Welsh politics after four years of the Assembly (I)

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu Jan 30 06:26:04 MST 2003

[What follows is an article written by my very good friend and comrade 
Daniel Morrissey for the British state journal Workers' Action.  It
contains  as sharp an alysis of current Welsh politics as you will find
on or off the  web.  Since Workers' Action is not available on-line, nor
is likely to be in  the near future, I am posting the article in full,
in two parts.]

Welsh politics after four years of the Assembly

Daniel Morrissey

It hardly needs repeating that the five and a half years of the Blair 
Government has been a time of profound political upheaval, which has
thrown  up a number of new challenges for socialists.  One of the
developments which  is likely to prove of greatest long-term
significance, however, is also one  that has been consistently neglected
by the Anglo-centric 'British' left:  namely, Scottish and Welsh
devolution.  It is typical of New Labour that  even this - one of its
most progressive initiatives - was diminished by the  detail of its
implementation, at least in Wales.  The strength of popular  support for
self-government in Scotland was such that New Labour could not  credibly
have offered anything less than a full Parliament with primary 
legislative powers, and Scottish politics has indeed begun to develop a 
dynamic of its own.  In Wales, however, the introduction of a weak and 
limited body, with a far from overwhelming plebiscitary mandate, has
left  its mark on Welsh politics.

The passage of the Government of Wales Act in 1998 gave Wales
governmental  institutions of its own for the first time since its
incorporation into the  realm of England under the Act of Annexation in
1536, which also forbade the  use of the Welsh language in Government. 
Wales retained the character of a  border country until the development
of the iron industry from the late  eighteenth century and the creation
of a militant working class, which  directly challenged the state at
Merthyr in 1831 and in the Chartist march  on Newport in 1839.  But, as
the Welsh Marxist Ceri Evans argued, the  subsequent emergence of the
coal industry 'placed Wales at the centre of the  imperial expansion of
the British empire. ... In the process sections of the  Welsh working
class became corrupted by the profits of empire.'  For the  next hundred
years, the people of Wales accepted their incorporation into  the
English-dominated British state, and the Welsh working class put its 
faith in the Labour Party to ensure that it received a fair share of
the  benefits of national prosperity. [1]  The collapse of coal markets
and the  downturn in the world economy after 1974, hit Wales
particularly hard,  however, and this led to a loss of confidence that
policies drawn up in  London could deliver prosperity and social justice
for the people of Wales.   There was a rebirth of national sentiment,
marked by the rise of Plaid Cymru  and the Welsh language movement.  The
move towards greater national autonomy  suffered a false start in the
1979 referendum, which was lost by a margin of  four-to-one. 
Subsequently, however, the experience of Thatcherism finally  convinced
many of the need for Wales to control its own affairs. [2]

The campaign for an Assembly

Labour's proposals for the Scottish Parliament were developed jointly
with  the Liberal Democrats, trade unions, churches and community
organisations,  in the Scottish Constitutional Convention.  The process
was the culmination  of a national debate, involving every level of
Scottish society.  In Wales,  notwithstanding the work of the Parliament
for Wales Campaign, there had  barely been a debate on devolution even
within the Labour Party, and the  bureaucracy felt able to announce its
legislative intentions by dictat.   Accordingly, Scotland was promised a
Parliament with primary legislative and  tax-raising powers, which was
elected by proportional representation and  provided for gender balance,
but none of these features was on offer for  Wales when Labour published
its definitive policy on the Assembly, _Shaping  the Vision_, in 1995. 
In response, Welsh Labour Action (WLA), a broad  centre-left coalition
of party activists, was established in order to  campaign for parity
with Scotland.  Over the next two years it had some  success in making
the case for a stronger and more democratic Assembly,  strengthening the
hand of those within the bureaucracy with a genuine  commitment to
devolution, led by Ron Davies, who became Welsh Secretary in  1997. 
Concessions were made: first, 'an element of proportionality', in the 
form of the additional member system (AMS), and then the 'twinning' of 
constituencies to ensure a female candidate in 50% of the seats.

