Where Next for Welsh Politics? (Part I)

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu May 15 09:13:59 MDT 2003

In January I posted the article 'Welsh politics after four years of the
Assembly' by Daniel Morrissey from the (as yet not available on-line)
British-state journal Workers' Action. (The article can be read at
In my humble opinion, the analyses of Welsh politics that comrade
Morrissey is producing is unmatched anywhere by anything else in quality
and perceptiveness. Here I am posting a follow-up article, from Workers'
Action 21 (April-May 2003), pp 20-23, which, although written one month
before the 1 May elections, provides an essential to background to
understanding what did in the end happen.


Where Next for Welsh Politics?

By Daniel Morrissey

The National Assembly for Wales will shortly complete the final session
of its first four-year term. On Thursday, 1 May, its sixty members (or
at least, those not stepping down) will face the electorate. For all the
excitement that surrounded the referendum campaign in September 1997, it
would be fair to say that the people of Wales have been distinctly
underwhelmed by the institution in which so much hope was invested a few
years ago. As I explained in the last issue of Workers Action, the body
has been systematically undermined by the Blair Government's
determination to restrain any ambitions for a distinct Welsh political
agenda and the Welsh Labour leadership has lacked the inclination and
the nerve to challenge this. While the focus of Welsh politics has
largely shifted from Westminster to Cardiff, it is principally the
professional/administrative tiers who are engaged with the Assembly,
rather than rank-and-file activists or politically conscious citizens.
None of the four parties represented in the body has been able to
enthuse or inspire the people of Wales and there is little realistic
prospect of Welsh politics suddenly becoming more exciting after 1 May.
Nevertheless, there is a degree of interest to be derived from the
election because of the considerable uncertainty about the voters'
verdict on the last four years. With only its unique, inaugural election
available for comparison, the Assembly is still too new for any
confident predictions to be possible. And the political impact of the
war against Iraq, particularly on the fortunes of the Labour Party,
means that that uncertainty is considerably magnified.

Clear red water?

Welsh Labour activists and supporters who hoped that a Labour-led
administration in Cardiff might make a clean break with Blairism have
repeatedly been disappointed. With the exception of the Education
Minister, Jane Davidson, who has acted resolutely on her opposition to
selection, league tables and privatisation, the Assembly Government has
shown little evidence of any unifying policy agenda at all. Instead, it
has approached government in a completely piecemeal fashion, and relied
on soundbites, gimmicks and jibes at its opponents to conceal the
paucity of its ambitions. Nevertheless, hopes have lingered that, if not
political principle, then at least the electoral survival instinct,
would convince Rhodri Morgan & his colleagues that something more
substantial was necessary. There was, therefore, keen interest when on
11 December Rhodri gave a lecture at Swansea University in which he
sought to put 'clear red water' between his administration in Cardiff
and the New Labour Government in Westminster. The speech picked up a
theme from an earlier address to the Wales TUC, in which Rhodri had
talked about a 'Welsh Way' of approaching public services - driven by
socialist convictions, but applied pragmatically. In December he took
this theme considerably further, claiming for his governmental programme
'ideological underpinnings' in the best traditions of the labour and
socialist movement.

The main thrust of the speech was to project the key achievements of the
Assembly Government as making up an overall strategy - 'the creation of
a new set of citizenship rights ... which are as far as possible, free
at the point of use, universal and unconditional' - and to promise to
build on this if Welsh Labour wins a second term of office. Stripped of
the rather grandiose language, this is basically a repackaging of the
handful of Assembly initiatives which have made the most difference to
people's lives, and for which Welsh Labour never fails to claim credit.
These are: free school milk for children under seven; free nursery
places for three year olds; free prescriptions for the under
twenty-fives; free entry to museums and galleries and free bus travel
for pensioners and the disabled. While this list falls a long way short
of a comprehensive strategy for addressing Wales' many social ands
economic needs, it does represent a worthy, if modest, set of
achievements, and in each case the decommodification of an important
public service. Previously, Welsh Labour had always failed to link up
these policies in this way, instead presenting them as 'one-off'
give-aways. Rhodri's speech has belatedly remedied this, albeit under
the pressure of an impending election, without which it is doubtful that
he would have felt such a burning desire to point out an unacknowledged
policy agenda that was supposedly there all along.

