Drakeford to Welsh Labour conference 2023: “It’s time to make that difference”

Mark Drakeford

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by First Minister and Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford to the 2023 Welsh Labour conference over the weekend.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. A diolch i Catherine am y croeso cynnes. Mae’n braf cael bod nôl yn Llandudno, gyda chymaint o ffrindiau; cynghorwyr lleol; Aelodau’r Senedd; ac Aelodau Seneddol.

Conference, it’s conventional, in this sort of speech at conference, to spend some time reflecting on all the good things a Labour government has achieved in Wales

I could use up all my time today to do that, because we’ve achieved so much in just the last 12 months.

  • We have helped more than 11,000 young people to find jobs in the first year of our young person’s guarantee scheme.
  • We’ve passed a new law to ban single-use plastics.
  • We’ve extended the most generous childcare offer anywhere in the UK.
  • We’re providing a basic income in the largest experiment anywhere in the world for our young care leavers.
  • We’ve served three million more free school meals since September – free school meals for every pupil, in every primary school, in every part of Wales.

And none of that would have been achieved without the dedication and commitment of my Labour colleagues in Welsh government and the Labour group – whose discipline year in and year out allows us to deliver our Labour programme.

But I want to use the short time with you today to stand back for a moment, from the lists of policies and pledges, from our programme for government and its hundreds of commitments, and from the many debates we will have over this weekend. I want instead to say something about the wider purpose of the Labour Party in Wales – about the beliefs and values that lie at the heart of this great party. 

When I was a very young child, staying, as I so often did, on my grandparents’ farm, someone, who we would undoubtedly have called a tramp in those days, came to the back door of the farmhouse. He was hungry. He was thirsty. My grandmother busied herself to make sure that he had food and drink.  And as a child, I was a bit afraid of what I had seen with this strange person coming to the door. When he’d gone, I asked her why she had reacted with the kindness that she had so obviously shown. I’ve remembered her answer ever since. “Because he was a stranger”, she replied. It’s that answer, I later realised, which made me a socialist. 

And it’s also what lies at the heart of the enduring bargain between the Labour Party and the people of Wales. It’s the basic belief that, in our brief lives, we owe a duty of care not just to ourselves, not even just to our family and friends, but also to strangers.  To those people who we will never know, and we will never meet, but whose welfare – we understand – is intimately bound up with our own. 

That simple belief, passed to me through those practical actions I witnessed as a child, runs deep here in Wales. It’s there in the selfless act of blood donation, which so many of us do every year. It’s there in the ground-breaking and life-saving organ donation law we passed almost ten years ago – and copied in so many other places since. And it’s there in our ambition to be a nation of sanctuary. To provide a warm welcome to families forced out of their homes in Hong Kong by a repressive regime, or forced to flee Ukraine because of war, or indeed all of those who seek sanctuary from wherever, and however, they may come.

This is not simply an act of generosity – it’s rooted in our sense of a common humanity, where an injury to one is an injury to all. And it is rooted in the sort of Wales we, in this conference hall, and in this movement, want, a country which is confident, outward-looking, inclusive and kind. A country where our own culture is vibrant and alive but strengthened also by embracing other cultures from around the world.  A country where we know that collective solutions to common problems always make the biggest difference. A Wales where we know that we can rely on one another when we need help.  That we can rely on the kindness of strangers. 

Cymru lle allwn ni dibynnu ar ein gilydd mewn amseroedd anodd. Dibynnu ar garedigrwydd gan ddi-eith-riaid. 

Nawr, ‘dw i wedi profi ac wedi gwerthfawrogi’r caredigrwydd yna dros yr wythnosau diwethaf. Geiriau o garedigrwydd a chydymdeimlad gan bobl o fewn ein plaid ni, ond hefyd gan bobl ‘dw i byth wedi cwrdd â nhw.

Mae hwn wedi bod yn gryfder i mi yn bersonol. Diolch o galon i chi gyd.

Conference, next year it will be 50 years since I first voted Labour in a general election. Incredibly, that’s almost half of Labour’s winning century here in Wales. And the older I get, the more radical I become. That’s in part because, in 35 of those years, when people in Wales have voted for a Labour government in Westminster, they’ve ended up with the opposite – with the Tories in charge here in Wales. And over that time, the Tories have caused profound damage to the case for the United Kingdom, putting the UK at greater risk over the past four years than at any time in my political lifetime – risk caused by the actions of those Tory governments. 

Now this morning, I want once again to remake the compelling case, which I believe is there to be made, for the United Kingdom. And to spell out the urgent duty of that next Labour government to turn that case into reality. Because the case for the United Kingdom, conference, is a Labour case – and it is a socialist case. It’s the case of solidarity.  Of looking out for strangers.  And for me today, that case has four main strands.

The first – a solidarity union in which our collective action guarantees that no one finds themselves unable to eat and relying on a food bank. Where the impact of old age, or illness, or caring for your family, does not force you to the margins of what others take for granted.  Being a member of the United Kingdom, a Labour United Kingdom, should mean a guarantee of security for us all.

