Wales' Progressive Alliances
by Gareth Leaman (@garethdwr) on September 29, 2019



If liberal politicians and media figures are to be believed, the most alarming phenomenon of contemporary British politics is an increasing polarisation and ‘political tribalism’, exacerbated on the right by the Brexit crisis, and on the left by the political possibilities introduced to popular discourse following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. While often crudely labelled as a ‘populism’ in which the left and right are equal actors, what we are actually seeing here is the struggle for revived and emergent political movements to channel widespread-yet-inchoate demands into a tangible mandate for government.

On the right, the Tories and their cryptofascist outriders are flattening the complex reasons for the UK voting to leave the European Union into a tacit endorsement for an increasingly barbaric authoritarianism and an alibi for engineering an even greater degree of wealth disparity. On the left, through the member-led resurgence within the Labour Party, we can see a channelling of common social anxieties and economic precarity into a popular democratic socialism.

Those occupying ‘the centre ground’ apparently sense a great deal of political capital to be made from drawing a false equivalence between the strategy and morality of left and right. This has culminated in Parliament with the so-called ‘Progressive Alliance’, primarily comprising the Liberal Democrats, Tory ‘moderates’ and the anti-Corbyn Labour right. Though necessarily nebulous, their intentions can be broadly defined as an attempt to triangulate a liberal revulsion of the bigotries Brexit has unleashed in the Tory right with an instinctive antisocialism that discredits the left’s “intellectual and emotional heart”, suppressing the viability of extra-parliamentary organising while recuperating its energy.

In much the same way that the empty signifier of Brexit has afforded the right an opportunity to advance all manner of regressive ideas, liberals too have used its desired inverse to deflect from their own moral and strategic failures and suppress the idea that voting to leave the EU was, as Dawn Foster puts it:

a symptom of long-term problems: the decline of industry and the public sector begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair and David Cameron; vast inequality of opportunity, wealth and health; and the number of people being routinely ignored in a system with a huge democratic and electoral deficit.

It is this cynical mobilisation of anti-Brexit sentiment that exposes the proposed Progressive Alliance as not simply a ‘pragmatic’, apolitical cooperation, but rather a cross-party coalition of class interests that attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of those who implemented or failed to oppose Tory austerity.

The implications of this extreme centrism for English politics is reasonably well documented, but in Wales it’s problematised by a number of other undercurrents: not only a latent rejection of neoliberalism via Brexit, but also the spectre of Welsh nationalism, a resurgent and largely organic movement that questions the composition of the British state and is motivated by the perceived failures of the Welsh Labour Government. Thus in addition to the influence of Westminster’s ‘Progressive Alliance’, Wales is also faced with an uneasy coalition of a different kind: the tension of a socialism that finds its electoral energy split between a nominally left-nationalist party whose commitment to socialism is often timid and amorphous, and a nominally socialist party that has done little to advance a programme worthy of the descriptor while being the main party of government for the Welsh Assembly’s entire two-decade existence.

The recuperation of Plaid Cymru

If English centrists have constructed this Progressive Alliance to manipulate anti-Brexit sentiment into a bulwark against a popular shift to the left – a shift possibly predicated upon the breakup of the UK itself – it might appear odd that the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, whose commitment to socialism is written into its constitution, has been willing to assimilate into this project of anti-socialist British unionism. An examination of the party’s trajectory over the past twelve months, however, should prove enlightening.

In September 2018 the party’s membership voted overwhelmingly to replace Leanne Wood, leader since 2012, with Adam Price, a former MP and current AM who had recently returned to frontline politics after a much-vaunted stint studying at Harvard. Under the leadership of Wood (whose The Change Wales Needs publication is as vital a blueprint for a socialist government as anything produced by the Labour left since 2015) it appeared that Plaid was capable of building a new socialist movement in Wales with an energy and focus comparable to that of Corbynism in England. However, it quickly became apparent during the leadership election campaign – which bore a distinct familiarity in tone and intention to the ‘chicken coup’ challenge to Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 – just how isolated Wood and her supporters were within the party.

Notable too was how little interest or ability many within the party had in understanding the challenges inherent in seeking wider support in Plaid-sceptic constituencies: working-class communities in the post-industrial areas commonly perceived as the ‘Labour heartlands’. Instead there was a growing perception that, as Meic Birtwistle intimated on the eve of the leadership election campaign, “Leanne’s leftist drive must be reined in so that Plaid can now become the centrist party.”

