06.07.2017
  • UK

What’s the Matter With Wales?

Corbynism might be the only thing that can save Labour's most reliable heartland from a historic turn to the right.

Cardiff, Wales. Walt Jabsco / Flickr

Wales is normally invisible. A country without a national media, which rarely sees itself on TV, in films, or in the newspapers. Recently, though, that has begun to change.

First, Wales voted for Brexit, despite receiving over €4 billion in EU structural funds since 2000. Then, in the 2016 assembly elections, UKIP — a party whose disgraced leader doesn’t bother living in Wales and revels in his chauvinistic Englishness — won seven seats, and made significant gains in the Labour heartlands of south Wales.

Now, faced with more austerity, early GE17 polls suggested that Wales might have returned a Conservative majority for the first time in its history.

But what lies behind this political tumult in this once safely Labour part of the world? And has the Corbyn surge, which has turned the national polls around, stemmed the tide?

Labour Is Wales, Wales Is Labour

The South Wales coalfield was one of the most radical in the world, the birthplace of “the miner’s next step,” a transformative document in the British Labour movement. Hundreds of men from the area volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War and, when Paul Robeson faced widespread discrimination at home, he was welcomed in Wales as a workers’ hero.

During the 1984 miners’ strike, the South Wales pits were the last to return to work. Welsh miners’ lodge banners are still emblazoned with radical slogans about internationalism and socialism, and town halls still have plaques to the miners who fell in Spain.

Wales has been ruled by Labour for nearly one hundred years, a one-partyism that is unique in the developed world. As Roger Scully puts it:

Labour have won at least a plurality, and often a majority, of the Welsh vote at every parliamentary and National Assembly election since 1922. Labour have also won a majority of Welsh seats at every UK general election since 1935. And they have always been the largest party, and always in government, in the National Assembly since its creation.

This dominance is so total that Welshness itself as a national identity is tied to Labourism, and is widely understood to be about working-class identity and political radicalism. Contemporary Welsh Labour politicians have actively appealed to this in their rhetoric, arguing that Labour is Wales and Wales is Labour.

Hand-in-hand with this blending of Welshness with Labourism is the common-sense assumption that the Tories are foreign to Wales. This is rooted in fact: historically, the Tories have fared far worse in Wales than they have anywhere else in the UK. It was Aneurin Bevan, forged in South Wales, who famously called the party “lower than vermin.”

But — being disproportionately dependent on heavy industry — Wales was utterly decimated in the 1980s by Thatcher’s neoliberal policies. It was to become a free-market policy laboratory under her zealous Welsh secretary John Redwood. Prior to Thatcher, Wales, like Scotland, had been well integrated into the British state. This integration, mediated by the Labour party, was largely based on the material benefits Wales had accrued under the postwar welfare state. The extent of this satisfaction with a social-democratic UK was demonstrated in 1979, when Wales, unlike Scotland, overwhelmingly rejected the idea of moderate political representation.

The trauma of Thatcher’s tenure and her hollowing-out of the welfare state caused a crisis of legitimacy within the British state. As a now-famous piece of graffiti put it, Wales had voted for Labour and got Thatcher. This democratic deficit, combined with economic immiseration, led to unrest. Nationalist parties began to make electoral inroads in Wales and Scotland as the “Celtic fringe” grew detached from the British state.

In response, after years of prevarication on the issue of “home rule,” Labour made devolution to Wales and Scotland a central pillar of their modernizing agenda. In 1997, Wales narrowly voted for the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. In the general election of the same year, the Conservatives were wiped out in Wales, losing all six of their seats. In 2001, again the Tories failed to win any seats. But this weakness was not to last.

Losing Wales

Given this history of Labour dominance, why might the Tories be on the rise in Wales? The caveat is that this “shock” swing to the Tories is somewhat misleading. Firstly, Wales’s “official” national history is myopic, written by Labour-leaning intellectuals. The narrow focus on the heroic radical tradition obscures the fact that Wales contains significant internal diversity, a product of the uneven penetration of the industrial revolution combined with its rugged topography.

The areas which are likely to vote conservative on June 8 are not dyed-in-the-wool heartlands — if these areas voted conservative then we would have a story — but rather the complex border and coastal regions. While the old coalfields have remained stuck in a spiral of economic decline, many of the areas poised to turn conservative are relatively affluent, particularly around the Cardiff city region, which is fast becoming a city-state similar to London. This reality has been obscured by the first-past-the-post voting system.

