Having been the First Minister of Wales for almost six years, Carwyn Jones is the most senior Labour elected representative and government minister in the UK. With the toughest Assembly election ever coming up in May, Gair Rhydd talks Jeremy Corbyn, higher education, and devolution in an exclusive interview.
Last month, as you surely know, Jeremy Corbyn was emphatically elected leader of the UK Labour party. What does his overwhelming success mean for Welsh Labour? Over the summer Jones made it clear that he was the leader of Welsh Labour, and it seems his stance has not changed. When asked whether Corbyn will have any influence on Welsh Labour policies or next year’s manifesto, the First Minister made it clear that this will not be the case. He commented “Our manifesto is produced in Wales, by Welsh Labour, to suit Welsh circumstances.”
Many students will be dissapointed to hear this. They’re getting excited by the new straight talking politics that Corbyn offers. They also recognise that he is bringing socialism back into the Labour movement. It is obvious though that a vote for Welsh Labour in May will not be a vote for Corbyn style politics, so maybe don’t get too excited.
Despite the First Minister’s comments, Luke Fletcher, Chair of Cardiff Labour Students believes that there are already some elements of ‘Corbynism’ in Welsh Labour, such as abolishing the internal market in the NHS in Wales. Fletcher appears to agree that policies are made in Wales, for Wales. He points to an event hosted by Welsh Labour: ‘Wales you want’, that was recently held in Cardiff.
Mr Jones explained that Welsh Labour has never had the issue of London interfering with Welsh policies. He considers that it is business as usual for him. He adds, “at the end of the day, it is a Welsh election and we’ll produce the manifesto here in Wales”.
Since 2012, English domiciled students have paid up to £9,000 per year in tuition fees. Their Welsh counterparts have paid significantly less. This year Welsh domiciled students will pay £3,810, thanks to the Welsh Government covering the costs. When asked whether this is fair and sustainable, Jones said “We do what’s best for Wales”, adding that, “it’s up to England to justify what it does.”
When quizzed on whether cheap education was a matter of principle for him, Mr Jones would not be drawn. Instead he commented “there are a few unknowns, we know that if the cap was ever removed on tuition fees in England, it would have an effect on the financial model we use for student support in Wales.”
The Diamond review of the current Welsh financial model will report it’s recommendations next September. It will be interesting to see whether the review identifies a way to reduce the current £232 million a year bill. Don’t expect any big announcements before then though. Jones admits we have to wait to see what happens in England, and all parties have to see what the report says. He emphasises again “there are a few unknowns at the moment, but we want to deliver the best student support package that we can.”
Many governments are now prioritising degree programmes. In Japan humanity and social science departments have been closed or significantly reduced, so that students can study ‘practical’ subjects. But of course, this is an extreme measure.
When asked his view on government prioritisation of degree schemes Jones commented, “Well we do of a fashion, because we provide support for certain students training to be teachers”, for example. He added, “we have to take a long hard look at this, we know there are some areas where there are shortages, and we know that in some areas there are far too many graduates”.
He highlighted law as an example, saying there are “far more people studying than the job market can absorb”. “The reality is that universities have met the demand for more people coming forward to study law but it’s very, very tough now if you want to practice law.” “There’s no way they will all get jobs in law.”
Many people believe that higher education is not all about just getting a job. Jones agrees and in his view it puts students in a position to get a job and also increases their knowledge. Professor Daniel Wincott, Head of Cardiff’s School of Law and Politics, confirms that “It is true that a significant proportion of Law graduates end up in careers outside of legal practice.” “Equally though, a Law undergraduate degree provides a rigorous and demanding University education which provides a strong foundation for many subsequent careers.”
He goes on to demonstrate his point with statistics from Graduate Employment Market Statistics which show 96.3% of Law graduates who were available for employment had secured employment or further study at the 6 month point after graduating. On closer analysis, Unistats show that despite a high post-graduate employment or further study statistics show that a quarter are not in a professional or managerial job.
Looking further afield, in Aberystwyth, just over half of those in employment 6 months after graduating are in a professional or managerial role. This confirms Carwyn Jones’ point is a valid one.
The minister also commented on the result of a CUSU referendum held earlier this year. A student vote was held earlier this year, called for by Steffan Bryn, the part-time Welsh Language Officer, calling for a full time Welsh sabbatical officer. On learning about this, Jones called the idea of a referendum on the topic “bizzare”.
In the most successful referendum ever held at CUSU the result was against the motion, with 1,138 Yes votes and 1,229 votes against. This result was “unfortunate”. Jones goes on to say that perhaps it failed as some students didn’t realise the implications it would have on Welsh language students, who are a minority within Cardiff.
The union has since gone on to advertise a post in the marketing department as a Welsh Language Coordinator. A success in one light that might not have happened without the referendum, but far from the hopes of getting a full time Welsh Language sabbatical officer.
