Following New Labour’s disastrous election results on 1 May, the Neath Labour MP and former cabinet minister Peter Hain has written a pamphlet, Changing Wales: Changing Welsh Labour.
The pamphlet, published by Blairite think tank Progress, essentially calls on the Welsh Labour Party to enact the changes to its policies that New Labour undertook in England during the 1990s.
Hain argues that the nature of Welsh society has changed to such a degree that “Old Labour” type politics no longer have a mass appeal.
He says that Welsh Labour needs to look to what he terms the “aspirational vote” as well as the “core vote”. The terms are essentially bywords for middle class and working class voters.
Hain argues that the working class and its organisations no longer provide the mechanism by which Labour can dominate Welsh politics as it has done for generations.
It is a familiar argument – the decline of the mining and steel industries is seen as the end of the working class. Hain points to the decline of trade union activity in Labour but also to how wider working class social networks such as rugby clubs have declined.
He states that people live more private lives and gain their views via the television and not the workplace.
Hain is right of course that the mining and steel industries have been in sharp decline for many years. However the view that this somehow signals the end of the Welsh working class is fundamentally flawed.
Those working in the NHS, local government, education or service industries are part of the working class. They have to rely on collective organisation to better their conditions as much as miners or steel workers did.
The real reason for longtime Labour voters staying at home is the sense of betrayal caused by New Labour’s hand-outs to the rich, its worshipping of big business, its lies about the Iraq war, its commitment to privatisation and its scapegoating of immigrants.
Hain argues that it is wrong of the “ultra new Labourites” to simply expect “core voters” to keep turning up and to assume they have nowhere else to go. He cites the worrying vote for the British National Party.
However he fails to address the fact that the main haemorrhaging of Labour’s vote in the Welsh council elections was in its heartland of the valleys.
Here Labour voters in great numbers switched from Labour not to the fascists but to historically large numbers of independent candidates.
Many, although not all, of these independents are former Labour Party members and some are grouped around the Welsh Assembly Member Trish Law from Blaneau Gwent.
In the main the appeal of these independents is that they are seen as critical of New Labour from the left and able to connect with the concerns of working class communities in those areas.
Plaid Cymru also continues in the main to speak an “Old Labour” message – albeit now compromised by its coalition with New Labour in the Welsh Assembly.
Hain argues that the councils that Labour retained – such as Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend – did so because they took tough financial decisions and provided good services.
Of course Hain doesn’t mention that Bridgend council workers in the Unison union are contemplating strike action due to a deal which offers only a 12 month protection of wages, or that they have privatised meals on wheels and leisure service provision.
Likewise Hain argues that young people are not interested in politics.
Yet many school students took part in strikes against the Iraq war and school students in Pontllanfraith Comprehensive School in Caerphilly recently held a day’s strike and protest against teacher redundancies.
Surely Hain should be asking why the Labour Party has no appeal for these people.
There is no doubt that Wales has changed dramatically over recent generations. The loss of mining and the defeat back in 1985 of the Miners’ Strike still has a resonance in Labour heartlands.
Communities have been fragmented by these changes but the question is how socialists rebuild those traditions of struggle and solidarity.
The vast majority of workers still believe that there is a fundamental divide between the rich and those working.
Lastly, the very fact that middle class voters are described as “aspirational” smacks of the elitism running through New Labour.
The working class have aspirations – but these are for affordable housing, good healthcare and education, an end to wars and privatisation.
The real problem for New Labour is not how its message is spun but that it doesn’t share the aspirations of the mass of working people.
Hain’s message is a call for more of the same from New Labour and to remove what little was different in Welsh Labour from New Labour.
Welsh workers deserve better.
Huw Williams is a socialist activist in Blackwood, South Wales