Thursday, November 20, 2014

Being positive about all-women shortlists

By Siobhan Corria

A perfect storm is brewing in the Welsh  Labour Party following NEC decisions to make some Parliamentary and Assembly seats, ‘All Women shortlists’. I am fiercely pro any measure to reduce inequality and all women shortlists are a method to increase female representation in politics and a welcome initiative.  The party membership in my own constituency, Cardiff North voted for an all women shortlist for the 2015 Parliamentary seat, but I doubt this decision featured heavily in the local press.

All women shortlists often seem to be embroiled in controversy and clearly divide opinion. Cynon Valley is a good example, with the sitting MP Ann Clwyd choosing to stand again but having to face selection in an all women’s shortlist.   There is no need to increase female representation in this instance so the decision to have all women shortlist for a sitting female, Welsh, MP seems nonsensical.  Hence the controversy and the fall out between Welsh Labour and the CLP.

So why are people so against all women shortlists but why are they so necessary?  I don’t think the argument for all women shortlists is understood widely because the argument hasn’t been made well enough.  Encouraging more women into politics isn’t a numbers game but that’s the way it’s heading and it’s time to encourage deeper thought about the need for all women shortlists.  Politics has a credibility issue across the UK because those who represent us don’t feel to be representative of us. As Hackney MP, Diane Abbott wrote this week – ‘the Labour movement has an over-representation of white-collar Westminster insiders’.

We absolutely need a diverse mix of people representing our diverse communities and with varied backgrounds in order to ensure innovative and creative policy setting. A mix of different people is more difficult to manage as any manager understands and politics is no different.  But there is no escaping the fact that this is what people want and need in order for confidence in our politicians and the main political parties to return.  Managing diversity is complex and leaders shouldn’t shy away from it but embrace it and make the case for diversifying politics.

The statistics regarding female representation in Wales speak for themselves.  There have only been 13 female Welsh MPs in 96 years.  Unless something radical is done, female representation in politics will not increase.

All women shortlists are a step in the right direction, so how can we make the case so that they aren't always mentioned when the NEC has imposed it or because a CLP doesn't want an all women’s shortlist, but because a CLP recognises the need and want a female representative?

If the Labour Party in Wales is serious about equal gender representation because it firmly and passionately believes that diversity results in better decision-making and creativity and a more representative pool of talent, then lets have a clear strategy based on guiding principles for achieving this goal.

In practical terms, give members a timetable for selections in good time and in order to make the application process seem achievable.  Ensure that women are enthusiastically encouraged to become politically active by CLPs, with support from Welsh Labour.  A mentoring scheme would be helpful, so that CLPs can actively implement support mechanisms for women who are thinking about progressing in politics.  But these ideas are dependent on the infrastructure to support the practicalities and administration, which seem to be missing at present.  The rhetoric must be substituted for activity and a real and genuine drive to diversify politics.

I think my idea of politic could be perceived as somewhat idealistic and not achievable in the short term.  So the short term goal should be to address the culture that exists within political parties, to ensure people from different backgrounds are welcomed and encouraged and debate and challenge is seen as commonplace rather than people being encouraged to smile for the camera but not offer depth of thought.

To not have a clear strategy for diversity in Welsh politics undermines the need for equality and until a more open and transparent decision making process is established, justification for increasing gender representation through measures such as the all women shortlists will always be sought.  This only makes it more difficult for this argument to be won and further embeds inequality in our politics.

If Welsh Labour thinks that it has made strides because of all women shortlists being imposed, how does it address the lack of BME, disabled, LGBT representatives?  There is a long, long way to go and any strides will only be dependent on careful planning and member engagement.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A response to Nick Davies

By Peter Rowlands   

Nick has written a piece with which I broadly agree, but I would like to make a few points by way of a response.

1. An illegal budget. Without a large campaign, backed  by the Labour party, such actions are bound to fail, although we are all in part responsible for not having generated such a movement - which, as Nick has said, is desperately needed. If Labour adopts an anti-austerity line in the run-up to the election, that would be the springboard, but despite the overwhelming strength of the arguments in favour of this, the Balls austerity line looks as though it will win the day (and perhaps lose Labour the election).

The ‘dented shield’ remains the best approach to local authority cuts, but we should spell out why, not only to TUSC and the Anti-Austerity Campaign in Wales, but to the LRC, to whom we are affiliated and who still peddle the 'no cuts' line, reaffirmed I believe at their last conference.

2. Barnett. At least there is a Labour commitment to look at this again, but that is not likely to be worth very much, as the retention by Scotland of their much more favourable Barnett allocation has already been conceded. Catch-up in Wales would be expensive and generate further demand from the English regions.

3. Cuts. The big cuts in health three years ago were damaging and should have been avoided, although that has been recognised and the focus has now shifted to local government, which will now feel the full force of the Tory cuts. A thorough reorganisation of local government and other public services could achieve savings, but the current proposals are insufficient and would not yield results for some time.

4. UKIP. It might have been hoped that the 'British/English’ appeal of UKIP would have resulted in a much smaller vote for them at this year’s Euro elections in Wales as well as Scotland, where they got only 10%. But Wales’s 26%, although lower than anywhere in England outside London (17%), was almost the same as the average UK vote.There is a UKIP problem in Wales, including all the solid Labour areas where they came second in all, and where, as Nick indicates for Merthyr, there must have been a substantial switch from Labour for them to have achieved the results they did.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Return of the Dark Times

by Nick Davies

‘A naked people under an acid rain’ was how historian Gwyn Alf Williams, in closing his 1985 book When Was Wales?, memorably summed up the predicament of Wales and the Welsh.  The description encapsulated the Westminster-imposed de-industrialisation which was leaving Wales poor, the environmental cost to its people of Wales’ industrial past and the democratic deficit, famously encapsulated by the graffiti, ‘We voted Labour, we got Thatcher’.

Twenty years later, those dark times must have seemed a long way away. Wales had its own devolved government, a budget settlement from Westminster which,  by courtesy of a sympathetic government in London,  was increasing year on year,  and,  for the  more gullible, Gordon Brown  was announcing that he had re-written the laws of motion of capitalism and ‘put an end to boom and bust’.

We know what has happened since and two recent events remind us that, updated from the 1980s, the dark times are back with us.

The first event is the announcement of the Welsh Government’s provisional budget for 2105-16 under which Wales’ 22 local authorities will, between them, receive £146 million less: a 3.4% cut and a cumulative reduction of 10% in real terms from the settlement of  2010-2011.

Welsh council leaders have correctly warned that these cuts will result in the dismantling of key services and will test the ‘very fabric’ of communities.  Some of these are communities which, despite the interventionist efforts of the Welsh Government since 1999, are still poor after the 1980s and have been hit hard by Westminster’s attacks on social security – in particular, due to the nature of much of the housing stock, the bedroom tax.

Labour councilors are in an invidious position; they appreciate only too well the impact of these cuts on the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities, the people that voted them in and put their trust in them.  They have to try to preserve jobs and services. But they also, by law, have to set a balanced budget, otherwise, officers could simply step in and do the job, with a result that would almost certainly be worse. Those who managed to get through the last budget round without too much damage now find they have to do it all over again, only more so.

However, it is irresponsible, in the present circumstances, to demand that a Labour council should stand alone and set a deficit budget. Neither is it realistic to expect the Welsh Government, presently without the powers to borrow or raise taxes, to set a deficit budget. Councils might feel emboldened to consider such an approach in response to action from the labour movement and communities against the cuts – but, unfortunately, no such action is forthcoming at the moment.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) has complained that, for the second year running, local government has been ‘bottom of the pile’. The tendency among some in Labour local government circles, particularly those with residual anti-devolutionist sentiments, will be to blame the Welsh Government. No doubt many will be quick to see public services minister Leighton Andrews – widely regarded, while education minister, as having a centralising agenda and little time for local government – as the villain of the piece. However, it is necessary to look past Leighton, and the ongoing discussions about whether local authorities in Wales have the capacity to deliver public services effectively, to identify exactly where these cuts are coming from. And that, of course, is the Westminster Government, which has cut once again the block grant paid to the National Assembly.

Moreover, local government has been relatively well served by devolved budgets.  Welsh councils have, until the last two years, been free from the ‘English’ cuts imposed by Pickles over the past five. Further, for two years now, the Welsh Government has plugged the gap left by abolition of council tax benefit, saving Welsh councils from having to chase the poorest for arrears. Welsh governments are, under the present financial system, engaged in a constant juggling of priorities – in the present budget, robbing Peter (local government) to pay Paul (the NHS).

