The 2015 General Election was a terrible result for Wales. Five years of self-defeating, poverty-creating state-shrinking austerity from the coalition was bad enough, five more years of the Tories governing alone will be worse. The assault on the public sector threatens thousands of Welsh jobs, the £12 billion in ‘welfare’ cuts will make life even more difficult for the poor and the vulnerable and for many disabled people life will literally not be worth living. The cuts to the Welsh budget will result in cuts to the revenue support and grants to local authorities, making it increasingly difficult for them to deliver basic services and producing what is for the Tories an added bonus of Labour local authorities blaming a Labour government for Tory cuts.The Tory Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb, more affable than the sinister and unpleasant David Jones, has promised Wales ‘fair funding’, but in the absence of any reform of the Barnett formula, this will be a typical Tory trap, likely to amount to little more than Wales being cut loose financially, without the resources it needs, leaving Welsh (Labour) governments to take the blame. In every other way, Wales will be shackled to a political entity governed according to the economic needs and priorities of finance capital and the City of London and the political preoccupations of the English nationalists in the Tory party.
This was also a terrible result for Welsh Labour. Yes, the share of the vote in Wales went up, but only marginally, from 36% to 36.9%, compared to 55% in 1997. In terms of seats, the picture is worse. The Tories have won 11, more than any time since 1983 (they had none in 1997 or 2001). Their victory in Labour’s number one target seat in Wales, Cardiff North, was unexpected and sobering. Their victory in Gower, over an excellent Labour candidate, the socialist Liz Evans, was a tragedy. The Tories’ share of the vote in Wales, after five years of Westminster-imposed austerity which, for a number of reasons (reliance on public sector employment, low pay, and the number of people claiming benefits) has hit Wales hard, actually increased to 27.2% following a previous increase in 2010.
It gets worse. UKIP came second in a number of constituencies with a share of the vote overall in Wales of 13.6%, just above that for the UK as a whole of 12.6% but in some Valleys and semi-Valleys constituencies their performance was even more alarming – for example: 17.2% in Swansea East; 18.7% in Merthyr and Rhymney; 19% in Torfaen; 19.3% in Caerphilly; and 19.6% in Islwyn. On these figures, UKIP is on course to win several Assembly seats in 2016.
Although Plaid’s vote went up in some areas, UKIP and the Tories drove Plaid into fourth place in terms of the overall popular vote, despite the Plaid leader Leanne Wood coming out well from the televised debates. Plaid hit a wall. It held onto its three seats, failing to win its main target seat of Ynys Môn. It is possible that only a Jim Murphy (or Alun Michael)-type stewardship of Welsh Labour would let Plaid into the South, as it did in 1999. The Liberal–Democrat vote collapsed, leaving one only MP. There was little evidence of the ‘Green surge’, the middle-class liberals who comprise the party in Wales congratulating themselves on reducing the number of lost deposits. The combined far left barely troubled the scorers, its one notable contribution being an act of sectarian sabotage; the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) received 103 votes in Gower, where Liz Evans, a trade unionist and socialist par excellence, lost by 27 votes.
There are a number of reasons for these results. Most importantly, Labour did poorly in the UK as a whole. It never established a consistent, coherent anti-austerity narrative. The chief architect of its muddled strategy of austerity-lite was Ed Balls who in Morley and Outwood fell on the sword he had spent five years forging. On the contrary, in 2010, while Labour was spending five months on a seemingly interminable leadership contest, the Tories were establishing very firmly in the public mind, with the aid of a friendly media, the idea that Labour ‘caused’ the crisis of 2008-2009 by overspending. The Labour leadership appeared reluctant to defend its own record of bringing the economy back into growth by 2010. As the representatives in the Labour movement of neo-liberalism it is probably inevitable that New Labour politicians would be at best only partial, conditional defenders of Keynesianism, let alone its advocates.
In so far as Ed Miliband did break from the post-Thatcher consensus and attack predatory capitalism he was not only attacked and vilified by its representatives, attacks which he stood up to with considerable dignity and courage, but was undermined at times by unrepentant Blairites in his own shadow cabinet, as well as old hands from the Blair years. There was also the anti-politics mentality from which UKIP reaps the benefit, or which at least reduces the turnout in Labour areas, as well as the legacy of the New Labour years, the lack of trust over Iraq and the feeling that the parties are all the same.
Then there was Scotland, where Labour committed political suicide by aligning itself to both austerity and unionism. However, the arithmetic of that wipe-out cannot alone explain why Labour failed to win. All those seats lost to the SNP would not have given Labour a majority. The Tories, seven months after Scotland had voted to stay in the UK and seven months after Cameron’s wheedling sentimentality about the sacredness of the union, treated the Scots as a treacherous fifth column, which probably scared some floating voters in England and Wales, but overall, that factor takes second place to the failure to combat austerity, which is of course partly why Labour lost Scotland in the first place.
