The Hustings: Round One
I attended the very first official hustings for the Welsh Labour leadership contest last week in Cardiff. It was a packed event, and there was a real buzz in the crowd. Some were quietly partisan, others more noisily so having already made up their minds. As we climbed the entrance steps, supporters of different candidates were already distributing leaflets or glad-handing other potential supporters.
And then there were some – including me by the way – arriving with fairly open minds, wanting to see how three very good candidates for Welsh Labour leader would perform on the night, under the pressure of a real contest.
What I saw and heard was three able and talented individuals from our broad Labour family who differed – sometimes markedly – in the substance of their policy offers and in their presentation style. They laid out what they believed was now needed for Welsh Labour and for Wales itself. There was real passion from all three, and firm commitment to our core Labour values of social justice and equality and opportunity for all, though they presented that passion in very different styles and with some significant differences in policy and political approaches.
Differences emerged around approaches to Brexit, the role of nuclear energy and renewables in a de-carbonised future, the relationship between U.K. and Welsh Labour (and U.K. and Welsh Labour leadership), future funding priorities, competing views of what “radical” and “bold” actually mean in policy and leadership, and personal pitches between experience and a fresh approach. There were significant areas of overlap too, which you’d expect. I liked parts of what each candidate said, disliked other parts, but was glad to have been there at this opening foray.
Yet my vivid first impression of this opening hustings is more straight-forward: this contest now looks set to be the energetic, vigorous debate that we really need. This diverse trio of candidates looked and sounded fresh and sparky, willing to disagree on points of substance, and willing to signal agreement on others. This will not be some lame contest. This really matters for the future of Welsh Labour and for Wales itself, and the candidates are truly up for it.
And let’s be frank, this would have been a greatly diminished contest without Eluned on that platform to join Mark and Vaughan. And I and other members would have been disappointed and indeed astounded if Labour in this day and age – with our proud record on diversity – could not have fielded such a diverse field of candidates. Members have a meaningful choice now, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in making that happen.
So, what are my take-aways from the first official hustings? Bearing in mind it’s a long way to go yet, here are my reflections on the opening night, which may be of help to any candidate who stumbles across this blog-post hidden deep in cyberspace. I haven’t made my mind up definitively yet, but here’s what this one Labour Party member is looking for:
1) The Inspirational Leader: I’m looking for a leader who can inspire me as a life-long Labour Party member. In that regard, I’m no different from any other Labour member. I want a leader who we follow into battle for the causes we believe in. Simples. Inspire me! I saw some of that on the platform last week, so I’m really hopeful. It’s the vision thing.
2) The Pragmatic and Credible Leader: As well as inspiration, and the vision to build a better future, I want a road-map of how we get there. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, what’s the point of a map without Utopia on it. But I also want someone who can take us there, not just a dreamer. Part of the credibility of a leader is having pragmatic plans which will improve all people’s lives, tackle poverty and inequality and promote social and economic opportunity, and do this while protecting this and future generations and also protecting this one-and-only planet we have.
3) A Leader of Substance: Breadth and depth are really important, especially as this contest progresses: even if they don’t have all the answers right now, I want to know that a future leader has thought through all the vital policy areas, or is already working on them from a set of clear principles. As this contest continues, candidates will know they’ll have to sharpen their knowledge and fill in gaps. All the candidates demonstrated strengths in particular areas. But gaps which can be tolerated in week one will be intolerable (and found out) in week six … or sooner.
4) An Election-Winning Leader: winning the selectorate/winning the electorate. At this stage, it’s understandable if candidates focus primarily on the battle ahead, which is convincing members (under One Member One Vote, remember) to put a cross in their box by December. But there is a longer game too, and I won’t be the only one looking for a candidate who is aiming already to reach out to the wider electorate beyond the Labour Party, so that we can win elections and put into place our policies. So a real challenge for the candidates is pitching in that sweet-spot which can win this selection, but also appeal beyond to the public in Wales, and to ALL parts of Wales and our diverse communities. Perhaps the two (selectorate and electorate) are exactly the same. It’s for the candidates to work this out in their pitches.
5) The Unification Candidate: for all the passion, the excitement, and the differences in policy, politics and style, I am looking for the candidate who can continue to unify our party in Wales. One of our great successes in Wales over time has been our ability to stand together with one voice, despite occasional heated disagreements. Any candidate tempted to play to divisions/factions simply to win this selection loses my vote, because they ultimately lose us elections.
6) The Welsh Labour candidate: I “came home” to Wales and the Welsh parliament because I am a devolutionist. Having served as a Minister and MP in Westminster I have a clear understanding of the benefits of the United Kingdom (when we have progressive governments in power in Westminster) but I equally and passionately believe in the principle of devolving power and government as close to people as possible, so they can better pull the levers of power. Yet as law-making and tax-varying powers have moved purposefully and progressively to Wales (and this will continue over time, regardless of Brexit) so Welsh Labour has also become a muscular and vocal entity itself, from the original “clear red water” to more recent devolution to the Welsh Executive of key elements of the “rule book” by which we govern Welsh Labour. I want to see a candidate who shares that belief that Wales’ relationship with the U.K. is crucial but is also changing under devolution to one of greater parity; and that likewise, Welsh Labour’s relationship with U.K. Labour is crucial but we must never, ever be a branch office of London HQ.
So, no pressure on Mark, Eluned and Vaughan then!
They simply need to be 1) inspirational 2) pragmatic and credible 3) of depth and substance 4) election-winning 5) unifying and 6) distinctively Welsh Labour, within the U.K. Labour family.
I am really looking forward to seeing this contest unfold over the next few weeks. The candidates are all immensely capable. I know them all, and am convinced that on any given day any one of them could be a great leader of Welsh Labour, the Labour Assembly Group, and of the Government of Wales.
But only one of them can be that “First Among Equals” leader, so I wish them all the very best. Like all other Labour members in Wales, as I make my decision on who that will be, I know we are truly fortunate to have such a good and diverse choice of candidates in front of us.
So let’s have a robust but well-tempered contest which inspires members and the wider public, which shows Welsh Labour as a progressive and unified party where different views can be aired and debated positively, which brings forward the leader who will take Wales and Welsh Labour forward to meet the immediate and significant challenges ahead, and sets us on course to a higher level of achievement and ambition for Wales.
Like all Labour members, I have only one vote. I won’t be giving it away easily. But ultimately I will use it as wisely as I can, for the good of our party and country.
Good luck to all the candidates. Coffee and energy bars at the ready for the long-haul to December … and beyond!