Neither Red Nor Green: Labour's Dilemmas in Wales

With leadership changes in both Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour, Dan Evans assesses the challenges now facing the left in Wales.

The race is on for the least scrutinised job in world politics: the leader of Welsh Labour.

Welsh Labour are terrible. This should be the starting point for all non-Welsh socialists trying to get a handle on Welsh politics. Thanks in no small part to this website, this is belatedly becoming clear to people outside Wales. Welsh Labour have consistently proven themselves not merely unwilling to resist Tory austerity, but enthusiastically committed to neoliberalism.

Post-devolution Wales has become a goldrush for parasitic multinationals: the Welsh Government gave Amazon £8.8 million and a new road; £19 million to Aston Martin; and £1 million to the government of Qatar. Come to Wales: you don’t have to pay us much, in fact, we will pay you: just bring us jobs, any jobs. Wales is where careerists from England go to get ‘experience’ in politics before they move on to bigger and better things. The country of Bevan, Chartism, International Brigadiers, and the home of the red flag, is now the last outpost of Blairism and a safe haven for spivs.

Welsh Labour is in desperate need of reform. Deals are being done or attempted which cannot be undone, and which will saddle future generations with serious problems: a new nuclear power station; nuclear waste being buried underground; a private railway franchise for another 15 years with no break in the contract to allow the possibility of state ownership; Qatari oil money flooding the capital; £1.4 billion to be spent on a pointless motorway; a refusal to tackle pollution which is so endemic that the Welsh Government has been reported to the EU. The list is endless.

For those of us outside the party, Welsh Labour Grassroots, the sister organization of Momentum, has seemed maddeningly passive when compared to its counterparts in England. There have been no attempts to deselect our wretched, right-wing MPs, despite their continual undermining of Corbyn. There has been no vocal condemnation of the Welsh government’s implementing of austerity, and no condemnation of Labour councils across Wales for pioneering punitive measures against the homeless. In the words of the former chair of WLG, this has felt at times like a conspiracy of silence. However, to their credit, this softly-softly approach has recently begun to bear fruit. Confounding all expectations, and despite the best efforts of the Welsh Labour hierarchy, OMOV was recently passed. This ruling should hopefully, finally, begin to reform Welsh Labour and facilitate a shift to the left. OMOV should pave the way for Mark Drakeford, Corbyn backer, the candidate of the left and much of the Assembly group.

It is unfortunate that the great hope of the left in Wales is a 64 year old white man who openly says he is ‘centre- left’ and not an insurgent candidate. That he is says it all about Welsh Labour. Yet one look at the other candidates shows us that beggars cannot be choosers. The terrifying Blairite cyborg Vaughan Gething, former head of NUS Wales (of course) and the candidate of the Labour right’s apparatus in Wales, a man who would doubtless continue Carwyn Jones’ brand of value-free condescending managerialism. Eluned Morgan, Welsh Labour royalty, shepherd’s pie enthusiast, and a former environment minister who went to work for SWALEC straight after leaving her post and recently broke a picket line to give a lecture at Cardiff University during the UCU strike. While Morgan is so devoid of ideas that she has taken to crowdsourcing them, Gething has belatedly begun to float policy ideas, including a national care service, which have long been called for by Corbyn and Plaid Cymru - and which he consistently ignored while Health Minister.

Is Drakeford really the man to detoxify and rejuvenate Welsh Labour? He has, unsurprisingly, been the most confident and policy-driven candidate. Despite his rumpled appearance, he is generally well respected throughout the left in Wales and is rumoured to be more radical than his persona and previous political activity suggest. He has written extensively about the challenges of governing under austerity and has recently intervened to safeguard the ‘supporting people’ homelessness grant. These are positive signs, although Jeremy Corbyn he is not.

If Drakeford wins, what then? There have already been calls for a snap election following the conclusion of the Labour leadership race. This is not out of the realms of possibility. But regardless of when the next Assembly election takes place, and despite Plaid Cymru’s obsessive statements about governing alone in 2021, the voting system in place means that a coalition of some form in the next Assembly is nigh-on inevitable.

