Thursday, May 21, 2015

The 2015 General Election by Peter Rowlands

Labour must understand why it did so badly in the election, as it is unlikely to be able to mount a successful campaign in the future if it doesn’t. Much has been written already, although we await a full analysis in terms of voting patterns and movement by age, class, gender etc., but from what we know I believe that we can draw some valid conclusions.

The pollsters got it significantly wrong, at least for the two main parties, rendering all the debate about a ‘hung’ parliament redundant, and we await their explanations for that (There is an interesting article in Open Democracy on this, ‘The polls and all but one of the forecasts were wrong, Shaun Lawson’).

There were short run factors that counted. Of these the most significant by far was the unscrupulous use of the ‘Scottish Card’ by the Tories, tapping in to English nationalist fears that a Labour government would be controlled by the SNP. There would appear to be some evidence that this caused a disproportionate swing from ‘Don’t Knows’ to the Tories ( This could help to explain the polls, as ‘Don’t Knows’ are usually divided equally between the parties) and for intending Tory defectors to UKIP to remain where they were.

The oil price fall was a bonus for the Tories as it helped to promote the impression that the recovery was well under way.

The continued treachery of Mandelson ( even in early March he said that he doubted that  Labour would win) was not unimportant, and I do not understand why he has not been suspended pending an investigation into his undermining of the party – or is it that such things only happen to those on the left?

While Miliband improved his standing in the first three TV appearances his performance in the last, and for that reason crucial appearance on Question Time was fairly dire, and didn’t help, while the bizarre ‘Edstone’ episode can only have confirmed prejudices that he was some sort of crank.
However, the election was not lost primarily for these reasons. There were, in my view, five major factors.

Firstly, Miliband. While I personally liked him and he came across as honest and principled he should not have been chosen as leader simply because he lacked the gravitas, authority and oratorical power that every leader in the television age needs. Much of this is contrived – Cameron comes across to me as a complete phoney, although large numbers do not see it that way, but Miliband was unable to inspire as a leader. This might not have been fatal, but because of other adverse factors it was telling.

Secondly the party was divided between the Blairite/Progress wing, who broadly believed that with suitable updating the policies pursued under Blair, if not Brown, were correct and were the only basis for a successful appeal to the country, and a broad left which saw the huge loss of support for Labour in 2005 and 2010 as indicative of the failure of Blairism in tackling the problems the ordinary people of the country faced  and looked to a renewed form of social democracy to as a means of tackling those. There were of course all sorts of variants of these positions, but this fundamental divide was reflected in the manifesto, in the shadow cabinet and PLP and at all other levels of the party. The result was the failure to promote an over arching message or pattern, even though many individual policies were good in themselves.  

Thirdly the decision to avoid discussion of Labour’s economic record in government, particularly in its third term, was disastrous as it effectively conceded the Tory lie that  the deficit was due to government overspending and not, as was the case, to bailing out the banks after their collapse. (The lie was allowed to take root during the long leadership campaign in 2010 – are we making the same mistake again?)

Fourthly, Labour’s effective capitulation toTory austerity in 2013 meant that it was not possible to present Labour as committed to measures to stimulate the economy to promote the growth needed to provide the income required to pay off the deficit. It is admittedly difficult to persuade large numbers of people that a Keynesian stimulus was the only way to successfully move forward – as Polly Toynbee remarked ’The paradox of thrift proved too paradoxical’, but tragically no serious attempt was made to do so, and it was left to the heroic efforts of Michael Meacher and others to consistently argue that Labour should campaign on this as well as Labour’s economic record as in three above, but to no avail.