The government of  millionaires who serve the interests of the their paymasters in the City, and whose constituencies include Witney, Maidenhead and Epsom and Ewell, are happy to see Labour politicians in Wales blaming each other for cuts which threaten the health, well-being and life chances of some of the poorest communities in Western Europe. Their ability to divide and rule in this way reflects the fact that, notwithstanding the laudable efforts of both the Welsh Government and various Labour local authorities to alleviate the hardship faced by Welsh communities, there is no broad, all-embracing labour movement-based campaign against austerity.

The other recent event that makes the 1980s seem more contemporary was Cameron’s announcement that there would be no change in the formula by which the Welsh government receives its funding from Westminster. Devised in 1978 as a short-term solution and now disowned by its author, the former Labour treasury minister Joel Barnett, the Barnett formula adjusts funding on a per capita basis, rather than in relation to need. According to the economist, Gerry Holtham, in the way spending is allocated to correspond with spending in England, Wales, loses out by £300 million per year.

This is an argument that has been rumbling on for some years now, but the immediate context was  Cameron’s moment of panic that he might be the leader of the Conservative party who ‘lost’ Scotland and a series of on-the-hoof promises to keep Scotland in the UK. The events around the Scottish referendum saw Cameron at his most cynical: wheedling and sentimental in his overtures to the Scots but quick to turn the ‘Vow’ into a devious manoeuvre to appease his back-benchers (and UKIP), promising ‘English-only’ votes in Parliament. Those same back-benchers were up in arms about any possible increased funding for Scotland (already proportionately better funded than Wales).  Therefore, stripped of all the unctuous rhetoric about the ‘UK family’ and Wales being ‘at the centre of the debate’, the chances of fair funding for Wales were always going to be slim and the fact that there is no question even of reviewing Barnett says everything about the contempt the Tories have for Wales.

There are, of course, proposals to give the Welsh Government tax raising powers: control over stamp duty, business rates and landfill tax and – subject to a referendum – control over income tax. In fact, recent changes have promised more manoeuverability for a Welsh Government by removing the ‘lock-step’ requirement that would mean that changes in one tax bracket would have to correspond with changes in the others.  First Minster, Carwyn Jones has insisted that the powers have to be linked with a revision to the Barnett formula. His fear, widely felt within Welsh Labour, is that Wales could be ‘cut loose’ by a Tory-dominated England: given more power but without the resources to use that power effectively, with Westminster keeping control of benefits and pensions, effectively marginalizing Wales, but cynically presented by the Tories as a new devolution ‘settlement’.

The £300 million shortfall is not the end of the matter, of course, and in the grand scheme of things it is not a financial magic bullet.   There is the wider issue of reparations for the Westminster policy, during the 1980s and 90s, of deliberately stripping Wales of its industrial infrastructure and the need to restructure Wales’ economy along sustainable lines, involving investment in renewable energy and integrated public transport. However, the Tories’ stance on the Barnett formula, echoed by the Labour leadership, living in terror of ‘unfunded’ promises, suggests that there is little chance at the moment of proceeding past first base.

This takes us back to the need for a Wales-wide campaign against austerity; linking the issues of the cuts and of devolution and funding, and tackling the crisis of representation faced by working people. The price of failure to build such a resistance movement could be catastrophic. Many of the measures taken by Welsh Labour in government have been a massive improvement on New Labour’s record: a publically funded and publically provided NHS, state education and no ruinous PFI schemes. However, on the ground, in the communities, Labour is weak. The absence from the British party leadership of a convincing, clear anti-austerity narrative and any challenge to the anti-immigration rhetoric and myth peddling of the media and the Tories make some Labour majorities vulnerable to the threat of UKIP’s right-wing populism.

The small print of UKIP’s actual policies is less important than the desire for a rejection – more a spasm than a political choice – of the Westminster consensus and a reaction against the closing-off in many communities of any chance of secure employment or affordable housing. UKIP at its most folksy and populist can sound disturbingly like the more benign conservatism of ‘old’ Welsh Labour.

We have already had a ‘dry-run’ in the Euro-elections, where the mistakes of an inept and muddled Labour campaign – which saw UKIP as a threat only to the Tories – were replicated in Wales. A sign of how wrong the party leadership got it was the result in Merthyr Tydfil, where UKIP was a close second. The Tories are an irrelevance in Merthyr; those UKIP votes must have come from Labour supporters.  Another example: in Blaenau Gwent (which has a population 99.1% white), UKIP scored 30.2%.

The trade union leadership in Wales condemns austerity and is pinning its hopes on the general election. However, the Westminster Labour leadership is pursuing a cautious, defensive ‘core vote’ strategy, with one small snag: its core vote hasn’t a clue what its message is. The party gives a strong impression of having forgotten how to think. A clear anti-austerity message, a challenge to the anti-immigration rhetoric, a commitment to bringing public utilities and transport under state control and to building council houses could, come May, rescue the communities of Wales from the grip of austerity and the poisonous embrace of UKIP.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Scottish Referendum

By Peter Rowlands    

I couldn't get to the WLG meeting on this but I have read the pieces by Gordon and Nick and would like to offer my own thoughts, partly in order to redress the balance of the debate, which here and elsewhere appeared to reflect majority support on the left for 'Yes'.

Let me say first of all that 'Yes' had a strong case. Although Scotland (and Wales) have had a Labour majority at every general election since 1964, they have been subjected to Tory governments for over half the period since, while North Sea oil and a relatively diverse economy made independence credible. Scottish Labour post 1999 appeared Blairite and anti-devolution, thus playing into the SNP's hands, as opposed to Welsh Labour's ‘Clear red water’ and pro-devolution stance, although change from the previous Kinnock anti-devolution line was hard-fought. However, it is, I think, reasonable to assume that, had Welsh Labour's approach been adopted in Scotland, the SNP would never have formed a government and there would have been no referendum.

The debate itself was conducted in a largely negative manner by the 'No' side, which emphasised fear and risk rather than positive arguments, and, implicitly at least, argued an imperialist nostalgia (shades of Andy Stewart’s Scottish Soldier), although the violent intervention of the Orange Order perhaps indicated what this really represented. Labour, however, largely went along with this and did not attempt to promote any sort of left-wing case, which was left to a few MPs and trade unions and never really surfaced.

The build-up to the referendum saw an intense national debate in Scotland, which included large public meetings and resulted in an exceptionally high turnout of 85%. No supporter of democracy could fail to be impressed by this, although this was hardly the attitude of the establishment and main parties as it became clear that the effect was an increase in the 'Yes' vote.

The net effect of all of this was a greater degree of support for the 'Yes' campaign from the left that might other wise have been the case. In my view this was wrong, and the left should have campaigned for the 'No' vote, although as I said above, the left case for this barely surfaced.

Let us look at some fundamentals. Socialists generally oppose nationalism on the grounds that it obscures the real class divisions in society. Where national self-determination has been supported, it has been because the resolution of the national question is of such significance to the people concerned that it is judged that without it there can be no development of socialist consciousness. This was the basis of left support for anti-colonial struggles, or of other repression of minorities (yes, this is a gross simplification of a complex picture, but I believe broadly right).

Today, that certainly means support for an independent Kurdistan, and probably for a united Ireland. (Sinn Fein have obviously decided that demography will deliver what semtex couldn't). There is even a case to be made out on these grounds for Wales, although the requisite level of national feeling required is not there, being confined to a minority in the North and West.

But it doesn't apply to Scotland, where union with England was mutually agreed in 1707. Rapid industrial development in the nineteenth century based on heavy industry saw the rise of a powerful labour movement, enhanced after the decline of the Conservative/Unionist vote in the 1960s and the rise of the SNP.

The SNP have been successful for reasons described above, because of Salmond's political talents in seeming to be able to face in different political directions at the same time without losing credibility, and because sections of the left who should know better have supported the 'Yes' campaign. The far left have done so for opportunistic reasons, to maintain a high profile, but many in ‘Radical Independence’ seem to have built up enormous illusions in the possibilities for radical change following independence. What they have done, in fact, is to have supported nationalism. It may be a fairly acceptable sort of civic nationalism, with xenophobia and 'Braveheart' bollocks kept in check, but it is nationalism nevertheless, and to repeat the point it weakens the left by obscuring the class divisions which are as strong in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. The left generally would be weakened by independence, as Salmond's business friends are well aware. Exhortations to forgo wage increases and accept cuts would all be ‘for the sake of our new nation’, and would make the task of trade unionists and socialists harder, particularly because of the lack of control over the economy because of remaining with sterling. Meanwhile, the rest of the UK would lose 50-odd Labour MPs and a significant part of the activist cadre within the trade union movement. It would make electing a Labour government much harder, particularly if Wales followed suit with a further loss of 30-odd MPs. Scottish independence would, therefore, be disadvantageous to both Scotland and the rest of the UK (and to Wales, in the unlikely event of it happening there).

