Focus less on Westminster and learn from Wales, Mark Drakeford urges Labour conference

Mark Drakeford has urged his party to focus less on its Westminster problems and learn from Welsh Labour’s experience in government. 

The First Minister was speaking at Labour’s UK conference in Brighton, with tensions and differences on public view. 

The UK leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has been criticised for sparking an internal row over rule changes and not making more progress at a time when the Conservative government is struggling with a series of crises including fuel and food shortages.

In his speech to the conference on Monday, Mark Drakeford attempted to tell UK colleagues that they should ‘draw inspiration’ from Welsh Labour which has been in government in Wales for 22 years.

He also told the conference that Boris Johnson's Government was "incompetent" and "one of the most awful we have ever seen".

Mark Drakeford was speaking at the party's conference in Brighton. Credit: Welsh Labour Party

The First Minister said the conference should be “a chance to remind ourselves that despite being out of government at Westminster, Labour is in power, making a difference that only Labour can make, every single day, in places and communities right across Britain.”

He also said being out of power at Westminster for so long makes “the need for soul-searching …obvious and necessary."

But he urged fellow members not just to “look at the world through only a Westminster telescope and ask: “What went wrong?”

 “We should look at Labour’s many success stories across England, Scotland and Wales and understand what that tells us about how Labour can win the next General Election.

“In those success stories that we find a compelling answer to one of the most difficult challenges which all opposition parties face – even if our policies are popular, how can voters be confident that the party can translate those ideas into practice?

“The answer is: because we are already doing it and doing it, at scale, in large parts of the UK. In Parliaments, Town Halls and Mayoral offices across the land.”

Mr Drakeford said the party is 'making a difference that only Labour can make, every single day'. Credit: Welsh Labour Party

He hoped the message would find a receptive audience in Brighton because the party is in a difficult place. It’s as if the last two years hadn’t happened. 

Labour in September 2021 is still struggling with the tensions and divisions it was dealing with as it lost the UK election in December 2019 followed by a change of leadership that was meant to be a new start. 

As in so many areas of life, the pandemic is at least partly to blame for the hiatus but it’s a sign of how deeply differences run in the party that they’re continuing to cause problems for Keir Starmer. 

His current predicament is well-documented: a seemingly unnecessary internal row over rule changes, left-wing supporters accusing him of trying to reinvent the Blair years and even supporters asking why the party isn’t making more progress against a Conservative government embroiled in rows about fuel and food shortages as well as its planned cut to universal credit. 

Welsh Labour delegates arrived at the conference with conflicting feelings. 

All of the above concerned them. But they’ve also just fought and won a Senedd election which saw Mark Drakeford back in place as First Minister with a strengthened mandate for his approach to the pandemic as well as his policy promises for the next five years. 

It’s been a frustration for many in Welsh Labour over the years that the party centrally doesn’t play up the significance of continuing to be in power in at least one part of the UK. 

It’s never been clear, for instance, why the First Minister isn’t given a more prominent, ‘keynote’ speech slot at UK conferences. 

That isn’t changing in Brighton: Mark Drakeford’s speech on Monday merely opened the afternoon’s devolution session. 

But in other respects, there is change. He’s often taken part in shadow cabinet meetings (even if Keir Starmer balked in my interview with him at the idea of giving the Welsh leader a formal shadow cabinet role).

And he’s leading, alongside the party chair Anneliese Dodds, a new structure within Labour to harness the experience of its elected members outside Westminster. 

Learning from those experiences will be vital for Keir Starmer because there’s less time than you may think for him to resolve his party’s problems. 

The next UK election is formally supposed to be three years away but I wouldn’t be surprised if it came sooner than that.