This post-Wood drift towards the centre has been exacerbated by the simultaneous complications of Corbynism and Brexit. The former has hinted at the renewed potential of a UK-wide socialist movement, thus somewhat hamstringing the possibility – despite Welsh Labour being unrepresentative of and often openly hostile to Corbynism – of Plaid outflanking Labour from the left. While the latter’s immediate threat to Wales’ economic and cultural semi-autonomy has forced the party to try and mitigate these potentially dire consequences in any way possible, resulting in an approach to Brexit that often fails to account for the motivations behind Wales voting Leave and is thus easily incorporated into the Progressive Alliance’s ‘Hard Remain’ posturing.

Longstanding structural factors within Welsh politics also bear a large responsibility for this apparent sublimation of the party’s left. As the inherent limitations of devolution have ossified, criticisms of the Welsh Labour Government have become so self-evident that liberal nationalists no longer see the need to sustain a coherent left critique, instead feeling empowered to oppose on grounds of mere competence, rather than offering a competing ideological framework for government. Plaid’s new leadership team, sensing an electoral opportunity in this apparent slow decay of support for Labourist social democracy, has moved to exploit this discontent not by positing themselves as the true party of the left in Wales, but by relying on an amorphously depoliticised (and often ahistorical) brand of nationalism.

This has been compounded by the personal politics and rhetoric of Price himself, whose ability to hollow out radical politics into an endless series of neoliberal catchphrases rivals the finest politico-salesmanship to be found anywhere in Welsh Labour’s ranks. Where previously we heard of Wood’s assertion that endemic poverty is a consequence of “neoliberal policies which have impoverished our communities, weakened workers’ rights and exacerbated climate change” and can only be solved if we “rethink how we structure our economy and society”, we now hear of Price’s desire for Wales to “become a nation of entrepreneurs”1 and overcome an “overweening reliance on public subsidy”.2 The primacy of material class analysis that defined the party under Wood (at least as it appeared to outsiders, if not the majority of its actual members) already seems like a distant memory.

In terms of electoral strategy, this shift has manifested by attacking Labour whenever the opportunity presents itself, regardless of its wider implications. When Plaid beat Labour to second place in Wales in May’s European Parliament elections, for example, Price led the party in a Pyrrhic victory lap, proclaiming it “an historic occasion”. This is despite the alarming fact that the Brexit Party had come first by a significant margin, in what should be a worrying defeat for the left and for Welsh nationalism, and a damning indictment of Plaid’s approach to winning over so-called ‘Leave areas’. This, again, places Plaid closer to the political milieu occupied by the centrists, who have consistently signalled their intent to undermine the Labour left above all else.

The consequences of myopically attacking Labour and supporting the Lib Dems were also starkly apparent in two recent Westminster by-elections. In the run-up to the Brecon and Radnorshire vote in August, Plaid were quick to take “a principled stand” and, along with the Greens, decline to put forward a candidate, instead pledging support for the Liberal Democrats. It is clear that they sought to exploit the narrative of a declining Labour vote in Wales (along with anxieties about Brexit and the need to remove another Tory from the Commons) to claim a pact with the Lib Dems was “in the interests of the nation and of the Remain cause”.

Yet we saw no such coalition of mutual interest just four months earlier in Newport West, where a by-election was triggered by the sad passing of Paul Flynn, an immensely popular figure locally and a left stalwart of the Labour backbenches who had held the seat for thirty years. Like many post-industrial constituencies in South Wales and the north of England, Labour had seen their vote ebb away since 1997 (aside from a clear Corbyn bounce in 2017), and there was a real chance that the Tories could steal the seat. Despite standing no chance of winning the seat themselves, Plaid showed a flagrant disregard of the disastrous consequences of a Tory victory and instead relentlessly attacked Labour, apparently willing to risk an extra Conservative seat in the Commons if it allowed them to make headlines about Labour’s support decaying in former strongholds. Mercifully, Labour clung on to the seat (despite a largely underwhelming campaign of their own), narrowly avoiding a major coup for the Tories and a setback for Wales, Remain and the prospects of a left government, which Plaid did very little to avert.

This turn of events should be deeply concerning for the left in Wales, especially as Plaid have been mooting further co-operation between ‘pro-Remain parties’, not just in ‘single-issue’ by-elections, but also in a hypothetical General Election. Whether it’s advisable for a party which seeks to “secure independence for Wales” via principles “based on decentralist socialism” to shore up support for a party committed to preserving the union and preventing a socialist government should be self-evident. If nothing else, the spectacle of Heidi Allen – a former Tory currently condemned to saving the “strange project” of Change UK from the dustbin of history – joining Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson in thanking Plaid Cymru for their support should be utterly nauseating for anyone invested in supporting Plaid as a progressive project.

