‘clear red water’ between the approaches in Whitehall and Cathays Park in Cardiff. In education, policy divergence has seen the Education Maintenance Allowance retained in Wales while being abolished in England; and a recent sharp war of words between Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews and Michael Gove over proposed changes to post-16 qualifications in England and over GCSE re-grading. In health, it sees a system in Wales that rejects the private sector at the same time it is being bolstered through the new Health and Social Care Act for England.

And is Carwyn Jones right to do this? The polls say that he is. Labour is performing staggeringly well in Wales in opinion poll terms and in the ballot box if the last few outings are anything to go by. Carwyn’s own personal ratings are also high, and seem to be higher than that of his popular predecessor Rhodri Morgan.

Carwyn knew this too from the response in Manchester when he said: “In Wales, we still have to take some difficult decisions as money has got tighter. But those decisions have always been taken and measured against our Labour values - our social conscience, our sense of justice, our sense of right. In Wales, we are showing those people who cherish their NHS, who value their communities and who want a decent future for their children and grandchildren - that there is an alternative.”

We in Wales have known about Carwyn for a few years now. UK Labour can only profit from letting a few more people into the secret.

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