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.