Welsh Labour Conference 2019 – order from chaos?

A slashed majority in the Newport West by-election, protesters seeking a second EU referendum and a brewing controversy over primary school funding did little to do quell the upbeat mood of Labour supporters as they crowded into Venue Cymru, Llandudno, for the start of Welsh Labour Conference 2019. Held on a sunny, breezy weekend, it was a far cry from last year’s event, overshadowed as it was by Carwyn Jones’ resignation and the repercussions of Carl Sargeant AM’s tragic death.

This year’s gathering marked a return to traditional Labour fare – albeit with little in the way of major policy announcements. It was Mark Drakeford’s first conference since taking over as Welsh Labour leader and First Minister, and his speech, with sections in both English and Welsh, epitomised the ‘steady as she goes’ approach that he has assumed since taking office.

Predictably, Drakeford was quick to turn his fire on the Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, and the Brexit shenanigans at Westminster. The First Minister issued a stark warning to the UK Government that they would be ‘heading for a fight’ if Brexit were to result in any lost funding or powers for Wales; a dynamic businesses and organisations seeking to engage on Welsh issues over the coming months would do well to note.

Drakeford’s criticism of his Assembly counterparts was focused on Plaid Cymru; a response, perhaps, to the Wales Governance Centre poll last week which showed that Plaid stood to replace the Conservatives as the official opposition in Cardiff Bay. Adam Price’s party has emerged relatively unscathed from the turmoil in Westminster; Mr Drakeford was thus at pains to remind his listeners of the clear dividing lines between Labour and the pro-independence Party of Wales. Whether his efforts will be sufficient to stave off talks of future coalitions remains to be seen, however.

Major new policy announcements were thin on the ground. Promises on social partnerships and funding to combat period poverty did not detract from Drakeford’s ongoing silence on the M4 relief road. Rumours are already swirling that the First Minister is about to pull the plug on the controversial project, and when he spoke of ‘borrowing the country from future generations’ he will have done little to convince the project’s supporters that good news is on the way. Instead, the First Minister placed himself firmly in the green energy camp, criticising the UK Government’s decision to abandon the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon and hinting at further measures to promote renewables.

The concept of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ was expanded on by a confident and relaxed Jeremy Corbyn when he took to the podium – to a rock star’s welcome – in the early afternoon. Buoyed by reports of a Tory collapse, the Labour Leader was greeted with howls of approval as he told his audience that a Labour government in Westminster would reverse the UK Government’s decision on the Tidal Lagoon. It would be churlish to read anything into the fact that the applause died out as Corbyn was still making his way out of the conference hall at the end of his speech. Polling in the Sunday papers suggests that, however implausible it might seem, he is on track to become Prime Minister – possibly sooner than many could have imagined.

Arguably the most electorally controversial ‘announcement’ at this conference came on Sunday morning. This was a strong hint by the Counsel General for Wales, Jeremy Miles, that Labour might seek to use its new tax-varying powers to increase funding for public services. Should Welsh Labour go to the polls on a platform of increasing income tax, that could be, arguably, the biggest test of its support since the establishment of Welsh devolution some twenty years ago.

Despite the party’s eagerness to present a united front, several key faces were missing from the Conference hall. The most notable absence was Vaughan Gething, Health Minster and Mark Drakeford’s erstwhile leadership rival. The other prominent absentees were businesses; this year, all the stands in the Exhibition Hall were taken by charities or third sector organisations. Yet despite the prevailing socialist tone of the conference, there were nonetheless some nuggets of good news for business, with Economy Minister Ken Skates keen to signal significant private sector opportunities in renewable energy.

All in all, this was a conference intended to show consolidation and continuity. After a turbulent twelve months, Mark Drakeford is keen to steer a steady course while laying out a clearly socialist vision for Wales. For now, that’s just what his activists seem to want – but it will bring little comfort to the struggling commuters doing daily battle with Newport’s congested Brynglas tunnels.

Despite Labour’s dominance in Wales, organisations lobbying on Welsh issues cannot afford to ignore the Assembly’s opposition parties as we approach the 2021 elections. With Labour still facing divisions over Brexit and anti-semitism, there could be more storm clouds on the horizon than the famously sunny skies of Llandudno would suggest.

Sian Jones, Associate Partner at Newgate Communications

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