George Thomas, Siân Jones and Dafydd Rees in SEC Newgate’s Wales team were at Welsh Labour’s annual conference in Llandudno at the weekend. Below, they each give their impressions of Welsh Labour’s first face-to-face conference since the start of the pandemic.
Despite the disappointment of the Wales Rugby Team coming just short of toppling the in-form French, there was still a jovial atmosphere in Llandudno on Friday night: a feeling that seemed to last the duration of the weekend as Welsh Labour came to the town for their annual conference.
Having not been able to get together in person since before the pandemic, spirits amongst attendees seemed particularly high, and the presence of Keir Starmer – who was there for the entire conference – seemed to add to the excitement.
After remarking on the atrocious scenes in Ukraine, Starmer used his speech to focus on the contrast in leadership styles between Boris Johnson and Mark Drakeford, heaping praise on the latter and the job he is doing in Wales. Although the speech was light when it came to specifics and policy ideas, Sir Keir still received a rapturous ovation.
Unsurprisingly, there were still a select few in the audience who conspicuously chose to not join in with the standing ovation – after all, a party conference wouldn’t feel quite right without some display of factiousness.
The praising of Mark Drakeford proved to be a common theme for the event. Although there will have inevitably been some positioning and manoeuvring going on behind the scenes, Drakeford’s position as leader could not, on the face of it, have appeared to be any more secure, with no indication of the First Minister having any plans to step down.
Assuming Labour remain in power in Wales, whoever the future leader may be, it is likely that he/she will oversee the ushering in of significant Senedd reforms. This is because delegates voted unanimously in support for a larger Senedd, as well as electoral reform.
Drakeford himself was characteristically unassuming, despite all the admiration he was receiving. He is demonstrably proud of his government’s achievements, and excited about what is to come. This pride and excitement appeared to resonate amongst those in attendance, who appear to be anticipating a solid showing at the upcoming local elections in May.
With little announced either in terms of policy or Mark Drakeford’s future leadership intentions, this was a classic mid-term, ‘holding pattern’ conference – albeit one where delegates’ delight at being able to meet in person, after two years of tough Covid restrictions, was clear.
It was interesting to see Mark Drakeford and Keir Starmer presenting a strong united front over the course of the conference. While it might be too soon to hail the end of the ‘clear red water’ strategy, this is nevertheless testimony to the respect Mark Drakeford has been winning at the national party level thanks to his sure-footed handling of the pandemic in Wales.
There was no overarching policy theme, although Ukraine, the cost of living, and the local elections all featured, as did plans for creating a larger Senedd. We were reminded of Mark Drakeford’s strong personal commitment to seeing through his flagship Social Partnerships Bill. We understand that this is one of the factors in his reluctance to hand over the reins of leadership.
Green issues – especially renewables – played a prominent role, particularly on the fringe, and look destined to remain front and centre in Welsh Labour’s agenda over the coming years.
The exhibition hall in Venue Cymru, as in previous years, was dominated by trades unions and the third sector. Big business, with a few notable exceptions, was largely absent. It’s understood many organisations felt that, with the local elections likely to be a focus, there would not be much red meat at this conference for them – unless you count the lively farming industry reception on Saturday evening.
Business may want to note the blink-and-you’ll-miss it commitment in Mark Drakeford’s speech to reforming the school year and the school day – moves which not only could prove controversial with teaching unions, but also have knock-on implications for a variety of sectors in Wales, notably tourism and hospitality.
Questions remain, however, over Welsh Labour’s overall strategy for the economy and post-Covid recovery. While Welsh Labour’s spokespeople were keen to land blows on the UK Government, some businesses remain concerned that the Welsh Government has yet to set out a compelling answer to the ‘levelling up’ agenda. It is true that resource constraints within the Welsh civil service have impeded policy development, and that intergovernmental structures are still not working optimally. But if Welsh Labour will need to navigate these obstacles if they are to set out a compelling economic vision for the future prosperity of Wales.
My father’s lecture the Reverend Dr D Ben Rees was on the lessons of a century of dominance for the Labour Party in Wales. The Labour party has won at least a plurality and often a majority of the vote in Wales since 1922. It’s a record which sets it apart in the UK and internationally.
My father is the author of a series of biographies on the individuals who shaped that century of electoral success.
They include the first Secretary of State for Wales Jim Griffiths, the Cabinet Minister Cledwyn Hughes, Aneurin Bevan the architect of the NHS and an upcoming biography on Lord Gwilym Prys Davies, who more than any other individual helped shape Welsh Labour’s long-term policy on Devolution and support for the Welsh language.