Labour's decision to hold referenda for Scottish Parliament and Welsh 
Assembly, rather than simply go ahead and legislate on winning office,
was a  major climbdown, reflecting the superficiality of Blair's
commitment to a  'radical constitutional agenda'.  In the event,
however, the conduct of the  campaign for a 'yes' vote augured well for
the future of a devolved Welsh  politics, with a progressive alliance
led by Labour, Plaid, the Lib Dems and  the unions, making common cause
to convince the Welsh people of the benefits  of self-government,
however limited.  Within this, a 'Socialists Say YES'  campaign was set
up, led by activists from the left of Labour and Plaid,  Cymdeithas yr
Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), the Communist Party,  the
Socialist Party and even the SWP, which had recently renounced its 
longstanding hostility to devolution.  A conference organised by the 
campaign attracted over a hundred people, including several future
Assembly  Members, and agreed a socialist manifesto for the Assembly,
with commitments  to push immediately for greater powers and to take the
utilities in Wales  into public ownership. [3]

The outcome of the referendum on 18 September 1997 was nail-bitingly
close:  the margin in favour was only 6,721 votes (0.6% of the total),
on a 50%  turnout.  Nevertheless, the pro-Assembly forces remained
optimistic: with an  administration in Cardiff determined to make the
best of this opportunity to  deliver material gains for the people of
Wales, the doubters could be won  over, and the body acquire real
popular legitimacy.  This schema suffered  its first major setback,
however, when the resignation of Ron Davies over  the 'Clapham Common'
incident led to his replacement by Alun Michael.   Michael was
effectively imposed by Tony Blair in a fixed election where  two-thirds
of CLP members, and all unions who balloted their members, voted  for
his opponent, Rhodri Morgan, but the combined obedience of the TGWU, 
AEEU and GMB ensured that Blair got his man.  Whereas Morgan, like Ron 
Davies, had been a consistent supporter of the Assembly, Michael had
shown  no interest in devolution since 1979, and had not even sought
selection as a  candidate (the selection process was conveniently
'reopened' in time for him  to be parachuted in).  In addition, the
selection of Labour candidates was  subject to an unprecedented degree
of central control, to ensure that the  politically unreliable (like
Tower Colliery miners' leader, Tyrone  O'Sullivan, and WLA Chair, Gareth
Hughes) were filtered out, on some  spurious pretext.  Unsurprisingly,
the manifesto on which Labour fought the  election in May 1999 was
distinguished only by its vacuity. Plaid Cymru, on  the other hand,
fought on an essentially 'Old Labour' platform, promising to  restore
the link between pensions and earnings, and to reinstate the student 
grant.  Labour's response was to publish a particularly wretched
document  entitled _The A-Z of Nationalist Madness_.

But, as the leftwing Labour MP, Paul Flynn, commented in Tribune, 'the 
people of Wales found this insanity irresistible'.  Plaid saw an 80% 
increase in its 1997 vote, winning the support of tens of thousands of 
Labour voters and capturing supposedly safe Labour seats like Rhondda
and  Islwyn.  Labour spin-doctors tried to explain away their party's
worst  result in Wales since the 1930s, but the most credible
explanation was that,  in the absence of a serious Tory threat, many
working class voters felt that  they had nothing to lose in opting for a
Plaid programme that seemed more  authentically 'Labour' than the
official version. [4]

Welsh Labour in office

Labour was left three seats short of an overall majority and chose to
form a  minority administration with Alun Michael as 'First Secretary'.
[5]  The  obstructiveness of the three opposition parties exacerbated
the lack of a  clear Labour programme, the uncertainty about what the
Assembly's powers  might allow it to do, and the hostility towards
Michael within his own  group, and little was achieved by the Assembly
in its first nine months. In  February 2000, Michael, already damaged by
the resignation of his  Agriculture Secretary following a no-confidence
vote, suffered the same fate  himself.  The Labour Group, many of whose
members had been actively plotting  his downfall, declined to
re-nominate him and Rhodri Morgan took his place.   This was a massive
defeat for Blair's attempts to run Wales by remote  control, and
rekindled hopes that a distinct Welsh political agenda might  yet be
followed in Cardiff.

The reality, as ever, was disappointing. After six months in the job,
Rhodri  signed a Partnership Agreement with the Liberal Democrats and
brought two of  their six AMs into his cabinet.  This went down very
badly with large  sections of the party, not just for the principle, but
the manner of its  execution.  The coalition had been stitched-up
between the Labour and Lib  Dem leaderships behind the scenes and was
presented to the Assembly Labour  Group as a virtual fait d'accompli,
only hours after some of them had first  heard of the proposal. Four
voted against.  The coalition was then announced  to the media, several
hours before the Welsh Labour Executive Committee -  supposedly the
party's governing body in Wales - had a chance to discuss it.    Rhodri
was severely reprimanded by activists at 'consultation meetings' 
belatedly held across Wales, and acknowledged concerns about the
indecent  haste with which the exercise had been carried out. There was
a more  fundamental political problem, however.  In being newly
'inclusive' to its  right, Welsh Labour froze out its left: Plaid
Cymru.  In place of the  'coalition of ideas' advocated by Ron Davies,
whereby all parties genuinely  committed to making devolution work
(i.e., everyone but the Tories) would  work together, putting the
interests of Wales above party advantage, the  boundaries of acceptable
policy formation were now set by the combined  partisan interests of the
two new 'partners'.  While the Partnership  Agreement contained very
little that had not appeared in the original Labour  manifesto, the
inevitable result of the coalition would be to pull Labour to  the
right.  By throwing in its lot with a party interested only in 
unambitious tinkering in the search for easy electoral rewards, Labour 
ministers were diverted from any idea they may have had of developing
an  agenda of radical reform to address the problems of Wales.

