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Dark days and controversy at the seaside: Welsh Labour Spring Conference 2018

23rd April 2018

Trips to the seaside are supposed to be full of fun, sand and ice cream; however, this year’s Welsh Labour Spring Conference was quite the opposite. Huw Owen from the Cardiff Public Affairs Team reviews the action from a stunning conference in Llandudno.

A dark cloud already hung over the conference, the first since the tragic death of Carl Sargeant AM, and the first conference for his replacement, and son, Jack; when on Friday morning, the family’s lawyer released a letter to the press accusing Carwyn Jones of causing the family ‘considerable distress.’ This led to a tense atmosphere around conference, with many wondering how Carwyn, and his supporters would react to this letter during conference, if they reacted at all.

The controversy only deepened on Saturday morning, when party Chairman, Mike Payne, announced the results of the first ever Welsh Labour Deputy Leader Contest. The winner, Swansea East MP, Carolyn Harris won more votes among the Unions and Welsh Labours elected members, but Julie Morgan, AM for Cardiff North, won the members vote by some margin. Once all the final vote totals had been released, it swiftly became apparent that Julie Morgan had actually won more votes, but had lost in the controversial Electoral College system used only by Welsh Labour. ITV’S Welsh Political Editor, Adrian Masters, tweeted after the result that due to the complex rules of Welsh Labour’s Electoral College system, that if just three Elected Members had voted differently, Julie Morgan would have won the contest. This result only increased calls for Welsh Labour to align itself with the rest of UK Labour and use the One Member One Vote System (OMOV.)

If Conference delegates had thought that an end to the shock and controversy was in sight, they were badly mistaken. The Saturday Afternoon session began, as the morning session did, with shock and controversy, when, during his keynote speech, First Minister Carwyn Jones announced that this conference would be his last Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister. He began by summing up his, and Welsh Labour’s achievements during his nine years as First Minister, before moving onto describe the past six months as the ‘darkest of times,’ at this point, a sense of something huge was building amongst delegates, and there was audible silence as he announced his resignation. The Op-Eds soon hit webpages across Wales, with one BBC Journalist summing up the last six months with the headline ‘Carwyn Jones: Welsh Labour leader who lost his grip’. This was not the dignified end Rhodri Morgan’s replacement would have dreamt of as he closed in on a decade as First Minister, and it is not the ending many of the conference floor would have envisaged either. It is also not the ending the family of Carl Sargeant would have liked either; they issued a statement shortly after the announcement ‘does not help’ the family and provide no “closure.”

Of course, runners and riders were swiftly being touted in the media, with the oft mentioned Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates being touted alongside Mick Antoniw, Jeremy Miles, Eluned Morgan, Huw Irranca-Davies and the slightly more surprising John Griffiths and Mike Hedges. All the potential candidates refused, of course, to be drawn on the subject.

In contrast to an action packed Saturday, the Sunday session was more sedate, with a speech by Jeremy Corbyn being the big draw. In a room where seats were at a premium, it was standing room only by the time Jeremy Corbyn kicked off his speech. He touched on subjects as diverse as Brexit policy & the repatriation of powers, through the Development Bank of Wales and the Windrush controversy, alongside paying tribute to the outgoing Carwyn Jones. Conspicuous by their absence were the subjects of anti-Semitism and Carl Sargeant. What was obvious though, was that Jeremy Corbyn’s speech showcased a much higher level of knowledge of Welsh Policy than previous leaders, a feat attributable to both the briefing offered to his speech writers, and the willingness of those same writers to listen to the Welsh Party. It must be said however, for a man no stranger to the headlines, his speech will likely fly under the radar after such a tumultuous weekend.

So, where does all this leave Welsh Labour post conference? With the Bowen inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Carl Sargeant still to begin, internal debates around the One Member One Vote system, a Leadership election hot on the heels of a Deputy Leadership election and an incumbent First Minister standing down for only the third time in the near 20 year history of devolution in Wales, it could be argued that Welsh Labour are a party in turmoil. What is clear is that two days over the course of a weekend in Llandudno will have a heavy impact on the both the direction of the Welsh Labour Party and the politics of Wales & Devolution for many years to come.

Grayling Team

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