The second strand in this case, in a solidarity union, is to use the power of a Labour government to secure those hard-won rights which working people have fought for – employment rights, consumer rights, human rights and environmental rights.  Because to be a member of a Labour United Kingdom is to offer you a guarantee that those rights don’t simply belong to other people, but they belong to every one of us.

The third strand in this solidarity union, is a strand that tells us, that the lifeline services on which we rely, belong, not to profit-maximising privatised companies, but to the people who make those profits for them in the first place.  A union, where the investment available for infrastructure or public services is not bounded by your postcode or by borders – as the nationalists would have it – but where we believe in the case for pooling our resources and sharing out the rewards.

Conference, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. To be a member of this union, a Labour United Kingdom, is to guarantee that the public interest – our interest – drives the delivery of the things on which we all rely.

But after 13 years of further Tory government, that union is in peril as never before. 13 years of a party that has thrived on dividing our country, hurting the most vulnerable, striking at the institutions and the values that have bound us together – our openness, our generosity, our power to be a force for good in the world. And so as always it falls to us, and to the next Labour government, to make the case.

If Labour is to save the union, we can’t do that by defending the status quo. By nervously hoarding power at the centre as this Tory government has done time and again. Rather, it is by building a new partnership of equals based on mutual respect. A partnership that has the confidence to redistribute power and opportunity – radically – to every community, every nation, every part of our country. And we have heard today, commitments given by Keir, that the next Labour government will do just that. And we are hugely fortunate aren’t we, to have that recipe set out for us – it’s there in Gordon Brown’s report on the future of the UK. That powerful case for a new and strengthened union.

Deyrnas Unedig Newydd – wedi’i chryfhau. Un gyda’r hyder i weld manteision llywodraeth ar y cyd. Lle mae datganoli yn gyfle i alluogi pobl ac i wneud pethau yn wahanol.

A union with the commitment to pursue self-government and shared government, making the best of both. Where devolution is an opportunity to empower people and to do things differently, not a problem to be marginalised or managed.

Conference, there is a fourth, and final, pressing issue that an incoming Labour government will have to tackle to create this solidarity union. That is to tackle the threadbare nature of our democracy, which does so much to fuel the discontent on which nationalism and separatism thrives. Our democracy has been hollowed out by the Tories and their dreadful brand of selfish, self-enriching politics. Where even a football commentator is expected to toe the Tory line or find their job at risk.

And so, it is for the next Labour government to be as bold and determined to put the United Kingdom back on its democratic feet, as the Tories have been to kick that ground from under us. And that’s why the next Labour government must lead the task of democratic renewal.

It was a very important moment, at our conference in Liverpool in September, when we voted to endorse a change in the voting system for Westminster elections. Conference, I do not believe that we can go on accepting a system which, time and again, produces Conservative majorities on a minority of the votes cast. And to those who continue to fear a change in the electoral system, I say look to what we have done here in Wales. 25 years of winning and working within a proportional election system. 

I hear what the critics say – that first past the post produces strong government. Well, I’ve lived and seen at first hand, for most of my adult life, the results that strong Tory government brings. Three elections in which Mrs Thatcher lost every single time in Wales. And never won in Scotland or in Northern Ireland either. But she used her strong government to destroy our manufacturing industry, to close our mining industry, to break up our welfare state and to blight the futures of young people and communities across Wales. And her successors have carried on where she left off.

In 2019, without winning a majority of seats in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, we got Boris Johnson. Remember Boris Johnson? A man so adrift from any sense of a moral compass that he could appear on television to insist that everyone followed the rules while presiding over a Downing Street culture that would have embarrassed the Emperor Nero. 

Remember Liz Truss? Only there for a few weeks, but long enough to give us her ‘mini-budget’, which very nearly crashed our economy. Which saddled this country with debt, and is still causing anguish for families in every part of Wales facing higher mortgage bills.

Conference, contrast that chaos, that serial dishonesty with the leadership that Labour now offers. The leadership that Keir will provide as this country’s next Prime Minister. In Keir, we have someone, as you have heard today, who will put decency back at the heart of our public life. Someone who is motivated by duty, by public service, and that burning sense – which I entirely share – that this party’s mission is not to tinker at the edges, not to offer some mild amelioration, but to eradicate poverty, to tackle inequality – and to do that with a sense of urgency that those people who rely on this party look for, require and deserve.

Conference, it’s only a few years since I was at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. There on the wall, throughout the conference halls, was plastered a line from The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: “Hurry up please, it’s time.” A message to the delegates to underline the immense urgency of what we were there to do – and the waste land that would result if we didn’t take that action. To take that absolutely decisive action to protect our fragile planet and to combat climate change.

