Thursday 10 May 2007

Workers’ parties and the national question in Wales

I came across this very interesting post by Charlie Marks on the Rebellion Sucks! blog. It is well worth a read.

An assessment of workers’ parties and the national question in Wales

What got me started on the subject of Welsh politics was an enchanting little post to the Welsh Independence blog, What sort of independence?. It was written by “hafod”, who aspires towards an independent Wales based on “cooperation not the free market, care not warfare and putting people before profit.” As for ownership and control in the economy, hafod is straightforward: “the wealth of the country is in the hands of […] the workers [and] democracy means more than putting a cross in a box every four years […] In the same way as I have faith in the people of Wales to have the ability to run their own country, I’m also confident that the workers of Wales can run our industries and services.”

How it Plaid out in Wales
Despite expectations, the Labour Party was not disastrously defeated in the Welsh Assembly elections. This may be attributable to the ‘freebies’, such as free prescriptions, that Welsh Labour are introducing, thus going against the New Labour grain. It may well have been that the low approval of Labour registered in opinion polls did not result in an embarrassing defeat because many traditional Labour voters no longer participate in elections.

Rhodri Morgan, the leader of Welsh Labour, had said there would be ‘clear red water’ between the party and its rivals, hence the criticism that the party’s losses were due to ‘the slow pace of [neo-liberal] reform’. The difference between Welsh Labour and New Labour may have been big enough to lessen the impact of the latter’s imperialist wars, corruption, and habitual dishonesty.

One cannot imagine Blair or Brown holding a meeting of Labour MPs to decide what to do next after the loss of a majority position, as Morgan did with his party’s Assembly Members. Neither Blair nor Brown would talk of having a mandate from their peers to proceed with negotiations, such is their leadership style – centralist rather than democratic – there would be no pretence at accountability.

Morgan has acknowledged that the party requires a coalition, or at least a deal, and that it would not be right to carry on as before. This may be merely an affectation on his part, but it is more graceful than the words and deeds of Jack McConnell, the deposed First Minister for Labour in the Scottish Parliament, who is waiting for the SNP to fail to secure coalition partners so that he can do a deal with the Liberals to prop up Labour. But then, I’m sure Morgan would have acted just like McConnell if Plaid had one more AM than Labour.

Coalition not dole
Though Tories fared better than before, it was not through stealing votes from Labour. It was a party to the left of Labour, Plaid Cymru, which came second. Plaid now has a quarter of the seats in the Assembly: 15 out of 30. Labour needed 31 seats to retain a majority, but they now have 26 seats, meaning they will have to deal with either Plaid or the Liberals, who have 6 seats, but certainly not with the Tories, who have 12 seats. There is a single independent Labour member, Trish Law, who may remain independent from the coalition-building process.

A rainbow coalition of Plaid, the Tories and the Liberals is possible, but it would be unstable and rather embarrassing for all concerned. The Liberals would not want to be seen sharing power with the Tories, and the feeling is probably mutual, as the two are rivals for power in many council and parliamentary seats in England. And it would be unwise, from an electoral perspective, for Plaid Cymru to get cosy under the covers with the Tories (like the Scottish nationalists, Plaid is not a racist or right-wing party).

What will happen, then? In all likelihood there will be a deal struck between Labour with the Liberals and/or Plaid if not an actual coalition. A non-aggression pact would allow the stable government that Labour desire, but would create problems for both Plaid and the Liberals.

Don’t shoot, we’re only bourgeois nationalists
It is obligatory for me to lurch into a rant about these petty-bourgeois nationalists at this point. But I will not oblige. However iffy their socialist credentials, Plaid wish to dissolve the Union; they are opposed to imperialist wars in the Middle East and have plotted with the SNP in the Westminster parliament to impeachment Tony Blair. All of this might suggest that they represent a nascent national bourgeoisie in Wales which wishes to break away from Britain because it sees no profit from protracted wars in a junior partnership with an unreliable and unhinged superpower. Indeed, Plaid, like the SNP, is oriented towards the EU and away from NATO.

Plaid Cymru are Welsh nationalists, but their election campaign was not focused on the question of independence to the same degree as the SNP in Scotland. Nor was “decentralist socialism” mentioned in Plaid’s campaign literature, though supposedly their vision is of an independent and socialist Wales.