Welsh Labour’s ‘partial Pasokification’3

Let it not go unrecognised, however, that Welsh Labour are also guilty of engineering a similar suppression of their own leftist pretensions in favour of a drift towards the centre. In their case, it largely stems from being the only party to have led the devolved government and having dominated Wales electorally for a century. The entire phenomena of centrist abstraction of political organising in Wales is of Labour’s own making, for it is they who have “consistently proven themselves not merely unwilling to resist Tory austerity, but enthusiastically committed to neoliberalism”, as Dan Evans writes.

It’s a common refrain that Wales votes Labour but ends up with the Tories, in that power in Wales is held hostage to the whims of Middle England’s Westminster voting intentions. Yet even when Labour governs the UK, Wales is still stuck with Welsh Labour, an appendage to the party name that now seems redolent of New Labour: a semantic cleavage that retains a certain radical rhetoric while diluting the politics that informs it.

This intentional complication of creating a party-within-a-party largely stems from Labour being in the unworkable position of having to posit themselves as the solution to their own problem, not unlike the challenge at council level across the UK. Westminster tells of the need to vote Labour to save the NHS, for instance, apparently oblivious to the fact that the party already runs the health service in Wales. There, is, of course, a lot of sense in this messaging: devolution’s obfuscatory distribution of power does render Cardiff Bay beholden to Westminster, and Wales’ chronic ‘democratic deficit’ does not help a greater public understanding. Yet Welsh Labour, having seemingly been hitherto content to let its vote slowly dwindle as long as no credible alternative emerges, finds itself unable or unwilling to articulate how devolution might limit its ambitions. Even with the limited power it does have, however, there is scant interest in using it to improve public services and enriching people’s lives. As Evans notes:

Welsh Labour have generally rejected the market-oriented approach of New Labour, but Corbyn’s leadership has shone an embarrassing light on their record in office and claims to be the inheritors of a radical tradition. Corbyn has promised to ban letting agency fees, but the Welsh Labour government opposed this motion when tabled by Plaid Cymru in the Assembly. Corbyn has promised to end zero-hour contracts, but the Welsh Labour government voted against ending them on seven occasions. Corbyn has promised to scrap the bedroom tax, but Labour-run councils in Wales implement bedroom tax evictions.

UK Labour and its Welsh counterpart thus find themselves in a stultifying stand-off with one another: the Welsh contingent are quick to blame their electoral woes on Corbynism (despite the rise of the Labour left resulting in a slight resurgence at the ballot box), while Westminster often conveniently forget that their colleagues in Cardiff Bay even exist. The solution thus far has been a classic act of liberal triangulation that ultimately benefits neither party, and certainly not the electorate: Welsh Labour is just nationalist enough to differentiate itself from Corbyn, and just unionist enough to denigrate the more progressive Plaid Cymru.

As a result the party is essentially at war with itself, its “managerialism in office” exacerbated by the “tendency…to be caught in the headlights of nationalism, left and right”.4 The condition of Labour in Wales is a variation of the inherent internal strife of social democratic parties as laid out by Miliband and Liebman:

As social-democratic governments retreat, so division and strife inside social-democratic parties grow. The Left protests and attacks the leadership and seeks to deflect it from its courses; and the leadership turns on the Left and accuses it of disloyalty. Conservative forces rejoice; and the working class, or a large part of it, remains alienated or is further alienated from a divided and warring party.

So even if the British left can ‘capture the party’ (the structural limits of such an undertaking notwithstanding), it’s unlikely that Wales will feel the benefit, as the popular insurgency that Corbynism posits itself as will mean little in a country where it already holds a degree of power. Even the cautious optimism of open selection has been denied, as almost all AMs for the next Senedd election have already been reselected, despite being, with very few exceptions, unworthy of being the electoral figureheads of a democratic socialist movement. It may be possible for Welsh Labour Grassroots to influence the party with success to match their Momentum siblings in England, but this remains to be seen, and may be too little too late, given that “[deals] are being done or attempted which cannot be undone, and which will saddle future generations with serious problems”.

