Sunday, 6 September 2009

Harsh realities

Posted on This is My Truth on 6th September

An interesting essay over on WalesHome.

Former Welsh Labour Press Officer Owain Jones criticises his party for putting too much responsibility on the shoulders of Rhodri Morgan. He argues that just as Plaid Cymru established a talented leadership team from the across the party, so Labour should share the burden:

The Labour Party, as much as any organisation, can be caught up in the cult of the individual, and its component parts rarely pause to consider what they might do to contribute to good leadership. Responsibility for change needs to be pushed out to where it can most profitably flourish.

But the central control that was essential in achieving the discipline that helped Labour into Government, has now stymied its ability to develop as a party. Owain Jones is right to stress the need for a culture of self-criticism to develop within the Labour Party, but the defensive tone evident in parts of his essay illustrate there is a long way to go before the party creates an environment which encourages 'critical friendship'.

His experience as a party official ineviatbly colurs his analysis, but he makes strong points:

There is no doubt that in many seats lacklustre, tired and unimaginative local campaigns, as much the responsibility of local representatives as members, have become too common. These electoral runs are no more than displacement activity. Local parties are too reliant on a slimline party staff. In turn, perhaps our Welsh party HQ should do more to push the real work out to where it belongs – in the field. This is a difficult reality to face but a redefinition of the role of the party bureaucracy is needed. It ought to be a hub of innovation and ideas, not a centralised institution of control.

It is hard to disagree with his analysis. After 12 years in office Labour has lost its hunger for power. The difficult choices of Government allied with a deliberate strategy of triangulation has alienated many the Party has taken for granted. Furthermore Labour has long lost any culture of empowerment. Disagreement with the 'line' decided upon by a very small group at the centre has long been seen as 'unhelpful'. Perhaps that is inevitable in modern politics?

His most pointed message is aimed at the Unions. "Vested interest [sic] is a powerful and stifling force", he writes:

Trade unions are rarely criticised by Labour politicians in Wales. And yet, despite recent record employment and favourable legislation, they have continued to lose members and failed to sufficiently modernise. While union officials undoubtedly work hard for the causes they represent, they too must change.

He is right to warn putative leadership candidates of the dangers of cosying up to interest groups. But with a shriking and dispersed membership and an internal electoral system which embeds the influnce of 'vested interests', where else are the candidates to turn?

To my mind, Labour's biggest problem is that too many in the party have not adopted to the realities of post-devolution competitive politics. The Labour Party is no longer the dominating force in Welsh politics. That is an unpalatable truth for those who have grown up with their party having a powerful sense of ownership of the nation's politics.

Labour's domination is over. And though it is heracy to say it, I think that is a good thing.

It is in Welsh Labour's long-term interests to face up to this stark reality and start coming to terms with the new Wales it has helped create.

Though I don't agree with all parts of his analysis Owain Jones' essay shows that there is a younger generation within Labour that 'get it'. Maybe the changing of the guard that will accompany Rhodri Morgan's retirement will allow that generation a stronger voice.

I remain to be convinced.

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