But they are also words which I hope animate every day the government that I lead here in Wales. A government that recognises both the trust that the Welsh people place in us as their government and the urgency with which they require us to respond. The Welsh people put their trust in us as a government because they knew we were ambitious to get to work. Hurry up please – they told us – it’s time to do the things that only a Labour government can do. Because we know that the purpose of the long struggle that led to this party’s foundation was to win power – so that the interests of working people could at last be realised through their government. To make that urgent change for the better.

Hurry up please, it’s time to make that difference. And that is what we are doing here in Wales. Getting on with the hard work of delivering the promises we made to people two years ago.

Our party has a long and distinguished record of radical reform – from the formation of the welfare state and the NHS in the post-war years to the advent of devolution in 1999. And in Wales, we have a proud track record of leading the way – introducing a new curriculum for Wales, reforming local government, banning the physical punishment of children and nationalising the railways.

But conference, I believe that our most radical days can and must lie ahead of us. There are so many things that we will achieve over the years of this Senedd term. Strengthening the building blocks of our democracy. Making council tax fairer. Aligning our education system with the needs of today’s Wales. Ensuring that those who don’t have a first home, aren’t forced out of their communities by those in search of a second.

Mae Cymru yn wlad groesawgar – there will always be a welcome here in Wales. Ond wrth gwrs mae dyletswydd arnom ni i sicrhau fod pob cymuned yn ein gwlad yn gynaladwy. Bod gan bobl gobaith y gallen nhw ddilyn gyrfa a chael teulu ble bynnag maen nhw’n byw. A bod yr iaith yn ffynnu ym mhob cwr o’r wlad.

Conference, your government here in Wales is also seizing the greatest challenge of our age – the climate crisis. One of the things about living in this beautiful country is that we can all see it and feel it when the landscape and the climate are changing. The floods and extreme temperatures that we have witnessed in just the last few years – and of course that is only a fraction of what some people in other parts of the world are facing, where entire countries could disappear altogether.

We have a profound obligation to do everything we can to avert catastrophe. Hurry up please, it’s time. More of the same will not do. Last year, over half the electricity we used in Wales came from renewables. It will be 70% by 2030 and 100% by 2035. We’ve set out our plans to create a publicly-owned energy company so that profits from renewable energy are returned to people in Wales And we’ve started to plant a national forest for Wales – that huge carbon sink that will help to protect us from the impact of climate change. A symbol of our determination today to protect the interests of future generations tomorrow. 

Conference, the Labour government in Wales is dedicated to solving our problems through social partnership. And I am hugely proud that our landmark social partnership bill will become law next week. That bill puts that long-term alliance between the Labour government and the Labour movement on an even stronger footing. And it is this social partnership approach that has guided our attempts to find a resolution to the public sector pay difficulties that we know are experienced in our services here in Wales.

None of this is easy, but a Labour government here in Wales, I pledge today, will always stand alongside our friends and colleagues in the trade union movement, when their experience of austerity, followed by galloping inflation, drives their members to express that dissatisfaction by taking strike action. Unlike the Tories, the Welsh Labour government has and always will continue to talk whatever the circumstances.

Conference, I have set out the progressive reforms that we are pursuing here in Wales – but just think of how much we could do if a Labour government in Wales could work with a Labour government right across the UK. A government, as Keir said earlier, that will inspire hope. The hope that government can be a force for good, that things don’t have to become worse, more cruel and more coarse with every year that passes. Hope for the young – some of whom have only ever known Tory governments at UK level. And hope too for families, for those who are facing the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Struggling each month with the cost of the Tories’ economic vandalism. 

Conference, it will require a huge effort by those of us in this room to evict the Tories from office – but we know that we can do it, we have done it before. We did it last year at the local elections here in Wales. We took back control of councils all over the country. And conference, there are now no more Tory-run councils in any part of Wales.  Labour councils from Denbighshire in the north, to Monmouthshire in the south. And we are going to achieve exactly the same thing at the next general election – no more Tory seats in Wales.

Conference, I began what I had to say today by recalling my own childhood all those years ago At almost exactly the same time, in 1962, Harold Wilson, told our national conference that the Labour Party is “a moral crusade, or it is nothing”.

Now we live in more cynical times. But I say to you that our party’s moral purpose is entirely undimmed. We fight for every Labour vote because that is how we gain the power to translate that moral purpose into action. The power to reject inequality. The power to lift our children out of poverty. The power to be that beacon of hope in our perplexed and polluted world. The power to reach out our hands in kindness to strangers. So that even at the times of greatest danger. And even when our hearts are weighed down with the intolerable burden of grief. We know our duty: our moral obligation to run towards the dangers that blight so many lives and never to run away from them. Never to leave to tomorrow the difference that we can make today.

So hurry up. Hurry up please, it’s time. Time now to renew again this party’s bond with the people of Wales. Time now to put our shoulders to the wheel of our great moral purpose. And time to elect that next Labour government for which people in Wales have already waited far too long. Thank you. Diolch.

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