Welsh politics after four years of the Assembly (II)

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu Jan 30 06:26:22 MST 2003


The Labour Left

The apparent inability of the Welsh Labour leadership to get to grips
with  Wales' problems has been exacerbated by the absence of any real
challenge,  or even any sustained critique, from within its own ranks.
Unlike its  Westminster and Holyrood counterparts, the Assembly Labour
Group has no  organised left caucus and there is therefore no internal
pressure for a more  radical agenda.  The most left-wing AM, Richard
Edwards - the only Labour  member to have publicly opposed the 'War
Against Terrorism' from the outset  - is stepping down due to
ill-health, and is set to be replaced by a  right-wing careerist.  Ron
Davies remains a potential alternative to Rhodri,  and he has publicly
set out some distinctive ideas on economic policy  (notably on the
inadequacy of the Barnett formula, which determines the  level of the
Assembly's funding) and on constitutional matters.  He has made  no
attempt to build a 'left', however, preferring instead the role of the
leader-in-(internal)-exile.  Otherwise, the Labour Group is conspicuous
for  the absence of any political thought worthy of the name.  As a
consequence,  such divisions as do exist tend to be determined as much
by personal as by  political factors. A case in point is Blaenau Gwent
AM Peter Law, who has  publicly criticised Rhodri and even launched an
abortive leadership bid, but  is essentially a populist rather than a
socialist, and is nursing a  grievance after losing his cabinet seat to
the Lib Dems.

Outside the Assembly, the party's condition is little better. There is
a  handful of maverick MPs, the most energetic of whom are Paul Flynn
and  Martin Caton.  Llew Smith, the only Campaign Group MP in Wales, is
stepping  down at the next election.  He has been a strong supporter of
public  services, workers in struggle and the peace movement, but also a
virulent  opponent of the Assembly, with an almost pathological hatred
of nationalism  (although not British nationalism, of course).  The left
still has a  presence on some GMCs (notably in Cardiff and Swansea), but
many CLPs have  been reduced to empty husks.  Certainly, the Welsh party
is by no means  'converted' to Blairism, but for many activists,
accommodation to their  right has become a way of life, and even those
with more courage in their  convictions have lacked organisation.  The
shattered remnants of the Bennite  left have not been fully reunited
since the pit closure campaign in 1992-93.  Even the most promising
subsequent initiative - Welsh Labour Action (WLA) -  relied
disproportionately on the social-democratic urban intelligentsia,
strongly connected to academia and the media.  It never fully connected
with  the industrial working-class left in the valleys, whose politics
were more  economistic, sometimes even to the extent of sharing Llew's
hostility to  devolution.  In addition, many of WLA's leading figures
were absorbed into  the political establishment after 1999 - such as Sue
Essex, who is now  Assembly Minister for Environment - leaving the group
to disintegrate as an  independent force.

The current resurgence of the Labour Left across the British state in
response to the war, privatisation and the Government's handling of the
firefighters' dispute may yet find an echo in Wales.  An initial meeting
in  Cardiff called by Labour Against the War attracted almost 40
activists from  eleven CLPs and led to the circulation of an anti-war
resolution that has  been submitted by at least three GMCs to the Welsh
Party Conference on 27-28  February.  An 'After New Labour' fringe
meeting is also planned for the  conference, linking in with the
successful series of events organised by the  Campaign Group of MPs over
the last nine months.  While it would be an  exaggeration to say that
the Welsh Labour Left is in a healthy state, it can  certainly not be
written off just yet.

The Far Left

Meanwhile, the self-appointed guardians of the socialist faith, who seek
to  replace Labour as the voice of the working class, present a somewhat
ragged  spectacle.  The Welsh Socialist Alliance (WSA) had high hopes of
replicating  the success of the Scottish Socialist Alliance/Party, but
has never had  anything like the same implantation in workplaces or
working-class  communities, nor the same political breadth.  It was
initially composed  principally of the Socialist Party (SP) and Cymru
Goch - the latter being a  somewhat eccentric group that arose out of
the Welsh Socialist Republican  Movement (WSRM) and expounds its own
brand of revolutionary socialist  nationalism. An electoral pact with
the SWP, under the name 'United  Socialists' failed to make the heralded
breakthrough in the 1999 Assembly  election, scoring an average of 1.6%
in the nine constituencies they  contested and 0.5% in the regional
lists.