The growth of nationalism is, in part, a reflection of dissatisfaction with the prevailing political set-up, as is the growth of parties like UKIP, who want to leave the EU. But neither supply any real answers. They are distractions, blind alleys. In my view, the only credible way to begin to create a social-democratic, and hopefully eventually a socialist, society which is able to challenge global capital is on an EU-wide basis.

What is ironic is that the struggle for Scottish independence has actually resulted in (a promise of) a form of ‘home rule’, ‘devo max’, which most Scots would have voted for anyway had they had the choice! (Was this what the wily Salmond had in mind all along?) And, of course, that means not only its extension to Wales, but the opening up of a renewed debate about federalism and devolution for the whole of the UK, including the regions of England. If that results in a real devolution of power away from the stranglehold of a metropolitan elite in London, then much will have been achieved.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Europe, the UK and the Left

By Peter Rowlands

Once again, a European election has come and gone, with marginally more interest having been paid than usual by the left in the UK, mainly due to the rise of UKIP and its likely effect on current and future British politics.  Along with the French Front National, they did exceedingly well and media comment on the rest of Europe, such as it was, gave the misleading impression that there had been a general move to the nationalist/populist right. This was true, but only in relation to the centre-right, mainly Christian Democratic parties, who lost out heavily to them. On the left, the Social Democratic parties more or less held their own, while the parties of the left made substantial advances, although not as spectacularly as those of the right. (It is interesting how the right occupies different positions: UKIP was not prepared to go in with the FN, who equally wanted to distance itself from open Nazis like Golden Dawn or the dreadful Jobbik.)

The parties of the left in the EU, mainly grouped under the umbrella of the Party of the European Left (PEL), are a substantial force in a number of countries, where, along with Green parties, they often gain 15% of the vote or more, but this is much less true of countries which do not have a developed system of proportional representation, particularly the UK, where it has proved difficult for parties to the left of Labour to establish themselves. Countries where left parties are strong are Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece. These are constitutional parties in that they stand for election and are to be distinguished from the revolutionary left, which is much smaller and has its own European organisation to which the SWP et al in the UK belong. Some parties are members of both. It is generally true to say that the policies of the left parties, as outlined in the manifesto of the PEL, are more in line with the outlook of most of those on the left of the UK Labour Party than with the Labour Party itself or similar social democratic parties in the EU.

Historically, it was the left, in the Labour and Communist Parties in the UK in the 70s and early 80s who were most strongly opposed to the EU in Europe but, while few now want to leave, there is little enthusiasm for the EU within the Labour Party or its supporters and correspondingly little interest. This is borne out by the very limited response to Kate Hudson’s article on the EU elections (in Left Unity, reprinted in Left Futures), and very little other coverage. Similarly Kate’s book, ‘The New European Left’, published in 2012, was largely ignored, as was a review I wrote of it in ‘Chartist’ magazine.

There is no positive perspective on the EU on the left in the UK. A minority still cleave to the outright withdrawal line of NO to EU, but there is plenty of indifference and hostility short of that. The previous Labour policy of withdrawal in 1983, which would probably have been disastrous, still casts its appeal, combined with an older , insular tradition of ‘building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’.

But of course it is, since the 1990s, the right that has taken the lead in opposing the EU, witnessed by the growth and flowering of UKIP and of Euroscepticism among Tory MPs and MEPs and what remains of their local parties.

It is interesting to consider what  interests are being represented here, because they certainly aren't those of big business, who are terrified at the prospect of a British exit from the EU (Brexit), particularly the financial sector which fears that it may lose its place as Europe’s financial centre.
They are undoubtedly correct in terms of their apprehension, although many small businesses believe they could benefit from less regulation and employment rights.  However, a misplaced and xenophobic nationalism, born of World War Two triumphalism and nostalgia and aided by decades of lies and distortions promoted by the right wing press, has persuaded many that membership of the EU is now our key problem. UKIP’s appeal, as some commentators have pointed out, goes beyond this, although it is about nostalgia for a mythical past rather than policies, which remain incoherent, and would appear to be most potent for a group who are among those who have arguably prospered least in recent years, notably the older white working classes, particularly those who had previously voted Tory. This, combined with a virulent xenophobic nationalism among sections of the more right wing, and often small business middle classes - well represented on the Tory benches at Westminster - makes for a considerable force.  It is no accident that the UK is more hostile to the EU than almost any other member state, as measured in many polls. What UKIP represents is a form of populist nationalism, or ‘Poujadism’, although its appeal is to the same social groups attracted to fascist and neo-fascist movements in the past. But its neoliberal economics and desire to present itself as non-racist differentiates it from other right wing groupings in the EU, although how it develops remains to be seen. Its simple policies of leaving the EU and ‘taking back control of our country’ have gone largely unchallenged by the Tories because so many of their supporters agree, and only in muted form by Labour, for the same reasons.

It is worthwhile looking at this for a moment, because there does appear to be a large amount of misunderstanding of what is entailed in ‘Brexit’. There are essentially three options: to remain an EU associate through the EEA, like Norway; to negotiate individual trade agreements, like Switzerland; or to completely sever links with the EU. The first two involve some freedom from EU regulation, including agriculture and fisheries, but would presumably be unacceptable to UKIP because they would involve accepting most EU regulations, including - crucially - the free movement of people, without any say in their formulation. This would mean a complete break, which would not necessarily mean the retention of a trade agreement, as UKIP says it wants. Most commentators think that this would result in a huge rise in unemployment, as markets in the EU are lost and inward investment falls as firms, including banks, which established themselves in the UK because it was a gateway to the EU market, leave because it no longer is. The UK would become vulnerable to the favours of international capital over which it would have little control. A formal recovery of sovereignty would in fact mean its real decline.

Yes, there are huge problems in the EU, primarily related to the Euro, but  a break up of the EU, made much more likely by the recent success of the right wing parties, can only benefit the nationalist right, probably leading to competitive devaluations and increased division between the states of an ex EU, with little or no collective voice in the world. The only viable alternative is a strong, and eventually federal, EU - the only basis, because of its size and strength, for the establishment of a social-democratic, and eventually socialist system that will be able to successfully challenge and control at least a sizeable chunk of  international capitalism. Socialist, or at least social-democratic, traditions, weakened and compromised though they have become, are still stronger in Europe than in any other part of the world, but can only be realised through a radically reformed EU.
The left should accept this, rather than continue with its detached attitude towards the EU. It should decide to actively engage with the left in the EU, to  look at the policies of both the PEL and the PES and to seek to develop some positive policies for Labour on EU issues rather than wishing that it would all go away!

Whoever wins next year’s election, and it could be close, there is a possible scenario which might allow both Labour and the pro EU-Tories to claim that the UK’s position is far more satisfactory than hitherto, even from a mildly Eurosceptic point of view. This is because of the ‘banking union’, due to come into effect next year and which effectively creates a far more centralised control over banking and finance than before for Euro member states and those obliged to join, which includes all members, and any new members, except for the UK, Sweden and Denmark. The latter might therefore be able to retain EU membership but without many of the controls that would apply to those within the ‘banking union’. Such a change would require a referendum as it would mean a treaty change, although the Tories are committed to one anyway. UKIP and their supporters would still campaign for a ‘Brexit’, but a majority would probably accept a renewal of membership on these terms, particularly as some of the Eurosceptic newspapers are likely to move to a position more sympathetic to that of big business as the referendum neared.

But none of this is certain and there is now a need for the left in the UK to campaign against Brexit and for a reformed EU, alongside parties and groups in the EU with a similar outlook.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Scottish Referendum: My kingdom for a house

By Gordon Gibson

The Scots may have voted ‘No’ but the real loser is Labour in Scotland.


With the last few days of the referendum debates came an awareness that Scotland is awash with social and political enthusiasm, inclusion, participation, in pubs and clubs, community centres and front rooms, in literally hundreds of emergent groupings – Women for, Asians for, Labour for, allsorts for Independence.

As important, probably more so, Scottish cultural life is in bloom. You can’t miss it when you are there: comedy, film, music, literature, theatre, festivals; even the Commonwealth Games set Glasgow alight. In contrast to the prevailing misery and despair in our communities, battered with cuts, abuses, apparent isolation, absence of leadership, the Scots are getting on with it, doing their thing, making the best of life, fighting back. Do not underestimate this. The author, literary figure, Yes campaigner, and self-proclaimed lesbian, Val McDermid, has her name emblazoned across the front of the football strips of Raith Rovers, the Scottish Championship team, this year playing Glasgow Rangers and both Edinburgh sides. If that doesn’t convince you that something rich is going on in Scotland, nothing will.

