The soft autocracy of the Welsh Labour government

Ioan Phillips

July 23, 2020

Last month, Wales secretary Simon Hart wrote a fairly innocuous letter to Senedd members and local authorities. He warned that if the Labour government in Wales continued its lockdown measures through the summer, the tourism industry would suffer. “We make the rules,” responded the Welsh government, dismissing Hart’s correspondence as “lobbying”.

This episode reflects a broader story about Labour’s 21-year unbroken stint in power. The party might preach devolution, openness and fairness – but the reality is that, in Wales, it hoards power and marginalises critics.

Wales’ public sector is a prime example of Welsh Labour control freakery. Health boards are – despite cynical attempts to suggest otherwise – directly under Labour’s aegis. It is the cabinet secretary for health and social services, Vaughan Gething, who appoints the managers of Welsh health boards.

Elsewhere, a glut of quangos is populated by those sympathetic to Labour’s worldview. A 2010 freedom of information request showed that applicants to quangos identifying themselves as Labour activists were more likely to be appointed to public bodies than applicants identifying with other parties.

The appointment of Sophie Howe – an ex-Labour councillor and deputy police and crime commissioner for South Wales – to the high-profile position of future generations commissioner in 2015 suggests this tribalistic approach to patronage is alive and kicking. Tying this centralising jigsaw together from the centre, Welsh Labour doles out universalist giveaways, such as free prescriptions and bus passes.

At the same time, Welsh Labour has extended its reach into less conventional areas. While 16- and 17-year-olds are deemed responsible enough to vote in Senedd elections, they are forbidden from having some types of piercings. The party is also considering imposing a ban on smoking in town and city centres, as well as in the outdoor areas of cafés and restaurants, should it be re-elected next year.

All this is buttressed by rigid discipline within Welsh Labour’s Senedd group, where dissent is quickly muted. Although several MSs allegedly criticised the first minister, Mark Drakeford, at a group meeting for his “complacent” reaction to Labour’s general election performance, it is telling that none made their criticism public.

Such quiescence characterises party management too, with bosses turning a blind eye to the more controversial actions of elected representatives. In a 2019 panel event hosted by news site Tortoise, former first minister Carwyn Jones told attendees: “[Labour] anti-Semitism is almost entirely a London issue”.

It was an astonishing claim to make. Mere months earlier, one of his Senedd colleagues, Jenny Rathbone, had been readmitted to Welsh Labour’s Senedd group – despite still being under investigation for suggesting the security fears of Jewish people at a Cardiff synagogue could be “in their own heads”.

Unsurprisingly, the result is poor government. Money is spent on giveaways that amount to little more than sops to middle-class and elderly opinion. England’s post-2000 public sector reforms have been shunned, all while education and health outcomes stagnate. Wales, so renowned for its emphasis on the upwardly mobile vigour of “gwerin” (people) is now the UK’s educational basket-case.

Welsh students perform worse in PISA tests than their English, Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts. Welsh NHS waiting times trail the health service in England for most key diagnostic and treatment indicators. Ironically, though, Welsh Labour’s underperformance in government rests on the formula that makes it so hard to dislodge from its position in the Senedd.

Special interest groups are indulged. Populist spending packages are protected. Services are left unreformed for fear of making enemies. A sinister other – “the Conservative government in Westminster” – is demonised for every failure. Welsh Labour’s electoral preponderance acts as a shield for inefficient or poor practice. It took two years of warnings about the quality of care at hospitals within the Betsi Cadwaladr health board before it was taken into special measures.

There is no doubting the good faith of thousands who campaign for Welsh Labour. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the party’s fusion of cronyism and handouts with inoffensive nationalism – like its recurring election slogan, “standing up for Wales” – makes for government more akin to softcore Peronism than Scandinavian-style social democracy.

However, there are two crucial points to bear in mind here. First, Welsh Labour is not Wales. Second, Wales does not have to accept socialist stagnation. How well that second argument plays in next year’s Senedd elections will depend, ultimately, on the way Labour’s opponents in Cardiff Bay tackle the first.


Written by Ioan Phillips

Ioan Phillips is a consultant with GK Strategy. He writes in a personal capacity.


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