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Socialism Today 137 - April 2010

How left is Welsh Labour?

Many opponents of the idea of a new workers’ party have pointed to Welsh Labour as a model for the whole Labour Party. But just how ‘old Labour’ is it? Could it be used to advance the struggles of the working class? These questions are discussed in Clear Red Water, by Nick Davies and Darren Williams, chair and secretary of Welsh Labour Grassroots, a left group in Welsh Labour. They conclude that Welsh Labour is fundamentally different from New Labour and argue for socialists and trade unionists to work within and with it. DAVE REID assesses their claims.

Clear Red Water: Welsh devolution and socialist politics, by Nick Davies and Darren Williams. Francis Boutle Publishers, 2009, £7-99.

THE BOOK’S TITLE is taken from a speech in December 2002 by Rhodri Morgan, then leader of the Welsh Labour Party and first minister in the Welsh assembly. Morgan claimed that Welsh Labour and the New Labour government in Westminster had diverged so greatly that there was now "clear red water" between them. This speech was made prior to the 2003 assembly elections to distance the Welsh Labour Party as far as possible from the unpopular Blair government. Morgan proclaimed himself an unashamed socialist, talked about the limits of the market, attacked the idea of foundation hospitals, and claimed the Welsh assembly government was carrying out a process of ‘de-commodification’ of public services. Six months before the 2007 assembly elections, he claimed that Welsh Labour was pursuing "21st century socialism – a Welsh recipe".

The fact that the leader of Welsh Labour thought that claiming to be a socialist would win him votes is, in itself, significant at a time when all capitalist observers say that the ideas of socialism are dead and buried. It is true that Welsh Labour has carried out different policies in the provision of public services from the neo-liberal Blair/Brown governments that amount to a quite different, more social-democratic approach. In the health service, Welsh assembly governments have repudiated foundation hospitals and private diagnostic and treatment centres, merged the trusts and local health boards (equivalent to primary care trusts in England) to remove the internal market in the NHS, abolished prescription charges, and begun the abolition of hospital car parking charges. The current One Wales coalition government has signed an agreement to oppose the privatisation of NHS services.

In education, they abolished SATs and league tables, rejected academies, introduced assembly learning grants to compensate Welsh university students for top-up fees, agreed more reasonable rates of pay and conditions for lecturers and teachers than England, and are considering re-incorporating further education colleges (in effect, renationalisation).

Across public services, Welsh Labour claims to avoid using private finance initiatives (PFI) where possible and has introduced other reforms, like free bus passes for pensioners and the disabled. Overall, it is claimed, policies are based on the comprehensive provision of services rather than the means-testing of New Labour, and a co-operative rather than commercial approach.

Clearly, these reforms should be welcomed as far as they go. But we should not exaggerate them, which Davies and Williams sometimes do in their enthusiasm for the Welsh Labour project. In education, SATs have been replaced by assessments that, according to primary school teachers, involve even more paperwork. Welsh schools still face the Orwellian and exhausting farce of school inspections by Estyn (the equivalent of Ofsted). And the means test for assembly learning grants are going to be narrowed to provide funds only for students from very low income backgrounds, leaving most working-class students to face the full force of top-up fees when they are raised by the UK government. Nowhere do the authors mention the extensive school closure programme across Wales, which prompted a huge reaction from students, parents and teachers.

Glossing over failure

BUT IT IS in the NHS that Davies and Williams gloss over the failures of Welsh Labour the most. It is true that there are no foundation hospitals and private diagnostic treatment centres in Wales. But the first two Welsh Labour assembly governments were quite happy to privatise some NHS services and put all new services out to tender. The fiasco of the privately-provided Cardiff out-of-hours service occurred under Welsh Labour. Millions of pounds have been handed over to private hospitals to carry out NHS work. Private management consultants have been brought in to direct public services like private businesses.

Prior to the 2007 assembly election, Welsh Labour put forward a widespread hospital closure programme in its ‘Designed for Life’ NHS reorganisation. Ostensibly, the plan was to lessen the need for patients to use hospital services by developing primary care services in the community and encouraging healthier living. This was a laudable aim, but Welsh Labour planned to close and merge hospitals before the primary care services were in place. Socialist Party Wales argued that primary care services and healthy living plans should be developed but the extent of their benefits were unknown and would take years to work through the system. Only if better health reduced the need for hospital services, should the merger of hospital services be considered.

Hospital mergers were the most important issue in the 2007 election campaign. Socialist Party Wales played an important role in mobilising opposition to Labour’s closure programme in Swansea and the South Wales valleys, having led the campaign to re-open Cardiff Royal Infirmary. Socialist Party members, working with other community campaigners, organised a large march through Swansea to oppose ward closures. All the major parties jumped on the bandwagon, especially Plaid Cymru, which stood in many areas as ‘Plaid Cymru – Save Our Hospital’. That election was a serious setback to Welsh Labour, which won just 32% of the vote, and a boost to Plaid Cymru. In the One Wales coalition government between Welsh Labour and Plaid that arose, Designed for Life was killed off and the hospital closure programme cancelled. Welsh Labour’s policy was moved to the left, but against its wishes.