If you didn’t get it, it is because you didn’t feel it, you haven’t smelt the coffee! Down south, our sensors pick up the rancid odour from London, perhaps tempered by a sniff of fresh air from Syriza, the Indignacios, the Occupy movement, Left Unity or the People’s Assembly. None of this compares with what has happened in Scotland -under  the radar, serviced in no small part by social media.

South of the border, the consensus was that we are internationalists, against nationalism and independence, for a united working class against the Tory offensive, although it is fair to say left leaning commentators began to peel off in significant numbers – John Harris, Billy Bragg, Russell Brand, Suzanne Moore, even Owen Jones all but converts from his hitherto ‘principled’ stance.

There is little point in running through the arguments again. Most formed their opinions after a long debate, impossible to miss north of the border, even if much ignored until the last minute, south.

A 45% vote for independence, with no blood on the streets, no riots or strikes, just popular engagement, is a truly extraordinary political event. The impact on Scottish politics, and very nearly on British politics over the past two years has been immense so, here, we will consider three aspects.

Labour in Scotland, and probably in Britain as a whole, is in very serious trouble.
‘Tribalism’, a term reserved exclusively, it seems, not for our relations with the Tories, but for ‘the nationalists’, has allowed us to completely lose the plot. Get over it! Concentrate on the real enemy. The Yes campaign, like it or not, was based on a programme the broad left supports.
The media’s, Westminster’s and particularly Labour’s inability to even recognise what was happening in Scotland, let alone consider how it might apply in the rest of Britain, is our best indicator yet that the British political system is at a very low ebb. Something has to change. How to do it is another matter; a question more easily answered in Scotland. Listen to the people, not the Westminster bubble and its media.

Yes! Labour is in Trouble

Members are asking, ‘Why still be in the Labour Party?’. In Scotland there are mass defections. Here in Wales the answer is probably

There is nowhere else to go. Plaid at best has got a socialist current within but that would be even more of a struggle with its mishmash of politics than is Labour, where at least you know where you stand. Their leader, Leanne Wood, still one of the best, is clearly torn by disparate pressures on her;
There are local reasons for being in Labour and perhaps many feel that the essential principles of Labour, at the roots of the Party, are still achievable; and
Welsh Labour Grassroots is probably the most organised and coherent left current in Wales, still a tiny force.
In Wales, there is little alternative and perhaps still some hopes for ‘clear red water’; although less and less so it seems. All this may be in Wales. Now apply to Scotland.

There are certainly other places to go. The Yes campaign was a broad front with the SNP, Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party at its core and with former Labour MP Dennis Canavan as its chair. The SNP itself is no longer the bourgeois nationalist party we identified as being to the right of Plaid, even 10 years ago. For reasons we will no doubt discuss, the SNP is now in the mould of a social democratic party, a left social democratic party. The Scottish Greens have leapt to prominence with an excellent rounded programme fronted by their MSP Patrick Harvie, who, like Caroline Lucas in Westminster, has proved to be considerably better with socialist aspirations than most Labour MPs. Then there is the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) that, with the Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’, brought together virtually the whole of the Scottish left from anarchists and the SWP through to Labour for Independence, and now surely bound to establish a united green/left party to succeed and embrace the Scottish Socialists, strangled in infancy. The RIC mobilised an impressive campaign, reaching into increasingly disenfranchised estates, bringing in unregistered, disaffected Labour voters, a whole new layer of young activists, and many not so young, for door to door canvassing and public meetings to fantastic effect. They helped raise the voter turnout to over 84% and engaged with the new layer of young voters. Their first conference two years ago assembled over 800 delegates, last year over 1200. This year, over 7000 have indicated they are going! Sheridan, with his Solidarity grouping, by the way, is now urging an independence vote for the SNP at the next election. There are clearly places for socialists to go.

Policy wise, Labour has lost its core electorate. The Yes vote took the industrial heartlands from Glasgow to Dundee. All 8 Glasgow constituencies voted Yes, to the tune of 53.5% to 46.5%. The politicos left in their droves; the Scottish working class has long since seen through Labour. The traditional party of the workers’ movement was further undermined , tragically, by fronting a campaign, a ‘popular front’, with the utterly discredited Tories and Liberals before a Scottish electorate that has ditched them for over 40 years now.

The No vote was clearly founded on that older, conservative 30% or so that will never vote Labour. One analysis claims that the 16-54 year olds voted YES 54%, NO 46%; aged 55+, YES 34%, NO 66%. (See Murray.) Any suggestion that the No campaign might in some way be deemed  progressive is further evidence that Labour is deluding itself. Or us.  Better Together campaigned with a neo-liberal economic attack on all fronts, led by Alistair Darling, arch neo-liberal, with CV to prove it, then by belated appearances from Gordon Brown, whose appeal is, at best, seriously tarnished in the public eye other than with die-hard Labour supporters.

BT wound up its campaign by falling over themselves with offers of devo-max, having refused it two years earlier in anticipation of a rout. The campaign and all its publicity was entirely neo-liberal. Even George Galloway, wheeled out to face 7000 Scottish school students at the BBC event in Glasgow’s Hydro as Labour, incredibly, appeared to bottle out; even Galloway drew on the neo liberal claptrap. That was all they had: the currency, pensions, the NHS, oil, even the utterly disingenuous attack on the SNP’s Corporation Tax, were all rooted in a neo-liberal financial back-cloth. Ed Miliband took the same approach at Labour’s September conference, promising a £2.5bn pledge for the NHS, only to be rebuffed by Tory claims that they have increased spending by more than that. Labour started their conference week by promising to cut Child Benefit and ended it by offering uncritical support for more middle east war.

The neo-liberal austerity debate cannot be won against the Tories’ well-honed propaganda machine. It is their game. It may well win the election for them, like scare-mongering and fear probably won them the referendum. The propaganda was fronted for them by Labour. The Scottish working class rejected these politics decades ago and are sick of Labour regurgitating it.

Labour had nothing to say about austerity, only pious words about ‘our NHS’, ‘our welfare state’, ‘we are the party for change’ as if the Blair years never happened. The attack was on the nationalists, nary a word about the common enemy, the Tories and their financial mentors.

The successes of the Yes campaign

The SNP took on the mantle of social democracy. A while ago, they were ‘bourgeois nationalists’, then centrists, wavering left and right, populists, nourished by the abject betrayals of Labour in Scotland and Britain, betrayals spotted early by the Scots, thanks to the Poll Tax campaign. They turned to alternatives – the Scottish Socialists with 6 MSPs before Sheridan and now The Greens, whose role in Yes Scotland, along with the SNP and SSP, has been exemplary.  This social movement has had a huge impact on the SNP, now overwhelmingly social democratic in nature and probably more so with its more than doubling in membership in the weeks since the poll. So how did they respond to neo-liberal charges?

I refer you to Alex Salmond’s  Arbroath speech 18th August 2014, which takes a wee while to get going but is well worth a listen ( Salmond nails the NHS line. An SNP proposal to a constitutional convention in Scotland will be a clause for ‘A public free health service at the point of need’,  ‘A right to a National Health Service will be enshrined in the constitution of Scotland’. That’s convincing. Discussing the role of Scotland in the world, Salmond argues for the removal of Trident as a fundamental policy of an independent Scotland. He then presents as sophisticated a line on pro-immigration as you are likely to hear from a mainstream politician. Their first focus for the anti-nuclear money is child-care and social care. This is not the left, this is ‘the nationalists’; better than anything ever heard from Labour.  Had Labour taken such stances since the Tories came to power, would the Yes campaign have had the traction it did?

They grapple with the economy but, truth be known, there is much flexibility in economics. What people want to hear is the answer to ‘where do you propose to go with our lives?’. Labour offers a continuation of Tory austerity for the foreseeable future. The Scots are on to them and their future, our future is in jeopardy.

In the course of the referendum campaign, Scots have considered, imagined both individually and in their collectives, a democratic government, a constitution, a set of values based, not least on their experience of Holyrood and decades of Westminster policies and governments they never voted for. That imagination, that culture, is not a million miles away from ours in Wales, once separated from Westminster by ‘clear red water’. In Scotland, imagination converted into an anti-austerity, anti-Tory enthusiasm that not even Plaid, being as tribal as Welsh Labour is, has sought to achieve. The Scottish Yes vote was overwhelmingly anti-austerity and a serious challenge to the ‘Wastemonster’ ways. They may have lost the battle but the war is being won. For a start, about one-third of Labour voters voted Yes. (See Welsh.) These are reasons why Scotland became ready for an independence vote (and why Wales isn’t ready).

