Owen Smith MP, chats with LFW about the economy and Labour

LFW: “Wales is a grant junky, the private sector such as it is, is almost non-existent. How can Wales pull itself out of this taxpayer dependency culture?”

OS: “Your version of it is totally overstated. I don’t think it’s historically true and I don’t think it’s true presently. It is the orthodox view but a fallacy to suggest that Wales is any way more or less dependent on grants than any other part of Britain.

“The old Welsh Development Agency had a reputation during the mid-seventies onwards for trying to replace the heavy industries by offering grants, and I think that sunk into the woodwork in media circles and elsewhere, as being indicative of the broader Welsh culture. I don’t think it’s true. Giving grants to businesses to help them grow is not necessarily a bad thing.

“What the economy needs, be it Wales or the UK, is partnership. It is a great mistake to view the private and public sectors separately, to assume that the private sector will flood into the gap left by public sector cuts or disinvestment. We’ve had an experiment in this in the last six years. Milton Friedman economics ie a massive withdrawal of public money in anticipation that there would be a big increase in private sector investment and the reverse has happened.

“The reality of a successful economy is about partnership between public and private money. All modern economies recognise this. We in the UK are too quick to assume that to generate entrepreneurialism you give the entrepreneur room to move through small government.”

LFW: “Is this not crafty nationalisation through the back door?”

OS: “No. I see no harm in public money being used to help businesses generate employment and investment. It’s all about partnership, not nationalisation.”

LFW: “Would you agree that the UK and Europe business worlds are far more risk averse when it comes to investment and expansion than say, America?”

OS: “Yes I would and at all sorts of levels, whether that be government being politically risk averse or otherwise. It was a brave move by the Welsh government to step in and buy Cardiff Airport. In the strategic long term it was a smart thing to do, a rare example of political courage. Another thing, here in Britain, we don’t celebrate venture capitalism. We, socialists included, need people who are going to spend money in the economy.

“There’s a golden triangle so called, between Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol, essentially the M4 corridor. This area is a global hotbed of innovation in respect of computer software, renewable energy and pharmaceutical innovation and so on.

“One of the problems that has developed as part of Welsh devolution is that we have been less willing to think beyond the Welsh borders. A classic example of this, for instance, is our reluctance to capitalise on Cardiff, Newport, Bristol….. and even Swansea, as an economic cluster. We need to club together to a far greater extent. We’ve been too concerned about building institutions in Wales, instead of looking at solutions.”

LFW: “Talking of devolution, what are your views on the Welsh nationalist agenda that has gained traction since devolution? Do you not agree that Welsh parochialism and insularity has increased post 1995?”

OS: “Definitely. Nevertheless, I am pro devolution and I won’t be shaken from this. But my view is that nationalism has grown as a force not just in our own country but right across Western Europe and devolution to some extent reflects this. It brings great strengths, pride in country, patriotism….”

LFW nearly threw Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson into the pot here, but refrained.

“…… can be a hugely powerful force and can galvanise people to action, and at some level it is necessary for progressives to harness this nationalism, however there are grave dangers for our country if we go too far. The rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales is driving England, some at least, to be less generous in their view of the union. As Cameron said in his PMQ’s that preceded the budget speech, ‘“the time has come for the Scots to put up or shut up”’. The Tories are operating like Pound Shop UKIP, petty nationalists.”

LFW: “Are the Tories stoking up resentment?”

OS: “Absolutely, because they see political advantage in England by tapping into resentment in Scotland and, to a lesser extent here in Wales, both having had a double dip. In truth, this is unfair for the English to think, because Wales in particular remains one of the poorest, peripheral parts of Europe. It is subsidised 100% by taxes from across the border.”

LFW: “Labour has ruled Wales for 100 odd years. Forget partisan politics for a moment but as a principle, is this not bad for a healthy democracy?”

OS: ‘I’m going to disagree again with your premise.” A lot of disagreeing going on here with our Owen and quite right too!

LFW: “Why?”

OS: “Because Wales is part of the UK and the fact that the people in Wales have largely voted Labour for most of the last century doesn’t change the fact that for most of this last century Wales has been run a by a Tory government.” So up yours LFW! – the editor’s words, Mr Smith is far too much of a gentleman!

LFW: “What do you think is going to happen at the Assembly elections next year?”

OS: “I think it’s going to be a hard fight for us.”

LFW: “Do you think it will be a three horse race? Tory, UKIP and Labour, particularly as Wales has a proportional voting system?”

OS:” It’s hard to see, that if UKIP pull anything like they did at the general election they won’t take some seats. What the election showed was that Wales in many respects is no different from the politics of England but do you know, there’s an irony with Plaid Cymru and nationalism. For all the exposure Plaid received, they still finished fourth. The media exposure Leanne Wood received was ridiculous. Cosmopolitan, New York Times, you name it. Leanne Wood was featuring everywhere, but often featuring as though she were somehow the leading representative of politics in Wales, when in reality Plaid remains the fourth party…. but try telling that to the Guardian.”

LFW “Ah, the media. Let’s talk about the Welsh media for a moment. If you want to see journalistic pussycats at work, sit in the press briefings at the Senate. There is no serious political commentary in Wales and what there is, is extremely limited, anodyne and boring. It’s no wonder Wales gets ignored and is seen as an irrelevance.”

OS: “I agree. It is a shame that the Welsh media has not developed as fast as the Assembly, because it has become a much more serious and mature forum for debate over recent years. The trouble is the media has not grown with it. It is I think, a truth but then there is so little appetite in the London based newspapers for reading about Wales. I’ve spoken many times with London columnists and commentators and its just commercial death to write about Wales in their view.”

LFW: “And finally, where do you see the future of the Labour Party?”

OS: “We are the only party that has a root core in every part of the UK, so I’m not pessimistic about our future, because I still think we remain the only all UK progressive party in this country. It’s really interesting the way the Tories are trying to woo the north of England, and it’s because they know that they remain a party that is incredibly constricted to the shires and to the wealthiest parts of Britain, but we at present are a party that is much more rooted in the industrial areas than we should be and we have got to be as expansionist in our ambitions as they are, and that means winning back seats in Scotland and seats from the Tories in England. If we don’t win 10 to 20 seats in Scotland, we will not form the next government.”

And there you have it, Owen Smith on fine form but a few final few words:

LFW warmed to the Welsh politico, something that doesn’t often happen, politicians are always so uptight and wary when they’re being interviewed – no doubt understandably so, when the media is always putting an unrepentant and sometimes shifty boot in.

The MP was at ease with himself and the interviewer but more than anything else, he has a good sense of humour – which always works wonders!

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