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.

For the first time in living memory, the opportunity to build a mass socialist movement within the UK feels possible, and it could even be on the cusp of obtaining state power. Yet despite the leftward shift of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, in Wales it’s hard to be filled with much enthusiasm. Here, any hope is met with the daily reality of what living under a Labour government is actually like when the centre-right of the party clings on to power.

It has been almost twenty years since the inception of the devolved Welsh Assembly, and Labour has been the main party of government throughout. And yet devolution – largely conceived of as a Blairite sop to quell any fledgling left-nationalism, rather than the mass enfranchisement of a nation – has failed to deliver any meaningful material benefit to the Welsh people. Why Wales Never Was, Simon Brooks’ extensive account of British liberalism’s recuperation of radical Welsh nationalism, provides a useful summary of Welsh Labour’s catalogue of failure:

Devolution since 1999 has delivered a series of disasters: the NHS in crisis, a widening of the gap in GDP between Wales and England, an education system falling down international league tables, north Wales turned into an internal colony of Cardiff, the collapse of Welsh as a community language everywhere outside Gwynedd. The fault for these public policy failures lies firmly with the Labour Government which has governed unchallenged in Cardiff Bay since 1999.1

To a certain extent, these shortcomings are the inevitable result of devolution being exploited as a mechanism to enact damaging Westminster policies while letting a devolved government take the blame. As Daniel Evans notes, the “passive revolution” of devolution “was not designed to be an economic dividend. It was not designed to revitalise democracy in Wales (a laughably absurd claim). It was not designed to lead to further political powers.”

Yet even when taking these obvious constraints into account, Welsh Labour has done little to combat the ideological constitutions and economic consequences of successive UK governments. Westminster-mandated neoliberalism has been transformed by the Welsh government into a post-industrial cargo cult. The Welsh working class are utterly disempowered, reliant on First Minister Carwyn Jones’ sycophantic salesmanship to bring in the next wave of low-quality jobs to areas caught in a spiral of inescapable poverty. Thatcherism may have left an indelible mark on the nation (the south Wales valleys in particular), but it is Labour who has project-managed the economic stagnancy, the political stultification, the quiet misery that has followed.

Throughout its time in power, Welsh Labour has evaded retribution for this by positioning itself as timid dissenters towards whatever mode of power was emanating from London. Initially, it could posit itself as an alternative to Anglo-Blairism, with inaugural First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s ‘clear red water’ providing the necessary ideological differentiation. Post-2010, this was made even easier when the opportunity arose to insulate Wales, however thinly, from Tory-led austerity. With a left-leaning Labour leadership in Westminster, this politics of lesser evilism is looking rather obsolete.

Mercifully, in Wales the Tories’ longstanding toxicity has continued to be indefatigable, which should give Labour tremendous freedom - at least, if the leadership of the party was in the right hands. Under the current hierarchy, however, Labour’s electoral hegemony in Wales has rendered the party resolutely centrist, meaning that “all the other parties in Wales continue to define themselves in relation” to them. For instance, the left-wing void opened up by this centrism has been ably occupied by Plaid Cymru, whose voting record in the Senedd is far more redolent of Corbynism than Labour’s, as Evans attests to:

Corbyn’s leadership has shone an embarrassing light on [Welsh Labour’s] 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.

While ideologically it would seem that Plaid Cymru (at least in its modern incarnation) is in tune with Wales’ celebrated socialist heritage, Labour’s one-partyism has ingrained a near-total political paralysis into the voting public. Labour’s hegemony, rather than providing a stable platform for progress, has bred complacency in the party establishment, and political apathy in the electorate.

The historical fractures of Wales as a nation also play no small role in its incapacity to generate a leftist insurgency outside of Labour’s embedded political infrastructure. Despite all that has changed in the meantime, the makeup of nominally left politics in Wales has altered little from Raymond Williams’ description of the 60s and 70s: “There was a new Wales of the industrial valleys, and the old Wales of emptying rural areas. The relations between them have always been fraught and this uneasiness is reproduced in Welsh political thinking.”2

This, combined with the widespread information deficit, lack of political literacy, and near-absence of a national media to provide government scrutiny, makes a credible leftist challenge to Labour orthodoxy unlikely. As Ifan Morgan Jones observes, “the problem for Plaid Cymru is obvious: Given the choice between two similar left-of-centre parties, voters will always pick the party most likely to actually form a government”.

In many ways, then, the challenge for pro-Labour left activists in Wales is much the same as it is in England and Scotland: the building of a grassroots socialist movement while overcoming the pallid counterrevolution of the party’s centre-right hierarchy. At parliamentary level, there are many Welsh MPs who, if the Labour party were to be truly democratised, would be prime candidates for deselection: Chris Bryant’s anti-devolutionist stoogism; Stephen Kinnock’s beige technocracy; Nia Griffiths’ pernicious militarism; Owen Smith’s relentless commitment to being Owen Smith.

Kinnock and Smith in particular exemplify Westminster parachutism of the worst kind. Their nebulous authentocracy presents a hollowed-out vision of working-class Welshness designed to speak not to their own constituents, but to a London-based political and media class. They represent neither the will of their constituents nor the direction of the Labour parliamentary leadership. Excising them from power would be a necessary first step that reinvigorating a Labour Party that actually works to better the interests of Welsh people, much in the same way that a newly left-led Scottish Labour is seeking to “break away from the idea that workers are constituents to be protected from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism and move towards the idea that they can be active agents of change”.

At Assembly level, with First Minister Carwyn Jones strongly suspected to resign sooner rather than later, and the upcoming deputy leadership election likely to be something of a proxy vote for instigating a ‘one member, one vote’ policy for future leadership elections, there is much to be fought for. Until then – and if it even happens – Wales will be resigned to the same zombie New Labour stultification that has plagued it for the last two decades.

Put simply, if the Labour left wants to mobilise its long-standing voter base in (parts of) Wales, transform the Welsh Labour establishment, and build a new mass movement, it must first acknowledge, atone for and overcome the party’s own disastrous record. If it fails to do so, there may come a time when the Welsh voting public finally seek an alternative: hopefully a socialist, independence-minded Plaid Cymru; or, pessimistically, an embracing of the absolute worst of far-right British nationalism.

While by 2022 Labour in England can defeat a decade of Tory austerity, in Wales Labour is tasked with, in a manner of speaking, defeating itself. The upshot of this is that whereas in England Labour must quell internal battles before finally being enabled to fully combat the Tories, in Wales if you win the internal battle, you win national power (for all that’s currently worth under devolution).

If these (not insubstantial) issues are overcome, there is the potential for Wales to be the vanguard of Corbynist policies across the UK. The entrenchment of Labour in Wales means that the immediacy of need to build a left movement must take place within the party. There is simply not enough time to build something from scratch, or from within Plaid Cymru. This paralysis must be turned into an advantage for the left. A left-controlled Labour Party in Wales would have almost free reign (within the current constraints of the post-devolution settlement) to enact any devolved political programme it wishes, but it must overcome its own toxicity first. Power is available now, and it should be taken.

  1. Simon Brooks, Why Wales Never Was, The Failure of Welsh Nationalism, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017), p126 

  2. Raymond Williams, ‘Decentralism and the Politics of Place’, in Who Speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity, ed. by Daniel Williams (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), pp. 204–211 (p207)