Hitherto, the Welsh Labour leadership, while containing few (if any)
convinced Blairites, has been wary of risking an open rift with
Westminster, sometimes hinting at 'Old Labour' inclinations, but having
little of substance to show for this. But the danger of a repeat of
Labour's poor showing in 1999 - or even worse - seems to have
strengthened Rhodri's nerve and pushed him into revealing himself in all
his glory as 'a socialist of the Welsh stripe'. In order to carry this
through convincingly, however, he has to be able to show that he has
something new to offer for the second term, rather than simply
recapitulating the story so far. But the only concrete initiative
unveiled in his 'clear red water' speech was the possibility of free
access for children to local authority swimming pools (this is now being
'piloted' in certain council areas). Beyond this, he talked about the
need to focus 'upon a small number of key policy objectives', and
specified improving food and nutrition and raising economic activity
levels. While the latter should certainly be seen as one of the central
objectives of any Labour government worth the name, Rhodri's description
of the approach to be followed is simply a string of vague and nebulous
phrases - e.g., 'the engagement of the developmental contributions of
community regeneration and cultural animateurs'. Part of the problem is
that many of the levers of economic policy are beyond the reach of the
devolved administration - yet Rhodri now dismisses the debate over
further powers as the preserve of 'the narrow circles of political

Yet the significance of Rhodri's speech lies more in his willingness to
distance himself from New Labour and situate himself in a clearly
social-democratic tradition - talking about 'strengthening the
collective voice of the citizen' and 'the powerful glue of social
solidarity', and criticising 'the theory of marketisation'. This was
implicitly acknowledged by the sharp dismissals of his speech by the
leaders of the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru - the former seeing
an identifiable ideological enemy, the latter no doubt fearing a loss of
his party's appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. Whatever Rhodri's
intentions, he has opened up the possibility of a real debate within the
Welsh Labour party about the policies that the people of Wales really
need - a debate in which socialists can and should take the lead. There
has so far been little response, however. To some extent, this is
understandable, given the general preoccupation with the war, but it
also demonstrates the extent to which Labour activists have lost the
habit of discussing substantive politics. Rhodri himself has failed to
enlarge on his theme, so far returning to the 'clear red water' concept
only once - and then somewhat tangentially. And it is, unfortunately,
probably significant that at the Welsh Party conference on 27-28
February Rhodri made a banal, populist speech, full of clumsy
pop-culture references and cheap jibes at Labour's opponents.

The prospects for an Assembly Government further to the left if Labour
wins an overall majority look even less rosy when one considers the
human resources available. Practically all of the more
independently-minded Labour backbenchers are leaving the Assembly,
either voluntarily or under duress. Richard Edwards, the most prominent
and consistent opponent of the 'War Against Terrorism', is stepping down
due to health problems, while the former Education Minister Tom
Middlehurst and former Merseyside Assistant Chief Constable, Alison
Halford are effectively retiring.

In addition, recent weeks have seen the political demise of the two most
high-profile Labour mavericks. John Marek, AM and previously MP for
Wrexham, and one of the few Labour members publicly to criticise the
Assembly Government, has been deselected. As with every other sitting
Labour AM, Marek originally won a trigger ballot which should have
enabled him to avoid an open selection battle. Marek had made a number
of enemies in his constituency, however, not least by criticising the
Labour leadership of Wrexham Council, and there was a call for him to
face disciplinary charges for bringing the party into disrepute. The
bureaucracy seized on this, being particularly displeased with Marek
after he sent a letter to a CWU official expressing the view that the
union should withhold further funding from Labour until such time as the
party adopted more pro-union policies. As a compromise solution, it was
agreed that a second trigger-ballot be held. This time, Marek failed to
get through, and in the ensuing selection contrast he was beaten by 84
votes to 80 by his former political assistant, Lesley Griffiths. Marek
complained to Welsh Labour of improper conduct by Griffiths' husband, a
local councillor, but the complaint was turned down, and it is likely
that he will stand as an independent candidate, and at one stage seemed
likely to secure the support of the RMT.

