This election comes at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and growing hardship for the people of Wales. The chaotic Brexit negotiations are nearing a critical stage, with countless jobs at stake, while eight year of Tory austerity drive public services and living standards deeper and deeper into crisis.
Whoever is elected will shoulder a huge responsibility for ensuring that Welsh Labour rises to the challenge.
Whoever is elected must enjoy the unquestionable party support that only ‘one member one vote’ can deliver.
In considering whether or not to stand, I asked myself some searching questions. Why did I become politically active? What still makes me angry after all these years? What kind of change does Wales need? And how could my experience help to bring it about?
West Wales was a political hotbed when I was growing up. As a teenager in Carmarthen, I soon had to choose between socialism and nationalism. What drew me to Labour was my strong belief that working people, wherever they live or come from, have a common interest. In Wales, then as now, radical socialist values come together in being Welsh and being Labour.
As a young Labour activist, I did not have ambitions for high office or see politics as a profession. Instead, I spent 17 years working with children and young people, successively for the probation service, Barnardo’s and in youth justice. This coincided with the Thatcher era and its callous destruction of jobs and communities to secure the triumph of private greed over public need. Young people had hope snatched away. They could see that those at the top had no interest in them.
In 1985, at the height of the fight to defend local government against Thatcher’s attacks, I was elected to South Glamorgan County Council, serving for eight years. It was a tough time as Labour battled funding cuts and pressure to privatise. We had to defend the very principle that government can do good, that local councils are a means of acting collectively to help those who otherwise would have little voice.
The election of a Labour government produced changes for the better, but not a complete break with Thatcher’s agenda. Here in Wales Labour created the National Assembly, but Labour in Westminster remained too in thrall to the private sector and gave the banks far too much freedom.
In 2000, I became a policy adviser to Rhodri Morgan. As First Minister, he set Welsh Labour apart from New Labour by saying his actions owed more to Aneurin Bevan than to Milton Friedman, the economist who inspired Thatcher. Welsh Labour did not embrace outsourcing, privatisation and PFI. We stayed true, as Rhodri put it, to “universalism against means-testing and the pursuit of equality against pursuit of consumer choice”. But even the ‘clear red water’ we established between Cardiff and Westminster could not insulate us when the banks crashed, triggering the worst recession for a generation.
When the Tories took power in 2010, they responded to type – by making working people pay for a crisis that wealthy bankers had created. By the time I was elected to the National Assembly in 2011, Wales was facing the full force of austerity. We could mitigate some of its worst effects, but we did not have the powers or resources to make Wales an austerity-free-zone.
That’s why, when Jeremy Corbyn stood for the UK Labour leadership in 2015, I welcomed his unambiguous anti-austerity message and became the only Welsh Cabinet Minister to support him. Welsh Labour needs a Westminster party leader who will work with us to fight for the people of Wales. For me, Jeremy’s election marked a return to the Bevanite tradition of Labour standing up, unequivocally, for those who are held back by the inequalities that scar our society. Knocking doors in the 2017 general election, I was proud to be talking about Labour’s manifesto.
When I travel around Wales now, I see people working hard to make life better for themselves, their families and their communities. I see talent, ambition and endeavour in abundance. I see generosity and solidarity too, as people work together to make Wales a better place.
Labour has approached devolution in that spirit. We have used our powers to set Wales apart in a radical way – as with trade union rights, the Living Wage, tuition fees, proscription charges and free breakfasts in primary schools. And we have pioneered progressive change that other parts of the UK have followed – as with presumed consent in organ donation and opening up schools for children’s meals and activities during holidays.
We can be proud of what we have achieved in difficult circumstances. But there’s still so much to be done. In the 1970s, under a Labour government that included Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, the UK was one of the most equal societies in Europe. Today we are among the most unequal, and inequality is growing every year.
People across Wales are being held back, and Wales is being held back, by a system that is rigged for the rich. People’s needs are simple – somewhere to live, something to do, someone to care for – but far too many face a struggle just to get by, while others have far more than they will ever need.
If elected Welsh Labour leader, I will push the boundaries of National Assembly powers as far as I can to deliver change for the better. At the same time, I will be a bridge to Labour in Westminster. The 2017 Labour manifesto showed there is no need for any water between us now. It marked a decisive break with any concessions to the Friedman economics of the Thatcher era. The change I want to see – as throughout my life – is the creation of a society run for the many not the few.
The details of my policies and priorities will be announced later in the campaign. They will encompass plans for the delivery of the 2016 Welsh Labour manifesto commitments, new proposals for action within existing devolved powers and an outline of what we would want the future to look like, working with a Labour government in Westminster.
My immediate priority is to meet members, trade unions and campaign groups to find out what issues are of most concern to them. I am clear on the radical socialist principles we should follow. I do not believe that Labour should ever again be reduced to offering only more competent administration of the narrow choices handed to down to us by so-called ‘free markets’. But I want this to be a joint endeavour, with the whole movement behind it.
Together, we can shape our own destiny. By using government power – in Wales and at Westminster – things can and will change. This is what motivates me and the Party to which we all belong.