Wales is not all coalfields and terraced houses. There are many natural Tory voters even in a country as poor as Wales. These areas possess neither the radical local political culture of the former coalfields nor the inoculation of the Welsh language, no local cultural apparatuses which can refract the messages of the British press. They therefore historically tend to conform to the political swings that occur in England. So in 1983, when the UK voted Conservative, they voted Conservative. In 1997 they voted Labour, as Labour surged across the UK.

Wales does have a proud socialist tradition, like many other Labour areas across the UK, but it also has a history of conservatism. Its worrying move from Labourism to UKIP-style nationalism is not so unusual when one considers the contradictory nature of the British labor movement as a whole. As Marx and Engels noted this movement managed to combine radical syndicalist views with national chauvinism and militarism, born of the privileged position of the British worker in empire.

While it is hyperbolic to suggest that Wales will “turn Tory,” Labour has been hemorrhaging votes for years. Indeed, between 1997 and 2005, Labour’s vote share fell more in Wales than in Scotland or England. In the 1997 general election, Labour achieved 54.7 percent of the vote share in Wales, generally getting over 70% of the vote share in the former coalfields, reflecting its previously unassailable position in these areas.  By 2001, however, this fell to 48.6% across Wales. In 2005 this fell to 42.7%. In 2010 it fell to 36.2%, before rallying slightly at 36.9% in 2015. In contrast, the formerly toxic Tories have steadily made incremental gains, creeping from 19% of the vote in 1997, to 21.4 in 2005, 26.1% in 2010, and 27.2% in 2015.

In Labour heartlands, the vote share has declined dramatically. In Rhondda, for example, the archetypal Labour area, Labour’s decline has been staggering. In 1997, Labour won 74.5% of the vote in the Rhondda. In 2001, after the former Tory and arch Blarite Chris Bryant was parachuted into the area, this dropped to 68.3%, as popular Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalist) candidate and Rhondda native Leanne Wood made significant gains. In 2005, Plaid fielded a new candidate, and Labour’s vote stabilized somewhat. In 2010, however, this fell to 55.3%. In 2015 this dropped to 50.7%, with UKIP winning 12.7% of the vote. Since 1997, Labour have lost 14,400 votes in this region.

In other Labour heartlands like Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Aberavon, Neath, and Ebbw Vale, the story is the same — declines of around 20%. Labour have ultimately shifted from an unassailable position to one of vulnerability in the areas where the party was born.

Corbyn Surge

More recent polls show Labour rallying in Wales. At the beginning of the general election the Tories were leading by ten points, a remarkable position for the party given its history in Wales. But the last poll of the election gives Labour a twelve-point advantage. Equally remarkable as a turnaround. In fact, pundits are now predicting a Labour landslide.

How polls have shifted in Wales since the start of 2017. @britainelects / Twitter

This is being greeted triumphantly on Twitter by Corbyn supporters. But optimism can cloud judgement. Undoubtedly, the national Labour manifesto has proven popular. But it was, to some extent, disowned by Welsh Labour. To understand the politics behind Labour’s improvement in Wales it is crucial to untangle the relationship between this entity and the Corbyn-led party in Westminster.

On paper, Welsh Labour doesn’t exist as a separate entity. It is simply a branch (like most other things in Wales), with decisions emanating from London. A common attack line from Plaid Cymru supporters is that “there is no such thing as Welsh Labour.” Carwyn Jones, “the most senior Labour Party politician in the UK” by virtue of holding office, is on paper simply the leader of the Labour group in the Welsh Assembly. But this is not the reality. As Dai Moon notes, Welsh Labour enjoy significant autonomy over policy in the devolved areas which it manages as the Welsh Government. Twenty years of being in charge in Cardiff has created a very distinct party. Welsh Labour have carved out a distinct role for themselves, essentially created something out of nothing.

In the past, Welsh Labour shrewdly managed to position itself, rhetorically at least, to the left of “English” New Labour.  Since the election of Corbyn, an actual social democrat, Welsh Labour in government have struggled to define itself vis-a-vis London. Welsh Labour constituencies tended to support Corbyn over Owen Smith, but many in the Assembly backed Smith.

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.

Carwyn Jones, the leader of Welsh Labour, has on numerous occasions tried to distance himself from Corbyn and once seemed to be angrily defending his patch against “interference” from his seniors in London. The Welsh Labour manifesto is an entirely separate document from Corbyn’s. Indeed, it contains no mention of Corbyn, instead overwhelmingly focusing on the “Welsh“ dimension. Confusingly, much of its focus is also on elements which Welsh Labour already has power over.

