In opening the meeting, the Chair initiated a vote of thanks to both Dave Hagendyk, who had announced that he would be stepping down as Welsh Labour general secretary, in order to take up another position, and Jo Stevens, who had resigned as Shadow Welsh Secretary in order to vote against the whip on Article 50 in the House of Commons.
As usual, the first substantial item was the report from Carwyn Jones. He described the new Wales Act as a ‘two steps forward two steps back’, piece of legislation, which would not provide a lasting devolutionary settlement and did not offer Wales what had been granted to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Wales Office had been unhelpful throughout the drafting process and the Westminster Government, focussed on ‘Brexit,’ had been reluctant to grant the Welsh Government many concessions.
The Joint Ministerial Council, bringing together the UK and devolved governments, had held its most recent meeting on ‘Brexit’ in Cardiff and Carwyn noted the frustrating lack of information coming from the Prime Minister. Each country had its own set of problems but they all wanted a full and unfettered access to the Single Market, yet no progress was made. The Westminster Government’s recently published White Paper on the matter was unhelpful and so was Whitehall! It appeared that the Prime Minister and her team were keen to go for a ‘hard Brexit’ dogmatic approach, which would leave Wales in a state of considerable economic uncertainty.
The Welsh Government had also published a Local Government White Paper, which seeks to promote greater collaboration between councils, as well as facilitating voluntary mergers (having moved away from compulsory mergers) and also aims to give councils the opportunity to choose their own electoral system, subject to a two-thirds majority vote (which was consistent with the Assembly’s newly-obtained power to choose its own electoral system).
There would be changes to the way the Assembly operates as a result of the new powers it was due to obtain and the Presiding Officer has set up an advisory group to help her respond to this, in which Labour had agreed to participate. There is still a widespread view that the Assembly needs more AMs, because of the increased workload associated with legislation and scrutiny work, but the political climate makes it difficult to justify the increase in cost.
Carwyn was asked a number of questions, mostly on the Brexit process and the implications for Wales, as well as the prospect of a bilateral trade deal between the UK and USA and the threat this might represent to the NHS. Chris conveyed the disappointment of the teaching unions over the lack of action by the Welsh Government’s Supply Taskforce to tackle the power of private agencies like New Directions and asked why Wales couldn’t adopt the same approach as Northern Ireland, which has a central register of supply teachers. Carwyn said that the Welsh Government didn’t currently have sufficient power to address this properly, although it would do in the near future. Mike Payne of the GMB added that the issue had also been discussed within the Education Sub-Group of the Workforce Partnership Council and it was disappointing that more progress had not been made.
Next came the EU Update from Derek Vaughan MEP, who commented on the difficult decisions Labour MPs had had to make in relation to the vote on triggering Article 50. In his view, the key ‘red line’ should have been the ability of MPs to vote on the final Brexit deal, as MEPs will. The EU is insistent that the UK must trigger Article 50 before they start serious negotiations. It was noted that, in many parts of the UK, the Brexit vote was really only an anti-Cameron/Tory/Establishment vote. Many people currently believe that things are fine following the ‘leave’ vote but don’t realise that this is because we are still in the EU, as the final exit is not until two years hence. Derek thought that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a second referendum, not least because many people might change their views once the economy started to go downhill. Chris asked whether an early general election might be better than another referendum but Derek thought an early election would be difficult for Labour at present. Carwyn reiterated his view that all four UK parliaments should be required to ratify the final deal, although he felt that a second referendum could break the deadlock if this were not forthcoming.
Asked if Brexit could be stopped once Article 50 had been triggered, Derek said there was a view that this could be done if the other 27 EU members agreed. He also confirmed that funding for projects in Wales would still be available until 2020. After that, Wales will take a massive financial hit as it seemed unlikely that the Westminster Tory Government would not make good the losses that the Welsh Government would have to deal with.
Dave Hagendyk then gave his General Secretary’s Report and announced that the appointment of his successor should take place in early March. Tributes were paid to Dave, as those present thanked him for everything he had done over the years and wished him well in his new job. Dave also announced that Rhiannon Evans, who was originally from Mold and was previously at the League Against Cruel Sports, has been appointed as Press and Communications Officer. Dave also hoped to secure monies to employ more staff to help in key seats for the local elections. Candidate selection for the local government elections are going well but concern was expressed about the lack of gender balance. The Training Academy is going well, providing a programme of training opportunities for new and young members throughout Wales, in modern training techniques and systems. The expected parliamentary boundary changes would also pose difficult questions for Welsh Labour’s organisation – i.e. whether to work on the basis of the 29 new parliamentary boundaries or stick with the existing 40 CLPs. Dave would bring a paper on this to the next meeting.
Dave had also conducted an investigation into some issues within Ceredigion CLP, which resulted in the re-running of the AGM, but praised the energy and enthusiasm of the CLP. Darren highlighted the fact that Ceredigion currently has only one Labour councillor and, having seen a huge increase in membership, is trying to find candidates to run a bigger slate in May but has had most of its few newly-selected candidates refused endorsement because they did not have twelve months membership. He asked Dave to clarify the scope for providing special dispensation. Dave replied that he was keen to see the local party stand more candidates this time and was willing, in principle, to be flexible if the CLP could provide more details and make a sufficiently persuasive case.
Minutes of the WEC Sub-Committees on Local Government and Organisation and Campaigns were circulated, discussed and noted.
The WEC then considered the Stage One Report of the ‘Making Gender Equality a Reality’ Working Party. This gave an update on the work done in response to a composite resolution carried at last year’s Welsh conference following motions from several CLPs and affiliates, seeking a more robust approach to ensuring gender-balanced selections. The report, which will be put to this year’s conference, set the scene for detailed consultation by reviewing the historical record, setting out some practical considerations and identifying the principles on which the party’s approach to selection should be based – namely, transparency, principle and consistency. The report was well received and Catherine Thomas and Dawn Bowden were thanked for their commitment and hard work in producing it.
Dave gave an NEC Investigations Update, saying that all those who were still suspended following last year’s leadership election had been contacted and offered an interview, although some hadn’t responded. The vast majority of those dealt with so far had had their suspensions lifted with a warning and that was likely to be the case with the majority of the remainder, although one or two were likely to b taken further due to homophobic and/or misogynistic language.
Darren queried why, based on information he’d received as an NEC member, a disproportionate number of those cases still unresolved (around a quarter) concerned members in Wales (Dave did not have an immediate explanation for this). He also said that there was almost universal recognition on the NEC that there had been problems in the way that disciplinary matters had been dealt with, partly due to the limited number of penalties available (i.e. members had been suspended when a milder response might have been more appropriate). The NE C Organisation Committee had, however, considered a paper that sought to learn lessons for the future and take a more nuanced and less draconian view in future. Another CLP rep also expressed concerns about the way some Welsh Labour members had been treated and said that she believed that at least one or two had not yet been contacted; Dave agreed to investigate this and report back. It was also agreed to make ‘Investigations Update’ a standing agenda item.
Regarding Welsh Labour Conference, we were told that arrangements were going well, with registrations now around the 300 mark (members under the age of 27 had been allowed to register free of charge). Its detailed business, comprising the review of Welsh Labour rules, policy making process and the future work programme of the WEC, would be discussed at an additional WEC meeting on 25 February.
Finally, an update on the work of the National Policy Forum was given. Alun Davies AM said that he was trying to use his role on the NPF, by virtue of his NEC membership, to promote more effective ways for Welsh Government ministers and the Westminster Shadow Cabinet to work more closely and productively together.