Wales needs a socialist coalition in the Assembly

The best case scenario for the people of Wales would be a progressive anti-austerity coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru - whether post-election or now, in the Siambr - which breaks entirely with the neoliberal consensus adopted by the Welsh government over the last two decades, and which pulls together to shield Wales from the hellish future which may await us post-Brexit. On paper, there is no reason why this coalition couldn’t be pursued. In fact, it is ridiculous that it isn’t happening right now. After all, we are lucky in Wales that our two major political parties are formally socialist. Plaid Cymru have been constitutionally committed to socialism since 1981 and, until two weeks ago were led by a trade unionist, anti-fascist socialist far to the left of anyone in Welsh Labour. A Labour-Plaid coalition is the obvious, long-term solution in Wales given the electoral maths and the current voting system in place.

A socialist coalition should in theory suit both parties. It would help rejuvenate the left in Welsh Labour and, as Meic Birtwhistle notes, it would turn the Welsh Government into an important ally for a nascent Corbyn Government in Westminster - which will need all the support it can get - rather than the staging-post for attacks from the right that it is now. For Plaid, being the minority partner in the coalition could be exchanged for concrete concessions on the constitutional question: the devolution of broadcasting; the devolution of crime and justice; and perhaps most important of all, full PR in the Senedd.

The stumbling block here will be the partisanship which cripples Welsh politics. Wales is fortunate not to have the faultlines that some other countries do. We don’t have a problem with sectarianism, like Scotland or Ireland. We don’t, historically, have an entrenched native ruling class, as England does (although we are now well on our way to creating our own). What we have, instead, is the divide between Labourist and nationalist traditions - sometimes known as the red and the green - which can occasionally feel every bit as virulent as a sectarian divide. Hostility between Labour and Plaid Cymru has consistently frustrated the emergence of a genuinely radical political consensus in Wales.

Although devolutionists are now dominant within Welsh Labour, partisanship still remains. An all-consuming hatred of nationalism - or at least ‘their’ nationalism - remains a central, defining feature of Labour politics in Wales and Scotland. In Scotland this produces the ridiculous ‘Bain principle’, where Labour candidates will never back any bill that is proposed by the SNP, no matter how progressive and sensible. The same crippling partisanship has been visible in Wales in recent years, with the incumbent Labour party routinely vetoing or rejecting eminently progressive policy ideas out of hand because of their origins within Plaid Cymru, such as a sugar tax (later adopted); a national care service; a medical school for north Wales (later adopted); free university tuition and free prescriptions (later adopted). Of course, many of these ideas are policy ideas also included in the UK Labour manifesto. Eventually, Labour tend to co-opt Plaid’s policy ideas when no-one is looking.

Partisanship frequently prevents consensuses forming on issues which socialists of all stripes should be able to agree on. Rather than work together on the Tata steel pension crisis, for example, local Plaid Cymru activists and union members were locked out of public meetings by Andy Richards, a man who personifies the very worst of the Welsh Labour tradition. In our own depressing version of “waterboarding myself to own the libs”, Labour politicians in Wales and Scotland frequently adopt untenable right-wing positions just as a way to “piss off the nats”.

This partisanship is sustained and nourished by a myopic reading of Welsh history which portrays the nationalist and Labour traditions, the urban and rural, Welsh speaking and Anglophone, as oil and water. In the narratives which underpin Welsh Labour folklore, the heroic and progressive south Wales proletariat is positioned against the rural, reactionary, Welsh-speaking other. These tropes are incredibly common in the anti-nationalist rhetoric deployed by Welsh Labour politicians, which all too frequently leads to an unhealthy suspicion of all Welsh-language culture as being somehow a nationalist plot. Drakeford himself has succumbed to this othering in the past, disparagingly referring to Welsh language communities as ‘poujadist’. This othering has certainly contributed to the limited appeal of Plaid Cymru in Anglophone areas, as the spectre of the ‘nationalist bogeyman’ has become embedded in the popular imagination. Although this othering has aided Labour by undermining their main electoral rivals, this articulation of the nation has ultimately served to fragment and fracture Wales itself, driving a wedge between the distinctive socio-cultural groups within it, preventing a unified ‘collective memory’ developing and ultimately militating against the development of a coherent, confident nation.