This is not to say that the Assembly Government has achieved nothing 
worthwhile.  In particular, Education Minister Jane Davidson has pursued
a  coherent and progressive agenda. She has pointedly taken a different
path  from her colleagues in Westminster, eschewing selection and any
private  involvement in the running of schools.  She has scrapped
secondary school  league tables and standard assessment tests for
seven-year olds, and has  reintroduced state support for less affluent
FE & HE students, in the shape  of the new Assembly Learning Grant.  The
administration has also made a  number of services free at the point of
delivery: school milk for children  under seven; nursery places for
three year olds; prescriptions and dental  checks for the under-25s; bus
travel for pensioners and the disabled; entry  to all museums and art
galleries.  Potentially, such measures could help to  rehabilitate the
idea of a public service, freed from the intervention of  the market,
but there has been little attempt to present these developments  as part
of an overall strategy of decommodification; instead, they have been 
offered as 'one-off' giveaways.  Only in a speech to Swansea University
on  10 December 2002, did Rhodri finally join up the dots, claiming that
these  policies represented 'the creation of a new set of citizenship
rights ...  which are as far as possible, free at the point of use,
universal and  unconditional'.  Of course, Rhodri's belated attention to
this is  transparently driven by the need to beef up his Government's
record before  the election, and not by any sudden urge to 'set the
record straight' and  point out that he has been following a
premeditated (but previously  unacknowledged) strategy. [6]

The Assembly's ineffectuality has been illustrated most clearly by its 
failure to meet the big challenges that have arisen since 1999 - in 
particular, the crisis in the steel industry. From the earliest
suggestions  that the days of steel-production in Wales might be
numbered, Welsh  politicians were reduced to pleading with Corus to put
the interests of its  employees and their communities before those of
its shareholders.  There  followed a desperate scramble to secure
whatever financial inducements might  be permissible within the tight
constraints of European competition  legislation, and which could
therefore be offered to the Anglo-Dutch  multinational.  As it became
increasingly clear that nothing available was  sufficiently attractive
to dissuade the company from 'downsizing', AMs lined  up to condemn
Corus boss, Brian Moffat, for his lack of social conscience - 
demonstrating an almost childlike naiveté about the raison d'etre of 
capitalist enterprises.  Radical solutions to prevent the destruction of
the  Welsh steel industry were conspicuous by their absence.  To some
extent this  is due to the Assembly's limited powers: there is genuinely
very little that  it could legally have done.  But it is worrying that
hardly anyone in the  Assembly even suggested any radical action, by any
layer of Government. Only  the former Plaid leader, Dafydd Wigley,
called in the chamber for  nationalisation (although this call was taken
up by Ron Davies in a TV  interview shortly afterwards, as well as by
one or two other Plaid Cymru  AMs, and seemed to become Plaid's policy
by default).  In their timidity,  AMs were, of course, no more remiss
than the Westminster Government, whose  powers are far greater.
Politicians at London and Cardiff alike adhere to  the neo-liberal
consensus that national governments are powerless in the  face of
globalisation.  But in Wales, this timidity also reflects an 
unwillingness to push at the boundaries of the devolution settlement -
a  lack of any determination to do a more serious job, requiring
greater  powers, and thereby demonstrating the need for those powers.

As with steel, so with the Foot and Mouth crisis and a series of other 
damaging developments in the economy: Wales' political 'leaders'
present  themselves almost as passive observers.  Responding, in
February 2001, to  the loss of more than 5000 jobs in two months, Rhodri
suggested that he was  powerless to protect employment in Wales: "We do
not control macro-economic  policy.  That is left to the Treasury." When
asked how Labour plans to  regenerate the Welsh economy, he and his
ministers typically offer little  more than vague generalities:
'developing the export potential of Welsh  companies ... establishing an
innovation and entrepreneurship culture ...  promoting our natural
strengths', etc, etc.  With such a lack of vision, it  is unsurprising
that most people in Wales are hard-pressed to name a single  achievement
for which the Assembly can claim credit.

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