This was the first meeting since the election as Welsh Labour leader and First Minister of Mark Drakeford (whom both of us strongly supported). The tone was very positive and upbeat, with WEC members offering Mark their warm congratulations, regardless of whether or not they had supported him in the election itself.
In his Leader’s report, Mark acknowledged the challenges faced by Wales in relation to Brexit and reflected on the leadership election and the selection of his first cabinet. He also gave a welcome reaffirmation of his commitment to promote greater democracy, accountability and transparency within the party. He said that, even without rule changes, there is a lot that we can do to increase transparency and empower members and was pleased to report that WEC members are now listed on the Welsh Labour website for the first time. He said that he had asked party staff to find ways to make as many WEC papers as possible available online for party members to read. He reiterated his support for an OMOV election for the Welsh seat on the NEC and said that he wanted Welsh conference to spend more of its time debating policy.
In response to questions, Mark echoed concerns about the impact of Brexit, which he said had already been felt within the Welsh economy for some time. He pointed out, however, that attitudes to the issue varied, even among Labour voters, with some frustrated that the party appeared to be trying to resist the people’s will. His own view was that we needed to be able to show that we had done everything possible in Parliament to mitigate the harm that Brexit could do, and at that point, we might legitimately be able to go back to the people and ask them to express a view once again. The overriding priority was that the UK should not leave the EU without a deal. Mark also talked about the importance of having a Cabinet minister with specific responsibility for North Wales, about his commitment to the cooperative economy and about the need for difficult issues in relation to crime and policing to be subject to oversight from the First Minister’s office.
The Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Christina Rees, had circulated a written report but also gave a verbal update on the efforts that she and her parliamentary colleagues had been undertaking in Westminster to steer the Brexit process in a more positive direction, by putting amendments to the Government’s legislation.
In questions to Christina, Chris highlighted media reports that a number of prominent industrialists had stopped funding the Tory party because of its Brexit policy and also queried whether the growing list of energy and infrastructure projects in Wales that had effectively been blocked by the UK government – Swansea tidal lagoon, rail electrification, Wylfa ‘B’ – reflected Tory vindictiveness. Christina echoed Chris’ concerns on this latter point and also highlighted the lack of agreement as to who would control the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, intended to replace EU structural funding.
The Deputy Leader, Carolyn Harris, said that, while Mark would be focussing on policy, she would continue to devote her energies to campaigning, and highlighted a number of dates over the coming months that had been designated as campaign days. She also talked about campaigning around Holocaust Memorial Day, gambling and alleviation of poverty.
Darren asked for some clarification on Assembly selections. Welsh Labour want all the trigger ballots for seats with sitting Labour AMs (other than any who may have signalled an intention to step down) to be completed by 29 March. With regard to the Labour-held regional list seats, it was explained that there are no ongoing selection procedures in rule and that we therefore have to agree the procedures anew every time this comes up (while this may seem an odd position to be in after twenty years of devolution, it does at least give us the opportunity to improve on the procedures used in the past). This won’t be done at the same time as the trigger ballot for constituency AMs, however, not least because the only region with Labour list AMs (Mid and West Wales) currently has several parliamentary selections to take care of.
The WEC agreed that, in future, aspiring election candidates should receive a local party membership list free of charge as soon as they’ve submitted their application for selection, rather than having to pay £30, as in the past, or waiting till they’ve been shortlisted, as in England. This will remove a barrier to candidates on low incomes. We also agreed that, where a CLP, particularly in a rural area, wanted to organise an expedited parliamentary selection process, where not many applications were expected, the General Secretary should be empowered to authorise this. What this would mean in practice is that, in the event of there being up to six self-nominations in total, all applicants would be automatically shortlisted (subject to probity checks) and be considered by an all-member selection meeting.
We confirmed that both of the ‘new’ Assembly selections being treated as priorities, Bridgend and Rhondda, should be all-women shortlists. This had been our expectation at the previous meeting, but in response to a request from Bridgend CLP, we had agreed to defer a final decision until such time as the CLPs had had an opportunity to discuss the matter. Bridgend had, in the end, opted to have an all-women shortlist but Rhondda CLP had stated a preference for an open shortlist. In discussing the submissions, however, WEC members recalled that we had a clear policy of prioritising all-women shortlists for any winnable seats that might become newly vacant and had agreed that it would take a very strong argument to persuade us to make an exception. The WEC was unanimously of the view that we had not been presented with such an argument and that we should uphold our established position, a view that both of us spoke to support. Chris said that it had taken a long series of battles to win Welsh Labour to its current commitment to meaningful action in support of gender balance and the WEC had a political responsibility to take a strong lead in ensuring that this policy was adhered to.
We then moved on to the Welsh Labour Party Democracy Review, and agreed, at Mark’s suggestion, that, in view of the vast number of issues left to be addressed by the Welsh Democracy Review and the relatively low engagement so far from party units and affiliates, decisions on any resulting changes would have to be split between this year’s and next year’s conferences. It was also agreed to extend the deadline to allow more CLPs to respond to the party democracy review consultation document.
We next considered a paper giving a technical debrief on the recent leadership election. Among other things, this reported that more than 750 members had attended hustings meetings; the total electorate had been around 175,000 members and affiliated supporters; and the turnout had been 53.1% for members and 5.7% for affiliates. Darren asked whether further information could be provided, such as a breakout of support for each candidate between the two categories of voter; a similar request was made by Unison, who said that it would be particularly useful to have a breakdown of voting between affiliates, to assist in efforts to drive up turnout in future elections. The Acting General Secretary, Rhiannon Evans, said that it would not be possible to provide a breakdown of further voting between each candidate, because this had been a single section OMOV ballot, but she was aware that some affiliates had approached the balloting agency, ERS, about individual union turnout and she understood that it might be possible to provide this.
Rhiannon had also circulated a written report covering the leadership election, campaigning and visits by leading party figures to various parts of Wales, the Future Candidates programme and staffing changes. There were also written reports from our MEP, Derek Vaughan, Debbie Wilcox (leader of the WLGA) and Jeff Cuthbert (representing the Police and Crime Commissioners).
Lastly, Darren asked once again for an update on the position regarding the applicability (or otherwise) to Wales of rule changes relating to CLP management agreed at the Liverpool conference in September (most notably on quorums for CLP meetings). We had previously been told that discussions were underway between Welsh Labour and party HQ to establish an agreed position on the boundaries of their respective jurisdictions. Welsh Labour have apparently continued to pursue this but are still awaiting a definitive response. In the meantime, Welsh CLPs have been told that their pre-existing arrangements still stand.