I’ve always had a deeply ingrained sense that, rather than Wales abandoning the Labour Party, the Labour party had abandoned Wales. I’ve often mentioned the statement my late grandfather once said to me: “Thatcher hated us, but to Blair we don’t even exist.” To be hated is better than being forgotten. Blair promised and delivered devolution towards the end of the last millennium, and there was a feeling that Wales was enjoying a civic rebirth with its new political powers and landmark events like hosting the Rugby World Cup - but the social and economic promises never came true.
Unlike Scotland, Wales has historically lacked its own civic institutions and political culture. Wales’s place in the United Kingdom was born from occupation, not a personal union between two kingdoms. Attempts were made to erase the Welsh language over centuries through the forced use of English practices and institutions. It’s little surprise that the Welsh Assembly and later Welsh Government, run by Labour with occasional coalitions with the nationalists Plaid Cymru (made up of a plethora of different groups but often pushing a more left-wing and progressive manifesto than Labour), has come to act more like a monolithic county council than a national government. It has lacked direction and arguably struggled to represent Wales due to the country’s poverty, lack of political structures and widespread political disenfranchisement.
Despite predictions to the contrary before the general election, Wales was never going to go blue. There was so little evidence of support for the Tories on the ground. Typically, the young detest them and are deeply angry about Brexit. The old, especially in Labour heartlands, still have a deep hatred of them which has been enforced over generations. Indeed, South Wales is one of the the few places in the world where you will hear people talk of Churchill with total disdain after what his policies did for the Welsh economy and his reaction to the Tonypandy riots. Wales is a country where the scars from these old battles are on display in the landscape and in its social fabric, from the desolate factories and steep coal tips to the poverty that blights so many of its towns.
The last few months I have been trying to juggle the conflicting projects of Welsh independence and fighting for a hypothetical United Kingdom government. Deep down, I still feel that Wales would be sidelined and forgotten under any socialist UK government. For all Corbyn’s good will and ideas, the political structure of the UK has marginalized us for decades. It’s not something he can change alone and I still have many doubts about those underneath him. The images of just two Labour MPs discussing the Wales Bill in 2016 make me furious.
Of course, these kinds of issues are never discussed by many on the left or by Welsh activists. Instead, you read all sorts of attacks on working class supporters of alternative parties. Supporters of the Scottish Nationalist Party are often mocked, despite them being able to point to many positive material changes in their own lives brought about by the SNP. The shift of the Scottish Labour Party to the right cannot be ignored. They point at the SNP MP Mhairi Black’s statement that she would choose an Independent Scotland over a Socialist UK Government as evidence that her party aren’t actually left wing, when so many people I know with the deepest left-wing convictions would agree with her.
I am still deeply concerned about the direction of the Welsh Labour Party and how they rule Wales. A party which has cowered away from challenging Theresa May on Brexit or speaking out about many of the ‘big issues of the day’ found it easy enough to separate themselves from Corbyn. Wales’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones, a man who has so little fight in him and only seems to generate feelings of apathy from people I speak to, was quick to join the Labour right in criticising Corbyn. They voted against left-wing bills, proposed by Plaid Cymru, that later featured in the Labour manifesto. They kept Corbyn off campaign materials and deliberately distanced themselves from him. Even now, some people are attributing the Labour surge in Wales to this tactic, when it was Labour’s manifesto that did it.
I think perhaps my biggest fear now is that these issues will be sidelined by a form of left activism that is predominantly centred in England’s urban conurbations, and most prominently in London. Already the focus of discussion has, perhaps rightly, moved to winning a parliamentary majority with a narrative that almost every seat is up for grabs. While this might be true, it diverts attention away from the struggles within the Labour party and enforces the same focus on marginals across the south of England that has blighted the UK for decades. For many of us, this was a vote for Corbyn - not our local MP, not the Labour party. Part of what made me so proud to go out and vote was that Corbyn and his allies had put themselves on the line and offered something bolder, braver and more exciting than anything I even imagined. They offered all this despite the onslaught they have faced from the media, the political establishment, and much of their own party. Deep down I felt that I’d never have a chance to vote for somebody like this again. They’d been on the right side of every battle in the past few decades regardless of the consequences. Everything they had fought and stood for trumped any reservations I held.
I understand people’s enthusiasm. The last few weeks have honestly been the only encouraging political events I’ve ever lived through. There were points on the night of the election that I found myself close to tears. I saw many people, who had been written off as racists and as people who could only ever be won back by shifting to the right, instead embrace left-wing politics. I had friends tell me that I was defending people who were not worth defending – and yet in my hometown a vote which gravitated from Labour to the Lib Dems in 2010, and to UKIP in 2015, went directly back to Labour under Corbyn. It feels like the grip of neoliberalism on political discourse hasn’t just weakened but has totally fallen apart. Frankly, things are now being discussed which I thought would never be discussed. What was once impossible is now a regular feature of conversation.
But we can’t get lost in this elation. The UK has a rapidly changing political structure with many devolved bodies at city, regional and national level gaining new powers. Many of these are run by the Labour party. For me to fully embrace this Labour party, activists must also turn their attention to ensuring these bodies embrace the politics championed by Corbyn and remain sensitive to the differences that exist with different parts of the United Kingdom. An acknowledgement that many Labour councils are not good is simply not enough.
I won’t be joining the Labour party at this time. While I acknowledge the argument that I should join, and fight for to shift Welsh Labour left and embrace the politics I’ve spoken of, I simply cannot see any method of doing so. There is no clear kernel or cause I can direct my energy towards. It feels like a political dead end. It’s perhaps a sad reflection that I simply don’t think a change is possible without more direction and input from those in London, whether that be Corbyn, activists or left wing media. Wales is forced to make appeals to London, desperately pleading for a chance to be recognized and represented – like we’ve done for hundreds of years.
We would welcome responses to the piece addressing how its challenge may be addressed by the labour movement both in and outside Wales and whether the experiences discussed here are shared by other comrades in Wales and beyond. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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