An alternative, more holistic reading of Welsh history might emphasize the permeability of the red/green divide, breaking down the essentialist, quasi-orientalist readings of Wales’ ‘two truths’. One could point to the influence of the Welsh language and culture within the south Wales coalfield and the Labour movement, personified by people like T.E. Nicholas; the radical Labour tradition in the Welsh speaking anthracite coalfield to the west, exemplified by the Llanelli railway strike of 1911; the radical Labour and trade unionist tradition in the ‘rural’ Welsh speaking areas of north Wales, which were in fact some of the first places in Wales to be industrialized; the long history of socialist thought and activism within Plaid Cymru, exemplified by D.J. Davies; and the continual, exemplary support lent to the south Wales miners by Welsh language activists.

Most importantly, partisanship at the intellectual level belies the reality that the political allegiances of many left-leaning Welsh people are fluid. A great many Plaid Cymru voters come from the Labour tradition but are simply disillusioned by the state of Labour in Wales. Numerous electoral studies have demonstrated that Labour voters are less hostile to Plaid than their elected representatives are, and, in the 2017 election, 43% of 2015’s Plaid voters voted for Jeremy Corbyn. In 2016, Charlotte Church displayed a level of nuance which escapes most of the commentariat, explaining on Twitter that she would vote for Corbyn in the Westminster elections but Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly elections because Labour in Wales were right-wing. Many people, myself included, do the same, and see no contradiction in doing so.

Unfortunately, we have already missed out on the best case scenario: an anti-austerity socialist coalition led by Mark Drakeford and Leanne Wood. Wood and Drakeford were known to have a civil professional and personal relationship, and would undoubtedly have found many areas of agreement. Whilst the 2008 coalition between Labour and Plaid was arguably the most progressive period in Wales’ post-devolution history, it was nonetheless between a centrist Plaid Cymru and a centrist Labour. Wales has never had two socialist parties sharing power, and this possibility, like Bernie Sanders leading the Democratic Party, will now be relegated to the footnotes of history as an interesting might-have-been.

Plaid Cymru under Adam Price: what to expect

For so long, Labour seemed to be the main obstacle to the formation of a broad socialist consensus in Wales. Now, with Labour perhaps beginning to get their house in order, the main barrier may turn out to be Plaid Cymru, who have recently replaced Leanne Wood, Wales’ most prominent socialist, with the gifted Adam Price.

Although Price has always claimed to be a socialist and can go toe to toe with anyone on socialist theory, his leadership manifesto is relatively similar to the current Welsh Government’s economic strategy: growth-focused; full of buzzwords about the knowledge economy; making Wales ‘business-friendly’ through low corporation tax. The significant difference is that Price is more capable and articulate than the current Welsh Labour cabinet put together. His would be a more efficient and streamlined Welsh capitalism with fewer fuck ups. Whilst Plaid still face significant structural obstacles to electoral success, Price’s appeal will be broad, based on an impressive mix of intelligence, charisma and competence. As Leanne Wood opened up Plaid to marginalized groups and left ex-Labour voters, Price may well take votes from liberals, Labour moderates and even conservatives.

For people who believe that politics is all about presentation rather than policy (i.e., everyone in the media), and who are always on the look-out for the next liberal messiah, Price is a dream come true. He is undoubtedly head and shoulders above most other Welsh politicians (although this is an extremely low bar) and has already been compared to Obama. In the few weeks he has been in charge he has already received more favourable, fawning coverage in mainstream UK news outlets than Wood received in 6 years. As Alec Salmond demonstrated, advocating the break-up of the UK may be tolerated if you are pro-business.

Price will undoubtedly adopt a far more confrontational tone with Labour in the Senedd. He will draw attention to Labour’s profligacy and scrutinise their incompetence in a way that has not yet been seen in Wales, tapping into a growing sense of incredulity and exasperation at the Welsh Government. He will articulate a strong, simple nationalist message and promote independence in a way which has never been attempted to date. He will say that Westminster is not working for Wales (true), and point to Labour’s repeated failures in Government (true) and on the question of self-government (TBC). Labour will be portrayed as the party of Westminster, as a unionist, ‘British’ party which does not care about Wales, a narrative which will reach a crescendo as we head towards March 2019. There is absolutely no reason why this simple, populist message should not gain traction.