I have had trouble unearthing anything detailed on Plaid’s professed socialism; there is no satisfactory definition of the term on their website. The absence of a class perspective has, in the past, led me to believe they are social democrats in reality and therefore have no revolutionary potential (nor potential in a revolution).

Could Plaid be disguising their proletarian partisanship at this time, hiding their wholeheartedness to the workers until the national democratic revolution is in full swing? Would Ieuan Wyn Jones take to wearing a red berret and quoting Trotsky if Plaid were dominant in an independent Wales?

Post-colonial Welsh nationalism
Plaid Cymru have taken advantage of Welsh devolution to argue for self-determination, but as talk of independence has been delayed, so too “community socialism”. Generally, the “S” word has been unofficially banned from polite conversation – it is of the past, not the future. Where the “S” word was tolerated, it denoted a form of welfare capitalism that did not trouble the bourgeoisie nor threaten to expropriate it, and was actually supportive of imperialism. Plaid’s stressing decentralisation could be a nod to the ruling class that since the commanding heights of the economy are not in their sights they can be trusted to govern without upsetting any apple carts or felling trees in the orchard. Is community socialism now just the wink that says an independent Wales will be open for business?

I have no trouble believing that Plaid is a nationalist party, but socialist? Prominent members come across as radical nationalists more than anything else; socialism implies an alternative to capitalism. By advocating national independence for Wales, Plaid signals that it is seeking an alternative political arrangement, namely Welsh self-government. In cultural terms, Plaid aims to revive the Welsh language and affirm a positive national identity.

Could it be that Plaid Cymru is also seeking an alternative economic arrangement, a Socialist Republic, a workers’ state in which there is common ownership of means of production under democratic control? What does socialism with Welsh characteristics look like?

Don’t ask, don’t tell
The questions that revolutionary socialists should use to interrogate Plaid’s vision of socialism are: who will own the means of production and on what basis will goods and services be allocated?

Naturally, these inquires will be dismissed as premature until Wales has independence, by which time another excuse will have been found. They are relevant questions, though. Plaid’s leadership would prefer that its politics remain moderate, which is to say within the realm of bourgeois respectability; a vanguard of the nation rather than the proletariat.

But let us imagine that Wales has gained independence and there is a militant labour movement and strengthened class consciousness. Would Plaid be with this movement, on the fence, or actively against it? One can be a democrat and disagree with the results of democracy. Would Plaid be Welsh nationalists opposing the majority Welsh opinion?

Throw another party?
Ah, too many questions, too little time. Here is an important one: what should be done by revolutionary socialists in terms of organisation? In Wales, the options are: enter Welsh Labour and agitate for change, build up either Respect or the Socialist Party of Wales, or join Plaid Cymru and agitate for change.

If Welsh Labour and Labour in Westminster continue on the same path, there will be further erosion of their working class base. And the fact that there will be no massive change in Labour policy leaves an opening for another party to fill their boots, “left-leaning” in the case of Plaid, or fully leftist. Recall that the disaffiliated unions have contributed financially to the Scottish Socialist Party in the past, would a Welsh version get union cash and have the same success? Wait, don’t answer that one.

The recent creation of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party by the Socialist Party of England and Wales and the electoral intervention by the Socialist Party of Wales, which is part of the SPEW, confirms that the organisation formerly known as Militant has given up entrism for good. A habit worth kicking is one that is damaging. And the other sizable (larger, that is) Trotskyist outfit, the Socialist Worker Party is keen to build up respect in Wales… by building up Respect in Wales. Ahem.

But seriously, it is inefficient to have two or three left reformist parties populated by revolutionary socialists. Why not make do with one? Again, a bad example nowadays, but the SSP saw the various far left parties work in a single organisation and the failure of the project was not caused by these groups being unable to work together. (I accept that the Sheridan trial was viewed as political by both sides in the SSP, but contend the split resulted because of personal differences.)

I do not think it wise for socialists to join Plaid Cymru for it is primarily committed to national self-determination and would serve the interests of the capitalist class more than the working class.

