LABOUR members from across Britain are gathering this weekend in Brighton for its first conference since its dismal 2019 General Election performance. 

Amid all the strategising, grandstanding and earnest debate one issue which it appears won’t be given an airing on the main conference floor is the fate of the Welsh Labour Party. 

Though some campaigners had hoped there could be discussion on whether Welsh Labour should break free and establish itself as an independent party in its own right, with sister party status, it appears UK Labour has bigger rows it wishes to air this week. 

That is already causing frustration for those who think the party is ignoring the Conservative government’s exposure on issues ranging from the Brexit fall out, the cost of living and reduced benefits to even getting food on the supermarket shelves in favour of arguing either among themselves or about itself. 

Senedd Member for Blaenau Gwent Alun Davies shared a news article about Sir Keir Starmer’s plan to try and change the rules on how the leader is elected by dismissing his own party as “incompetent”. 

He wrote: “Polarised arguments when we should be taking on the Tories. And people wonder why UK Labour can’t win elections. Pure political incompetence.” 

While the UK party appears at loggerheads over its internal structures there are calls from activists in Wales for a break with London. 

READ MORE: Labour to put Drakeford front and centre amid Starmer storm  

Opponents often talk disparagingly of Welsh Labour as either a branch office of the London headquartered party or simply a brand, a Welsh gloss for campaigning in Wales and with a Welsh executive that is only a sub committee of a larger entity. 

Harriet Prothero-Soltani, who was previously vice chair of the left wing campaign group Momentum, and is a member of its NCG (National Coordinating Group), believes Welsh Labour should seek sister party status. 

She said differences between the party’s approach to internal policy issues, such as the current row over ditching one member one vote and returning to an electoral college giving greater say to MPs and trade union block votes, illustrates the difference between the party in Wales and England. 

Those could become even starker if Starmer does succeed in diluting the voting powers of ordinary members as just last week Mark Drakeford re-stated his commitment to one member one vote when it comes to choosing his successor. 

Protero-Soltani also feels Welsh Labour’s continued success justifies it taking responsibility for its own affairs. 

“There seems to be increasing divergence between Welsh Labour and UK Labour and we need to make sure our party can set its own terms and direction and how we involve members. 

“Mark Drakeford did extremely well as the last elections when Labour in England didn’t in council elections.  

“Mark Drakeford is extremely popular in Wales including with Tory and even Plaid voters.” 

The party’s position in Wales contrasts with that in England, for Prothero-Soltani, further strengthening the case for it to take charge of its own affairs: “Labour is not projected to win a general election any time soon where as Labour has in Wales for the last 100 years and continues to do so. 

“Most of my adult life I’ve lived under a Tory government and all I want to see is a Labour government in Westminster. Welsh Labour seem to be able to do that (win elections) time and time again but Labour’s not able to do that in Westminster.” 

The reality of devolution, not just that Labour faces different elections and electoral pressures in Wales than in England, but that as a government it has responsibility for Welsh only policy and laws means being responsible for its own governance as a party makes sense for the campaigner. 

That is a view shared by Bob Lloyd who is the president of the pressure group Labour for an Independent Wales

While he, and the group’s members, want Wales to achieve independence from the UK Lloyd says the Welsh Party breaking away isn’t a way of achieving that but a recognition of devolution as it is at present and Welsh Labour’s own vision for a more federalist United Kingdom. 

Lloyd said his campaign group is pushing Constituency Labour Party branches to consider, and move in favour of, Welsh Labour gaining sister party status.

It had been hoped that could have been considered at the Brighton conference, which runs until Wednesday, but Lloyd acknowledges that is unlikely with other issues dominating the party gathering – and it could be said pushing out the chance to discuss an important issue for Welsh members. 

The cancellation of Welsh Labour’s own conference, that had been planned for November, is another opportunity lost for the topic to be debated by members. 

Strengthening the party in Wales, and Scotland where before rise of the SNP at the 2015 general election it had been the dominant force in Westminster elections, will claims Lloyd, also boost the party in England where the vast majority of Westminster seats are to be won. 

“The reason Welsh Labour does well is the electorate see them as Welsh. At Westminster Labour does badly as Labour are not seen as an English party in England, they try to operate with this veneer of Britishness which puts Welsh and Scottish people off and doesn’t bring on board English voters. 

“Labour needs an English identity without alienating voters in Wales and Scotland,” argues Lloyd who says the sister parties would still work together much like the separate governments would in a federal system or if independence were to be achieved. 

“When Keir Starmer stands up and talks about British values it means different things in different places.” 

READ MORE: Labour, Wales, the Union and the constitution

John Denham, who served as a minister under Tony Blair and was a member of Gordon Brown’s cabinet, has argued that Labour needs to follow the success of Welsh Labour by appealing to those who are proud to be English and has urged Starmer to talk about Englishness. 

The 68-year-old set up the English Labour Network, in 2017, to bring party activists together to make the case for Labour advocating for England. 

The former Southampton Itchen MP, whose seat was lost in 2015 and hasn’t been regained since, told The Mirror this week Labour should “talk about England” and “don’t, as the Labour Party does all the time, say ‘Britain’ when you mean ‘England’.” 

He said the party’s success in Wales is an example of “fusing what is a genuinely radical and competent Labour government with the idea of Welshness”. 

He told the Labour supporting paper: “Everybody in the Labour Party should be talking to Wales and trying to learn from that. 

“They have handled questions of identity in the Labour Party much more successfully.” 

Starmer, he said, hasn’t engaged with “the English question” or shown what “patriotism” means as a vision for “the nation or nations”. 

READ MORE: Englishness: the misunderstood national identity

ITV Wales political editor, Adrian Masters, reported out takes from his pre-conference interview with Starmer in which he questioned the Labour leader about Denham’s comments. 

Masters tweeted: “What does he think of John Denham's call for Labour to brand itself with the English flag? "I prefer the Union Jack, because I want to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom but ... using the flag in an inclusive way not an exclusive way".

In the parts of the interview that were broadcast Starmer told ITV Wales he is “not precious” about Wales gaining further powers in policy areas such as policing and benefits, which aren’t currently devolved. But, he said, he is “more interested” in making sure that Welsh people have “more power over the decisions that affect them". 

READ MORE: Should we be surprised by Labour Plaid agreement?

That underlines some of the potential tensions between Labour in government in Wales, which has already called for the devolution of tax and justice powers, and a UK party which must find agreement on such issues, when it often isn’t interested or invested in them, rather than being able to defer to them as matters for the party in Wales. 

Starmer has also given an interview to BBC Wales in which he said he wouldn’t “interfere” in talks between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru – leading to many asking why should he as Senedd deals are clearly a matter for the Welsh Government, and the political calculations and consequences for the party’s leadership in Wales. 

For those advocating for a clear break that is another compelling argument; at present the Welsh Government is controlled by a party whose own governance arrangements, and independence from its UK parent, have less clarity and certainty than the devolution settlement itself. 

Labour may not have the time to discuss these questions between now and Wednesday but there will come a time when they can no longer be avoided - or ignored.

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