Welsh government minister Vaughan Gething has said Labour must not be drawn into “Tory flag-waving” in an exclusive interview with LabourList as he discussed the challenge for the party presented by calls for independence.
“We should make sure we don’t get trapped into agreeing that the case for the union is a case for Boris Johnson,” the health minister said when commenting on whether Covid had boosted support for Welsh independence in the live event.
He went on to explain that there must be a “proper Labour case for the union”, saying: “You know, there’s the politics of the flags and everything – I mean I don’t have a problem with people saying they’re patriotic.
“I think it’s one of the things that turned lots of people off in the last couple of elections – the idea that we don’t really like the country we live in.
“And actually I’m very proud to be Welsh and British. I’m also proud to be half Zambian, as well. So, I don’t think it’s complicated to have more than one strand of your identity you’re proud of. So, we shouldn’t run away from it.
“But we shouldn’t get drawn into Tory flag-waving, we love the military and that’s what the UK’s all about. It’s a different set of pictures we need to paint – to be proud of our involvement in all of those traditions, but it’s much more than that.”
He warned against Labour getting “drawn into a Tory trap” and told those watching the live LabourList ‘in conversation with…’ event that it is “one that the nationalists would be quite happy to see us walk into”.
A strategy document commissioned by Labour for winning back ‘Red Wall’ seats was leaked earlier this month, revealing a presentation from an external company that told the party to rebrand with the use of the flag, veterans and “dressing smartly”.
The proposal sparked criticism from some within the movement. Labour MP Clive Lewis argued that “attempting to distil the complexity of national identity and patriotism into a ‘brand values’ shorthand is not only dangerous but self-defeating”.
Asked this evening how he thinks Keir Starmer has been performing in his first year as leader of UK Labour, Gething told those watching that “people have to remember how remarkably unpopular we were at the last general election”.
The health minister said the party has had to “rebuild from a hammering at the polls” and argued that “the fact that we’re pretty much level with the Tories in the UK polls, I think, shows a significant recovery from where we were”.
“The challenge is, do you go on reinforcing that there’s a Prime Minister-in-waiting who likes the country that we are, but wants to see the country improve and has a plan to get there and is someone you can trust with the NHS and the economy?”
Put to him that some think Starmer needs to set out more of a vision and go beyond criticising the government’s Covid response, Gething said: “Well, I think that’s really difficult because we’re years and years out from a general election.
“So, why on earth would he have a detailed policy written now when he’s nowhere near an election and an opportunity to deliver it?”
The Welsh Labour representative stressed that the situation is different in the devolved nation, with the Senedd elections coming up in May this year, as “we’ve got a government in place and we’ll have a manifesto offer for people”.
But he argued that it would be a “really big mistake” for the Labour leader to “have lots and lots of big worked out policies now, four years away from a general election” at the UK level.
“I think that’s crazy,” he said. “And, you know, Ed Miliband tried that. He tried to have lots of policies and I don’t think it worked. The policies either got beaten up or they got stolen and you know, what was there then to offer?
“I think it’s the wrong thing to do. You’ve got to make sure that we can rebuild some trust and at the moment if we try to launch three UK Labour policies, who on earth would notice them in the midst of the pandemic?”
Gething also discussed the reasons for which the Welsh Labour government has not backed Starmer’s call for teaching staff to be pushed up the vaccination priority list in an effort to get schools open as soon as possible.
Starmer demanded in Prime Minister’s Questions last month that school staff be added to the first phase of the vaccination programme and told Boris Johnson to use the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and school workers.
Explaining that schools in Wales will open on February 22nd, ahead of England, Gething said the Welsh government had focused on engaging with teaching unions, pushing case rates down and ensuring ways of working with physical distancing.
Commenting on the call from UK Labour, he said: “You can’t say that you’re not going to deprioritise someone else, because if you’re 15th in the queue and you move to ninth the people who are ahead of you are no longer ahead of you.”
He added: “The people in groups one to nine are the most likely to come to harm and this is still about the business of saving lives, and that’s why we’re taking the independent advice of the JCVI [joint committee on vaccination and immunisation].”
Asked whether he supports the intervention from Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who recently called for deprivation to be considered when determining prioritisation of the jab, Gething described the proposal as “difficult”.
He commented that, even in relatively affluent communities and areas, “there are still very poor families within them” and argued that the current prioritisation will “skew more of our population into those groups”.
“We know that economic inequality maps very neatly, awfully neatly, onto not just to social and economic inequality but health inequalities as well,” he explained.
“You are more likely to have a healthcare condition that makes you more vulnerable to Covid if you are a poor person living in a poor community. So, you’re already more likely to be in groups four or six.”
He added: “But I wouldn’t rule out looking to see is there a better way of understanding how we can do this in the future, because it is entirely possible that we will need to vaccinate the population again.”
Below is the full interview.