A Welsh Socialist Party should be formed by the SWP, the SP, and others, following the template of the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. This would be a workers’ party with a workers’ programme – supportive of Welsh self-determination and dealing with Plaid, but committed to the class struggle at home and in solidarity with struggles internationally.

Don’t let it dragon
I suspect that in future Plaid may experience a win like that of the SNP – gaining support for a change, but not independence. The neo-liberal nature of the Welsh nationalists would become more apparent in these circumstances. A minority may well be full-blooded socialists, but the direction of Plaid will follow the route of the SNP: talk of social reforms to gain workers’ votes, but at the same time promise stability, continuity and cuts in tax and red-tape for bosses at home and abroad.

Plaid wants lower business rates, and it might be argued that low taxation is the only way for a country without natural resources to guarantee investment. But as there is no alternate form of ownership articulated by Plaid in which investment and disinvestment can be decided democratically, one is given to believe that the colonial relationship will remain, but on better terms and with a leftish and nationalist gloss.

It remains to be seen what will come of the SNP’s promises and whatever happens it will not totally determine the future of Welsh nationalism. But if the SNP fail to implement the progressive elements of their programme for reasons other than being a minority government, it will impact negatively on Plaid. Conversely, if the SNP succeed and win an independence referendum, it will buoy the case for self-determination in Wales. Either way, the national capitalist support for the Union will continue to fade as the imperialist wars rage.

There needs to be an independent working class party in Wales. And that’s one party in total, by the way. There will and should be differences of opinion, but there is no need for disorganisation. My fear is that the electoral division of the left in the UK, wrought by the two largest far left groups, will continue to impede the progress of the working class movement.

Unity is not a luxury and should not be treated as such, it is a necessity. Two parties don’t produce twice as much growth or double strength. There should be coalition talks between the revolutionary socialist parties! If not physically, then at least here, in the Blogosphere. What do you say?

Read a bit more about various Socialist Parties in Wales by clicking on the links below:


Rhodri said...

I'd agree with some of the sentiments expressed in that article.A distinctively Welsh socialist movement, commited to self-determination and Welsh culture, is a desirable project. I'm not sure that the SP/SWP/Respect provide much of a basis upon which to buid it however.

There are certainly vastly more socialists outside those groups than within them and none of those groups has a particularly significant presence in Wales.

More specifically,all three suffer from a number of very "British" diseases at both theoretical and practical levels (while there are some good people within all of them).

Most obviously this includes a narrowly economistic kind of politics which leads them to focus almost exclusively on "bread and butter" issues and to de-emphasise struggles around certain democratic/constitutional and cultural/linguistic issues. In practice, this means that while they are quite happy to campaign on things like wages etc. (fair enough), issues such as how we are governed and how that might be changed in the here and now (other than a somewhat abstract idea of "revolution" at some distant future point and the Welsh langage (for example) are reduced to side issues.

This is a deeply rooted mindset which often effectively (if not theoretically) turns them into anglophone, unionist groups. This British disease is also present in a far more nasty and virulent form by the Neil Kinnock/ Llew Smith school of Labour "Leftism", in which the indifference about specifically Welsh issues of the Brit Left groups became actively anti-Welsh, a fake internationalism taking the form of a rabid British (anti-Europe, anti-devolution) nationalism.

While the SP at least has some kind of policy on Wales, the same cannot be said for Respect/SWP who recently fought the assembly elections on a platform with nothing to say about Wales and have never played any constructive role in struggles around the Welsh language.

I recently stummbled upon this collection of writings by that rarest of beings, a Welsh-speaking Trotskyist(now sadly deceased) who tried to grapple with some of those British diseaes he encountered within that wider colection of movements:

Charlie Marks said...

The main reason I cite SP/SWP is because they are the largest left wing parties, and are better in the tent pissing out than the reverse...

There are more socialists that outside these groups than in them, that is true, and is just as true in England or Scotland. Most are not in any organisations or active in any way, for a variety of reasons. I think the failings that SWP/SP might have on certain issues might be due to the concentration of activity geographically. Much of the work is in interacting with workers' economic struggles and tying them to the class struggle for political power; in doing so the goal can be lost, or at least not presented clearly, and so there is a disconect from issues of political and constitutional arrangements.

