What does the ‘Welsh Momentum’ look like?
Criticism has been never-ending of Momentum, the campaign group set up following Jeremy Corbyn’s election to keep up, well, the momentum from his record-breaking victory. Many MPs are scared that the group are ‘radical’ and full of ‘infiltrators’ from other parties, threatening to deselect those MPs who are not left-wing enough.
Well I went along to the Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) meeting at Welsh Labour’s Spring Conference in Llandudno. WLG is the Welsh branch of Momentum, actively working in partnership. WLG has been around for many years so joining up was a common sense move.
If you believe what you read in the press, you’d expect them to be burning an effigy of Tony Blair whilst marking a chart of which Welsh MPs didn’t hate the Tories enough. I was sorely disappointed that this was not the case.
What WLG was instead is a warm-hearted, welcoming and frankly astounded group of people who can’t believe that they managed to get a socialist leader in Corbyn. They’re hard-working campaigners and trade unionists who are simply delighted to have the party going back in the direction they always hoped it would, after many years in the wilderness. However they are not content to sit on the sidelines as many critics would have you believe. They are actively trying to not only still build within the party, but to translate that to electoral success in the Assembly and every other election. They know that changing the narrative in opposition is not only worth fighting for but necessary, as no real change will occur without bringing the public and therefore the voters with them.
Addressing the Llandudno meeting was Shadow Chancellor and Official Best Mate of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell; the Assembly’s Health Minister and First Cabinet Minister to Say ‘Yes Jez’, Mark Drakeford; Cardiff Central’s MP, Shadow Solicitor General and Designated Saving Grace of a Crappy Election, Jo Stevens; Swansea’s much-loved Assembly Member and campaigning savant, Mike Hedges; and hard-working Shadow Welsh Secretary and Llanelli’s finest, Nia Griffith MP.
McDonnell gave a rundown of how Corbyn was elected, with both him and Griffith approaching the leadership contest from a pragmatic point of view, never believing that a left-winger would ever get selected, particularly after the poor result from Ed Miliband’s stewardship. After being persuaded, Corbyn said — and McDonnell quotes — “oh, go on then”, and the race was on to get the 35 nominations to get on the ballot. McDonnell was right behind him, running the campaign, and increasingly in disbelief that he couldn’t book a hall big enough for their supporters. The way he spoke of Corbyn, as someone who is clearly a close and loyal friend who respects and admires Corbyn very much, was heart-warming and very rare to see in politics.
Neither Stevens or Griffith voted for Corbyn, but at the meeting Griffith thanked the members who pushed the party to be optimistic again, to hope beyond hope that a left-wing party could actually be allowed to be left-wing. To not denigrate the British public as ‘too right-wing’ to accept it, but to instead make the argument, push for a vision and fight against the austerity of the Tories and the apathy of UKIP.
Mike Hedges gave a more sombre evaluation of the challenge of the election up ahead, being the practical number-cruncher that he is. He warned of UKIP’s rise and the poor turnout that Assembly elections often see. He urged for people to concentrate on getting the numbers out as Labour ought to win in Wales, if people bother to go to the ballot box. Hedges also spoke of the rare shame he felt as a party member when Labour MPs voted for cutting tax credits; he described this as “fundamental” and was horrified to see the party, this party representing the most vulnerable in society, not take a stand on it.
WLG is delighted it now has an ‘anti-austerity’ party. This was really the problem of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls; both well-intentioned and left-wing, but bought into the narrative the Tories created through simple and condescending repetition that ‘the money has run out’ and ‘it’s Labour’s fault’. How on earth can a party have economic credibility when it won’t defend its own record; when it promises to keep to austerity and won’t challenge the Tories on the ideological pursuit of reducing the state and letting the market run rampant. I think many within Labour did not even want to win on such a depressing platform.
Mark Drakeford, one of the most intelligent Assembly Ministers and someone who ought to be at the forefront of campaign strategy, gave an upbeat message, but emphasised that Welsh Labour will be seen as the ‘status quo’. This is the key and perhaps only clear campaign message of opposition parties; that Labour is ‘tired’, ‘out of ideas’ and that Wales has ‘had enough after 17 years’. He pushed for a message that was not ‘more of the same’ but would have a “radical refresh” of Welsh policies, whilst defending progress already made.
Jo Stevens was pointed out as a shining example of a new intake of MPs who had later embraced Corbyn and his mandate from members. She already makes a difference in holding the UK Government to account in the Shadow Cabinet. She spoke on the travesties and injustice that Chris Graying brought in at the Ministry of Justice, with even Michael Gove now having to reverse nearly all his policies. She also highlighted the ideological pursuit of privatisation and the ruin wrecked upon the probation service of letting vulnerable people’s futures be put to the highest bidder.
The power of opposition is something that ought to be focused on whilst keeping one eye on 2020 (and hey, maybe even an early election, let’s not forget we’ll have a change of Tory leader in a few years, might be a good time to look a Vote of No Confidence…). Since the summer, Labour (and crucially the Lords) have been instrumental in reversing cuts to tax credits, a lifeline for poor families to stop them drowning quite so badly under the poverty line. Labour has also pressured the UK government enough to reverse plans to cut policing numbers (more summer riots anyone?) This government has a very slim majority and it has to be cautious in its plans; it’s already in a habit of announcing plans and then renouncing them later, after gauging public, media, other parties’ and most importantly, their backbenchers’, reception of the idea.
So in the run up to the Assembly election, we probably won’t seen any effigies burnt of capitalists by Welsh Labour Grassroots. But you might see a mobilising force in the campaigning undercurrent, working mostly with no reward but their own satisfaction. And sometimes they hold a fundraising raffle. There’s always a raffle.