Ultimately, devolution and 20 years of an entrenched neoliberalism in both Cardiff Bay and Westminster has led to a situation where, for Plaid and Labour alike, these corridors of power are posited as the only loci where ‘politics’ happens. Any coherent material analysis has dissipated, and the possibilities of grassroots political organising have been widely neglected.

‘The decline of solidarity’5

To identify the root cause of both parties’ sublimation of class politics, it’s important to recognise that this calcifying of amorphous anti-politics is linked to the destruction of modes of solidarity due to four unbroken decades of neoliberalism. As Mark Fisher writes in ‘Not Failing Better, But Fighting to Win’, the post-industrial individuation that “encouraged people no longer to identify as workers” has led to the disempowerment of communities, largely because:

there really is no agent to mediate the feelings people have and organise those people. The effect is that discontent can be widespread, but without such an agent it will remain at the level of individual disaffection.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in post-industrial South Wales, where the effects of the “breakdown of post-war social democracy and then the subsequent disappearance of the Labour Party and the trade union movement from everyday working-class life”, as Tom Blackburn puts it, is keenly felt. The entire concept of ‘South Wales’ as a distinct culture was constructed by the workers’ movement, its political organising woven into the very fabric of society. As Daryl Leeworthy writes in Labour Country:

The people who moved to South Wales from all over the world had to make a society and a culture from scratch. Houses, streets, sewage systems, cemeteries, churches and chapels, schools and hospitals, courts of law, council offices, theatres and cinemas, public meeting places, libraries, these things and more had to be constructed in communities that simply did not exist – or were little more than hamlets or villages or a collection of hillside farms – before the industrial revolution.6

With the industries upon which these towns were built in terminal decline, the unions broken, and cultural institutions left at the mercy of ever-dwindling public funding, the capacity of working-class communities to organise and agitate for a better alternative was greatly diminished. While a “real legacy of the coalfield’s radicalism and democratic tradition” is still palpable in the “grassroots, communitarian lines of solidarity”,7 there is no longer the “community infrastructure to connect individuals to the [Labour] party hierarchy”, as Alex Niven writes of the similar plight in the north of England.

In the case of Welsh Labour, while a degree of influence has been retained due to the “folk memory of tribal attachment” and the institutional power afforded by the devolution settlement, there has been a neglect of the working-class communities whose existence necessitated the building of those institutions in the first place, and consequently the “tradition of civic labourism that used to turn workers into voters” has retreated into little more than rhetoric and symbolism. The connection between post-industrial communities and the “party founded on the experience of workers attached to specific workplaces” has evaporated into a “desocialised and privatised society”, leaving the defeated and fragmented working class to succumb to capitalist realism absolutely; a totalising force which was, as Fisher writes:

an attitude promoted by New Labour – what was New Labour if not instantiating the values of capitalist realism? In other words, we resign ourselves to the fact that there is no getting around capital: capital will ultimately run things, and all we can do is perhaps bolt on a couple of tethers as gestures towards social justice. But essentially ideology is over, politics is over: we are in the era of so-called post-ideology, the era of post-politics, where capital has won. This so-called “post-political” presentation by New Labour was one of the ways in which capital realism imposed itself in the British context.8

Labour have done very little to make up for this democratic deficit, despite apparent gestures to the contrary. In Wales, for instance, much of this entrenched “attitude of resignation, defeatism and depression”9 has been facilitated by a Welsh Labour government that has been powerless to mitigate a calculated misdirection of blame for austerity from central government to devolved institutions, be they ‘regional’ assemblies or local councils.

This so-called “devolution of the axe” is in actuality an obfuscation of the lines of power connecting people to state. Devolved government has not brought ‘politics’ closer to the Welsh people, but has simply obscured how the state works and where power currently lies: it exhibits all the gestures of decentralisation without any of the democratisation that should be inherent therein. This mass political disenfranchisement is therefore an inherent consequence of these structures of governance in the UK, as Leeworthy suggests:

Austerity sits at the apex of a range of social divisions, but at times its close association with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in London has provided all-too-convenient cover for decisions that need not have been taken or for which there were alternatives. Closing a library or leisure centre, changing the school entry age, moving bin collections from weekly to fortnightly or monthly, or removing funding for liberal adult education (that is, learning for learning’s sake) is a course of action decided upon here in Wales by us, not forced by Whitehall diktat.

