Welsh Labour Conference 2023: Another step towards Number 10?
This year’s Conference was undoubtedly an important one for Welsh Labour. Off the back of very encouraging Local Election results in 2022, Keir Starmer and Mark Drakeford will both have been wanting a busy, vibrant and confident conference to continue to build their monentum as that next UK General Election approaches.
As a result of last year's Local Elections, the Conservatives no longer run a single Local Authority in Wales - with Welsh Labour even taking control of Monmouthshire Council.
Recent opinion polls in Wales have pointed towards a 1997 style Tory wipeout - projecting Labour will regain all of those so-called 'Red Wall' seats in North Wales, previously lost in 2019 - as well as gains in West Wales and Monmouthshire leaving the Tories with just one Welsh seat (in Montgomeryshire).
For Starmer, the road to a Labour Government runs right through Wales – with gains in the North and West of Wales critical to his chances of winning the next UK General Election.
There was a palpable sense of optimism amongst party delegates and members - the sort you’d expect from a party increasingly confident that it was on the cusp of ending its near decade and a half out of power in Westminster. There was clearly an increased presence from business and industry, keen to engage with Labour decision makers prior to any future UK Labour Government, not just in closed observer sessions but during the packed schedule of open invitation fringe meetings too.
Notable too, was the focus across the weekend on the climate crisis, and action to tackle it. While there was lots of cost-of-living discussion, it’s safe to say that the climate crisis had at least equal billing across the conference weekend - an interesting insight into just how high an importance Welsh Labour politicians and members are placing on the climate crisis, and the potential of new green growth in Wales to help to tackle it.
Keir Starmer’s Keynote Speech
Heading to Llandudno with Labour polling UK-wide at late 1990’s levels, Keir Starmer will have been filled with confidence addressing delegates for his keynote speech.
A major theme of his speech, and one we will hopefully hear more about in the run up to the next General Election, was how an incoming UK Labour Government would seek to change or extend devolution and to give Wales more control over the economic levers it needs to encourage economic growth.
The key announcement in his speech was that Labour would devolve control over the Shared Prosperity Fund to Cardiff Bay. Since the fund - intended as the replacement for EU structural funding - was announced, it’s levers have been (with some controversy) reserved to the UK Government, and not the Welsh Government, such is the case with the EU Funding it was designed to replace. Starmer described the fact that the Shared Prosperity Fund was controlled from Westminster as a ‘scandal’ and a ‘disgrace’ in his speech. Starmer insisted that this move would ‘spread power and opportunity out of Westminster’. The Conservatives have previously been critical of the way in which the Welsh Government have allocated EU funding in Wales.
Aside from aiming a friendly dig at former Welsh Leader of the Opposition Neil Kinnock (and his notable previous issues with the coastline), Starmer reiterated his five key pledges, and his commitment to zero-carbon electricity by 2030. There were noteworthy mentions of the potential for floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea, green steel in South-West Wales and Wales’s tourism and cyber-tech industries – Welsh Government Ministers will likely be listening out keenly over the next 18 months to ascertain how a UK Labour Government will help these industries in Wales flourish.
Mark Drakeford’s Keynote Speech
Starmer’s speech was followed in the Main Hall by First Minister Mark Drakeford’s.
It will have felt to many in the Hall that prior to this speech, given what the First Minister had been through in the weeks prior that there was much anticipation with little expectation for this keynote address; but many of us will have left the hall following this speech feeling like we’d witnessed one of the very bravest, and best political speeches we’ll have seen.
Drakeford exclaimed early on in his address that he was getting ‘more radical with age, to some big cheers in the Hall. Drakeford was also keen to point out his (and Welsh Labour’s) positive position on electoral reform; most notably his plans to introduce a proportional voting system for an enlarged Senedd at the next Welsh election. A position, it is safe to say that is mostly not shared by his colleagues in the UK Parliament and on the UK Labour frontbench. Nevertheless, the First Minister urged Keir Starme rto ditch the First Past the Post electoral system, saying that the next UK Labour Government must ‘lead the task of democratic renewal’ and pointing to Labour’s record in government in Wales under an electoral system with some proportional features.
While light on any new policy, the rest of the First Minister’s speech felt like a unifying pitch of his vision of how a Labour-run Wales, and a Labour-run Westminster would seek to work together to tackle the big challenges of the age; be they the challenges of the climate and nature emergencies, the renewal of democracy in the UK or the reduction of inequality.
Most would have been extremely moved by the First Minister’s remarks on the recent sad loss of his wife, and how his grief won’t stop his work. Drakeford said “Even when our hearts are weighed down with the intolerable burden of grief, we know our duty, our moral obligation... that this party has to run towards the dangers that blight so many lives, and never ever run away from them”, with many in the audience getting rather emotional too!
On the whole, this conference felt like the conference of a party increasingly confident, buoyed by subsequent election successes and on the front foot.
With likely just one more Welsh conference (and one more UK conference) to go until the next General Election, both Keir Starmer and Mark Drakeford will be doing their best to maintain their momentum – despite the current polling, the party does still have a proverbial mountain to climb if it is to overturn the current 80-seat Tory majority in Westminster in 2024.
For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.
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