“Even the best form of Brexit is not as good as Remain,” Mark Drakeford told LabourList in an interview in Brighton on Sunday. He had just confirmed in his conference speech that his Welsh Labour government would campaign “wholeheartedly, vigorously and unapologetically, for Wales to remain in the EU”. This stands in contrast to the position held by the UK Labour leadership, which is battling at this year’s conference to convince those with voting rights that the party should not commit to a Remain position in a fresh referendum before the next election.
Welsh Labour hit the headlines last week when its leader contacted party members to confirm his Remain stance and say that “any type of Brexit… will cause potentially irreparable damage”. This email went out the day after it was decided by Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) that trigger ballots in Wales would not be devolved – despite control of selection processes (rather than reselection) already being assigned to Welsh Labour.
Explaining his devolved Brexit position, Drakeford said the idea for Labour’s alternative deal was “always… a damage-limitation exercise” and pointed to “contributors who are asking themselves whether the United Kingdom is somewhere where they can see a future for themselves”. Highlighting barriers to trade as well as the impact on migrants who have “settled into Welsh communities”, he remarked: “At the other side of Brexit, however soft it may be, those questions will still be there. So if you’ve got a choice, even the best form of Brexit is not as good as remain. And that’s why we will advocate and campaign to remain.”
Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour have both confirmed that they will be backing Remain in a fresh referendum, and yet Jeremy Corbyn is fighting at this conference to keep Labour’s Brexit manifesto pledge limited. The UK line is that Labour will hold a public vote, and let the people decide. According to that plan, the question of how it would campaign in that vote would be left unanswered at the next election. Three parties, two different messages on the key issue of the day. Is that viable?
“20 years into devolution, I don’t think that’s difficult,” Drakeford said. “People in Wales are very used to things being different. We’ve been discussing today, free prescriptions; we’ve had are free prescriptions in Wales since we won an election in 2003. So that’s over 15 years ago. People are absolutely used to the idea that, on many things, the way we do things in Wales is very different from how we do things in other parts of the United Kingdom.
“The fact that we will have this nuance of difference – I don’t think it should be exaggerated, we are 100% behind the UK position of having another referendum, and that’s what the general election will be about. If we don’t win, we can’t secure it. So let’s make sure we win.”
Some Labour members may be wondering whether Drakeford is still a Corbynite, which is how he was described during the Welsh leadership election in 2018. On this query, he replied: “I knew, once Jeremy Corbyn stood for election, that I would be voting for him in that first leadership election, as I voted for Diane Abbott in the election beforehand. I thought what I was doing was sending a message to the Labour Party about the importance of that strand of opinion within our party.”
He hasn’t embraced the label ‘Corbynite’ as such, but is still happy to have backed Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. “I thought I was just sending a message to whoever won that that strand in our party was not to be neglected. The rest, as they say, is history, because you know when I first decided and I knew as soon as he we would stand that I’d be voting for him, it wasn’t at that moment in the expectation that he was going to win. Years later I’m very glad that I made that decision and I’d make it again.”
Even on the matter of NEC members refusing to back devolution of reselection processes, Drakeford did not complain in his interview with LabourList. That is despite Scottish Labour having full control over both its selections and reselections. The Welsh Labour leader didn’t appear to lay much blame on opposing NEC members for the vote result earlier this week, putting the decision down to a packed agenda and a broader lack of awareness about the situation.
“Well my belief of it is, in the end, we simply didn’t have the time that we needed to explain to people what it was we were asking,” he told LabourList. “If we know the NEC has an agenda from here to the wall with all sorts of things that go very quickly through, and I don’t want to make this sound like I’m being critical of anybody, but I doubt that an obscure part fo the rulebook affecting not just selection but a niche part of the selection process, in one part of the country, had necessarily grabbed the full attention of everyone around the table.
“And we think the wrong decision was made but we think it’s more a matter of finding another opportunity to explain why, if you’ve got selection of MPs, selection and reselection of Assembly Members – and you always had reselection of MPs until a year ago – it simply makes sense. The rulebook is incomplete and untidy and doesn’t make sense for Welsh members without having the full set of things. We’ll just need to work harder to get people to understand why that’s the right thing.”
Drakeford admitted that internal party devolution “shouldn’t depend upon the chance of having the right people who’ve got an interest”, and said there needs to be “mechanisms in place”. But his perspective on the row was still largely cheery. Drakeford summed up his view as such: “You know in politics, in my long experience, mix-up is always likely to be the real explanation you know, rather than deliberate malign intent.”