Corbyn’s national polling surge is undoubtedly a factor in Labour’s rise in Wales — but there are many others. The huge flaws in Theresa May’s dreadful campaign and her palpable lack of any charisma or ability seems to have stemmed the tide of UKIP voters to the Tories. Carwyn Jones has recently launched a wise campaign against them, too, which may well dredge up painful memories of the eighties and early nineties, potentially ensuring that voting Tory remains a step too far for many people in Wales. It also seems likely that Labour will take votes from Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats as the campaign becomes focused on keeping the Tories out.

Learning the Lessons

Whatever happens on June 8, Labour’s decline in Wales over the last two decades demonstrates the problems and failures faced by the party. It should in particular be heeded by optimistic newcomers to the Labour Party, many of whom seem to be (like Corbyn himself) largely oblivious to devolved issues or the recent history of the Labour Party in Wales and Scotland. What many Corbyn supporters fail to appreciate is the extent to which Labour itself is responsible for its downfall in Wales as well as Scotland. A left-wing leadership was never, on its own, going to be enough to reverse decades of neglect.

This profound ignorance of devolved issues and the realities of life in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland infects the British left commentariat, which is overwhelmingly Anglo-centric. During the 2014 Scottish referendum, Labour were the driving force behind “Project Fear,” a right-wing scaremongering campaign against Scottish independence. They got into bed with the Tories, ran the people of Scotland down, and displayed a nauseating, militaristic British jingoism. That toxic legacy will not be forgotten. The cost of winning the referendum was Scottish Labour.

But Labour had begun to lose Scotland long before that, because of their behavior over the last half century of dominance. And the reason Labour’s votes have declined in Wales are nearly identical.

As the most deprived part of the UK, Wales needs a strong voice, without which the Tories are apt to leave it to rot. But ever since the “gang of 6” disrupted and undermined the campaign for devolution in 1979, Welsh Labour MPs in Westminster have a patchy record on lobbying for constitutional reform and political representation for Wales. A recent article starkly illuminates this:

Labour MPs elected from Wales will not form a distinct “Welsh Labour” grouping in the Commons. They will follow the whip of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They have shown on many occasions that when there is a conflict in policy between the Welsh Labour Government and the PLP — notably over what further powers should be devolved — they will vote with the PLP every time. Plaid Cymru is far more consistent, for what it’s worth, in the way its politicians vote at Westminster and in the Senedd.

In one now notorious incident, Welsh MPs didn’t bother to turn up at a debate over the Wales bill. In another, Welsh Labour in the Assembly included devolution of policing as a pillar of their Assembly election manifesto. When this bill then went to the national parliament, it was vetoed by their colleagues, led by Corbyn opponent Owen Smith.

Successive Labour shadow secretaries for Wales — ministers whose specific remit is to fight Wales’s corner in Westminster — have voting records which don’t match up. Many simply don’t bother turning up at important debates about Wales’s constitutional future (including Lord Hain, Nia Griffiths, Jo Stevens, Owen Smith, and Christina Rees). Much of this owes to naked self-interest: the more powers that are devolved to Wales, the less importance for Welsh MPs.

One-Partyism

Many of Wales’s political and social problems are a legacy of one-partyism, which has had an extremely pernicious impact on its political culture. In large chunks of Wales, Labour’s dominance has meant that politics, and certainly voting, ceased to matter long ago for many people. One-partyism removed the incentive to govern in a responsive manner and the Labour Party in Wales, as in Scotland, have famously run local authorities and constituency parties like personal fiefdoms, fully aware that incompetence will go unpunished.

Corruption has been widespread, just as it was in Scotland before the SNP breakthrough. Under one-partyism, people advance and achieve positions of power not through their political competence or vision, but through party loyalty. Labour in Westminster have taken advantage of the common trope that people in south Wales would vote for a donkey if it had a red rosette on it, regularly parachuting Blairite cyborgs into safe seats.

But most pernicious of all is the way Labour itself in Wales became warped and corrupted by power. This is not unique to Labour, of course, it happens to all parties which find themselves in this position. It often seems that Labour’s sole reason to exist is not to govern or to improve the lives of local people, but simply to cling onto power at any cost.

They have displayed an enormous, often terrifying capacity for the dark arts in Wales, aided by their control of the union apparatuses and by their friends in the Welsh media. Relentless smear campaigns against Plaid Cymru frequently extended into attacks on the Welsh language itself; opponents are deliberately misrepresented; in West Wales, local Labour councilors campaigned with UKIP against the opening of a Welsh language school.

Another favorite Welsh Labour tactic is to take advantage of a lack of press scrutiny and campaign against their own policies, allowing them to consistently present themselves as a party of opposition despite being in charge in Wales. So as Welsh Labour shut hospitals, Welsh Labour lead the local protest against the closures; as Welsh Labour evict people, Welsh Labour campaign against evictions, and so on.

