Sep 14 2007

Consensus Politics or an Unprincipled Lash-Up?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 1:39 pm

Following the Welsh Assembly elections, Bob Davies (CPGB, South Wales) details the compromises in the pursuit of power

Cross party, consensus politics currently appears in vogue at the moment. As I write, and perhaps encouraged by recent developments in Welsh politics, Gordon Brown has announced that Patrick Mercer and John Bercow, both Tory MPs, will be joined by Lib. Dem MP, Matthew Taylor to advise the government on certain policy matters with their expertise. It seems the Labour/Plaid coalition administration in Wales could yet provide the basis for thenew politics Brown hankers for – all in the interests of the country as a whole, of course.

One Wales

Somehow, I think not. The Welsh electorate experienced the same sort of empty, meaningless rhetoric following Welsh Labour’s predicament when it failed to secure an overall majority in y Senedd during elections to its’ Assembly on May 3rd this year. The eventual outcome of that were a Labour First Minister and a Plaid Cymru deputy First Minister with ‘One Wales’ being ratified as the policy document that now forms the basis for the country’s political direction until 2011. It is worth giving the period in question a quick résumé.

Events in the weeks subsequent to One Wales being approved may have bordered on the farcical, but they were hardly surprising. The Welsh Assembly has a very limited remit and this found its reflection in the nature of the election campaign generally leading up to May 3rd – the politics being exhibited by all mainstream parties were high on platitudes and low on concrete proposals. The battle for the ‘greenest’ politics and who could best manage the NHS took centre stage. Evidently, how each party imaged itself was more important than its politics.

As soon as it became clear that no single party had secured an overall majority in the Assembly, which of the party leaders could get their grubby hands on first ministerial power became the issue. Talk of deals, pacts and horse – trading in order that each of their respective parties could govern in the ‘best possible way for the people of Wales’ became the norm. Indeed, the Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan’s repeated call to reach out to those in other parties with similar ideas typified the narrow political agenda on offer. Each party leader seemed prepared to make a deal with any of the others but, initially at least, could not quite pull it off.

All Wales Accord

Take the manoeuvrings around the ‘All Wales Accord’ – the first policy document being sold by the proposed coalition of Plaid, Liberal Democrats and Tory Assembly Members, the then infamously named Rainbow Alliance. That document contained such things as a commitment to work towards the improvement of transport links, the piloting of a laptop scheme for all schoolchildren, a trial of NHS walk-in centres and a vague promise to improve social housing. It also carried a commitment to hold a referendum on further powers for the Welsh assembly, bringing it in line with the Scottish parliament. Measures to bring about real democratic change or improve workers’ social and economic rights were absent.

One Wales hardly provides a substantial principled political shift from its predecessor – despite Morgan speaking about it as a new beginning or Plaid’s deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, (who had only recently been praising the All-Welsh accord when One Wales was introduced), bleating about it as a historical moment for the people of Wales.

True, but hardly inspiring, whilst One Wales contains anti-privatisation sound-bites about moving purposefully to end the internal market in the NHS, general commitments on, for example, education are hazy and range from providing extra assistance with student debt to initiating a pilot scheme for laptops for children. Indeed, ‘One Wales’ contains the platitudes people may expect from politics that are characterised by backroom deals between mainstream parties. As with the All Wales accord, principled proposals for real change were, unsurprisingly, not to be found.

The Left in Wales

So what of the Left in Wales during the period in question? Leaving aside the fact that there was a wide array of organisations contesting the five regional lists, at least two and as many as five left slates were vying for the same vote in every region. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the Morning Star‘s Communist Party of Britain contested each one, while the Socialist Party (standing as Socialist Alternative) and Respect were also on the ballot in South Wales West and South Wales Central. In addition, one of the fragments of the former Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Equality Party, stood in the last named region.

Thankfully, Forward Wales did not add to the confusion by contesting the regions, although its two most well known members at the time, Ron Davies and John Marek, were standing as independents in Caerphilly and Wrexham constituency seats. The average percentage vote for all of these groups combined was around a meagre 0.5%.

The campaigning efforts of those organisations hardly set the world alight either. Take Respect. This organisation in Wales had not conducted any public activities in the run-up to May 3 – thus personifying some of the criticisms George Galloway MP has recently raised about it. Indeed, the most up to date Respect national members’ bulletin at the time, whilst commenting on the 2008 mayoral election in London and the local council elections in England on May 3, had chosen not to even mention Wales in any shape or form.

The SLP too, lying dormant and unseen in the previous few years had done its best to let us know it still existed – if only on paper. Although its party political broadcast had already been screened, its manifesto was launched only on April 22, a little over a week before the election date. Meanwhile, the Socialist Equality Party parachuted its politics and candidates into South Wales Central (each of its candidates lived outside of the country).

Only the CPB and the SP seemed to be putting some effort into campaigning. No doubt buoyed by the first communist broadcast since the 1970s, the CPB had been holding a series of public meetings across Wales. The SP organised a smattering of events in south Wales and its website at least gave the impression of up-to-date campaigning activity.

But what were the political differences that separated all these groups and prevented them even discussing an electoral pact, not to mention a common campaign? For the most part, there was not that much. A look at the material available on their respective websites at the time and the literature handed out at public meetings said it all.