Leanne Wood has said openly that the recent leadership election was prompted by her refusal to deal with the Tories. The leadership election clearly revealed that, for many in Plaid, Labour are worse than the Tories. If Price manages to keep Plaid united, keep Plaid’s strong left wing involved, and hold onto the seats Plaid currently have, a deal with the Tories could potentially force Labour out of office in 2021. Paul Davies, the new leader of the Welsh Conservatives, has already extended the olive branch to Price in a way which would have been unthinkable under Wood. Price sees the SNP as a model to emulate, and clearly believes that a deal with the Tories to get Plaid ‘over the line’ wouldn’t be the catastrophe that Wood believes it to be, and that he has the charisma to mitigate any potential damage.

Labour’s new direction: socialism and federalism

To counter this new, different threat from Plaid under Price, Labour clearly cannot continue in the way they have been. If Drakeford wins, the left in the party and the grassroots have to aggressively begin to colonise the party at all levels and begin to steer it left into the space that Plaid are vacating.

Worryingly, Drakeford continues to claim to be the ‘unity’ candidate. This cannot mean the cloying, typically Welsh unity of the past, where right and left stand united as one big mediocre family, and where the left-wing is marginalised; where incompetence, corruption and downright cruelty is tolerated if it’s committed by one of our own. In short, he has to make a clean break with the past.

In policy terms, Drakeford cannot merely return to the piss-weak centralism of the era of Rhodri Morgan with which he is closely associated. He must repay the faith the left have placed in him and adopt far more radical socialist policies, rather than the half-baked imitations of the Corbyn manifesto that Welsh Labour continue to produce. It is unacceptable for Labour in Wales to implement tuition fees as Labour promises to abolish them in England. It is unacceptable for Welsh Labour to refuse to abolish letting agency fees in Wales after Corbyn promised to abolish them. Welsh Labour cannot limit free childcare solely to working parents as Corbyn promises to make childcare universal. Whilst it is easy to assume that Plaid will not be the threat from the left that they were under Wood, it will not be that hard for Price, an ideas machine, to rectify this and outmanoeuvre Drakeford from the left if he does not offer more radical ideas.

The other real possibility is that Labour will get outflanked on constitutional issues and the national question, as Labour in Scotland continue to be. It’s not 1997 anymore and the stakes are a lot higher: the British state is wobbling, and Welsh nationalists justifiably believe that Brexit represents an existential threat to Wales itself. Calls for Welsh independence are growing by the day, including within Welsh Labour itself, and they are only going to get louder.

There may be a temptation for many on the left in Wales to look at Carwyn Jones, Ken Skates and the race to the bottom culture that devolution has created on the one hand, and the confidence and radicalism of Corbynism in England on the other, and conclude that devolution is a distraction or an irrelevance. This would be a huge mistake: a return to centralism must be resisted at all costs. This should not be about triangulation or attempting to co-opt Plaid Cymru’s ‘appeal’, whilst still retaining Labour’s traditional, boneheaded attitude towards the deeply unequal and undemocratic British state. Instead, Labour in Wales and beyond need to completely overhaul their ludicrous attitudes towards the British state, ‘nationalism’ and the ‘national question’.

During the recent Brexit withdrawal negotiations with the Westminster Tory Government, the devolved parliaments of Wales and Scotland fought to take control of the areas of government currently covered or controlled by the EU. It was clear to everyone, not least Jeremy Corbyn, that this was a power grab by Westminster. Whilst the Scottish parliament, including Scottish Labour, held firm, Welsh Labour - led by Mark Drakeford - collapsed, sacrificing the hard-won powers of the Welsh Assembly Government in the process. Drakeford’s justification was pathetic: he claimed feebly that he trusted Theresa May’s government and that Welsh Labour seemed to be the only party who cared about saving the Union. This episode was a perfect summary of Welsh Labour’s spineless leadership of Wales to date.