Labour’s dominance has created a mindset that Wales belongs to the party. In Scotland this manifested itself as the “Bain principle,” where Scottish Labour’s policy was to oppose any bill or motion tabled by the SNP out of principle, regardless of value. During the recent steel crisis in Port Talbot, rather than forming a broad front against closures, Labour and their supporters in the unions spent much of their time attacking Plaid Cymru’s attempts to help with the campaign. This tribal approach has, unsurprisingly, been interpreted by many people as an arrogance — especially given Labour’s own failings to deliver progressive reforms in government in Wales.

Economic Strategy and Short-Termism

Even with Welsh Labour in power, and at times with Labour in power nationally, Wales has been locked in a cycle of grinding poverty for decades. It is one of the poorest countries in western Europe, while southeast England is the richest region. In many ways, Brexit was a cry for help. People desperately want their living standards to increase and hope for a better future. Journalists interviewing residents in Welsh areas during the Brexit campaign pointed to the town-center improvements, the shiny buildings paid for by EU money. The response was that people needed new jobs, not new buildings.

Devolution was billed as an “economic dividend,” one that would improve life in Wales. Since devolution, however, Welsh Labour’s strategy to reverse the effects of deindustrialization has essentially amounted bribing parasitic foreign capital to move to Wales, creating a patchwork of low-quality, insecure jobs; and attempting to militarize the Welsh economy. This is short-term economic thinking, and will perpetuate Wales’s status as a declining region. But for too many Labour politicians in Wales, this “any job at any cost” approach reaps short-term gain: each branch plant opening gets headlines, the opportunity to cut a ribbon.

It is hard to reverse the effects of deindustrialization, the tendency of capital to agglomerate and to follow the path of least resistance. This is why certain places stay poor and certain places stay rich. Unfortunately for Labour, its core support lies in these devastated postindustrial parts of the UK, and Labour’s vision for these areas over the last twenty or so years has not been inspiring.

Corbyn’s gas-and-water socialism is a good start, but Labour will need more radical solutions to solve the economic problems faced by Wales and the north of England. Under the current economic paradigm, these places have become obsolete. If inspiring solutions are not forthcoming from the left, people will turn to the radical right with its simple message and promise of order and rejuvenation.

Many Labours

Like many others in Wales, I grew up supporting Labour. But over years observing their operation in a one-party system, the failure to address the area’s problems, the arrogance and dishonesty of their approach and, ultimately, the subservience to capital, I had become convinced that Labour was unsalvageable.

Under Corbyn, however, the Labour Party has returned to the ideals that inspired me to become a socialist. Despite Welsh Labour’s assumption that Corbyn is electoral kryptonite, I suspect that Corbyn’s message is resonating with many people in Wales who left the Labour Party long ago. But Corbyn supporters have to appreciate the realities of Labour’s legacy and Labour’s rule in Wales (and Scotland) before they can work out how to win back their core support.

Any socialist strategy in the UK has to understand the complexity of the Labour party itself: Labour is not a monolithic entity, but contains multiple, often contradictory scales and moving parts. It says a lot when the singer, anti-austerity campaigner, and Corbynista Charlotte Church displays a more nuanced understanding of the different scales within the Labour Party than most Labour campaigners. When attacked by Labour supporters for her alleged “hypocrisy” in supporting Plaid Cymru in the Assembly elections, she tweeted “It’s the Welsh assembly elections. Carwyn Jones is the leader of Welsh labour, not Corbyn. I still also support Corbyn.” Church’s sentiments and voting intentions are not uncommon.

For Corbyn to travel to Wales and attack Plaid from the left, or to do the same to the SNP in Scotland, is a pretense that to many won’t stand up. The reality is that the Labour Party in Scotland and Wales have been some distance to the right of left-nationalist parties on many issues for many years. Putting a Corbyn plaster over this will not solve the problem. Nor will deferring to Kezia Dugdale in Scotland or Carwyn Jones in Wales provide answers — however much pressure there may be in the party to do this.

The political developments which have impacted on social-democratic parties across Europe within the last few years have occurred within the Labour party, impacting different regions and scales of the UK party in different ways. In Scotland we saw Pasokification, whereas in England, Corbyn’s leadership has brought new and dynamic movements and campaigners into the party.

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.

On June 8, Labour looks likely to survive in Wales. But the fact that they were weeks away from losing it to the Conservatives in a historic swing must be a wake-up call. If Corbyn wins and life goes on as normal, it will prove a temporary reprieve. Once this all blows over, the journalists will go home, and Wales’s social tragedies will continue to be ignored. Unless the socialist promise of the Corbyn campaign is made real in Wales, Labour will look more like a cause than a cure.