One Wales?: Rhodri Morgan (Labour) * Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid Cymru)

One Wales?: Rhodri Morgan (Labour) * Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid Cymru)

True, the SEP’s broader manifesto specifically questioned the nature of UK democracy, but the common themes promoted were defence of public services (particularly the NHS) and opposition to imperialist war. Of course, both of these are essential demands, but the question of how we are ruled, including the national question and the constitutional monarchy system, were, by and large, absent. The brand of politics being offered to the electorate, including in relation to imperialist war, was economism – albeit with a particular Trotskyist, Labourite, reformist or populist twist.

Furthermore, the fact that the electorate in South Wales Central region, for example, had a choice of five very similar slates typified the problem: that the organised left (particularly in Wales but in Britain generally) is, in fact, splintered and, actually, highly disorganised. The question of party is not considered. The glimpses of left unity seen in previous elections in Wales (the United Left in 1999 and the Welsh Socialist Alliance in the 2001 general election) has now long gone. The whole situation would have been amusing if it wasn’t so tragic.

Plaid Cymru’s left

The response by Plaid Cymru’s left to the twists and turns post May 3rd were more interesting and worth a mention.

From the onset, the prospect of the Rainbow Coalition sparked something of a minor rebellion amongst a small number of Plaid’s left Assembly Members, amongst whom Leanne Wood, AM for South Wales Central, was prominent.

Yet the effectiveness of that rebellion was always questionable. Triban Coch, the now inactive, if not defunct, left-wing grouping in Plaid, did not write a word about that Alliance since it was first mooted by Plaid’s leadership before elections to the Assembly even took place. Indeed, the reason why the Rainbow Alliance failed to become a living entity was actually due to the fact that the Liberal Democrats scuppered the idea – it had very little to do with Plaid’s left rebels.

The politics of that opposition too was always questionable. Speaking at the time of the proposed Rainbow Alliance, Wood stated

There is a clash of values and principles between Plaid and the Conservatives. That is why we believe an arrangement between us would be unsustainable in the long run and not deliver the stable government for which we all strive … We fought this election on a platform to deliver a proper parliament for our nation. A deal with the Conservatives would undermine the chance of delivering that goal.

The other left rebel AMs within Plaid also echoed
that idea. For example, Helen Mary Jones stated that she was against the Alliance because her Llanelli electorate did not want a real Welsh government called into question. Similar comments came from the other two Plaid AMs involved in the rebellion, Nerys Evans AM and Bethan Jenkins AM.

It is, of course, correct and fundamental to demand a parliament for Wales with full powers. But partisans of the working class place such a demand not within the context of Independence but within the context of workers unity on an all-Britain level by raising the importance of the need for a federal republic of Wales, England and Scotland. Fundamentally for Plaid’s left therefore it was not the interests of the working class, but those of a classless Welsh “nation”, which had to be protected from a lash-up with the Tories. On that question, Plaid’s rebels differed little from its leadership.

Indeed, having fought within their party to reject the ‘All-Welsh accord’ only three weeks earlier, it is unclear what precisely Plaid’s five AMs had initially seen when they voted to accept One Wales. For while they are yet to voice publicly their reasons for backing the document, we can only speculate that their thought processes may not be too dissimilar to those of their Westminster colleague, Plaid MP Adam Price (also formally a member of Triban Coch). From the onset, he sold the deal as a progressive political development. On June 28 – two days after Labour and Plaid AMs had formally agreed the new policy document – Price’s blog spoke of ‘One Wales’ in positive terms:

If we are what we say we are, a socialist party, a party of the left, then, all things being equal, when presented with a progressive programme in alliance with another party of the left or an alternative programme in alliance with the political right, then our natural tendency should be to choose left. If we embraced the rainbow under these circumstances, then the message we would send to the people of Wales is that our adoption of socialism in our party’s aims for 26 years was just for show. We would have appeared unprincipled, opportunistic and ideologically rudderless. In other words, we would have looked like the Liberal Democrats. And none of us would have wanted that

(Source).

Price’s socialism is revealed in some further comments. It seems that the programme contained in ‘One Wales’ will not only make Welsh-medium education a right at every level from the nursery to university, but will bring the right to a decent home within the grasp of every citizen too. To finance this, the Welsh government will cut business taxes to boost the economy, wrote the MP the following day. In other words, administering capitalism is, first and foremost, the priority.

Referendum

Whatever. Although the coalition government is now up and running, the fact remains that tensions between Plaid and Labour as well as amongst members of each party are very likely to be tested at some point in the near future. Indeed, there is already some ambiguity around the question of a referendum on the introduction of further powers for the Assembly – both parties will need to assess the levels of support for full law making powers necessary to trigger the referendum. Thus it appears that Plaid may yet find itself at the mercy of a Labour veto on the question – a fate which will cause political chaos between the two organisations.

So, despite the fact that, in June, each party conference overwhelmingly endorsed One Wales, it would be safe to say that the coalition can be described as anything but secure. Recent spats about identity and Britishness between Adam Price MP and Labour’s Huw Lewis AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney via their respective websites during July and August highlighted the underlying tension and fragility of what some see as an unlikely alliance. It must be noted that some Labour activists continue to feel uneasy about entering into government with the nationalists, while many Plaid members hate the thought of cosying up to British unionists.

For the Left in Wales (and Britain), whatever the outcome of the Labour/Plaid administration, the question of left unity, the need for a genuine working class party organised around the fight for a principled and radical working class programme must remain at the forefront of the political agenda.

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One Response to “Consensus Politics or an Unprincipled Lash-Up?”

  1. Emancipation & Liberation » Emancipation & Liberation Index 15 says:

    […] Consensus politics or an unprincipled lash-up?, Bob Davies […]

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