I think a unified but diverse workers' party is what is needed, and could be formed if the various groups worked together. The SSP did well in Scotland until the split (though it is obvious that the SNP would have stolen their thunder, even without Solidarity) and an organisation of that type, which remains a party but is pluralist and participatory, would be positive for Welsh working people.

Thanks for reminding me of the Ceri Evans site, by the way.

Bonheddwr said...


I would love it if there was such thing as a party here in Wales like the Scottish Socialist Party. Up until last weeks election they appeared to have made a bit of break through, a real shame they have faded.

I support Plaid. Were I live in Ynys Môn there is no alternative to Plaid other than reactionary right wingers. Our very not socialist Labour MP is frantically campaigning for a new nuclear power station for the Island!

Face facts, 'The Left' is so small and irrelevant to most people now, anyone in Wales interested in any sort of progressive politics has no where to go other than joining Plaid or giving up. Were I to join a tiny left wing group I would be the only member in a hundred mile radius.

It is really difficult to argue any left wing ideas these days - but putting forward Plaid to people down the pub and work mates (many of them not Welsh at all) is far more realistic than saying I was in SWP/SW/CP.

If I were in a SWP/SW/CP type group my mates at work would think I was a nutter and make jokes about the 'Judean Peoples Front' from Life of Brian.

Anonymous said...

This article is interesting, but the Labour party is Wales' socialist party. I think the Welsh Labour Party should split from the National Labour Party completely. This will given them the oppertunity to put forward more Wales-based/socialist agenda (such as Welsh language acts etc) and to campaign for further devolution. The "Welsh Labour Party" could then form a collation with the national party at Westminster.

But if you think this will work within an independent Wales your wrong. If Wales did become independent there will be a need for a Conservative government with an agenda for lowering taxes and freeing up the economy to encourage investment.

Rhodri said...

There is absolutely nothing socialist about the Labour party in Wales. They are, and always have been, a party of top-down capitalist management. At one time, this could deliver things like the NHS and such reforms bred a deeply-rooted, but now eroding, loyalty amongst many working people in Wales.

Big reforms they are now unwilling, and in many cases, unable to adopt. Old-style Labourism is basically outmoded.

Real socialism has always been about grassroots, bottom-up democratic self-organisation, self-empowerment and soidarity by and for ordinary people themselves, and represents a vital future direction for the Welsh people in terms of what lies ahead- climate change, peak oil etc. which put some very big question marks over the future of the world if things continue to be done in the ways they are.

As for the notion that an independent Wales would need a hefty dose of Thatcherism to work, i think that this idea needs challenging on a number of levels:

Firstly, we've already had three decades of Thatcherite policies in Wales which have failed dismally. Wales has got relitively poorer throughout this period.

Secondly, the idea that an independent 'Welsh Thatcherism' would do better is extremely dubious.Ignoring issues such as exploitation and inequlity and instead focussing on raw GDP, for example, free market economics will not deliver for Wales in general(never mind the working class) in the long term.

Frequently, the example for Wales that is cited is Ireland. Great country (I live there) but there are a number of problems with the Celtic Tiger model and its transferability to Wales. True, in the mid- to late- 90s low corporation tax rates did contribute to a boom in FDI in Ireland. Unemployment did fall, signicant improvements in living standards did occur for many people, especially compared with what had prevailed before (Ireland historically has been a far poorer place than wales).

The flip side, however, is that many people perceive the boom to have been squandered by the elite. Personal taxation is higher, VAT is higher than in Wales, and despite record tax receipts, invesment in physical and social infrastructure has been sorely neglected/misdirected. The health system is in a terrible state (sound familiar?) and you have to pay to use it (the welfare state never really happened here)and the cities are gridlocked.

Meanwhile, many of the firms which were given such generous incentives to set up here are now leaving, finding that the new EU states can offer lower taxes and lower wages still (Irish wages have more than closed the gap re. UK- but the poor and low paid remain, and the gap has/continues to expand exponentially). After a brief surge, manufacturing jobs are again declining rapidly in number, to be raplaced by ervice jobs in the main...

The boom is now based on a huge speculative consumption, construction and a property bubble, fueled by cheap credit and a demographic quirk which means that ireland's baby boomers (in the mid 90s something like half of the pop. was under
25) are now buying houses en masse, and buying large amounts of "stuff" to equip those houses. Frequently on credit.