Labour’s late entry into the campaign, via Gordon Brown, a hero only to die-hard Labour members, cited our national pride, appealing to history, Labour’s and Scotland’s great role in it – history, empire, sacrifice, the welfare state, the NHS. But just ask Scottish former shipworkers, miners, car-workers. British interest, pride, commitment has long since evaporated. Jobs and a good living in industry, shipbuilding, manufacturing, coal, steel, the industrial revolution, imperialism and the empire, from which we all once benefited, albeit at the expense of others, have all been lost or sacrificed. We don’t even build houses any more. The Welfare State, Pensions, Mail, Telephones, Water and the NHS s are sold, often at knock down prices, to global capitalism. British workers no longer have any practical or emotional ties to our social and economic foundations, many of which Scots gave to the world. What commitment do the Scots, indeed any workers, have to the British state any more?

A Democratic Upheaval and a Danger of Backlash

Without the significant devo-max concessions promised by the Westminster parties, it is inconceivable that independence will go away. Breaking of promises, failure to deliver anything or, worse, more budget cuts and other retribution, will ensure that independence is back on the agenda in very short shrift. Just one day after the referendum, the Tories lurched to the right with a focus on England’s needs, on their right wing, on the West Lothian question, on a democratic structure that can only further marginalise Scotland and Wales.

Coupled with this is seeming delight in offering more powers  to Scotland, Wales and the regions. Let them be responsible for ‘fully devolved powers’ over the crumbs the Bullingdon Boys deign to leave on our tables. Then we can be blamed for cuts, as was the charge laid on the SNP over the NHS, the same tactic as they seek to discredit our efforts in Wales. The real threat to we Celts is that the Westminster bubble does go right, and given Labour’s stances this is not an unrealistic possibility – another Tory government, perhaps with Ukip support, a vote to leave the EU and ditch the EU Convention on Human Rights. Where will that leave the Scots? And us?

The first signs of the very serious dangers of the English nationalist/ Ukip right wing trajectory were evident on the streets of Scotland’s two great cities on the last few referendum days. The No vote unleashed The Orange order, always a right wing force disguised with anti-catholic, anti-Irish rhetoric. For the first time in my experience, they took to the streets and revealed their truly fascist style, taking public space, burning the Saltire, attacking Yes voters, immigrants and women. A Yes vote would have stifled them; the No vote, coupled with Ukip and the English trend positively encouraged them.

Where do we go from here?

The spotlight is now on Labour, already being drawn into the Tory regional game and happy to commit to Tory austerity plans, when what is needed is a language of change, something different, a break from the political decadence of Westminster, increasingly mimicking the shameless, gun-toting, fundamentalist, undemocratic, exclusive, segregationist catastrophe that is US politics and media. Scots were seeking change – austerity, Trident, social care, childcare, NHS, democracy. These are the themes to be convincing about. Their instincts and mine are that nothing is going to change. If it doesn’t, Labour is finished in Scotland. The SNP offered change, much of it taken from Labour’s bottom drawer, yet Labour continues to be tribal against ‘the nationalists’, preferring uncritical deals with the Tories, LibDems and their neo-liberal economics. Recognition of this single fact is a first necessary step to Labour’s unlikely salvation.

Labour has been unable to handle the role of the ‘nationalists’ in Scotland or Wales. What chance have the English got? Paradoxically, in the present climate, a Yes vote was the best opportunity socialist voters in Scotland had of ever achieving a Labour Government they could believe in. These same voters now have the prospect of a Tory Ukip government seeking exit from Europe.

What have we learned? What should we be campaigning on? How’s this?

  • A clear stance, with our allies, against Tory austerity, for alternatives.
  • Stand up for our NHS, for National Insurance, for Social Security and a rights based welfare culture.
  • Challenge the war-mongering culture, not least the ease with which vast funding is found for wars.
  • Build Homes
  • Promote a programme of child-care, social care and pensions.
  • Make Wales a beacon of sustainability, a green investment bank, green energy and re-usables industries
  • Rail and other public transport back into coordinated public ownership
  • Instead of faffing about local government reorganisation and who goes where, first consider, with the people of Wales, the question, “How do we best deliver these policies?”
  • Build, certainly with young people, our communications networks and social media.
  • The great success of the SNP is that they recognised the occasion for this great political cauldron, greater than they dreamed of. We hopefully now will engage with our true allies throughout Wales and beyond against austerity, and wars and … well, let us discuss that with others.  The difficulty is to recognise the occasion here in Wales, the event round which such unity can be formed. In the meantime, it will do no harm to promote an inclusive discussion on what sort of policies, a manifesto we aspire to in Wales.

Another Scotland, Another Wales, Another Britain, is Possible.


Gordon Gibson, September 2014

Here, a few references; the first two are bursting with lively debate.

Radical Independence Conference:

Bella Caledonia:

Brett, Miriam. National Collective. Oh Scottish Labour What Have You Done?

Davies, Nick & Williams, Darren (2009). Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics. Francis Boutle Publisher

Harris, John: Scotland has shown how the left can finally find its purpose

Jones, Owen. Whatever Scotland decides, the old order is dead and buried:

Murray, Andy. FIFTY-FIVE per cent afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome.

Welsh , Irvine. This glorious failure could yet be Scotland’s finest hour.

This post first appeared on the Celyn Wales blog:

Scotland’s ‘No’ vote:  the end, or the end of the beginning?

By Nick Davies

‘Settled for a generation’ was the confident assertion of the metropolitan commentariat after Scotland’s referendum resulted in a bigger than expected margin of defeat for independence. An independent Scotland may be off the agenda in the immediate term but we should remember Zhou En-lai’s famous remark about the effects of the French revolution: ‘too early to tell’.  The Scottish referendum campaign and the vote itself may in time be seen as a sparkling firework, momentarily illuminating the United Kingdom’s gloomy, sterile political landscape, only to fizzle out, or as the catalyst for a process of fundamental change to that political entity. Time will tell whether the opportunities for change presented by the campaign are taken or lost.

The campaign itself was fantastic: a brilliant burst of creative democratic energy in which the people of Scotland engaged with the issues and discussed animatedly the society and country they wanted for themselves and their fellow citizens. This was what democracy looks like when the decisions people make actually have consequences, when there is a choice, and when it is energised by the presence of 16 and 17 year olds. The politicians and journalists in the Westminster bubble, initially irritated by what they saw as background noise while they got on with the serious business of politics, ended up scared to death. Politics, in the post Thatcher-Blair era wasn’t meant to be like this.  Credit goes not only to the Scottish National Party for the tone and content of the campaign but to the Scottish left, such as Radical Independence and the Scottish peace and anti-nuclear movement. With most of the Scottish media, let alone the blatantly biased and increasingly bewildered London media, against independence, the breach was filled by social media and blog-sites such as Bella Caledonia. Whatever the merits of the case for independence, the ‘yes’ supporters won the campaign even if they did not win the vote. Theirs were the ideas and the vision of what Scotland could look like. Theirs were the alternatives to  the race-to-the-bottom, free market dystopia imposed by Westminster.

In response, the ‘no’ campaign has been aptly characterised by Lee Waters as ‘Project Fear’: what would be the currency and who would control it? Would the new state automatically gain EU membership or would it have to apply? Wouldn’t that take years? Look what happened to Ireland, and Iceland! Would people in Scotland still be able to listen to the Archers? A drip-drip series of announcements and leaks by banks and multinationals raised the prospect of capital flight, price rises and a currency collapse. This was not a serious attempt to challenge the SNP’s economic  perspectives – not all of which would withstand  proper scrutiny – or a serious contribution to the national debate, but a purely negative: ‘Well, you haven’t thought of that, now  have you?’, in order to try to close down discussion. ‘Vote no, it’s not worth the risk’ was the message, but, on surveying the unequal, over-centralised political set-up that is the UK, one can legitimately reply, ‘the risk of what, exactly’?

The campaign and its aftermath pose problems for both the large Westminster parties. Cameron allowed a referendum without a ‘devo-max’ option on the ballot paper, confidently assuming that the result would be ‘no’. Some political conspiracy theorists say that Cameron was happy to cast Scotland adrift. Tory rule in a rump ‘UK’ would be assured without Scotland, with its one Tory MP, but this underestimates the prominence of unionism, or UK nationalism in Tory ideology. As the campaign reached its end and the No poll lead narrowed there was a palpable sense of panic in the UK ruling apparatus: would Cameron be the Tory leader who ‘lost’ Scotland? What would happen to Trident missiles? Might these weapons of mass destruction have to be housed nearer to London? Would the house of Windsor require passports to visit the vast tracts of the Highlands they use as a personal playground? The reaction was a commitment, ‘The Vow’, made largely on the hoof with Miliband and Clegg, for increased devolution. Faced with a backlash by Tory MPs against a promise of increased spending for Scotland, Cameron has since attempted to re-invent or re-interpret, for the sake of party advantage, the commitment to deeper devolution into a commitment to  restrict voting on England-only issues to English MPs, thus satisfying the bloodlust of the English nationalists of the Tories and, importantly, UKIP and threatening to sabotage a future Labour government  dependent on the votes in parliament of Scottish MPs. ‘The Vow’ was starting to unravel  by the weekend following the vote with the Liberal Democrats and Labour both scenting a Tory trap.