And finally, Ron Davies, described with some justice as the "architect
of devolution" has left politics after The Sun printed photographic
evidence of another "moment of madness" at a well-known gay cruising
site. Ron badly mishandled his response to the Sun article, changing his
story within twenty-four hours. He thereby lost a lot of the initial
sympathy that had been felt for him, and was ultimately left with little
choice but to resign. He will be a major loss to Welsh politics, having
remained almost the only Labour backbencher with both the intellectual
capacity and the political independence to make an informed,
constructive critique of Assembly Government policies.

The newly selected candidates are, if anything, even less promising than
the existing Group, and the only medium-term hope for a more left-wing
leadership lies with a couple of members who are currently cabinet
ministers or deputy ministers, and are therefore bound by collective
responsibility to back the existing policies. However, socialists' role
in the Labour Party should never involve pinning one's hopes on the
best, or least bad, of our elected politicians. Instead, we must build
support among party members for socialist policies, and maintain
constant pressure on our 'leaders' to adopt and implement those
policies. Part of the reason we have such poor leadership in the Welsh
Labour Party is the lack of a strong, organised left over the last ten
years or so. That is starting to change now, as a general revolt
develops through the party over the war, the firefighters' dispute and
the privatisation of public services. A revived and organised Welsh
Labour left will have to work hard to hold all of our AMs and MPs to
account, and to press socialist policies upon them.

Plaid Cymru: a socialist alternative?

The danger that the election presents for Welsh Labour is not just that
longstanding Labour voters who are sick of Blairism will stay at home -
although many certainly will. The party also faces a serious challenge
from the left in the shape of Plaid Cymru. Plaid's constitution declares
it to be a socialist party, but it does not, of course, seek the
abolition of capitalism, but rather a set of modest reforms in the
direction of greater social equality, collective provision of welfare
and public services, etc. It undoubtedly won substantial support from
former Labour voters in the 1999 Assembly election by presenting what
was essentially an 'old Labour' platform, including commitments to
re-establish the link between pensions and earnings, and to restore the
full student grant. This allowed it to capture a number of seats in
supposed Labour strongholds, thus denying Labour an overall majority.
Moreover, it has continued to outflank Labour on the left in its
responses to the crisis in the steel industry, the collapse of Railtrack
and the controversy over PFI, as well as a range of other issues such as
compensation for retired miners with industrial illnesses.

This policy stance has both reflected and reinforced the substantial
growth in recent years of Plaid's electoral support and membership in
the industrial (or post-industrial) South Wales Valleys areas.
Nevertheless, the party remains a broad coalition. The weight of its
membership is in the predominantly rural, and more conservative, areas
of North and West Wales, which partially explains the election as party
leader of Ieuan Wyn Jones, the most right-wing of three candidates, in
August 2000. But increasingly, the party is attracting the support of
working class people in Wales on the basis that its policies serve their
class interests. In recognition of this, Bob Crow of the RMT recently
met Adam Price MP, effectively the leader of the Plaid Cymru left, to
explore the possibility of the union giving financial support to Plaid.

Plaid's full manifesto for the forthcoming elections will not be
published until early April, but, according to press reports, it
contains 'a clear commitment to radical transformation of the economy
and public services' and aims to create 'a fairer and more equal
society'. The specific measures to be set out reportedly include:

* An alternative to PFI, in the form of a Public Investment Trust.

* Free eye tests and free dental checks for all and a commitment to
tackle the crisis in the health service by increasing the number of
doctors, nurses and beds.

* An end to the internal market in education and an undertaking to
abolish school tests at Key Stages two and three.

* A promise to encourage the development of regional growth areas and
the creation of a regional jobs plan, to spread economic well-being more
justly throughout Wales.

The commitments on school tests, eye tests and dental checks do not
represent anything novel but only the extension of measures already
undertaken by Labour, and the pledge to sort out the health service is
fairly meaningless unless it is backed up with hard facts and figures.
But the commitment to public provision of public services, in place of
PFI, and the promise of greater state intervention in the economy, are a
significant improvement on the approach of the current Assembly
Government - although they would have been entirely consistent with
Labour policy as recently as the mid-1990s. In any case, it will not be
primarily the detail of Plaid's manifesto pledges that determines its
degree of electoral support, but rather the assessment that is made of
its general political character and its credibility as an alternative
Welsh Government. And this, of course, will have as much to do with
disappointment in Labour's performance than positive enthusiasm for

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