Davies and Williams skirt around these uncomfortable facts. They admit that "cutbacks undoubtedly cost Welsh Labour votes" without explaining how the Welsh Labour they extol could put forward such serious cutbacks in the first place. And they attempt to recommend the health policy which included the cutbacks, claiming that the "progressive thrust of assembly government health policy has not been sufficient to secure consistent public acclaim" – an interesting way of explaining the demonstrations, lobbies and protests against hospital closures! This they put down to the failings of ministers in explaining the underlying ideas behind the cutbacks and an allegedly hostile media, which has "left many Welsh people with a jaundiced view of the NHS in Wales". In fact, media coverage supported the view that cuts have to be made, and under-reported campaigns against them. Davies and Williams claim that "socialists have a major job to do arguing for Welsh Labour’s under-appreciated health policy". They welcome the consensus with Plaid Cymru to tackle the "difficult decisions that have to be made" in the "reconfiguration" of the NHS.

If Welsh Labour was genuinely carrying through reforms that significantly improved the NHS, socialists would not have to argue for them among the working class. Davies and Williams come dangerously close to becoming apologists for New Labour cutbacks. Welsh Labour has had to grapple with under-funding from Westminster under the Barnett formula which has been intensified by years of cutbacks in the NHS by New Labour and the Tories. But it has suffered in silence. A socialist health policy would fight for greater funding from central government, not impose cutbacks dressed up as reforms. Socialists should point to the advantages of a more publicly-oriented health policy but should not gloss over the huge shortcomings of operating within these spending plans and the largely private-oriented management of the Welsh NHS nor the restrictions from New Labour in Westminster.

Non-aggression pact

CLEAR RED WATER also appears to excuse Welsh Labour’s acceptance of the neo-liberal policies of the Westminster government, even though they correctly point out that any progressive policies carried out in Wales are often negated or undermined by the UK government’s policies. One passage exemplifies the contradiction at the heart of Welsh Labour and the book itself: "The Assembly government avoids, understandably perhaps… any overt criticism of the inequality fostered by UK fiscal policy", and that the assembly should "add to the pressure for a more progressive tax and benefit regime". Precisely. The assembly government is tied to the New Labour project and dare not criticise its core policies for fear of exposing the contradictions between the interests of the Labour leadership and those of its traditional working-class support.

One conclusion that the authors draw is that Labour in Wales is drawing away from New Labour and moving down an entirely different path: "The contradiction between progressive policies on the one hand, and top-down bureaucracy [of New Labour in Britain] on the other is unsustainable, in the long run… Eventually something will have to give". That is not necessarily so. New Labour and Welsh Labour have coexisted for over a decade – since Blair’s representative, Alun Michael, was forced out and replaced by Morgan. Since then there has been a non-aggression pact in which Welsh Labour has agreed not to agitate openly against the British leadership and New Labour has not interfered directly in Welsh affairs. Welsh Labour has been free to pursue a more social-democratic line because it has not threatened the New Labour project and has provided a host of right-wing MPs who have enthusiastically supported New Labour in Westminster. This may eventually come under strain as the Welsh assembly government’s policies came into conflict with Westminster’s but, if there is a Tory or coalition government in Westminster, that is unlikely. Equally, the campaign for more powers for the assembly, supported by all parties in the assembly, has caused friction with Welsh Labour MPs, who fear a diminution of their influence at Westminster as the powers of the assembly increase.

Of more importance is the question that the authors hint at, as to whether Welsh Labour is becoming more of a workers’ party. They counter-pose the centrally controlled regime of New Labour to the more ‘matey’ atmosphere of Welsh Labour, but admit that the New Labour regime makes policy change very difficult in Wales as well. Welsh Labour leaders have tolerated the stifling of party democracy because it suits them as well.

Lenin in the 1920s famously described the Labour Party as ‘a bourgeois-workers’ party’: its base dominated by workers but whose leadership represented the capitalists’ interests. He saw little political difference between the Liberal Lloyd George and the Labour leader, Arthur Henderson, but recognised the great significance of the Labour Party as a vehicle through which workers struggled in Britain: "a special kind of labour organisation of four million members, which is half trade union and half political and is headed by bourgeois leaders".

In the 1990s, New Labour’s pro-capitalist leadership succeeded in completely insulating itself from the pressure of the working class by emasculating its working-class base and transformed the party into a capitalist party. While a dwindling band of workers cling onto their Labour Party membership cards and many trade unions continue to bankroll the party, the worker base of the bourgeois-workers’ party has been eliminated as a force within the party, leaving the pro-bourgeois leadership free to pursue capitalist policies. Clear Red Water graphically describes how it is virtually impossible for Labour members to reverse New Labour policy through the operation of the national policy forum (in Wales, the Welsh policy forum), a mechanism for ensuring the absolute rule of the leadership. Parliamentary candidates are filtered to ensure that they pose no threat. The remaining socialist MPs are a dwindling number with no influence over party policy.