Apart from the unique demography of it, there's a sense of late 80s/Blairite unsustainability about it (and a deperate shortage of affordable housing to boot). Clouds are gathering, interest rates are rising.

Wales is different- different demography, history, social conditions. A dose of native Thatcherism would mean gutting our already poor social infrastructure for the sake of a 'race to the bottom' which is ultimately unwinnable and would have devastaing consequences for working people in Wales. Wales will not be a success on this basis- there will always be somewhere with lower taxes and lower wages.

Wales, and the world, needs an alternative to the failing market and failed statism if we are to ensure genuine democracy, sustainable prosperity, social justice and meaningful self-determination.

It's going to be a long slog though,

hafod said...

Have to agree with Huw here - the thought of the Brit Left grouplets forming a united Welsh Socialist Party is laughable. And it isn't going to happen because they have no Welsh perspective.
Besides that, they're all tiny. No more than 50 activists between them in Wales with no councillors, influence or meaningful activism beyond the routine paper sales and demos.
The orthodox left has been a complete block on socialism for the past 20 years (as has Labour). It's given us all a bad name ("splitter!").
That's why Plaid, for all its faults, is a far better option in that it advances a credible radical alternative to the status quo in the short term. In the long-term it allows a different configuration of politics in Wales that may yet see a Welsh Socialist Party emerge.

Charlie Marks said...

Hmm. I think I'd vote for Plaid if I lived in Wales. Certainly, they are the second largest party in the Welsh assembly and though its programme is not working class, it's better than Labour. Who knows what may come... a Welsh Labour/Plaid coalition? Can't comment any more at present. I can only hope that my post has made people think about what to do next.

Ian said...

Labour cannot form a Welsh party because it is split down the middle between its UK nationalist and Welsh nationalist elements; the former presently having the upper hand.

Plaid do not bother throwing the word 'socialism' about because Labour have given it a bad name. Labour's socialism' in Wales has created a hugely centralist nation, a stagnated economy in comparison to the rest of the UK and an ever incresing gap between rich and poor. I am more concerned with actions than with words and with respect to the marxist parties of Wales, they have until recently been hostile to Welsh self determination and the Welsh language.

In fact, they still accuse Plaid of being a pseudo-racist party because of Saunders Lewis.

I would like to see an STV system in Wales at all electoral levels, where the smaller parties have a greater opportunity to be represented. The drawback would be the threat of the BNP, but keeping them out is at least one campaign that we can all agree on.

Draig said...

Hate to burst Hedd's bubble, but a Welsh version of the SSP has already been tried and failed! It was called the "Welsh Socialist Alliance" and was initiated through a dialogue between Cymru Goch - the Welsh Socialists, and the Socialist Party of Wales, back in 1997. Cymru Goch's (naive) hope was to eventually turn it into a Welsh Socialist Party, modelled along SSP lines.

This loose alliance quickly attracted interest from various other left grouplets, such as Workers Power, the Communist Party etc. and was based on the proposition that there was "80% we can agree on, and that should be enough to unite us." This might have worked, as the SP in particular have more of an organic connection to working class communities in Wales (i.e. a majority of their members are actually Welsh, and working class, unlike the other little grouplets!)

However, things went tits up when the SWP muscled in with their "democratic centralism", and proceeded to take over the whole thing, at which point traditional leftist rivalries resurfaced and the various little grouplets jumped ship, leaving the Swoppies to run the show.

I'm tempted to agree with Hafod, ultimately, and say that the organised left is a huge brake on politics in general in Wales, and the problem is that the biggest groups are Brit organisations which are ideologically opposed to any kind of separate Welsh identity, and woefully wedded to a stale dogma which has long outlived its usefulness to most working people.

Charlie Marks said...

The whole Socialist Alliance project was a noble effort. But alas, it was not to be. Sadly the SWP practices more centralism than democracy... What the Zapatistas call mandar obedeciendo, governing by obeying, is much needed on the left. (Which reminds me, I must pen something on this leadership style. I've blogged on the "mass line", in case anyone's interested.)