Labour’s problems are probably deeper.  Its alignment to the unionist, union-flag waving, ‘Better Together’ campaign, on top of its embrace of free-market neo-liberalism in the Blair-Brown years, meant that Labour was never able to challenge the SNP from the left. Terrified by the  movement of Labour voters into the ‘yes’ camp but, like every Tory leader since Thatcher, despised in Scotland, Cameron was obliged to turn to Gordon Brown to  fight the unionist corner, and Brown duly obliged, his ‘barnstorming’ speech invoking a unionist past more than a  socialist future.

The SNP’s political tightrope walk, combining lower corporation tax with much of the agenda that Labour should have made its own, has left Scottish Labour little more than a defensive, unionist, Blairite husk, unable to understand the country it is in. The referendum campaign did little to rescue its image. A look at a map of the ‘yes’ vote should bring the Labour leadership out in a cold sweat:  Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire.  These have been Labour strongholds for decades but, faced with New Labour’s complicity with the Tories in de-industrialisation and the destruction of public services, it seems the voters there saw the ‘yes’ vote as a means of escape; they need never live under a Tory government again. Of course, despite the panicky, last minute insertions into the No campaign of references to ‘social justice’ they took that chance, and why should they not?

Labour’s response was merely to assert that a ‘no’ vote corresponded with Labour’s ‘values’ and to snipe against ‘nationalism’. British nationalism, however, appears not to trouble these people; what kind of country do they think the UK is?  Extraordinarily, ‘no’ campaigners also accused their opponents of ‘tribalism’. This is in a country where politics is still besmirched by religious sectarianism; Orange lodges were marching in support of a ‘no’ vote and the day after the vote, Unionist thugs attacked ‘yes’ voters in Glasgow’s George Square. This was the ugly, snarling face of the British nationalism the ‘no’ voters never mention, putting into perspective the accusations of ‘intimidation’ by ‘yes’ supporters.  Politics is ‘ugly’ when politicians ruin lives, not when the argument becomes raucous.  Of course, most ‘no’ voters are not sectarians and have a genuine loathing of Orangeism. However, to rail against SNP’s ‘nationalism’ without acknowledging  the malign influence of  this form of British nationalism is, at best, hypocritical and, at worst, an apology for sectarianism.

It is depressing that it has to be repeated, but this island contains three countries – England, Scotland and Wales – which for several hundred years have been bound together, at different times, by conquest, war, empire, Protestantism, common law, the industrial revolution and the welfare state. When the importance of all of these is diminished, all that remains is geography and a common language.  Crucial in the development of the Scottish independence movement was been the Tories’ destruction of Scotland’s industrial base: coal, shipbuilding and steel, the use of a Scottish natural resource, North Sea oil, to featherbed the British economy through two recessions, the use of Scotland as the test bed for the hated poll tax and then finally, the refusal of New Labour to break from what were, fundamentally, Tory policies.  The people of Scotland were told firstly ‘You voted Labour but you got the Tories’ and then ‘It doesn’t matter which of the Westminster parties you vote for, nothing’s going to change’.  In this context the Yes vote in former Labour heartlands makes far more sense than Labour No supporters’ charge that the independence debate is somehow a distraction from ‘class’ politics.

Socialists defend the right of a nation to self-determination. That is not the same, necessarily, as advocating separation. However, in the case of Scotland, the campaign for independence does not simply amount to a desire to exercise the right to re-establish Scotland as an independent state but a reaction against the inequality and centralisation that has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, as well as the sclerotic, pre-modern body politic exemplified by the House of Lords and the bizarre electoral system. It represents the hope that on the island of Britain, there can be a different kind of society.

So what about Wales? Welsh Labour’s leadership unsurprisingly supported a ‘no’ vote, with Plaid giving support and solidarity to the ‘yes’ campaign. Opinion polls revealed an opposition in Wales to Scottish independence, primarily, presumably, because of fears that in a rump ‘UK’, Wales would not be so much as dominated as smothered by England, doomed to an eternity of English Tory governments.

It is difficult to see anything positive for Wales in the post-referendum ‘new’ Union that has been promised, let alone in the status quo. The normally ebullient Rhodri Morgan has been in almost Uriah Heep mode, asking that Wales be rewarded for not having had a war (like Northern Ireland) or an independence referendum and oil (like Scotland) by being given a more equitable political and financial settlement within the UK. In other words, he was asking the Tories to treat Wales more generously because it keeps its head down. On the other hand, Carwyn Jones, despite his innate caution and his position as the leader of a unionist party, has been forced to come out in opposition to Cameron’s manoeuverings and call for a rebuilding of the union on an equal basis between Wales and Scotland.

Despite Cameron’s promise that Wales be at the ‘centre of the debate’, Tory back-benchers are in revolt about a promise of extra money for Scotland – yet Scotland does considerably better than Wales out of the discredited and unfair Barnett formula. Neither the Tories nor Labour want to scrap the Barnett formula, under which Wales loses out by £300m per year (Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, despite prompting  on TV by Andrew Neill, of all people, seemed not to have any clue that Wales was being short-changed in this way or to feel that Labour should do anything about it).  There’s a well-founded suspicion that if additional powers for Wales are not forgotten about and subsumed into Cameron’s grubby obsession with appeasing English nationalists, they’ll be separated from any additional funding, leaving Welsh Labour or Labour-dominated governments with the consequences of having powers without the resources to use them effectively.

Dysfunctional and unsustainable as it is, the UK could, with some tweaking here and there, limp on for decades yet: dominated by England, with England in turn dominated and distorted by the financial might of the City of London and the Home Counties. On the other hand, Labour in Wales and Scotland could muster its electoral weight to move away from an instinctive pro-unionism towards in support for a more equal and equitable relationship between the three countries based on whatever degree of separation or unity that the people of those countries want. On the present evidence, the prospects are not promising.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The ‘Black’ Route: a black day for Wales

by Nick Davies

In July 2014, the Welsh Government, which claims that sustainability is the central organising principle of everything it does, decided to build a motorway relief-road across a wetland containing four Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Anyone who cares about sustainability, who regards it as more than a pious aspiration or just something one says – anyone, in fact, who still believes, in this cynical age, that what a  government or a politician says should some connection with what they actually do – needs to mull over every word in that sentence.

This is a truly appalling decision, which leaves the Welsh Government’s sustainability credentials in tatters. It represents a lurch back from the lofty aspirations in the Government of Wales Act and the nobly-named Future Generations Bill to the post-war by-pass mania, now largely discredited in the eyes of anyone who takes sustainable transport seriously – although very much favoured by what can loosely be called the ‘roads lobby’, namely the construction industry, motoring organisations and various well-funded free-market thinktanks.

Why a Relief Road at all?

An M4 relief road is necessary, so it is argued, to relieve congestion between junctions 23 and 29 of the M4 outside Newport, where the motorway narrows from six lanes to four. The stretch includes the Brynglas tunnels, regarded as a notorious pinch point, as incidents there have resulted in lengthy road closures.  The argument, put forward by some (but not all) business organisations – principally the CBI – and some politicians, and  which has been accepted by the Welsh Government, is that the congestion, on a major route close to the English border, discourages inward investment and thus puts a blight on the Welsh economy.

There is congestion. The original Newport distributor road was a local road that was later incorporated into the M4 and in places it does not have a hard shoulder.  It is still used as a local road for short journeys, as well as a motorway linking the south and west of England to south and west Wales.  There are geographical or topographical reasons why simply widening the road is not an option. If one accepts an economic development paradigm for Wales that sees Wales as a peripheral satellite to England’s metropolis, or that relies on inward investment from English-based firms, rather than developing the Welsh economy with locally-based firms and supply-chains, then there is a problem there to be solved.

So is a relief road the answer? There seems to be little solid evidence of the economic benefits of building new roads. Friends of the Earth, for example, argue that new roads actually promote further traffic growth and increase congestion, defeating the original reason for the new road. As far back as 1998, the Westminster Government’s Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment warned that the ‘pervasive often implicit assumption that the benefit of improved accessibility will always accrue to the target area may often be misplaced. The possibility of the net impact running counter to regeneration objectives cannot be ruled out’. 

