Discussion: The limits of (Welsh) Labourism – Darren Williams
Mark Drakeford AM addressed the recent Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) conference on the theme of ‘Austerity and Public Services’. Two days earlier, he’d covered similar ground in a Compass Cymru meeting that sought to identify a ‘Plan B for Wales’. On both occasions, Mark spoke as eloquently as ever; he demonstrated the same concern for the vulnerable, the same passionate commitment to social justice, that we’ve come to expect from him. And at the WLG meeting, in particular, he set out some stimulating ideas about the vision for public services that the left should seek to develop.
Yet several of us who heard him were struck by the downbeat tone that Mark adopted when he spoke about the current situation, suggesting that austerity was a fact of life, at least for the next few years, and that a degree of mitigation was all we could reasonably expect from elected Labour politicians. Those who attended our 2010 conference, only six months after the coalition had taken office, might recall Mark taking a rather more defiant tone on that occasion, as he comprehensively demolished the ‘rationale’ behind the cuts and demanded an alternative. I know I’m not alone in wishing that Mark’s continuing outrage at the Con-Dems’ savagery were still matched by the determination to take them on that he demonstrated two years ago.
Now, it is only with great reluctance that I dissent publicly from Mark’s assessment of the prospects for a practicable alternative to austerity. And I say that not just in deference to his formidable intellect but because of the great debt that we owe Mark. He, more than anyone, deserves credit for the preservation, in Wales, of a public service model consistent with the vision of Beveridge and Bevan; for our exemption from the Washington Consensus (privatisation, deregulation, markets and ‘choice’); and for the revival of a commitment to equality of outcome. But all Welsh Labour’s positive achievements are now jeopardised by the Tories’ determination to impose punitive cuts on those least able to bear them. Socialists cannot simply allow this to happen, offering only modest ameliorative measures.
To call for a more determined response than that offered by Mark is not to suggest any lack of political commitment or intellectual vigour on his part, or that of his Assembly Labour comrades. It is to recognise that even the best of our elected representatives are constrained by a governmental apparatus designed to inhibit radical change. Having accepted the responsibilities of office, even the most zealous reformers can find their horizons limited to what may be possible under current arrangements. Welsh Labour’s record shows how much good can nevertheless be done by a government that is committed to the interests of working people and the poor. But current circumstances demonstrate the limits of its modus operandi.
First of all, there are the very real constraints imposed by the constitutional settlement – which lend some weight to Mark’s short-term pessimism. The Welsh Government just doesn’t have the means at its disposal to compensate for cuts imposed by Westminster. Notwithstanding the recent vague commitment in principle to give Wales borrowing powers for infrastructure projects, it can currently neither borrow money nor raise taxes and it has no means to build up financial reserves in good times that could be deployed when money is short. There is little scope for intervention in the Welsh economy, given that most of the policy levers remain with Westminster. Mark Drakeford has certainly been energetic in pursuing all the possibilities that may exist to generate funds – whether it be a Welsh version of the Quebec Solidarity Fund, or the use of social impact bonds. But such innovations are unlikely to make a significant impact in the short-to-medium term. In the long run, Welsh Labour should at least take a less equivocal stance in support of tax-raising, as well as borrowing, powers – the Assembly could do with whatever enhanced financial autonomy may be on offer. For now, though, its options – as Mark recognises – are seriously limited. The question is, whether Welsh Labour can offer effective political opposition to the Con-Dem onslaught, even it lacks the financial resources to nullify the impact of the cuts in Wales.
Mark’s candid, if grim, prognosis that we’re stuck with austerity for the time being differs from the brave face adopted by most Welsh Labour AMs, who tend to want to emphasise what they can, not what they cannot, do. This reflects more than just an understandable reluctance to acknowledge weakness; it is also a matter of the credibility of the devolution project itself. Each step forward (1997, 1999, 2006, 2011) has been presented as a historic achievement, opening up new vistas of possibility; to admit that devolution has not yet conferred the means to neutralise a Westminster cuts programme might (for some people) call into question the value of the whole enterprise. So, Welsh ministers tend, as the old song goes, to accentuate the positive. The problem with this is that it risks raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled. It would surely be better to admit that the Welsh Government’s ability to defend the people of Wales from austerity is strictly limited and that our best hope of minimising the harm represented by the Con-Dem cuts is through mass pressure on the UK government for a change of course. But this leads on to another, and more fundamental, set of problems with Welsh Labour’s politics.
Welsh Labour is limited, I would argue, by a narrow conception of political action and leadership, focused exclusively on the formal channels of electoral and parliamentary politics. To this extent, it follows the liberal schema, which sees the ultimate prize in politics as the attainment of governmental office: winning an election confers the right to carry out the party’s manifesto commitments and thereby deliver the goods for ‘our’ people. But office is not the same thing as power –as some of the more radical past Labour ministers, like Tony Benn, have learnt through bitter experience. The power of the dominant class in advanced capitalist countries like Britain is exercised through numerous spheres of influence (e.g. the financial markets, the media, the senior civil service), which together constrain the ability of governments to bring about meaningful, lasting change. To recognise this is to conclude that, if we are to move society in a socialist direction, we must be prepared to challenge capitalist power on several fronts, employing a variety of tactics (this is what the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, called the ‘war of position’ – as opposed to the more direct ‘war of manoeuvre’, typified by the Bolshevik Revolution).
