Where Next for Welsh Politics? (Part II)

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu May 15 09:14:08 MDT 2003


The election and the war

The one pressing issue where Plaid currently seems almost certain to win
support at the expense of Labour, is the war. From the very beginning of
the so-called 'War Against Terrorism', it has consistently called for
restraint, opposing the attack on Afghanistan, when the other main
parties in Wales were united in supporting the Government. Its AMs, MPs
and MEPs have been prominent in the anti-war movement, speaking at all
the major demonstrations and, in the case of the MEPs, undertaking a
'peace mission' to Iraq. By contrast, Richard Edwards was the only
Labour AM, and Llew Smith the only Welsh Labour MP, to oppose publicly
the war in Afghanistan. Subsequently, anti-war sentiment in the party
has strengthened and 16 Welsh Labour MPs rebelled against the Government
in the crucial vote on 18 March. But although only two Labour AMs
support Blair's line, the Labour Group - and therefore the Assembly
Government - has failed to take any collective position, beyond an
anodyne statement in January, supporting 'our prime minister in looking
at all ways possible to avoid war with Iraq', which became obsolete
almost immediately. Labour's Assembly chief whip instructed AMs not to
respond to a Western Mail survey of their views of the war, and many
have continued to observe this 'gagging order'. As with many other
issues, the failure of the Welsh Labour leadership to distance itself
from Westminster on the war is not only a sign of political weakness,
but an electoral liability.

At the time of writing it is impossible to predict the course of the war
or, therefore, the extent of its impact on party politics. But even if
the war is brief and claims few casualties, there will be many people in
Wales who are already sufficiently disgusted by Blair's role that they
will vote primarily against Labour on this one issue. A 'Vote 2 Stop the
War' campaign has belatedly begun on the basis of advising people of
constituency candidates' stance on the war, and standing its own slate
of candidates in the regional 'top-up' lists. It seems unlikely to make
a huge impact, but voters already have the choice of two mainstream
anti-war parties - Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats - as well as
the Greens, Welsh Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour Party (whose
leader, Arthur Scargill, is himself heading its South Wales East
regional list).


The election and the devolution project

This election will be regarded as a judgement not only on the present
Labour-led Assembly Government, but on the whole project of devolution,
and the shortcomings of the former will inevitably influence popular
sentiment towards the latter. Yet, regardless of the present position,
the establishment of the Assembly should be seen as an unqualified gain
for the people of Wales. Its very existence represents an opportunity
for the expression, at a political level, of the distinct national
identity and culture of Wales, and a potential mechanism for the
solution of the country's particular problems. Moreover, it opens up a
democratic space within the machinery of the British state, within which
popular struggles may be conducted. To this extent, the diffusion of
power represented by devolution is simultaneously a weakening of the
political control held at the centre of the state apparatus. The danger,
however, is that the Assembly will remain simply an administrative
structure, devoid of real political content. Neglected and even resented
by its intended constituency, it could prove itself more useful to the
Westminster Government as a means of deflecting popular discontent, than
to the people of Wales as a means of directing that discontent against
the most deserving targets. This scenario becomes increasingly likely in
the absence of the political will to realise the Assembly's potential.

To avoid this outcome would mean simultaneously using the Assembly's
existing powers to the full and demanding more. Welsh Labour is
currently doing neither of these things. Ron Davies famously declared
that devolution was a process, not an event, and there are many within
his party - including some of the current Cardiff Cabinet - who share
his view that the Assembly's creation was merely the first step towards
a more thoroughgoing form of self-government. But there are other
leading Welsh Labour figures who have no appetite for further
devolution, and condemn any moves in that direction as
"crypto-nationalist rubbish" (in the words of Huw Lewis, the right-wing
Labour AM for Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney). Supported by Paul Starling,
political editor of the Welsh Daily Mirror, they counterpose a professed
overriding concern for 'social justice' to any interest in a Welsh
national project - yet these are, in practice, frequently the strongest
supporters of the Blairite agenda. For now, an uneasy peace exists
between the two sides, but the potential for more public divisions
exists in the form of the Richard Commission on the Assembly's powers,
set up by the Assembly Government at the behest of the Lib Dems, and due
to report in the autumn.

Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru has announced that if it gains control of the
Assembly in May, it will initiate a two-year National Convention,
involving all sections of society, which will draw up plans for a full
Parliament in Wales, to be established by 2007. This proposal is to be
welcomed, recognising as it implicitly does that Wales needs the process
of national debate that Scotland underwent prior to the finalisation of
its own devolution proposals - in part through the Scottish
Constitutional Convention. Such a process would be particularly welcome
if it facilitated a positive engagement between socialists in the Labour
Party, Plaid Cymru and other parties on the national question.
Ultimately, the left must support the objective of a Welsh Parliament
with full legislative and tax-raising powers, both as a matter of
principle and, in the present circumstances, as a bulwark against the
neo-liberal policies of the Blair Government.