The SWP finally joined the WSA the following year, and ploughed
resources  into the Alliance in the run-up to the 2001 general
election.  A similarly  uninspiring performance at the ballot-box led,
however, to its partial  disengagement in favour of a return to more
familiar activities under its  own colours - for example, it has been
the leading force in the anti-war  movement in Wales. But the SWP has
apparently maintained enough of a  presence in the WSA to drive out both
the SP and Cymru Goch in the course of  2002. According to a report in
the CPGB's Weekly Worker, 'a high proportion'  of WSA branches 'are
inactive and rarely meet', new members 'are few and far  between', its
journal is defunct and its election preparations 'lethargic'.  [7]  The
project of a united socialist alternative to New Labour is not in  good
shape, it would appear.

Interestingly, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP) has
consistently polled more impressively than the WSA and its
predecessors,  despite having substantially fewer members and no visible
presence to speak  of.  Most spectacularly, in the Ogmore parliamentary
by-election on 14  February 2002, it saved its deposit, winning 1,152
votes (6%), while the WSA  managed only 205 votes (1.1%), despite a far
more energetic campaign and a  vastly greater membership in the
constituency.  Significantly, the SLP's  candidate was an ex-miner,
reinforcing the conclusion that it is seen by  some sections of the
working class as the authentic left wing of the  mainstream labour
movement, whereas the WSA is dismissed as merely a  marginal far left
organisation.  Nevertheless, the SLP in Wales is in no  position to
build on its limited electoral success.  In many ways, the most
significant Marxist organisation in Wales is the Communist Party of
Britain,  which at least has some implantation in the trade unions, as
well as some  understanding of the Welsh national question and of the
need to take a  united front approach to Labour.

Plaid Cymru

This leaves Plaid Cymru as the only credible left alternative to Labour.
The  party has existed since 1925 and in its early period espoused a
romantic  bourgeois nationalism, looking back to a mythologised feudal
past.  It took  off electorally in 1966, when it won its first
parliamentary seat and was  subsequently able to capitalise on the
failure of British labourism to  deliver the goods for the people of
Wales.  It consistently won around 10%  of the vote in general
elections, drawing support mainly from the rural  north and west of
Wales.  By the early 1980s, however, it also had a strong  socialist
wing, which to some extent mirrored the Bennite Labour left, led  by
Dafydd Elis Thomas, MP for Merionydd Nant Conwy.  The crisis of
socialism  from the late 1980s saw the Plaid 'National Left' break up,
and most of its  leading members embrace 'modernisation' (Elis Thomas,
once a self-styled  'revolutionary Marxist', ended up in the House of
Lords [8]) or else drift  out of politics altogether.

As Ed George has succinctly summarised, 'Plaid has since the 1980s
maintained itself on a programme of "independence in Europe" (a plain
contradiction in terms) coupled with a mild and largely inoffensive
social  democracy.  Yet even this gentle appeal to "social justice"
begins to look  radical against the new model Blairite Labour Party,
especially when  measured against the degree of social and economic
crisis that Wales has  suffered since the 1974 recession burst the
post-WW2 Keynesian restructuring  bubble, and especially following the
appalling consequences of the Thatcher  governments' crash-and-burn
restructuring of the British economy.' [9]  This  is the background to
Plaid's electoral breakthrough in the 1999 Assembly  election, when it
won the biggest swings from Labour in the coalfield and  semi-coalfield
constituencies - those hardest-hit by Thatcherism and with  most cause
to be disappointed by New Labour. [10]  While the Plaid Cymru  Group in
the Assembly has failed to develop a convincing alternative agenda  to
that of Labour, it has at least said the things that Labour should have
said in relation to the steel crisis, PFI, the rail industry and the
war.

Welsh Labour is all too uncomfortably aware that many of Plaid's
policies  are far more in tune with the views of most Labour supporters
than are its  own.  Consequently, it gleefully seizes on any Plaid
pronouncements on the  national question, as the only stick with which
it feels it can beat the  official opposition.  For example, Labour was
quick to pounce when Seimon  Glyn, a Gwynedd Plaid councillor, called
for the 'monitoring' of immigration  by affluent, and arrogantly
anti-Welsh, English settlers into economically  depressed Welsh-speaking
communities.  While denouncing such views as  'racist' or as 'divisive
nationalism', Welsh Labour reaffirms its own  obeisance to the imperial
British crown, and dismisses legitimate concerns  about the social
disintegration of many parts of Wales.  For some Labour  politicians,
the spiteful 'Nat-bashing' in which they regularly engage is no  more
than cynical opportunism. For others, however, it reflects a visceral
Welsh anti-Welshness, which has nothing to do with the 'socialist
internationalism' that they loftily proclaim.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of a new Plaid left, whose leading
figures  were all in their twenties and thirties, predominantly working
class and  from the industrialised south.  They include Jill Evans, an
MEP since 1999;  Adam Price, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr since
2001; and Leanne Wood,  who is expected to become an Assembly Member in
May. [11]  They have won a  series of battles over policy at Plaid
conferences and have begun expounding  their views - very cogently - in
the journal, Triban Coch. [12]  While more  conservative forces, around
the present (largely ineffectual) party leader,  Ieuan Wyn Jones, retain
overall control, the left is growing steadily in  strength and
influence.  Price, in particular, won acclaim for his exposure  of the
Lakshi Mittal affair, and is already being talked about as a future
party leader.

