New Solidarities in Wales

The 'clear red water' of Welsh Labour has not run as red is it could have in the last few years. What role can Wales play in this election?

There are numerous conflicting prognoses of Wales’ future, but in the present moment we know this much to be true: almost a third of children in Wales live in poverty; the rollout of the UK government’s latest punitive welfare regime will affect a third of Welsh households; a post-industrial plague of scarce, low-quality employment is leaving whole swathes of the country without basic means of survival. Within weeks, this same country can go to the polls and help hand power to a Labour government with the means and will to fundamentally reverse many of the political choices that have led to such cruelty. Whatever one’s long-term political project, this is not an opportunity to be spurned lightly.

Yet despite the prospective joy of witnessing the demise of this Tory decade, among the left in Wales any optimism feels rather subdued, and not without good reason. Most immediately, a Labour majority across the UK is far from guaranteed, and so while Labour will likely remain the dominant political force, the fortunes of Wales will remain at the mercy of the whims of Tory Middle England, and endemic impoverishment will continue regardless of Welsh consent. This pessimism goes deeper than mere electoral arithmetic, and its underlying causes give a vital insight into the terminal flaws of the current British state and its limitations on the prospect of a lasting popular socialism on this island. The Labour Party’s century-long custodianship of power in Wales tells us much about the efficacy of the left gaining and maintaining power in a state whose structures of governance are convoluted to the point of entrenching mass disenfranchisement.

These structural failures make themselves most explicitly known in the Welsh Assembly, where Labour have held power since its inception. Despite presiding over key policy portfolios – Health and Education chief among them – the Assembly’s budget is still beholden to Westminster. If governance of the UK is fiscally restrained, then so is that of Wales. The consequence is simply a devolution of blame for austerity, in which Welsh Labour are mere executors of whatever political will holds power in Westminster. 

This is not to suggest that no blame lies with Welsh Labour themselves. As with the valid critiques of many Labour-run councils across the UK, the Welsh Labour Government has done little to mitigate the effects of Tory austerity even within its limited resources, often appearing unwilling to consider, or even antagonistic towards, ideas towards its alleviation. Labour may not have been austerity’s architects, but in the lived experience of many in Wales, they have been its agents. It is Labour councils that have closed or weakened essential frontline services. It is the Welsh Labour Government that has consistently rejected the opportunity to implement progressive policies in line with the nationwide shift left in Labour. It’s not surprising that some in Wales have developed a cynicism towards the positive social transformation that Corbynism promises. 

Alternatives to Labour’s hegemony in Wales have emerged, but none are particularly viable in terms of having a positive impact on this election. Several years ago it seemed plausible that the Welsh left could embrace Plaid Cymru as a vehicle for a distinctly Welsh socialist movement. Now, however, the party has become a vehicle for an ‘anyone but Labour’ anti-politics, and has rejected previously held socialist principles in favour of an electoral pact with the austerity-enabling Liberal Democrats, a myopic and narcissistic tactic whose only practical application in many Welsh constituencies will be a Tory victory.

Dissatisfaction with the current devolution settlement, and the fear of being chained to Tory England in perpetuity, has also led to the gradual re-emergence of the Welsh national movement, which although still in the minority, is growing in public consciousness to a scale unthinkable even a few years ago. This is a truly grassroots, ‘from below’ movement, with an implicit cynicism towards British capitalism that could become as vital for the ‘British’ left as Corbynism is in England. Unfortunately, its political efficacy may be muted long before it has reached full voice: Plaid are apparently keen to recuperate the movement’s energy into their current mode of pallid centrism, while Welsh Labour – true to their long-held cynicism towards Welsh nationalism – are yet to understand the full value of this movement and its demands.

The challenge in Wales is to mobilise politically dormant working class communities to collectively work in their own interests. In many ways, despite being largely ignored in state-wide discourse, this is not all that different to the left in England: articulating support for the Labour leadership despite battling against the party’s underperformance in local politics; reluctantly voting for MPs that are actively antagonistic towards the will of the membership. The medium-term goal therefore is to bridge the gap between leadership and base in a manner that goes beyond merely democratising the party itself. 

‘Labour Country’ still exists, and despite premature proclamations to the contrary, the Labour Party will likely still dominate the electoral map of Wales. Where once communities were bound in solidarity by the extraction of labour in the heavy industries, now they can organise around unaffordable housing, poor quality and low-paid work, gentrification, and all of the contemporary consequences of austerity thrust upon the working class across the British state. To achieve this in Wales, Welsh Labour need to break through the neoliberal threshold that is the current devolution settlement, abandon the cargo-cult organising that attempts to revive old forms of social being, such as their fidelity to ideologies of ‘job creation’, usually in the form of foreign direct investment, that are of no lasting benefit to Welsh workers. From the ashes of the (post-)Thatcherite immolation of the old Welsh working class, new solidarities can be formed from new oppressions.

Fundamentally, the left in Wales and beyond should plan to redraw the political map of the UK in a way that radically redistributes power and wealth more evenly in this severely overly-centralised state. Within Wales, this means an agitation for Welsh Labour to embrace and synthesise the inchoate demands for self-determination with the popular socialism of Corbynism. This is the only way, in the present moment, to achieve a proper redistribution of wealth between nations, regions and classes. Hearteningly, this election’s Labour manifesto appears to grasp the importance of this, recognising that ‘thriving local councils are vital to Labour’s democratic transformation of the economy’, that for a ‘democratic revolution’ to occur ‘the people must be central to historic political changes’, and that decision making should be decentralised to ‘enable a shift of political power away from Westminster’. There is a recognition here that British socialism, should it ever hold meaningful power, will not be built in Westminster. It will be built in communities, in councils, in regionally and nationally devolved institutions. It will very likely not even be ‘British’. The core of Corbynism is simply a demand for radical democracy, and for that to mean something it must come from below, in whatever political forms ‘the below’ construct and demand. This is as true of English regionalism as it is Welsh and Scottish independence. 

As for Wales in particular, if this election is won, Welsh Labour will have the opportunity thrust upon them to prove what devolution could achieve with a left Labour government in Westminster, with all its prospective political and economic freedoms. Twenty years of ‘clear red water’, of radical rhetoric undermined by less-than-radical actions, will soon have to prove its worth. Wales needs a Corbyn victory: but it will then have to play its part in implementing the programme of Corbynism. In the short term and the long, the wellbeing of the Welsh working class – and the ability of Labour to retain their support – may depend on it.