Whilst Labour has a healthy poll lead nationally, there are few places where the party is performing better than in Wales. Riding high in the polls, in control of the Welsh Assembly, and looking to make gains in the 2015 elections, the Welsh party – who had their conference this weekend – are in rude health. So recently I caught up with Shadow Welsh Secretary (and relative newcomer to the Shadow Cabinet) Owen Smith, to talk Wales, One Nation and why people have lost faith with their politicians.
Smith has a rather unassuming office for a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Then again he hasn’t been an MP long – and has therefore had less chance to get into the whips good books than most – so he’s still in one of the smaller offices off one of the labyrinthine corridors of Porcullis House. But despite being relatively new to Parliament, he’s had something of a rapid rise, becoming Shadow Welsh Secretary last May when Peter Hain decided to step back from the front bench.
Others who were elected in 2010 and found themselves swiftly promoted to the Shadow Cabinet (Umunna, Reeves) are often talked about as potential future leaders – and certainly people with big roles to play in the party. Smith has had little of the hype, but certainly deserves some. In person he’s engaging, fun and provocative. In the media appearances I’ve seen him do he’s quick on his feet, comfortable, confident and smart. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become a cabinet mainstay in future.
He also has a particular interest in the idea of “One Nation” – not in the shoehorn it into a press release/speech way some members of the Shadow Cabinet are prone to, but on a deep social and philosphical level. Smith was writing about One Nation before conference last year, and has been working on some of the ideas around it with the Labour leader. But for a Welshman there are pitfalls in the use of the term – so how does Wales fit into One Nation?
“The devolution question people think is one of the thorniest questions around One Nation – but I don’t think it is,” he tells me. “Devolution isn’t about diminishing Wales’s voice – it’s about amplifying it.”
Wales, Smith says, is an integral part of Britain and of the Labour movement. Few would disagree on either score. “So many of not just the great figures, but so many of the movements and so much of the rich history and legacy of the Labour movement an be traced back Welsh politics, Welsh communities, Welsh ideas.”
He’s also keen to dispel the idea that Welsh experience over the past 100 years – especially for those living in the urban belts in the North and South of the country – is much different at all to that of those living elsewhere in Britain, although he does admit that seeing the vastly different life chances of those living in some parts of the country compared to his own constituency has had a profound effect on him.
But Why is Labour so successful in Wales, and yet has often failed to cut through electorally in the South? Smith believes that the strength of Welsh Labour is in part based on its confident patriotism, saying “Labour in Wales has spoken with an authentic voice for the majority of people in Wales.”
He’s a thoroughly modern MP – ten years as a journalist, a former Spad and then five years “working for some of the most capitalist companies you could care to mention” including major pharmaceutical companies – yet there’s something traditional about him. Not Old Labour in terms of politics, but perhaps in terms of manner.
Clearly for him politics is very much about place, and he’s passionate about his local community (and his local Rugby team “Ponty”), and seems genuinely affected by the “great loss” of the changing culture of our communities. Communities that “were once at the vanguard of the industrialised world” now find themselves in decline and struggling to work out what they are for. It reminds me of hearing John Cruddas speak about Dagenham, or Maurice Glasman talk about the deindustrialisation of the North.
So is he “Blue Labour”?
“No. But I thought lots of the ideas that Blue Labour came out with we’re interesting.” As with many people, the name itself might be one of the biggest issues “I always thought the phrase was a bit uufortunate”, he tells me. I sense that like many in the party who were once open to the ideas behind Blue Labour, he now sees “One Nation Labour” as the best means of achieving similar goals.
So how do we provide hope and opportunities for the communities that have suffered so much in recent decades?
Smith echoes the broad but not especially detailed rhetoric from Ed Miliband about changing the shape of the economy and arresting the decline of local communities. Yet he’s willing to go further than most Shadow Cabinet members, expressing concern about the and the transfer of wealth to a smaller number of people in a smaller part of the country. Instead, Smith believes, Labour should be “exercising the power of the people on their behalf” – empowering the people through organisation perhaps?
The answers, he believes, come not from “things we need to invent” but from “things we need to rediscover anew”. The answers don’t, however, appear to come from a return to unlimited and unquestioning support for the market:
“Politics coalesced, to too great a degree, around a set of accepted – in particular Economic – orthodoxies around the ability of the market to deliver change, and the inability of the people to get politicians to drive alternative change, and to drive equitable change…we need to understand that if we’re going to show once again that we are the party that can represent the people.”
It’s then that Smith comes out with something that genuinely surprised me. I’ve been talking for months about Labour’s “F-word” – full employment – which the Resolution Foundation have been doing some very interesting work on, so it was heartening to hear that Smith believes that this is one of the “things we need to rediscover anew”:
“In an era in which wages are being squeezed – have been squeezed – how many people are in work and how long people are in work for and how much money they earn, such that they are able to pay for the basics of a civilised lives. Traditional debates in the Labour movement are – I think – ripe for reconsideration. Shorthand for that, I think there’s a real debate to be had around what sort of a solution high employment – they used to call it full employment – might achieve for us.”
“In an era in which the great ogre we face is lack of productivity, underemployment, unemployment and what the economists call hysterisis – which is permenant loss of capacity in the economy as a result of underemployment and unemployment of people who gradually lose skills and as they lose skills because they’re out of the workforce, that you gradually deplete the core skills base of your economy – and therefore you lock in a greater degree of unproductivity over the long run.”
Stronger communities, better jobs, full employment – is this paragon of modernity in fact a good old-fashioned Welsh lefty? Perhaps not, but he seems in tune with where the party seems destined to go – if it is brave enough – under Ed Miliband’s leadership. I hope we’ll be seeing plenty more of him – but I’m also confident that either way, behind the scenes, he’ll be pushing for a bigger, braver, more confident Labour Party.
All power to his elbow.