There has been a distinct lack of will within Welsh Labour to articulate the limits of the powers it finds itself holding. Its neglect of its traditional electorate therefore ultimately lies in this failure to account for the “deep structural weaknesses in its dependency on the relationship between place and political loyalty”, as Niven puts it, and as a consequence: “there is no longer much material basis for working-class identification with the Labour Party, and very few community hubs are left to provide centres for a revived communitarian Labourism”.

This is the legacy of neoliberalism in Wales, of devolution, and ultimately, of Welsh Labour itself. A downtrodden electorate, fractured communities, with no obvious means of changing political settlements or challenging existing power. The malaise in Welsh politics can thus be defined as a fundamental disconnect between the demos and the sites of power, as Leeworthy hints at: “Devolution’s current slide towards a failure to engage its electorate is tantamount to an unwillingness to look properly at the possibilities and problems of state-supported grassroots activity.”10

This, too, is ultimately the reason for Plaid’s recent liberalisation: rather than being bold (or capable) enough to critique the entire system of government, and of class relations generally, the party finds itself wedded to institutions and paradigms that it should be antagonistic towards because it cannot conceive of a coherent alternative, and is moving away from the idea that, as Evans writes: “To take power, Plaid need to become hegemonic in these ostensibly ‘non-political’ areas of society too.”“

Broadly, Plaid is offering neoliberal solutions to neoliberal problems, proposing an ‘alternative’ that “simply finds a different way to live”, rather than an ‘oppositional’ politics that “wants to change the society in its light”, as Raymond Williams puts it.11 The more Plaid resembles the practices and messaging of the Progressive Alliance, the more it appears a party already pre-incorporated12 into that which it is ostensibly challenging: identifying symptoms of poverty without critiquing their causes; questioning the British state without interrogating the nature of state power generally.

It seems apparent then that the two centre-left parties in Wales, whether explicitly aligned with the rest of the Progressive Alliance or not, exhibit much of the same pathological status quoism: at once trying to maintain a failing political orthodoxy while at the same time hoping to suppress or recuperate the desire for “wide-ranging social transformation” generated “from below”.

The challenge for the left, therefore, is to bridge the gap between communities, political parties and sites of state power, to re-empower the dispossessed and build a coherent socialist movement organising for a socialist government. At a UK level (or possibly just in England, to be less generous), there are clear signs that the Labour left is starting to recognise this challenge and is developing methods for overcoming it. Partly through the wholesale democratisation of the party’s institutions, but also through a reinvigoration of community organisation programmes to rectify the possibility that thus far “the surge in activism behind Corbyn has yet to spill over into society as a whole”, as Daniel Finn writes.

In Wales, however, these possibilities are complicated by the limited scope for reforming Labour and the strategic timidity of Plaid Cymru. The grassroots left therefore has limited options electorally: passively place all faith in Plaid as it ambles along the same rightward trajectory as Labour; hope against hope that Welsh Labour politicians defy all conventional wisdom and transform themselves of their own accord; or wholeheartedly attach to Corbynism (despite repeated evidence that Wales will always be an afterthought for a homogenised UK-wide project), suppressing all pretensions towards autonomy and despite the high risk of eternal Tory rule.

Welsh independence as social movement

There is, however, another nascent force quickly gaining traction, the urgency of which has been accelerated by the existential threat Brexit poses to the constituent countries of the UK: the push for full independence, a radical reorganisation of state power that absolves Wales of Westminster rule altogether. In a refreshing reaction to the turgid machinations and partisan little empires of devolved party politics, IndyWales is a grassroots movement that recognises the structural fragilities and power imbalances of the British state and the socio-economic problems entrenched therein, and challenges itself to find ways of overcoming them. As Polly Manning explains:

Faced with the inadequacy of formal structures of power in Wales, this ‘new’ wave in the Welsh independence movement indicates a growing trend towards grassroots activism – one which is unafraid to consider structural change as a solution to decades of impoverishment and democratic neglect.

Presently this movement is somewhat reminiscent of the rise of Corbynism during its euphoric stage following the 2017 General Election: a vibrant community on social media, a rising number of enthusiastic supporters within political parties and activist communities, rallies and marches growing in mass and vibrancy.

Crucially, more than just being a lumpen expression of cultural nationalism, this new independence movement has largely manifested as a latent reaction to social conditions and popular disenfranchisement. Much like the 2014 Scottish independence campaign positing itself as “a social-democratic refuge from Tory austerity if it broke with the UK”, the concept of an autonomous Welsh state is increasingly thought of as carrying this same potential for escaping eternal Tory austerity, especially among younger people who have grown used to “Wales-centred institutions” but remain frustrated with the lack of true enfranchisement hinted at by devolution but never delivered. This is not about nationalism, but about connecting communities with existing spheres of power and governance; or better yet, reshaping them into forms that better serve them.