All these factors have a resonance in Wales, reliant as it is, to a large extent, on the metropolitan media, from which Welsh voters would have had the Tory smears about the Welsh NHS without the inconvenient truth about the imminent financial meltdown in England, but there are home-grown factors as well. While the collapse of the Liberal-Democrats explains the Tory victory in Brecon and Radnorshire (and the Labour win, by the excellent left wing candidate Jo Stevens, in Cardiff Central against a Liberal Democrat in contrast to its failure in Cardiff North against the Tories) this is largely a Labour problem. Local branches are often undemocratic shells, frequently dominated by self-serving cliques, a situation only encouraged by the lack of party democracy. Organisation on the ground appears to be at best patchy, characterised by the heroic efforts of a few individuals, and at worst incompetent or non-existent. There is a failure to understand the popularity of UKIP, seeing it purely as a question of racism.
The worst thing is that there is a feeling that there isn’t really a problem; we keep on winning, so it’s all OK, isn’t it? For some this is given a ‘left’ gloss by the Welsh government’s distinct ‘Clear Red Water’ policy agenda, which, despite the loss of some of its radical edge, with the departure of Jane Davidson and Rhodri himself, has nevertheless protected Welsh people from some of the worst New Labour and Tory policies in public services. While the ‘Clear Read Water’ has become somewhat diluted in recent years, its past achievements have lent credence to some of the lazy assertions that make up the party’s rhetoric in Wales: ‘Labour’s values are Welsh values’, ‘the Tories do not speak for Wales’. Well, clearly, a growing number of Welsh people think that they do. How long can the radicalism and the intellectual rigour of Mark Drakeford, for example, coincide with the slovenly decadence and lack of accountability, which is increasingly evident in that outpost of pound-shop Blairism, the party organisation? How long can we claim that Wales has a distinct political culture based on solidarity and egalitarianism when we are so vulnerable to unionist parties of the right, be they representatives of finance capital or of right-wing populism?
We need to learn from Scotland. However, in in one sense, Scottish Labour could have learned from us. We in Wales might have gone the same way as Scotland but instead we were saved by Rhodri Morgan and Clear Red Water, so the disaster of the short-lived administration of Alun Michael which cost Labour so dear in the 1999 Assembly elections was never repeated. Scottish Labour did not learn from Wales. The party had one last chance, to elect Neil Findlay, but did not take it. ‘Better Together’ demonstrated that the process of decay was already well advanced.
When politics in the UK got more lively, interesting and radical than it has been for decades, Scottish Labour were defensive onlookers. We need Wales to be like Scotland, to develop the radical independent political environment, which challenges both austerity and the Westminster-dominated political norms and culture, which brought it. Unlike in Scotland, Welsh Labour still has enough residual political credit from ‘Clear Red Water’ to ride that tiger itself, in collaboration with the socialists in Plaid Cymru and independent socialists and environmentalists. This need not have the dynamic towards full, state independence which exists in Scotland, but it can result in an indigenous Welsh radicalism which can act in the interests of the people of Wales in collaboration with co-thinkers in Scotland, England and beyond.
Admittedly this is more in the realm of aspiration at the moment. The situation in Scotland is the result of a concatenation of factors, some going back 300 years, some going back 30, which are not on all fours with Welsh history and politics, but there is one concrete and immediate way in which we can get the process started: the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections. Nicola Sturgeon promised to help Ed Miliband lock Cameron out of Downing Street. Ed did not accept this gracious offer, for fear of being bullied by the Tory press and because he feared that any good will shown towards the SNP would play badly with his own activists in Scotland. We in Welsh Labour need to turn Sturgeon’s offer on its head and make an offer to Plaid to lock the Tories, and UKIP, out of the Senedd. This would involve, principally, Labour voters in Labour stronghold being prepared give Plaid their second vote, rather than give their own party a second, wasted vote. Agreement on details would have to be hammered out on a region-by region basis. In North and West Wales Plaid voters would have to reciprocate by voting Labour in Labour-Tory marginals such as Aberconwy and Clwyd West.
This proposal would meet with resistance with some activists in both parties. To those Labour members who refuse to work with ‘nationalists’, do they really see Leanne Wood as much of an enemy as Andrew RT Davies? Conversely, do Plaid members see Mark Drakeford as a New Labour, Westminster hack? The answers to both those questions will let us all know where we stand. To socialists in both parties, it offers a way of strengthening Wales against Westminster and protecting it from austerity. A desperate situation requires not bunker mentality party-patriotism but some new thinking.