Thus, industrial action, mass protest and the development of new forms of grassroots democracy have an important part to play, alongside participation in the structures of formal politics. And when socialists win elected office, they should take the opportunity not just to implement progressive policies but to transform the structures of government themselves, opening them up to popular involvement (Len talked about this in last week’s bulletin/blog). The best example of this in Britain was provided by Ken Livingstone’s GLC in the 1980s: ordinary Londoners and community organisations were given an unprecedented opportunity to help formulate and deliver the council’s policies – an experiment deemed so dangerous that it hastened the demise of the GLC at the hands of the Thatcher government. The GLC was, however, very much the exception to the normal practice of Labour administrations. As Ralph Miliband (the late father of Ed and David) argued in his classic book, Parliamentary Socialism:
‘Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always … rejected any kind of action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conceptions of the parliamentary system.’
This is adhered to even more rigidly today, albeit without even a formal commitment to socialism (beyond passing reference in the revised clause 4). And Welsh Labour in the Assembly has, for the most part, proven no exception to this general rule (although it at least provided some practical solidarity when its own staff were striking against UK government policies – shelving Assembly business that would have required crossing picket-lines). The limits of conventional, ‘top-down’ governance may not have appeared too problematic when the Assembly was receiving sufficient funding to facilitate improvements in the scope, quality and accessibility of Welsh public services. But the savage budget cuts imposed by the Con-Dems have exposed the Welsh Government’s weak position, as a subordinate administration, lacking any financial independence and dependent on the grudging support of the UK government.
It is a reflection of Welsh Labour’s conventional, parliamentarist approach to political leadership that its ministers, having initially registered their disapproval of the cuts imposed by Osborne, have eschewed any further public opposition, instead relying on negotiation with Westminster to secure improvements in the financial situation. Without wishing to slight the undoubted cogency and tenacity with which Jane Hutt and her colleagues have been fighting Wales’ corner in such talks, it is hard to believe that any meaningful concessions may be wrung from a government so resistant to reason and compassion as the Westminster coalition. The recent joint statement on borrowing powers was presented as a significant step forward but it is so vague, and hedged about so much with conditions and non-committal language, as to appear virtually worthless. And all the while, the need to keep open the diplomatic channels between Cardiff and London inhibits Welsh ministers from condemning the coalition’s actions with the moral outrage appropriate to the situation – and, crucially, from rallying the opposition. There would seem little to lose, and everything to gain, from Welsh Labour taking a more confrontational approach vis-a-vis the UK government. It needs to assume the leadership of the anti-cuts movement in Wales, making clear that it is on the side of those whose wellbeing is under attack, rather than allowing anyone to imagine that the values and objectives of the two governments are in any way compatible.
So what, practically, can Welsh Labour do? Certainly, it should actively encourage trade union resistance to the cuts, offering unequivocal support in the event of further strike action over job cuts, pay restraint and/or attacks on pension rights. It should be made clear that the two wings of the labour movement are divided only functionally, not politically. The Wales TUC is committed – as of its conference last May – to organising a demonstration against austerity in Wales but, typically, is dragging its feet in implementing this decision. The Welsh Labour leadership should actively push for this demonstration to be organised as soon as practicable, should ensure that it is well-represented on the platform and should mobilise party members to attend. In fact, it should use every available platform to proclaim its opposition to the UK government’s programme and the need for resistance. When the GLC was threatened with abolition, it took out full-page newspaper adverts defending its record and opposing the Thatcher government’s attack on local democracy. The Welsh Labour leadership could do likewise to publicise the manner in which Welsh public services are being starved of funds by Westminster and to make the case for an alternative (if doing this in the name of the Welsh Government would seem to invite criticism for misuse of its dwindling resources, then the Assembly Labour Group could surely pay for such a campaign itself). Today, of course, the internet provides a much wider range of opportunities for making propaganda, which should be exploited to the full.
More than that, the Welsh party could take the responsibility for co-ordinating the response to the cuts by Labour councillors, affiliated trade unionists and party activists. It could organise a special conference to examine the situation in detail, facilitate discussion and mutual support, and attempt to hammer out a collective position. In fact, this is something that WLG members might want to propose, in the form of a contemporary motion, to Welsh Labour conference in March. This leads me to another important point: most of the comments I have made above are directed towards the views and actions of Welsh Labour ministers, AMs and the party leadership in Wales – but all of us within Welsh Labour (WLG members included) should accept some responsibility for any weaknesses in the party’s political approach. If our leadership’s public opposition to the UK government is not sufficiently robust, then we must take the initiative and push for a tougher approach. The Welsh Labour left has, over the last few years, been in the fortunate position of having a leadership whose actions have broadly reflected our own beliefs and policy preferences. Consequently, we’ve tended to step back and let them get on with it, offering only occasional muted criticism when we’ve disagreed with their approach. The stakes are now much higher, of course, and we need to up our game accordingly.
Finally, there is a particularly important role in all this for left-wing Labour councillors – of which there are now, happily, far more in Wales than before 3rd May. The useful panel discussion at the WLG conference highlighted the formidable challenges with which they have to contend. No-one should imagine that there are easy answers to the problems posed by austerity – we should reject the facile posturing of those on the far left who suggest that any councillor who votes to cut anything at all is a class traitor. But socialists in elected office must do more than go along with the path of least resistance, as recommended by Group leaders and chief officers. There should be no assumption that services must be cut back in proportion to the reduction in a council’s revenue support grant. Left councillors should demand that all other options – such as spending reserves, making use of borrowing powers and raising council tax by the maximum amount permissible (legally and politically) – are deployed before cuts are implemented that will adversely affect the wellbeing of ordinary people. These are discussions that socialist should undertake in collaboration with comrades elsewhere in Wales (and further afield) and efforts are now underway to facilitate those discussions within WLG. These are challenging times and we, as a left, must rise to the challenge.