Rebuilding the left

It is too early to tell whether Plaid's electoral breakthrough in 1999
was a  flash-in-the-pan, or whether it represents a longer-term
pattern.   Certainly, it was not repeated in 2001, but then Welsh
working class voters  may be differentiating between Assembly and
Westminster elections - still  predominantly voting Labour in the
latter, if only to keep out the Tories.   In any case, Plaid is unlikely
to replace the Labour Party in the  foreseeable future.  The labour
movement retains decisive social weight, and  while Plaid has been
assiduously courting the unions, the latter's link with  the Labour
Party remains intact.  The labour movement as a whole (party and
unions) remains the most important terrain on which socialists will have
to  fight for political leadership of the working class.  Nevertheless,
the  failure of the Welsh Labour leadership to break decisively with
Blairism, or  to acknowledge the need for a distinct Welsh agenda, will
continue to assist  Plaid in winning support in the very communities
that have historically been  the bedrock of labourism.  Any viable
socialist project in Wales needs both  to be grounded in the mass
organisations of the working class and to have an  understanding of the
importance of the national question.  Consequently,  there has to be a
non-sectarian engagement between the left in Labour and  Plaid - and
indeed, with socialists in other organisations.  This has  happened in
the past, during the 'Socialists Say YES' campaign in 1997 and  around
the Cardiff Euro Demo the following year.  Subsequently, the tendency
to retreat behind party lines has been exacerbated by developments
within  the Assembly, but this must be overcome if the left in Wales is
to be  revived.

The range of current issues facing the left in Wales, and elsewhere -
most  immediately, the war, but also privatisation and the whole
neo-liberal  agenda - cannot be addressed successfully by socialists in
any one  organisation, but only by a united front embracing the whole
organised  working class and its allies.  In Wales, the establishment of
the Assembly  presents a major opportunity for the left: a potential
focus for a challenge  to the policies being pursued at the level of the
British state.  The  strategy for building such a challenge, and for
developing a positive  programme of the left in Wales, can only come
about through the joint work  of activists from the labour and
nationalist movements.  The sooner such  work re-starts, the better.

Meanwhile, campaigning is already well underway for the second Welsh
general  election, which will be held on Thursday, 1 May 2003.  In the
next issue of  Workers Action, I will examine the ways in which the
election is  highlighting or obscuring the broader political issues that
I have discussed  above, and will discuss more concretely the position
that socialists should  take in the election and in the Assembly's
second term.

 NOTES

[1] My analysis here draws heavily on Ceri Evans, 'For Welsh
Self-Government', a document presented to a South Wales Socialist
Outlook  Summer School in June 1996.

[2] It is not possible to do justice to the bigger issue of the Welsh
national question, and the Marxist position on the self-determination
of  nations, in an article such as this. I intend to return to these
matters in  a future issue of Workers Action.

[3] Only Workers Power opposed the statement, arguing that the Assembly
was  not a class issue.

[4] The best analysis of the election results is C. Evans & E. George,
Swings and Roundabouts: What Really Happened on May 6th? (Welsh Labour
Action 1999). Copies are available from me, c/o Workers Action.

[5] The head of the Scottish Executive is called the First Minister,
but  Blair apparently vetoed the use of this title in Wales when he
discovered  that the closest Welsh translation, 'Prif Weinidog', means
'Prime Minister'  - a title no-one but he could enjoy. Nevertheless,
Rhodri Morgan adopted the  style 'First Minister' after a few months in
office.

[6] I will examine this speech in greater detail in the next issue of
Workers Action.

[7] Weekly Worker 464, 23 January 2003. Of course, it would be unfair
to  take the CPGB's word for it that the SWP is to blame for these
problems.   But, as one of the few remaining organisations within the
WSA (although it  apparently has only one member in Wales!) the CPGB
would at least have no  cause to exaggerate publicly the scale of the
problems.

[8] He is now Presiding Officer of the Assembly.

[9] Ed George, 'A Note on Welsh History and Politics', available on his
website, <www.geocities.com/edgeorge2001es>.

[10] See Evans & George, op. cit., for a detailed analysis.

[11] She is no. 1 on the Plaid 'top-up' list for the South Wales
Central  region, and is therefore certain to win a seat under the
Additional Member  System.

[12] Available on the web at <www.tribancoch.com>. A print version is
planned for the future.

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