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Blairites Complete Stitch-up in Wales

[March 1997; Socialist Outlook 23]

The recent battle for the Labour leadership in the Welsh Assembly has highlighted the lengths to which Tony Blair will go to retain control over the Welsh Labour Party. 

Not only did New Labour have to rely on very 'Old Labour' to deliver the victory of Alun Michael, it was also ready to sacrifice electoral advantage in the event that Blair's candidate did win.

The recent contest arose after a 'moment of madness' committed on Clapham Common by Ron Davies, the previous Secretary of State for Wales and prospective Assembly leader. Ron secured the almost unanimous support of both the trade union and the local government bureaucracy in the previous contest.

However, the method of his election caused some consternation amongst rank-and-file Labour Party members, a consternation which was further exacerbated by the blatant political vetting of prospective Assembly candidates and the imposition of an English MEP above sitting Welsh MEPs on the party's Euro list.

Thus, when the new leadership contest was unexpectedly required, the wounds of recent events were still fresh. Anger was further heightened by the decision to reopen the nominations procedure for Assembly candidates, simply to allow Alun Michael to stand. 

It was therefore much more difficult for the Welsh Executive of the Labour Party to stitch up the result in the same way as previously. Voting by OMOV was introduced in the Labour Party members' section of the electoral college and a number of unions declared their intention to consult their members before casting their vote.

Previous to his appointment as Welsh Secretary, Alun Michael, the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, had shown no interest in the Welsh Assembly. He played no part whatsoever in the campaign to secure the 'yes' vote in September 1997. 

He was selected simply because he would unquestioningly carry out the bidding of Tony Blair.

Peter Hain, currently a Welsh Office Minister, immediately threw his support behind Alun Michael and became his campaign manager. What little shreds of 'left' credibility that Hain had retained before this episode have now been swept away by his conduct in this campaign. 

Ron Davies was also quick to offer his support to Alun Michael, still mindful of a possible future role in the Welsh Assembly. It is difficult to square this action with the image that many people in Wales have of Ron Davies - that of an outspoken and committed advocate of Welsh autonomy and 'inclusive' politics.

While Alun Michael's campaign was stuffed with ministers and Labour bigwigs, Rhodri Morgan attracted genuine popular support, particularly on the basis of his consistent work in exposing the corruptions of the quango state in Wales under the Conservatives. 

Most of the left-leaning Welsh MPs supported his campaign, as did many left-wing Assembly candidates. A number of prominent academics and dissident members of the Welsh Executive also supported him.

Rhodri's main campaign slogan was 'an Assembly for the people, and not the crachach' - crachach being a colloquial and derogatory Welsh word for the upper class. 

While Rhodri stood for the greater autonomy of the Welsh Assembly, the weaknesses of his campaign were very apparent. He placed great stress on the fact that there were no major policy differences between himself and Alun Michael. This position was criticised by many within the Rhodri camp.

Despite his failure to stand on a left platform, it was very clearly the case that Rhodri Morgan should have been supported against the candidate imposed by Tony Blair.

After an extended period of campaigning, necessary to provide some kind of profile for Alun Michael in Wales, the result was announced on 20 February. The overall result gave Alun Michael 53 per cent of the vote against Rhodri Morgan's 47 per cent.

The breakdown of the votes for each section of the electoral college were: 64 per cent versus 36 per cent for Alun Michael in the trade unions; 58 per cent versus 42 per cent for Alun Michael among the MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates; and 65 per cent to 35 per cent for Rhodri Morgan among party members.

The scale of Alun Michael's victory in the trade union section was ensured by three of the four largest unions in Wales: the TGWU, AEEU and GMB, which together accounted for 17.5 per cent of the overall vote. 

None of these unions carried out a comprehensive consultation with their members. The AEEU and GMB carried out partial consultations, conducted in such a way as to ensure that the required result was achieved.

When George Wright, leader of the TGWU in Wales, was questioned as to why his union was backing Alun Michael, he replied: 'because he's Secretary of State for Wales'. Whoever Tony Blair had selected for the post, he clearly implied, the TGWU would meekly have given their support.

The only major union to conduct an OMOV ballot was UNISON, and the result showed an overwhelming majority in favour of Rhodri Morgan. This pattern was repeated in all the smaller unions which conducted OMOV ballots.

There is now a danger that the backlash against union involvement might be used, quite cynically, by the Blairites to weaken union links after their objective has been achieved. This must be vigorously resisted, though measures to give union members greater control over how their votes are cast in the Labour Party should be supported.

Tony Blair and his supporters in Wales went to enormous lengths to ensure the victory of Alun Michael in this contest. It revealed once again the brutality of Blairism in dealing with any opposition within the party, however timid.

Blair had to rely on those bastions of 'Old Labour', the very union bureaucrats he had attacked so vigorously in the past, in order to deliver the result.

Opinion polls conducted before the result was announced showed that the Labour Party would lose 10 per cent of its support if Alun Michael was elected rather than Rhodri Morgan. 

Thus, Blairism, which was founded on the basis of making every concession to the right necessary to ensure electability, became turned on its head. This loss of electoral support is particularly significant in the case of the Welsh Assembly, since it will be elected with an element of proportionality.

One thing is very clear: the furore caused by this campaign is only a foretaste of far greater struggles within the Welsh Labour Party once the Assembly is established. 

It also shows how the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions is not simply a one-way street: events in the Labour Party can have the effect of revitalising and politicising the trade unions.

Following the result, Alun Michael made very clear in which direction he planned to lead the Assembly. He claimed that Labour's Assembly manifesto, a vacuous document full of empty phrases, was a solid basis on which to run Wales. 

He also attacked what he called the 'black, negative side of the Welsh character', and said that Labour in Wales should be positive and 'look to the future'. 

It is clear that the role of the Assembly for Blair and his supporters is one of a buffer between the Welsh people and Parliament and a propaganda instrument for the Labour Government. What little powers have been relinquished to the Assembly will be controlled by means of greater centralism within the Labour Party.

The blatant rigging of the election has left many party members in Wales feeling both distrust and anger towards the Labour leadership. This provides the left with a far greater scope for activity than in very many years. 

The two main tasks in the coming months will be to try and channel this discontent into an effective campaign to extend democracy within the Welsh Labour Party, and also to encourage a wide-ranging debate on policies for the Welsh assembly.

Such policies must stand in stark contrast to Labour's existing Assembly manifesto, if they are to serve the vast majority of the people of Wales.


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