I'm wondering if the best thing that the advanced section of the Welsh working class (that is to say, class conscious workers) can do is join Plaid's fight for independence and make the case for socialism.

Welsh Labour is opposed to independence and is a kind of slo-mo new labour. My hope is that Welsh independence will enable a more participatory democracy to be built. Plaid's promise to introduce a direct democracy in the form of the citizens' initiative is promising.

The gap in my knowledge has to be the degree to which socialism figures in Plaid. There's no elaboration on the aim for "decentralist socialism"; there can be no blueprints, but a more definitive statement should be forthcoming.

I have not been able to find anything about the struggles and debates that led Plaid to adopt so-called community socialism as one of its goals, and would be grateful if anyone could help. Specifically, I'd like to know if there is much of an anti-capitalist current in the party today.

I hope you will excuse my general ignorance about Plaid. The Brit left neglects to elaborate much on the party, beyond the "bourgeois nationalism" stuff -- which is a shame. But the opposition to Welsh identity is part of the shit of ages that old Karl talked about.

The struggle for Welsh independence is hardly your typical anti-colonial affair, more ballots than bullets, that's for sure. It is very much a struggle against imperialism, though. And also racism: the casual denigration of Welsh identity is unfortunately common. Sadly, these facts are not recognised by the anglocentric left groups.

I can't understand the refusal to support Scottish and Welsh national self-determination; there was no problem in supporting Irish self-determination. Why not Scotland and Wales? Why not England?

Anyway, enough of me blethering. I would like to thank Hedd for allowing this wee debate to take place. And to Hafod, who started it all.

Bonheddwr said...

"Hate to burst Hedd's bubble," I have no bubble to burst. I've simply pasted the comments of others to this discussion,. I have not commented myself...

Draig said...

You're quite right Hedd. Sorry! Bit of a late one last night...but I'll second Charlie in saying thanks for kicking of a bit of debate on this subject. There's a definite need to redefine what we mean by the "Left" and "Left-wing politics". To my mind this should extend beyond the Left-wing grouplets and include other traditional bastions of the Left such as the Unions.

Where do the Unions stand in relation to Welsh Independence and Republicanism? Are they relevant in a Welsh workplace where the majority may well be agency workers? Where do the Unions stand on the issue of globalisation? Aren't they fighting a rearguard action negotiating the gradual withdrawal of our manufacturing base? Why don't they ever suggest occupying factories instead of letting fly-by-night companies get away with the goods? Should we set up new "Independent Unions" like Larkin did with the IGTWU in Ireland at the turn of the last century?

I agree with Charlie's suggestion that we need a more participatory democratic system. Do we get it through traditional class-based politics, based on a traditional manufacturing workplace which has all but ceased to exist, or do we get it through a more community-grassroots based politics?

Charlie Marks said...

Draig, by class-based politics I am not referring to the stereotype of this as being focuses solely on the industrial proletariat. My understanding of class is Marxian. Even political activity which has its centre of gravity in the community and does not appear to concern capital vs labour, can still be seen as class based.

The idea that workplace organisation has ceased to be relevant is thrown up a lot to disorient people, as if there are no workers any more! But there is a problem with internal democracy in some of the unions - a result of the anti-union laws.

The unions are populated with fine people, but let us not forget they (trade unions) are akin to business today. Note Brendan Barber's offer to "help" bosses by organising workers -- this is "business unionism" at its finest!

My concern is that workers' self-defence organisations (the unions) are linked to workers' parties. I'm wondering, re: Wales, would who would get the union dough if not Welsh Labour? Plaid?

Sorry if this comment seems hazy, I'm absolutely knackered.

Unknown said...

United we stand. Without unity we fall. Allowing for the fact that there are many views and opinions we cannot create a party for each. Plaid is the umbrella for all progressive views. Leaving politics aside, the aim is the creation of a better Wales, which benefits the people as a whole, and keeps Wales together as a nation. All socially inclined people should throw in their lot with Plaid, the only party which steadfastly works for freedom and home rule. Let us restore to Wales the sense of community and egalitarianism, and revive the culture in all areas of Wales to eradicate foreign influences and incursions. Let y dddraig goch be flown in every place to show our intentions are serious. We need to step up the profile, and keep it at the forefront of public attention.

Alan in Dyfed