Institutionalised coalition-politics

In October 2000, while touring Labour Party meetings around Wales to
justify his coalition with the Lib Dems, Rhodri confidently asserted
that Labour would win an overall majority in two out of every three
Welsh general elections; it was simply unfortunate that the first such
election was not among the two-thirds. This claim has looked
increasingly hollow since then, and another coalition seems the most
likely outcome of the forthcoming elections. In an interview with the
current affairs programme at party conference, Dragon's Eye, immediately
after Labour's Blackpool conference, Rhodri enraged Labour activists
(and several of his own AMs) by suggesting that he might continue his
coalition with the Lib Dems even if Labour did win an overall majority.
While such an approach no doubt finds favour in Downing Street, it will
win Rhodri few friends in the Welsh party, where the Lib Dems are almost
universally disliked. And there are sound political reasons why a
further Lib-Lab 'Partnership Government' should be strenuously opposed.
In fairness, the junior coalition partner cannot be blamed for the
weakness of the Assembly Government's programme: as argued above, there
is little evidence that Labour would have had anything more substantial
to offer if it had governed alone. But the long-run tendency inherent in
Lib-Labism is to obstruct any inclination by Labour to put the interests
of working people first, or to favour public control of services and
economic enterprises as a matter of principle.

Yet Wales' (partially) proportional system seems likely to deliver
coalitions - or else minority governments - more often than not.
Socialists often see minority government as the more preferable option,
to avoid undermining Labour's class independence, as it would be by a
Lib-Lab administration. But it is simply not credible at the moment, to
argue that a minority Labour Government would be a better option for the
people of Wales than a coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Plaid's
increasingly working-class base, reflected in its social-democratic
programme, would be more likely to pull Labour to the left.

This option was eloquently laid out by Adam Price MP in an article in
Tribune on 23 January. Welcoming Rhodri Morgan's 'clear red water'
speech as massively significant for its commitment to equality of
outcome and services free at the point of delivery, he argued that 'the
most likely party to respond positively to a radical programme of
government based on socialist principles would undoubtedly be Plaid'.
Price described the Lib Dems as 'neo-liberals, opposed to Government
support for the coal industry, against windfarms if they are on their
own doorsteps, supporters of a modified Private Finance Initiative, and
viciously opportunistic opponents of the Fire Brigades Union.' 'There
are', he continued, 'two anti-socialist groupings in the Welsh Assembly,
and two avowedly socialist parties, divided on the national question,
but apparently united in their opposition to the Government's
market-driven approach. As we face down a common enemy, what unites us
is far more important than anything that divides us.' He called,
therefore, for a 'historic compromise between the two great currents of
the Welsh Left, a radical red-green platform of progressive politics.'
This is an initiative that deserves a positive response.


Socialists and the elections

All this leaves us with the question: what attitude should socialists
take to these elections? Marxists, such as the supporters of Workers
Action, have historically campaigned for the election of
social-democratic parties like Labour, not because we have any
confidence in their programme, but because they are identified as
parties of the working class, within which they have enjoyed consistent
and organised support. Putting such parties in office has created the
hope and expectation of policies that will advance the interests of the
working people. We have always argued within the organised working
class, that pressure must be maintained on the social democrats, once in
Government, to carry out their programme. However inadequate such
programmes might be, they generally represent at least a small advance
for the working class at the expense of the capitalist class, and the
struggle for their implementation builds the confidence of working
people to campaign for a bolder, more radical agenda.

In the context of the Assembly elections, however, the pursuit of such
an approach is somewhat complicated. The first reason is that, under its
present Blairite leadership, Labour has adopted policies which are not
simply too timid, but are completely counterposed to the interests of
working people. This applies indirectly to Welsh Labour, which although
not enthusiastically Blairite, is bound by the same general policy
framework. The task for socialists in the Labour Party is therefore to
oppose the implementation of the party's programme, and to campaign for
a comprehensive alternative agenda. This is a particularly difficult
approach to popularise at election times, not least in Wales, where
there is no realistic need to vote Labour in order to keep out the
Tories. The second complication is that, in Wales voters have the choice
of two social-democratic parties, which are both strong contenders for
Government. One - Labour - has practically abandoned its
social-democratic programme - at least until such time is it is willing
or able to break free from the constraints of neoliberalism imposed on
it by Westminster. Nevertheless, it retains strong organisational links
with the unions and can still count on probably a plurality - though
certainly not a majority - of politically conscious working class
people. The other party - Plaid Cymru - has a programme that is more in
keeping with the heritage of social-democracy, but also a more diverse
social base, including a smaller section of the working class, and as
yet no formal links with the unions (although this may change).

Workers Action believes that the best place for socialists in Wales
remains the Labour Party. This is primarily because the link with the
unions presents a continuing opportunity to bring working class
interests into party politics. However, we must recognise that the Welsh
working class is increasingly divided, as people lose any confidence
that Labour can solve their problems with its current policies and
leadership. We must sharply oppose any sectarian attacks on Plaid Cymru
and argue that while its leadership is not qualitatively better than
Labour's, its better policies - against privatisation, for state
economic intervention, and for a full Parliament in Wales - should be
supported. We should argue for joint work between socialists in Labour
and Plaid around such concrete issues, and against the war. And in the
likely event of no overall majority in Assembly, we should actively
campaign for the Labour leadership to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru,
not the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, it is obvious and necessary that supporting Labour's electoral
campaign will be central to the activities of socialists in the Welsh
Labour Party over the coming weeks. However, the additional member
system (AMS) also presents an opportunity to cast a second vote for
Plaid Cymru. The first past the post system, which determines the
election of 40 of the 60 Assembly seats, disproportionately favours
Labour. For this reason, it is extremely unlikely that the party will
qualify for a 'top-up' seat from the regional lists, other than in Mid
and West Wales. A Labour vote in the regional list ballot will in most
cases, therefore, be wasted, whereas a vote for Plaid Cymru will make a
difference to Plaid's fortunes and will also help to minimise the number
of seats won by the Tories and Lib Dems. Socialists should therefore
argue, wherever it is politically possible, for a first vote for Labour
and a second for Plaid.



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