There are signs of real desperation within Wales’s New Labour ranks. First Minister Rhodri Morgan has stated that there is ‘clear red water between Cardiff and London’. Ron Davies, the former Welsh secretary, has weighed in with a warning that Labour could lose the election to Plaid Cymru, stating that if the Labour manifesto is not radical enough they will face meltdown in the polling booths.
It is difficult to make an accurate prediction due to what is expected to be a very low turnout. Plaid feels that it could hold on to the Rhondda and Islwyn seats, and is very confident that it will be re-elected in the Llanelli seat–these are all heartlands of the Labour Party. Plaid has also targeted Pontypridd and the Cynon Valley constituencies where they feel they are in a position to beat Labour. Again these are the areas of South Wales where the Labour Party has been in power for generations. The crisis sweeping Labour is now so profound that a few tinkerings with the manifesto are not going to be enough to galvanise workers to turn out to vote for them like in the days of old.
The Welsh Labour Party has also become short of the footsoldiers it needs to campaign for it on the doorstep. It is reported that Ron Davies’s own Caerphilly constituency is having difficulty finding enough members to make it quorate. Around the area of Blackwood, where I live, the decline in the Labour Party organisation is significant. The ex-mining communities of Fleur-de-lis and Ynysddu, which a few years ago had Labour Party branches, have no such organisation today as members have dropped out of activity and left. Newbridge Labour Party is reported to have been haemorrhaging members over the last couple of years. Cardiff Labour Party has already selected its prospective councillors for the election in 2004 to ensure they had enough people to campaign for the party in the May assembly elections.
The social and political presence that the Labour Party had in local communities, workplaces and welfare clubs has declined markedly as the party has moved further and further away from what Welsh workers perceived as its reason for existing. Thousands of workers in the valleys and beyond funded the party through individual membership and trade union affiliation. The sense of despair and hatred towards New Labour in these communities is very real. It would be wrong to write off the Labour Party in these areas–however, the decline in membership and organisation does leave a vacuum that socialists outside the Labour Party need to contest. The danger of the hostility towards the deprivation caused by New Labour being directed towards asylum seekers is a very real one.
At present Plaid Cymru has cleverly positioned itself to the left of New Labour. On the London anti-war demo there was the Plaid national banner and placards held by 300 of their members. In meetings and demos throughout Wales they have spoken in support of the anti-war movement. On domestic issues Plaid has looked decidedly more Old Labour than the Welsh Labour Party. Its policy is to oppose PFI within the public sector and it has spoken out in favour of the FBU and asylum seekers. Plaid has also cooperated with the Socialist Alliance in meetings to discuss the political fund and its democratisation. All this puts pressure on the Welsh Labour Party as well as local trade union officials. The Welsh TUC has banned Plaid from holding stalls at its conference this year in response.
How socialists react to Plaid Cymru’s popularity is central to trying to establish a vibrant and rooted left alternative to New Labour. We need to understand that the motivation for people in Wales switching their vote to Plaid is not a particularly nationalist one, though there is an element of that present. Workers in those stalwart areas of Old Labour feel totally betrayed by the New Labour project.
Plaid starts from the disgruntlement of former Labour supporters and connects with them with its talk of ‘Old Labour’ values. It then adds a nationalist twist with references to how Wales has been specifically underfunded and cannot get a voice in Westminster. Added to this Plaid obviously raises the issue of the language, but is careful not to make this central in the former coalfields of the South Wales valleys, as this is not experienced as the most important issue concerning people. Plaid’s brand of nationalism is flexible and allied to a social democratic ideology similar to that of the Labour Party.
Socialists should not conclude that Plaid’s success at the polls is a sign of a major increase in nationalist ideas among Welsh workers. However, socialists do need to take on their arguments with regard to their solutions for Welsh workers. This is the weak link for Plaid. It accepts all the arguments of the free market and its consequences. It talks of the need to encourage Welsh businesses, which they see as more progressive than ‘foreign capital’. At the same time it states that it would continue to encourage US and Japanese firms to invest. This implies the continuation of a low wage economy and huge tax handouts to the multinationals. These are the very policies which turn people against New Labour in the first place. Only grassroots-based, locally responsive socialist politics can provide a real alternative.
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