Also heartening is the increasing porousness of the movement between perceived geographic divisions among Welsh society: its growth can be traced not just in Y Fro Gymraeg where Plaid Cymru finds its most ardent supporters, but in the coalfields and post-industrial towns of ‘Labour Country’. As Manning continues, whereas in the past Welsh nationalism as a material culture was “viewed as largely exclusive to a small and stereotypically-conceived section of Welsh society”, this new movement is changing that, and “as Brexit continues to fuel discontent across the UK, thoughts of Welsh independence have re-entered the mainstream.”

Despite this outpouring of energy and optimism, this independence movement still lacks a coherent political articulation, and manifests most viscerally as an aesthetic, a ‘structure of feeling’. Writing for Undod, a group keen to ensure the movement foregrounds demands for “social, economic and environmental justice, not simply independence for its own sake”, Manning stresses the limitations of “discussions in the margins” among disconnected individuals who “[proclaim] the dream of an independent Wales, without explaining why they’d want us to be independent in the first place”. Instead, the movement needs to:

[bring] these individuals together into a collective dedicated to the vision of an equal, prosperous, outward-looking country, and the achievement of this through radical and visionary means that the political establishment has failed to utilise. It’s not just another political party – it’s a movement by the people, for the people.

To take this movement forward, it’s clear that this latent ‘populism’ must be converted into a clear programme for obtaining electoral power, without subsuming itself into the structural limitations of Welsh party politics that has necessitated its existence in the first place. There is an inherent tension here that needs to managed carefully, for although IndyWales is free from being “channeled through a long-established party with a century’s worth of organisational baggage”, as we see with Corbynism, there is still the need for some sort of collective organising principle. As Fisher writes,“‘If you do not have something like a party structure you do not have institutional memory, and you just end up repeating the same mistakes over and over.” There is still a kernel of value, then, in the party-led organising with which these communities were so intertwined:

The odds might be stacked in such a way that we do keep losing, but the point is to increase our collective intelligence. That requires, if not a party structure of the old type, then at least some kind of system of coordination and some system of memory. Capital has this, and we need it too to be able to fight back.13

This movement therefore must keep in its collective memory what Huw Williams calls “the historic struggle of the miners and the possibility of heroic protest as inspiration to seek another world” in the face of a “subdued society with little solidarity, protest or industrial struggle”. The Welsh working class may have had their means of solidarity smashed, but the people and communities haven’t simply dissipated. The remnants of the Labour movement in Wales may be drifting away from the Labour Party, but the “ambient disaffection” discussed by Fisher is still there: it just requires a means of being converted into a “sustainable antagonism”.

This is where the political party as an organisational force becomes so important: on the left, they must exist not as a recuperation of organic movements and a homogenisation of diverse activist groups, but as formalised expressions of solidarity. This is why Labour’s democratisation efforts are so crucial if Corbynism is to reach its potential, and why a party mechanism so necessary for the Welsh independence movement to channel its disparate demands into system of shared and organised values that can agitate for a new political settlement. As Paolo Gerbaudo writes, the re-emergence of the political party as an organisational force on the left:

is a reflection of the party-form’s fundamental political necessity, particularly in times of economic crisis and growing inequality. The political party is the organizational structure through which the popular classes can unite and challenge the concentrated power of the super-rich and of economic oligopolies; that is, challenge the same actors that have used the financial crisis to impose a spectacular transfer of wealth in their own favour.

IndyWales thus exemplifies the risks of a movement remaining directionless, lacking a true counter-hegemonic capacity, if it is not clear through which institutions it needs to march, and without a party – or parties, as the case may be – to steer it through them. The scope of this movement is limited unless it too spills over into everyday life, becomes a material culture, occupies political institutions and sites of power. It is analogous to Corbynism in this respect, and shares similar challenges of hitching the transformational potential of a mass movement to a party institution in order to fundamentally reshape modes of political power.

A true ‘progressive alliance’

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the fallout of the Brexit crisis, it’s that the only materially meaningful ‘progressive alliance’ is class solidarity: anything else is simply the obfuscation or ignorance of this social truth. British public life over the past 40 years has been defined by this erasure of the remaining semblances of class struggle. If the left in Wales (and across the UK) doesn’t foreground this basic reality, then the struggle for power in a post-Brexit society – whether as the current British state, a federal reconstitution, or its breakup altogether – will only be a symbolic gesture.