In other words, improved access can result in the benefit going outwards as well as inwards.  There are also the negative externalities of road building, not included as a ‘cost’, principally the public health and environmental implications of increased traffic: road traffic accidents, noise, the emission of diesel particulates, and the increase in CO2 emissions. The other argument against road building is that that there is an alternative: the development of an enhanced and integrated public transport system. This ticks the ‘job creation’ and ‘economic activity’ boxes, only more so, spreading the accrued benefits of accessibility and connectivity to more people in more communities, but also moving more people around more efficiently, at a lower cost to the environment.

As it happens, the Welsh Government  intends to build a metro system in south-east Wales, described as ‘transformative’ by Welsh finance minister Jane Hutt, the implications of which, in relation to the proposed relief road, will be considered in more detail below.

As well as there being a case against relief roads in general, there is a substantial case against this specific proposal, namely the inconvenient presence in its path of the Gwent Levels, one of the largest remaining areas of ancient grazing marshland in Britain, home to a number of threatened bird, plant, insect and mammal species and site of four sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM), consisting of the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru and community councils, is building opposition to the project. CALM highlights the impact on wildlife of the construction of the motorway and the pollution from traffic, arguing that the road would create a ‘Berlin wall’ cutting the habitat in two. Farmers are concerned at the threat of flooding: they believe that the presence of the road will raise the water table.  Tourism would also be harmed, as the Levels are popular with cyclists.

The Welsh Government has conceded that this project runs contrary to its aim of bringing about a cultural shift away from the car towards more sustainable forms of transport. Nevertheless, it pressed ahead with its consultation, which itself was vulnerable to a potential legal challenge in that all the ‘options’ were essentially the same thing: a motorway running south of Newport through the Gwent levels.

An alternative solution has been set out by the transport economist, Professor Stuart Cole in The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 traffic congestion around Newport (published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs). The estimated cost of the blue route is only £380 million, as opposed to an estimated £936 for the projected motorway.  It avoids the Gwent Levels by rejoining the M4 at junction 28, not 29 and utilises the present A48 Newport South distributor road and a route through the old Llanwern steelworks, over land already purchased by the Welsh Government in 2010. It would be a four-lane dual carriageway, built to motorway standard, which could be widened to six lanes if necessary.
Professor Cole, who has previously advised both the Welsh and UK governments, has therefore told Welsh ministers that, if they really want a road, he can show them it could be built for a third of the price, on land they already own and avoiding the Gwent Levels.

Crucially, Cole also argues that in its own consultation paper, M4 Corridor around Newport, the Welsh government’s estimate of a 20 per cent increase in traffic volume by 2035 leaves out of account the effect of electrification of the South Wales mainline, which alone, he contends, could reduce M4 peak traffic flows by 15 per cent. The planned metro and the ‘blue route’ could reduce the traffic volume on the M4 by 20 per cent and thus, he argues, solve the problem.

But the Welsh Government, and in particular Edwina Hart, the minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science, in whose portfolio the project falls, appeared unmoved by these arguments, declining to include the blue route in the consultation and deciding in favour of  the ‘black route’,  an option which was longer, at 12 miles,  three times more expensive and more environmentally destructive, a decision which appears to be almost inexplicably perverse at every level.

Could it get any worse? Yes it could.

Gerald Holtham, the economist who has previously advised the Welsh Government, notably on how Wales has been short-changed by the Barnett formula, has argued that the Welsh Government cannot afford both the new road and the metro system under the current financial regime. The motorway would take up the bulk of the government’s newly acquired borrowing capacity, limited to £500m. The rest would have to come out of the capital budget of £1.5bn p.a.  Holtham argues that the government could only afford both the motorway and the metro by resorting to private finance mechanisms, which the government, and Edwina Hart in particular, have always, quite rightly, said they wish to avoid because of the debt accrued to the public purse. Tellingly, Holtham has also opined ‘I don’t think, at this stage, local authorities are sufficiently engaged with the metro to help fund it’ adding that revamped transport authorities would allow local authorities to feel ‘adequately represented.’

Could it be that the metro, given the financial constraints resulting from the building of the motorway and the lack of capacity, financial and otherwise, of the small local authorities in South East Wales, is being quietly put onto the back burner? This might explain the over-estimate of traffic volume pointed out by Stuart Cole (although that might also be a result of the Welsh Government getting its advice from those lobbying for the motorway who have an interest in maximising its benefit, or simply of simply inadequate modelling). However, a project like the metro requires not only the resources to deliver it but a certain amount of political will, and a preparedness to see off the well-organised and well-funded roads lobby in favour of public transport – none of which, on this evidence, the Welsh Government looks like being able to muster at the moment

The political costs are already mounting. The Welsh Government – its pretensions to sustainability in ruins – has picked a fight with significant  environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth has written to the Welsh Government asking it to restart what it regards as a flawed consultation process. If this does not happen, then the likely outcome is an application for judicial review of the consultation process, which will end up in court. Plaid Cymru has condemned the decision to build the road as ‘environmentally and financially reckless’, made ‘without proper scrutiny and with no business case’. Labour, without a majority in the Assembly, has relied in the recent past on an agreement with Plaid to get its budget passed, but Plaid has now pulled out of negotiations.

Even if the Welsh Government does not go ahead with the relief road as proposed, either because of a successful application for judicial review or for any other reason, the decision already made represents a defeat for the hopes that in Wales, there might be a better way of doing politics than in the Westminster consensus. Those who shared those hopes and argued and campaigned for the Welsh Government to be given borrowing powers, only for that government to effectively blow it on the ‘black route’ might, in their darker moments, wonder if it was worth their while. This does not represent the total defeat of the ‘clear red water’ project: for example: Welsh Labour, in contrast to the British party’s equivocation, still sets its face against the privatisation by stealth of education and health that is happening  in England – but it is a very serious setback.

In retrospect, it can be argued that Welsh Labour’s sustainability agenda relied too much on the energy and ideas of one politician, Jane Davidson, sustainability minister from 2007 until she left the Assembly in 2011. Davidson’s successors have either failed to embrace sustainability properly – seeing it as some kind of optional extra when times are good – or else have been out-muscled in a Cabinet that is desperate to create jobs at any cost and vulnerable to the lobbying activities of big business. The result is an abomination like the ‘black route’.

Welsh Labour Party members and voters who took Welsh Labour at its word on sustainability need to join with those such as CALM to campaign, in the immediate term, to re-open the consultation process, but also to wage a broader campaign for a truly sustainable solution to all Wales transport problems, as part of a campaign to renew Wales’ economy based on the principles of sustainability and needs of the people of Wales, not those of big business.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Local government reorganisation in Wales        

By Peter Rowlands 

The recent moves by the Welsh Government (WG) to promote mergers between local authorities in Wales, as advocated by the Williams Report, means that this is now accepted as the main way in which reorganisation will take place, alongside the growth of consortia for various functions.

I regard this as utterly wrong. Even if all the proposed mergers took place no new authority would have a population of over 300,000 except Cardiff and the Vale, with many at about 200,000 or below. This would necessitate the continued operation of unaccountable and confusing consortia for different functions, with inevitable, and justified, calls for further reorganisation. What is being called for therefore would be expensive, destabilising, and unsatisfactory and only have a brief and unwarranted life.

This is not to say that Williams is all wrong. It is in my view right on town and community councils, coterminosity and scrutiny and audit, although not on Powys. However, it is the local authority mergers that are its central feature.

Rather than go down this road it would be far better for WG to bite the bullet and initiate a major reorganisation now. If this does not happen the provision of front line services in Wales will remain hampered by the costs of an inefficient local government structure.

The outlines of a new structure appear fairly obvious, at least to me. They are based on some existing boundaries including those for health, fire and police and some of the consortia. Indeed, with one exception, they follow the WG’s ‘Regional Collaborative Footprint’, which is similar to the previous county structure except that in North and mid Wales four counties have become two regions.

My recommended structure would therefore be of five new counties, as follows:

1) North Wales. These are the six counties of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Flint, Denbigh and Wrexham. There is an exact fit with one health board, police authority, fire service and education consortium.The population of the new authority would be 675,000.
2) Mid and West Wales. This includes the four counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen, Ceredigion and Powys. There is an exact fit with one police authority and two health boards which need to be merged. The existing fire service includes Swansea and Neath/Port Talbot to which Bridgend could be transferred for fire.  New population: 510,000. (The Williams proposal to merge Powys council and health board should be rejected, as it would create a completely different structure here, which would cause all sorts of problems. If justified it should apply to all of rural Wales, as there is nothing unique about Powys in this regard, as Williams asserts.)
3) South West Wales. This includes the three counties of Swansea, Neath/Port Talbot and Bridgend. There is an exact fit with the health board. Fire would differ from current arrangements – see above. The police authority would remain shared with the rest of Glamorgan. New population: 500,000.
4) South Central Wales. This includes the four counties of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil. There is an exact fit with two health boards which need to be merged. Police would be as above, fire as now.  New population: 730,000.
5)South East Wales. This includes the counties of Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouthshire. There is an exact fit with one police authority and health board. Fire would be as now.  New population: 560,000.