This obsession with the British state warps people’s brains. The Union is apparently so important that it is worth sacrificing the powers of the Welsh Assembly, apparently completely oblivious to what this involves, or how siding with the Tories, trusting a Tory government makes Labour look. Welsh Labour are unable to reconcile their nostalgic view of the welfare state with the harsh reality of the neoliberal British state which continues to shit all over Wales. For Welsh Labour, regardless of how Wales is treated and marginalised, regardless of the changing political economy of the UK, the British state is forever that of Clem Attlee: a benign, social democratic entity which cares about Wales.

This fetish for the Union is why in 2014, as Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs brilliantly put it, Scottish Labour led “a desperate sales pitch for one of the most effective and durable criminal enterprises in the history of humankind, an evil wet lump of crumbling architecture, expensive weaponry and tenured racists”. In doing so, Scottish Labour “took one hundred years of hard-won political capital, concentrated into that final, triumphant ‘No Thanks’ advert full of trade union marches and democratic reform, and blew it all on keeping the family together”. This utter refusal to engage with how things actually are, rather than how Labour would like the state to be, cannot continue.

If Welsh Labour under Drakeford continue down this path, particularly after Brexit, they may well face the same fate as Scottish Labour. The obsession with defending an obviously unequal union at any costs, no matter how badly the British state treats Wales, will lead them into increasingly ridiculous positions which will in practice mean siding with the Tories again and again. Scothorne and Gibbs correctly remind us that the only redeeming features of the British state- and indeed of Britishness itself, “were forged by a labour movement born in conflict against it”. Somewhere along the way, Labour developed Stockholm syndrome and began to cherish and defend that which its founders wanted to completely transform.

Devolution, and indeed independence, is at its core about democracy. It is about making the state system more democratic and responsive, to bring decision-making closer to the people. Democracy - not ‘nationalism’ - is why trade unionists in Wales fought tooth-and-nail to set up the Welsh TUC in the 1970s and why activists in the ILP and Labour movement in Wales before the First World War agitated for home rule for Wales and Scotland, a Welsh Labour party and a Welsh parliament. It is not acceptable for Wales to continually suffer under Tory austerity when we do not vote Tory - it should not be hard to grasp that this is undemocratic and unacceptable. Equally it should not be hard to understand why denying people the chance to leave a state in which their votes do not matter, as Richard Leonard is suggesting, is a reprehensible affront to democracy.

This is not just about devolution to Wales and Scotland, of course. Labour’s failure to grasp the very simple and obvious reasons why people want out of the union, their continued attacks on the ‘nats’ - many of whom are ex-Labour voters - is a symptom of a more general inability to grasp the problems caused by a lack of democracy or indeed the emancipatory potential of greater democracy, exemplified by their refusal to adopt PR.
Wales remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, whilst the south of England is among its richest regions. Wales has always stood in a deeply unequal power relationship with England, and the legacy of this colonial relationship is why Wales remains underdeveloped today, with a desperately narrow economy and terrible infrastructure. Even under the welfare state, regional policy essentially amounted to propping up Wales by moving public sector work out to it- it did not begin to address the problems of economic dependency. The UK still has the most imbalanced regional economy in Europe, yet we are continually told to keep the faith, stay with it, jam tomorrow.

Just as neoliberalism increasingly involves the erosion of democracy and the hollowing out of democratic institutions, any serious challenge to neoliberalism should have democratisation at its core. A re-engagement with democracy and the undemocratic and imbalanced nature of the British state should therefore be absolutely central to Corbynism, not an afterthought. As part of Labour’s vague ‘constitutional convention’, they should follow the lead of the Communist Party and formally agree to institute a fully federal UK with full, tax-raising and law making parliaments for Wales and Scotland, each with complete control over their natural resources. This is the only way to fundamentally rebalance the deeply unequal UK, and the only way that the ‘national question’ can ever be dealt with.


Dan Evans (@Dai_alectic)

Dan Evans is a former academic, now a writer and support worker. He is based in Cardiff.