It is also important to face the issue of the Welsh media presence, or perhaps lack presence, and its effect on Welsh politics. Jones’ government can be considered as the least scrutinised by the media of any UK legislature. This is down to several points, and from the Welsh Government’s perspective “people have looked at Scotland and forgotten about Wales, and it is always a challenge to get Wales noticed in the London press.” He continued saying, “People should be fussier about what [newspaper] they buy, and if people don’t buy newspapers that don’t include Welsh issues at all they shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t know what’s going on in their own country.” Plaid Cymru’s Elin Jones called for stronger Welsh media to “make life harder for politicians”, but the First Minister admits this is much easier said than done.
If you’re not sure about the importance of Welsh devolution or what powers the Welsh Assembly has, then you should “read more”. This was the blunt response of the First Minister, but suggested the British media has not focused on Wales, and the “tendency in the London press is only to mention Wales if it’s in a bad light”. He mentioned the Daily Mail’s attacks on the Welsh NHS and education system last year as a prime example of this. On this, and the pressure from the London media, he adds “There are no grounds in saying the Welsh education system is somehow worse than Scotland or England, and we know that.” He added, “Yes the London media is going to attack us, but that’s what they’re there to do”.
On the topic of devolution, Jones believes that there is indeed a danger of the devolution debate getting boring to the public, but “we need to get things right across the UK.” In last week’s Gair Rhydd we reported that the UK government’s plans were not thorough and not sustainable. Carwyn Jones goes further, saying the Tories are “clueless” and have “no idea how to deliver that”, adding that they “will push Scotland in that direction [towards independence]”.
Jones attacked Whitehall in particular, getting “the impression that they don’t care one way or another in Whitehall at the moment”, as the Scots will be happy with a maximal devolution settlement that is not being offered. With a draft of the new Wales Bill due to be released soon, he makes it clear that “People in Wales shouldn’t have powers curtailed and should be treated exactly the same as in Scotland. We are not second class citizens in the UK.”
Welsh Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb last week said he was “pessimistic” about an agreement being made between the Welsh and UK governments. This puts future Welsh devolution into question with Wales heading for a potential constitutional crisis, and Carwyn Jones did not settle this view of thinking.
One of Jones’ main criticisms has been that he blames the Westminster government for the failings in Wales. He defends himself, “from our point of view our budget has been cut by 10% and we can’t get away from that. We can’t deliver the services that we want when that happens.” Looking ahead to the election, Welsh Labour knows it can’t go into the election campaign blaming everything on the Tories, although it is “an element of it”.
In the 2011 Welsh election manifesto, Welsh Labour made a promise to fund 500 Police Community Support Officers, for a fairer future, but this year there are only 300 more PCSO’s on the street. I asked whether his party needs to repeat the promise it made, especially considering the recent sexual assaults in Cardiff. “It’s difficult because we don’t control the police, it’s not devolved, we think it should be devolved but there’s resistance to that in London”, adding he’d, “prefer to see policing devolved so we can have a proper system of policing across Wales.”
But looking back, Jones believes it has been a successful Assembly term. Having kept all of their promises, the Welsh public will agree that tough decisions have had to be made, “they understand the pressure that we’ve been under.”
Looking ahead to next year, the minister seems confident. Welsh Labour has shown it can keep all of its promises while delivering a new “fresh, challenging and exciting manifesto”.
For anyone reading and thinking ‘I’m not Welsh, I don’t need to bother about the Welsh election’, Jones has a message to you “Well they[you] live in Wales, and if they live in Wales it’s important that they do that”. And why is it important? We still “need to send a message, the Lib Dems let them down very very badly, and the Tories seem to be conducting some kind of ‘war’ against those under 24.”
The latest poll by YouGov (yes, let’s not get too excited about polling yet), showed Labour’s polling leap 4 points over the summer, with many putting this down to a potential Corbyn effect.
Despite this boost, with only seven months to go until election day, Labour still appear to be heading short of the majority they want but have never had in the National Assembly. At the recent Labour conference, Carwyn Jones described next year’s election as the toughest ever. Despite this, he isn’t threatened by any party in particular, although you’re “always under threat during an election”. Looking at the student vote, Jones believes that Welsh Labour is now the student vote, adding that, “I think the Lib Dems have betrayed students”, talking about the decision to raise tuition fees. Looking at next year’s challenges, Jones looks forward to revealing a “fresh, challenging and exciting manifesto”, that will ensure people keep voting for his party.
Welsh Labour must however remain cautious, any ‘Corbyn bounce’ must be sustained from now all the way until the election in May. Roger Scully of the Wales Governance Centre writes on his blog that there are many sources of vulnerability for Labour, including the fact that they will have governed continuously for seventeen years, too long perhaps for some voters. Only time will tell how the election will go, but what is true is that Carwyn Jones is confident he can keep Welsh Labour’s dominance in Wales, and happy with his record.