Nia Griffith has Welsh Tories and Brexiters in her sights
—Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Wales is a woman on a mission. Nia Griffith sees the result of next month’s Welsh assembly elections as crucial, not only to the people of Wales, but for the future of the Labour party nationally. ‘It is absolutely essential for us to make sure that we return a Labour government in Wales’, she says as we meet in her Westminster office.
With Wales’ the only Labour government in the United Kingdom, the member of parliament for Llanelli sees holding power there as a vital opportunity to demonstrate a credible alternative to the Conservatives.
‘I think people need to be able to see what Labour [in power] is able to do. They need to have something tangible that they really want to fight for. I think that can inspire members – so that they don’t just say, “I believe in this so I’m going to go on a march”, but so that they actually see that [you can] actually make a difference in people’s lives.
‘To my mind it’s absolutely no good having the most wonderful principles in the world if you’re not actually in government’.
Like many within the Labour party it is in this context that Griffith still finds Ed Miliband’s defeat at last year’s general election particularly painful: ‘It’s a huge challenge for us and I don’t think any one of us can deny the shock and the disappointment that we all felt’. The party had a particularly tough run-in with the Tories in Wales, where, rather than gaining key targets, it failed to hold Gower and Vale of Clwyd – seats that had been held by the Labour party for decades.
In order for Labour to win in Wales, including returning the party to power in previous strongholds such as these, Griffith sets out three priorities: highlighting the party’s record of delivery through the Welsh government; setting out a compelling forward offer that appeals to all sections of society; and regaining credibility on the economy. ‘[We have to] get on the front foot on economic policy across the UK … I think the way the Tories are tearing themselves apart at the moment gives us that opportunity.’
Asked whether Labour’s national leadership is succeeding in seizing this opportunity, Griffith shifts a little uncomfortably. ‘Well, I think we have the chance now to show that there is another way. [The Tories] don’t know what their targets are for. They seem to be falling over themselves to try to be both “compassionate” and get the deficit down. It’s resulting in them doing neither. I think it’s an opportunity for us to say you can have a responsible attitude to the economy without abandoning people.’
The relationship between Welsh Labour and the national party has come under increased scrutiny since first minister Carwyn Jones admitted that events in Westminster were having a ‘negative effect’ on the campaign for the assembly.
Griffith agrees that ‘anything that happens at a UK level has an enormous impact’. She admits to having had ‘very robust discussions’ with Labour’s strategy chief Seumas Milne when the party has appeared to drift away from the key issues over which the Welsh elections will be fought.
But the dominance of UK events over Welsh politics is an issue that that extends well beyond the confines of the Labour party, as Griffith explains: ‘The real problem is that the whole EU debate has completely dominated in the media – I think it’s leaving very little room for any discussion of elections in Wales … obviously linked to that is the fact that it is giving a lot more exposure to Ukip’.
She expresses exasperation about the prospect of the United Kingdom Independence party making gains in Wales, aided by the list system that often benefits third parties. Denouncing ‘failed Tories’ Mark Reckless and Neil Hamilton as ‘totally cynical carpetbaggers’, she argues they have no particular interest in Wales or the constituencies they seek to represent. ‘They just want to walk in, they hope, on the back of having not done all that well, but having won a consolation prize’.
Ukip has ‘seemed to manage to twist absolutely everything … So instead of saying it’s the UK government which is actually causing the problems for the steel industry they manage to twist it and blame Europe … They don’t have any qualms at all about using statistics which quite frankly nobody else even recognises’.
But it is the Tories’ willingness to ‘jump onto the same bandwagon’ as Ukip that most infuriates Griffith. She is particularly scathing of Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, who she argues could have put himself forward for a seat currently held by a Conservative MP but by a Labour assembly member: ‘He obviously didn’t have the courage to challenge [Jane Hutt]. He’s obviously terrified of his position on the list and wants to out-Ukip Ukip in order to get himself some votes.
‘He seems to be incredibly confused because he’s also a farmer and farmers tend to be a group which does recognise that there is actually a big advantage to being in the EU’.
Griffith is unequivocal in her view that a Brexit vote would have devastating consequences for Wales, explaining that Welsh farmers currently receive £240m a year from the EU.
She suggests it is ‘fanciful’ to argue that farmer subsidies would not have been cut over the last six years if left solely in the hands of George Osborne; worse still, Wales would hardly be getting its fair share. ‘The idea that we would receive this money from a Conservative government in Westminster if we left the EU is pie in the sky. If we vote to leave the EU, Welsh farmers will be left high and dry.’
Griffith continually emphasises the differences that have emerged between England and Wales over the past six years, since Labour lost power in Westminster. For her it is this stark choice that must define the campaign Labour is to fight over the coming month.
Wales remaining a ‘beacon of red’ in the UK will, Griffith hopes, then provide a foothold to replicate this strategy across the country.
Ben Dilks is commissioning editor at Policy Network
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