Outside pressure on Welsh Labour

IN THE PAST, the Labour Party was seen as a vehicle through which the working class could struggle. Different campaigns and trends of the working class were represented in what was described as ‘a parliament of workers’ movements’. Now the Labour Party in Wales is as moribund as it is in the rest of Britain. Ward parties are often combined to ensure that they can meet at all. Constituency general committees barely meet once every three months. The working class has voted with its feet. Indeed, in some areas, workers have clearly broken with Labour. In Blaenau Gwent and Wrexham, People’s Voice and Forward Wales split away using socialist phraseology. They refused or failed to broaden their support from their local areas and have not taken off as viable alternatives, as workers’ parties, but did show the potential for a new workers’ party to get mass electoral support.

It is not enough, however, to point to social-democratic policies or left phrases as evidence of a genuine movement away from New Labour. It is true that a social-democratic wing has gained ascendancy within Welsh Labour but that has not been through a process of workers moving into the party to swing its policies to the left. Rather, at each stage, Welsh Labour was forced to the left by being rejected at the ballot box in its traditional strongholds as workers voted for more radical alternatives.

In 1999, Labour lost seats across the South Wales valleys to Plaid Cymru, which was posing as the left alternative. That weakened Michael, and led to his replacement by Morgan. In 2005, Labour lost Blaenau Gwent, its safest seat in Britain, to People’s Voice. In 2007, its vote fell and it was forced into the One Wales government with Plaid Cymru, since when it has implemented its least neo-liberal policies. The working class, without a party to represent it, has pushed Welsh Labour to retreat from carrying out some New Labour policies by voting for other parties, especially Plaid Cymru. This has frustrated the Blairites in Wales and strengthened the position of the social-democratic wing of Welsh Labour. But it has not caused any significant problems to the New Labour leadership in London. The two trends have been able to harmoniously coexist because Welsh Labour has not threatened the Blair/Brown leadership of New Labour.

Davies and Williams write that "some will argue that [the lack of democracy] demonstrates that Labour is fundamentally dysfunctional. Our view, however, is that, as long as millions of people look to Labour to advance their interests, efforts to democratise the party have a broader relevance". But it is not true that millions look to Labour to ‘advance their interests’. Many still vote for it because it is seen as the least bad of all the parties or to stop the Tories but there is very little hope of Labour in Wales, as in the rest of Britain, advancing workers’ interests.

Moving towards a new workers’ party

A WORKERS’ PARTY is needed that stands for the interests of the working class, and through which it can fight, bringing together all the workers’ interests into a common party and acting as a catalyst for struggle. Welsh Labour in no way plays that role. So Davies and Williams are mistaken when they argue that "the experience of fighting for, winning and defending such progressive policies will raise the consciousness of and increase the morale of working people so that they can make further conquests".

Nevertheless, in the struggles that are opening up after the general election, new developments are possible. A Tory or coalition government is likely to come into conflict with the Labour/Plaid assembly coalition as it cuts public spending. While the One Wales government is unlikely to decisively confront a Tory Westminster government it would pose as a left alternative and attempt to deflect the blame for the cutbacks away from itself.

Perhaps understandably, the authors do not discuss Plaid Cymru much. But its existence has played an important role in the development of Welsh Labour. Opportunistically, it has attacked Labour from the left and won the support of disenchanted Labour voters by posing as ‘old Labour’, even as socialist. Plaid has a larger group of socialistic assembly members than Welsh Labour who have been much more active in support of trade union struggle.

But Plaid in power in local councils, especially in Rhondda Cynon Taff and Gwynedd, but also in coalition with the Liberals in Cardiff, has continued the policies of Labour councils. In practice, there has not been much to choose between the policies of Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. While appearing to be more radical, Plaid Cymru is still a pro-capitalist party that does not rest for its support mainly on the working class. Its leadership’s support for the abolition of the assembly learning grant disillusioned some of its members and exposed the divisions within Plaid and the possibility of future splits.

The authors call for a closer relationship between the Welsh Labour left and the left of Plaid Cymru and pose the idea of a ‘Red-Green alliance’ also involving other left organisations. They argue that no one should have to leave their existing organisations although, rather ominously, they say that others must "agree to play a constructive role in a broad alliance headed by the socialists who command real mass support: those within Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru". Socialist Party Wales would be prepared to participate in any organisation that has the potential to develop into a new workers’ party provided it is organised on a federal principle and allows democratic discussion and debate. We have discussed the possibility of left splits from Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru that could develop into new formations as they combine with movements in the trade unions.

Overall, the ‘clear red water’ between New Labour and Welsh Labour is not very wide. It is more analogous to that between a ship and a small boat being towed behind it. The water between them is very narrow unless the rope tying them is severed. It cannot be ruled out that in the turbulence ahead the link could be cut. But, in the foreseeable future, workers in Wales will have to look to create new formations to begin the process of building a new party of the working class.


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