As a starting point, this fractured class and its constituent social movements across the UK need to be synthesised into a socialist ‘populism’ and basic consciousness that necessarily questions the current structure of the British state. As Laurie Macfarlane notes, this ‘democratic revolution’ should be a non-negotiable starting point for any aspirations towards building a popular socialist movement across the whole of the UK:

[Now] is not the time to be defending Britain’s broken democracy. Instead, we should be demanding a democratic revolution. Abolish the House of Lords? Why not. Establish a written constitution like most normal countries? A no-brainer. Decentralise power across the nations and regions? It would be crazy not to. Allow referendums on self-determination for any nation that wants one? That’s democracy.

To achieve this, a number of ‘progressive alliances’ worthy of the name will need to be forged, which take into account that this resurgent left needs to be agile enough to form modes of solidarity that break out of stultifying party structures and untenable state formations.

Most fundamentally, there must be a meaningful and resilient link between the social base of the movement(s) and their associated political parties. For English Corbynism the means of achieving this are already well-charted; for the Welsh left, it is not so straightforward unless it can wrestle party institutions away from technocratic centrism. In Plaid Cymru, Adam Price – as one has come to expect – says all the right things in this regard,14 suggesting that political history won’t be “written for us in the marbled halls of Whitehall and Westminster” but in “by us in the streets and shops, the pubs and clubs, the homes and hearts of our nation”; yet this centrality of democratisation isn’t in evidence in his neoliberal vision of Wales’ future, and certainly isn’t observable in the party’s “grubby” scheming with the Progressive Alliance in Westminster. For Welsh Labour, any potential for a radical programme under new First Minister Mark Drakeford are undermined by the apparent paucity of his “socialist credentials”, their legacy in government thus far, and their continued “crippling partisanship” in the Senedd.

Despite their records and apparent trajectories, both parties do still possess the potential within themselves to progress a leftist movement in Wales. Plaid Ifanc, the party’s youth wing, are extremely effective at formulating and disseminating progressive thought; while in Welsh Labour, interestingly, the pro-independence advocates Labour for IndyWales are responsible for the most critically imaginative ideas seen in Welsh Labour in recent memory. Both these groups seem to be exerting an increased influence on their parent parties: despite a liberalised leadership, Plaid Cymru is still by far the most vital propagator of radical ideas in Wales, while Welsh Labour’s increasing concern about the impact of a no deal Brexit is causing it to countenance the merits of self-determination like never before.

Alliances must also be formed between parties in order to forward a coherent leftist vision for Wales and beyond. Dan Evans’ assertion on this point remains true:

the best case scenario for the people of Wales would be a progressive anti-austerity coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru…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.

Hearteningly, the extreme measures the Boris Johnson administration is prepared to take to preserve the Union and force through a worst-case-scenario Brexit programme seems to have forced an extra degree of Plaid–Labour solidarity in the Senedd, suggesting that Tom Nairn’s ideal conception of Welsh national politics may yet be realised:

If Welsh nationalism can arrive at a viable political integration of its contending elements, then many others can hope to. If the ideal, ‘cultural’ nation can be reconciled with the industrial one here, then the formula may eventually be copiable elsewhere. Nationalism has always been a struggle to connect romantically-conceived tradition and culture with the need for modern social and economic development. In modern Welsh history these two things are thrust together with special intensity, perhaps imposing a duty of political leadership on the nationalist movement.15

Plaid must also be made aware that greater powers for Wales will likely only be delivered through sympathetic support in Westminster: that is to say, a Labour government amiable to, at the very least, a federalised reconstitution of the British state. Their current ‘Progressive Alliance’ collaborators in Westminster will not be so kind, to the point of actively suppressing these goals, so a closer fidelity with Labour and with Corbynism will be essential. If Plaid are to be true to their socialist and humanitarian roots, they should also be agitating for a Labour government in Westminster to help facilitate rapid change in policy areas that no Welsh institution has power over: welfare, for instance, isn’t devolved, and as such presents an urgent problem that our most vulnerable citizens cannot wait for a long-termist solution to. As Leeworthy notes:

To be blunt: the people begging on the streets of Cardiff are not able to wait for ‘independence’. The people who cannot get housing or live in houses not fit for purpose are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those communities which will be torn asunder by Brexit are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those living in the care of the state are not able to wait for ‘independence’. Those elderly people who are living isolated in communities are not able to wait for ‘independence’. And those who deserve a twenty-first century education are not able to wait for ‘independence’.