All these new authorities would have viable populations of at least 500,000, with the biggest only half as much again as that. Three would have a major town at its centre. There would be five mergers of existing authorities, two of four and one each of six, five and three. There would also be two mergers of two health boards. All consortia would be abolished as they would be replaced by the new authorities, although only in North Wales was there an exact fit with the new authority. There would be no point in adding to the number of police or fire authorities, particularly as a single all Wales police service has been mooted.

Something along these lines is what is needed, and if that cannot be afforded now there is no point in mergers between two authorities, for reasons given above. The suggested reorganisation would be expensive but would generate substantial savings and better run services. It would also avoid a ‘democratic deficit’ caused by power being held by consortia which were not directly accountable to the electorate, while the increased size and remoteness of the new councils could be countered by a beefed up network of Community Councils that operated everywhere rather than just in rural or fringe suburban areas as at present. On this Williams is right, with proposals to reduce the number (amazingly, 736) of town and community councils
through mergers to create more effective bodies, and to generate new bodies to cover urban areas along the lines of the successful ’neighbourhood management’ initiative in Cardiff.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wales and the Euro-elections

by Nick Davies

It would be nice to report that on May 22nd, Wales, the only part of the UK with a Labour government, with a proud tradition of solidarity, hospitality and equality, which has benefited from European funding and which has previously been  less Eurosceptic than England, roundly rejected the small-state, anti-immigration, anti-devolution, little-Englanders of UKIP.  It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true.

After the disaster of 2009 when Labour came second with 20.3%, the vote recovered to 28.1% and first place, still about 18,000 short of a second seat. The other three seats were won by the Tories, Plaid Cymru,  (scraping home in fourth place), and UKIP, which came second.  While the UKIP vote in Wales was lower than anywhere except London and Scotland, the swing in Wales to UKIP, its vote increasing from 12.8% to 27.6%, was the highest.  Where Labour won, in ten of the twenty-two authorities,  UKIP came second. Where Plaid won,  in four authorities, UKIP pushed Labour into third place. UKIP won six authorities, three of which, Wrexham, Flint and the Vale of Glamorgan, should have been won by Labour. The best news was that the far-right  vote (BNP and Britain First) was down to a combined 1.9% from 5.4%, tempered by the fact that many of its voters  may have migrated to UKIP. The  combined far left parties did little more than confuse a few people.

The reasons for UKIP’s success in Wales  are  broadly the same as elsewhere, albeit with Welsh peculiarities: dissatisfaction with the Westminster parties  (the Liberal-Democrats, collapsing from 10.7% to 3.9%),  weeks of virtually uncritical media coverage and the scapegoating atmosphere against immigrants whipped up by the Tories to try to neutralize the UKIP threat to their own vote.  UKIP was helped by an ignorance or indifference to many of its policies on public services and workers’ rights and its opposition to Welsh devolution. As was the  case elsewhere in the European Union,  voters gave the benefit of the doubt to parties claiming to be against ‘business as usual’ Many people who voted for UKIP must have done so in the belief that it was in some way anti-austerity.

Without a convincing, clear anti-austerity narrative,  and without an adequate challenge (or indeed any challenge at all) to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric and myth-peddling (Blaenau Gwent, where UKIP scored 30.2% has a population which is 99.1% white, for example), Labour was always vulnerable.

Labour’s  failure, over the course of the campaign, to challenge UKIP, on the assumption that it was merely a party of Thatcher-loving golf club bores which threatened only the Tories was as much  a failure of Welsh Labour as the UK party. A sign of  how wrong the party leadership got it was the result in Merthyr Tydfil where UKIP was a close second. The Tories are an irrelevance in Merthyr; those UKIP votes must have come from Labour supporters.

There are more serious and chronic failings to consider.  Many constituency parties in Wales, including  many where UKIP did well, are small, ageing and moribund. Labour may have large majorities but that vote is soft, and vulnerable to UKIP’s populism.

Wales lacks a robust and informative media in which the political reality of modern Wales can properly be analysed and debated. Wales’ only national newspaper, the Western Mail, has a small and declining circulation; otherwise, the people of Wales are at the mercy of the London press, or on the parish-pump local papers. Because of the topography many areas in east and central Wales receive television broadcasts from England; recent  editions of BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Wales have been reduced to a farce because  whoever  commissions panel members appears to be blissfully unaware that Wales has its own government.

Although that government has retained a publicly funded and provided NHS, in the tradition of Bevan, sparing Welsh from the nightmare of insolvency and fragmentation facing the NHS in England, it is shocking, though perhaps unsurprising given the above, that according to a recent opinion poll, 43% of  people in Wales thought the UK government ran the NHS and 31% thought it ran education. Given all these circumstances,  it is unsurprising that UKIP’s version of the truth remained largely unchallenged.

Some of UKIP’s vote will melt away in 2015, and the revelations now emerging  about the MEP may damage UKIP, but if Labour’s campaign  is as muddled and inept as this one, much of it is here to stay.

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Labour Policy-Making Needs Democracy

by Darren Williams

March saw the publication of eight documents from Labour’s policy commissions, which collectively represent a supposed initial draft of next year’s general election manifesto. They are subject to consultation until 13 June, with CLPs entitled to submit up to ten amendments in total and up to four on any one document. National Policy Forum reps from each region will then consider and prioritise the amendments received ahead of a meeting of the full NPF on 18-20 July.

These papers raise wider questions about the extent to which it is worthwhile seeking to intervene in the policy process.

The introduction of Partnership in(to) Power (PiP) in 1997 was widely recognised as an attempt by the Blair leadership to limit democratic decision-making within the party, diverting policy debate away from annual conference through the labyrinthine processes of the NPF.  Defenders of PiP – by no means all of them stooges of the leadership – point out that the old system allowed for meaningful input into policy only once a year, excluded non-GMC delegates from any real influence, limited CLPs to a single motion annually and subjected those motions to the vagaries of compositing. In addition, there was no guarantee that the leadership would even act on conference policy (although this, like most of the other criticisms, is symptomatic of a dysfunctional democratic culture, more than a specific policy mechanism).

In contrast, we are told, PiP allows all members to have their say – collectively and individually – over the full range of policy and provides repeated opportunities for discussion and input over the course of a rolling four-year policy programme.  But, while discussions do undoubtedly take place, those party bodies that have taken the time and trouble to participate have frequently been left wondering what has happened to the comments and proposals that they have submitted.

The introduction, in 2010, of OMOV for the election of CLP delegates to the NPF resulted in the centre-left winning more seats than in the previous elections, conducted among conference delegates and subject to the illicit influence of right-wing party officials. In Wales, we swept the board and sought to engage positively with the NPF’s work – but this was not easy. At the first two full NPF meetings, six months apart, we were presented with documents full of flimsy New Labour ‘analysis’. The same complaints were made (and not just from the left) about issues like the lack of an audit trail for CLP submissions and the same assurances were given by Forum chair, Peter Hain, that things would be different in future. Moreover, our own input was limited as we did not automatically get to sit on a policy commission but had to face a further election, with seats available for only a minority of CLP reps.

Since Angela Eagle took over as chair in 2012, the NPF has become somewhat more transparent and responsive and its discussions more open and less stage-managed. All reps can now sit on a policy commission – although it is not easy to participate when meetings are held in London on weekdays, in working hours. The establishment of the ‘Your Britain’ website allows uncensored comments to be posted about all aspects of policy. The question remains, however: how much impact does the NPF actually have on party policy? In four full meetings since 2010, not a single vote has been taken on a matter of policy. No attempt is made to test the degree of support commanded by the proposals that have been submitted.

Meanwhile, a parallel ‘Policy Review’ has been taking place, involving groups of shadow ministers and co-opted advisers, under the direction of Jon Cruddas MP; in this process, NPF reps play no part. This has resulted in two lengthy booklets: One Nation Economy and One Nation Society. Along the way, shadow ministers have also felt free to announce publicly policy initiatives never discussed by the NPF.

Those NPF reps who have managed to take part in policy commission meetings have, in recent months, had some input into the eight policy papers that have now been published. But it is notable that the key statements in these documents reflect – sometimes to the letter – the relevant sections of the ‘One Nation’ booklets. It is clear that the parliamentary leadership is driving policy formation.  

This does not mean the left should abstain from promoting amendments to the documents – especially on key issues like Trident – as this is an opportunity to build wider support for socialist policies, even when we have little expectation of them being adopted. But all our experience with the NPF reinforces the need for us to fight for democratic reforms, including the restoration of conference sovereignty over party policy.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of Labour Briefing magazine.