Exclusive: Interview with Labour NEC Welsh rep candidate Carwyn Jones

You might be wondering why someone who has served as a Senedd member for 21 years and the Welsh First Minister for nine years would want to throw his hat in the ring to fight for a seat on Labour’s national executive committee. Does he not feel like he needs a bit of a rest? Apparently not. “I want to put my shoulder to the wheel and make sure that we get a Labour government elected across the UK again,” Carwyn Jones tells me. “And that’s why I want to do it: to make sure that we have an NEC that is a critical friend of the leadership, but is also committing to seeing a Labour government elected again.”

Carwyn identifies experience as his key offer to members – in government, in winning elections and in having already been a member of the NEC as the Welsh Labour leader. “I want to bring that experience to the table,” he explains. “To help to shape the path for the election of a Labour government at the next UK general election.” Being an NEC member, he says, is about experience of “what it takes to win a battle”. The current rep is appointed by leader Mark Drakeford, and is therefore directly accountable only to him. (The Scottish NEC seat is held directly by Richard Leonard.) But the post is now changing. This election will give the successful candidate a mandate from the membership.

Carwyn stresses the importance of the Welsh rep to be representative of members. He tells me the position “can’t just be unquestioning of the leadership”. But throughout our chat, he is keen to emphasise striking a balance between criticising the leader and working to get Keir Starmer into Downing Street. “We all have to remember that every member of the NEC is part of the project of getting a Labour government elected once again.” He explains that this requires a commitment from members of the NEC to this objective, while adding that they must be prepared to be critical of Starmer to make Labour “more effective as a party”.

He argues the need for discipline: “The worst thing that we can do is get involved in public arguments with each other. We never win elections in those circumstances.” But Carwyn adds that members don’t have to agree all the time and that debate within the party is important. His remarks around party unity bring to mind Starmer’s leadership campaign. Carwyn tells me he is associated with no particular section of the party and stresses that he always saw himself as a “leader of one party, as a member of one party”. He declares: “I will do whatever I feel is right for the party based on principles and on policy, and not on being wedded to any particular group or faction.”

On the other challenges for Labour on its path to Downing Street, Carwyn highlights constitutional issues. He emphasises that to win overall in 2024, the party will need to secure a substantial number of seats in Scotland. And for him, this is indicative of the need for Labour to make a “constitutional offer not just to Scotland, but across the whole of the UK”. He describes a partnership of nations where some issues – defence, borders and immigration, fiscal and monetary union – are handled at a UK level and others are best devolved. The choice need not be between independence and devolution, he explains, adding: “There is another option we can offer as a party and it’s going to be our duty to do so.”

I ask him about Welsh independence. Has Covid boosted its support? “There’s an element of that,” he admits. “But we still know that independence has the support of around a third of the population, although it is much higher than it ever was.” His support for remaining in the union is steadfast, as he describes the UK as a “great socialist objective” in terms of its redistributive power – “ensuring the money goes where it’s needed”. He explains: “There are some elements of the UK that are fundamental to our beliefs as socialists.” What worries the former First Minister is that independence for Wales now commands the support of 39% of Welsh Labour voters. The party must be careful here and make sure not to lose those voters as it did in Scotland. The difficulty, as he highlights, is offering something that goes beyond what we can offer at the moment – but that does not go as far as independence.

Carwyn supported Starmer in the leadership election earlier this year, and tells me the new UK Labour leader is doing “exceptionally well given the circumstances”. He feels Starmer has not had the chance to “chart his own course” since taking the top job, as Covid has dominated the political environment. “The fact that we are now at least level-pegging in the polls at a time of national crisis shows that a huge amount of work has been done in a short space of time,” Carwyn says. “It’s clear now that the public have more trust in Keir than they do in Boris Johnson.” And he compares the Prime Minister’s popularity against that of the leaders in the devolved nations, remarking that if “England had followed Scotland and Wales, then Johnson’s popularity would be sky high – but it isn’t”.

Carwyn tells me Drakeford has “grown into” his role during Covid and he has nothing but praise for the Welsh Labour leader. Drakeford is trusted as someone who is “calm, collective and has full control over the facts, which Boris Johnson doesn’t”. People do not want a “showman”, the former Welsh Labour leader explains. “They don’t want somebody who comes out with strange phrases – they want somebody whose words they can trust.” He is fully behind the ‘firebreak’ lockdown that came into effect last Friday, and so are most of his constituents. He says it again comes down to a matter of trust for his residents. “They trust the Welsh Labour government to take the right decisions… they don’t trust the Tories in Whitehall.”

I ask him about his NEC rival, Mick Antoniw, who I interviewed last month. He tells me that the two are mates, and reminds me that his Senedd colleague had been the treasurer of his leadership campaign in 2009. “We’re not personally hostile to each other,” he says. I point out that Mick has more nominations than him, but the former First Minister appears unfazed. He highlights that nomination decisions are often taken by a “relatively small number of people” and refers me back to his leadership campaign: “I had fewer nominations when I went through this in 2009 and of course when it came to the actual election I was fortunate to win fairly comfortably.” Carwyn won in 2009 securing 52% of the vote against Edwina Hart’s 29.2% and Huw Lewis’ 18.8%. Nominations are nice to have, he explains. But the contest is in the hands of the members, and this candidate fancies his chances.

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