As far as England is concerned, the Labour-supporting left there would do well to understand that it may find willing collaborators in parties other than its own (compare the personal politics of Leanne Wood, Bethan Sayed and Delyth Jewell, for instance, with those of Owen Smith, Stephen Kinnock and Nia Griffith), and that a grassroots non-Labour left in Wales is ripe for a greater circulation of ideas that both sides would find beneficial. The idea too that “Labour need Scotland and Wales if they have any chance of gaining power in Westminster” should be a cause not just for a greater realisation of how important it will be for the viability of English Corbynism for it to become less dependent upon supporting votes from an increasingly ambivalent Wales and Scotland. This would represent not a centrist-style non-partisanship that erases class differences in the name of ‘grown up politics’, as defines the Progressive Alliance, but one that forges class solidarity over and above party divides and national borders.

Finally, it must be incumbent upon the left in all parts of the UK to recognise that a radical and necessary re-distribution of power in this undemocratic, overly-centralised state will depend upon a flexibility to forward different solutions to different nations and regions. So while Leeworthy is correct to say that “changes that we seek are not constitutional so much as materialist” and “[your] antagonist is not a family living on a meagre income in Darlington but the state that enables that to happen”, it serves no community to homogenise austerity across the UK and be confident that the state in its current formation is the only means through which an alleviation can be delivered. Those feeling the full consequences of austerity may have “a common problem” but, as Macfarlane notes:

The only way to defeat [The Johnson government] is to seize the agenda by offering a radical shake-up of Britain’s democratic structures…Britain’s constitutional crisis has been a long time coming. It’s not pretty, and it might not be on the terms of our choosing. But we can’t afford to let the crisis go to waste.

It is only through considering these points, and through building new forms of solidarity, that we can build a better country (or countries in a federalised or post-British-state settlement), and a better movement. On the left we need to ensure that any ‘alliances’ formed are ones borne out of working-class solidarity – across ‘national’ borders, among communities and, where necessary, beyond party lines. These alliances must be deeper and beyond mere parliamentarianism, in service of forging a true coalition of class interests based on coherent material demands for a long-lasting and resilient socialist politics.


  1. Adam Price, ‘Wales, the first and final colony’, in Wales: The First & Final Colony, Y Lolfa 2018, p51. 

  2. Price 2018, p45. 

  3. See Dan Evans, ‘What’s the Matter With Wales?’: “In Wales, Labour’s trajectory is best described as partial Pasokification. Labour’s decline could, and probably should, have been even worse. Labour has not yet lost Wales as it did Scotland because Plaid Cymru, the left-wing nationalist party, still remain associated with the minority Welsh language to many people in Labour’s heartlands, and have therefore not been able to capitalize on Labour’s weaknesses with a social program. Labour have also been saved by Wales’s broken public sphere, by the fact that Wales has no media worthy of the name, and few people in Wales knows who is in charge of what. This has allowed Labour to escape scrutiny for their record in government, allowing them to portray themselves as outsiders when they are in power.” 

  4. Daryl Leeworthy, Labour Country: Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wales 1831–1985, Parthian 2018, p17. 

  5. See Mark Fisher, ‘Not Failing Better, But Fighting to Win’ in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher 2004–2016, edited by D. Ambrose, Repeater 2018, p522: “[We] really need a narrative about the decline of solidarity and the decline of security – the neoliberal project achieved its aim of undermining them.” 

  6. Leeworthy 2018, p3. 

  7. Leeworthy 2018, p17. 

  8. Fisher 2018, p522. 

  9. Fisher 2018, p521. 

  10. Leeworthy 2018, p1. 

  11. Raymond Williams, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’ in Culture and Materialism, Verso 2005, p42. 

  12. See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books 2009, p9. “[The] old struggle between detournement and recuperation, between subversion and incorporation, seems to have been played out. What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.” 

  13. Fisher 2018, p530. 

  14. Price 2018, p23. 

  15. Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, Verso 1981, p212. 


related

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.

Detoxifying Welsh Labour

Despite the leftward shift of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, in Wales it’s hard to be filled with much enthusiasm.

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.

Detoxifying Welsh Labour

Despite the leftward shift of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, in Wales it’s hard to be filled with much enthusiasm.