Fifthly, and perhaps most tellingly, the electoral strategy was fundamentally misconceived, in that it was based, as in 2010, to appealing to the centre ground. The 2010 election conclusively demonstrated that in one sense the strategy was successful in that social group A/B voters attracted to Labour in 1997 and later largely stayed, but was disastrous in a more important sense in that large numbers of Labour’s traditional core supporters in the C2 and D/E social groups went elsewhere or didn’t vote. The assumption that those to the ‘left’ of the centre have nowhere else to go was proved wrong. But exactly the same circumstances presented themselves in 2015, and exactly the same mistakes were made. The article by Jon Trickett on this blog (Why any leader who can’t reach working class voters will lose again) reproduces figures for social class movement which prove this, with once again a substantial falling away in the D/E vote but the A/B vote remaining steady.
At the same time it is likely that many of those leftish middle class voters attracted to the Lib-Dems  over Iraq and other things in the noughties but who left them after 2010 and came to Labour decided to go elsewhere, to the Greens, who recorded their highest ever vote in a general election, to other left parties or to non voting, on the grounds that Labour policies were not left wing enough. Likewise the D/E voters, notwithstanding some good policies on housing tenure and rent, the bedroom tax, agency workers and zero hours contracts, were not given the impression that their interests, particularly with regard to housing, jobs, and living standards, were of the greatest concern to Labour, and thus went elsewhere, particularly to UKIP who probably took more votes from Labour than from the Tories, or remained as part of the one third of voters who didn’t vote. Some of the better policies were introduced too late or were not given enough prominence.

What we know about the class basis of the recent vote renders all the talk by the Blairites about the manifesto being anti business, too left wing and not in tune with ‘aspirational’ voters as nonsense. (On this it is surely the task of Labour governments to seek to make possible the aspirations of most people for a job with decent pay and conditions, decent housing at affordable cost and decent education, health and social services. Or is it just the middle class that has aspirations?)

Labour is at a crossroads. It can either continue on the path falteringly begun under Ed Miliband towards a renewed form of social democracy, seeking to provide real solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people, or it can revert to being a party that ultimately accepts the dictates of the market and is thus incapable of providing those solutions. I hope it chooses the right path.  

Lessons from Scotland by Mike Hedges AM

The Labour party left space on the left of Labour and this space has been filled by the SNP, which historically has not been a left wing party. The more a political party moves to the centre, the more likely it is that socialists will look to other parties or stay at home. Once that gap starts to be exploited, it becomes almost impossible to recover. 

The Labour Party in Scotland reached a state of having a small membership and did minimal campaigning in historically safe seats because winning was easy.

It destroyed their local councillor base by introducing STV, creating large wards where councillor contact with the electorate decreased, and the change gave seats in historically solid Labour areas to third parties most notably the SNP.

The Referendum was held at the wrong time. A previous Labour Leader wanted it when we controlled the Parliament but was blocked by Westminster Labour. We would have won it easily 10 years ago but we failed to take the opportunity.

The SNP were able to use the "run by London" jibe at us and it was effective in making us appear "less Scottish". 

Perhaps the biggest mistake was not having a Labour 'Yes' campaign and allying ourselves with the Tories in the 'No' campaign. We also failed to answer blatant untruths by the SNP in the referendum and by the time we started to do so we were not believed.

Too many aspiring Scottish politicians believed Westminster was more important than Holyrood.

We failed to identify SNP weaknesses and capitalise on them e.g. their support for  bus deregulation.

We failed to capitalise on the tension between rural and urban parts of the SNP.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Labour Needs to Do Two Things Now by Mike Bird

Clearly, the General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party, as well as the British people. The Tories are now likely to implement their long intended boundary changes, which could cost us another 20 seats. If we are to be able to rebuild to return to Government at the next election, I believe we need to do two things, above all else:

1. We need to understand what just happened and why. Scotland must not be vilified for something that was to the fault of Labour's leadership.
2. Labour's policy process needs to be subject to binding votes to democratise the process and make it credible inside the party and out. 

1. Understanding what happened leading up to the General Election

A lot of people in other parts of the UK are very cross with Scotland, and confused that, in the independence referendum just months ago, Scottish electors decided to stay in the UK, then they send almost exclusively SNP MPs to Westminster.

But it is wrong to be cross with Scotland and there is no need for confusion. Coming from a Welsh constituency probably helps me understand. I'll give my view on those two points in reverse.

First, the referendum decision was decisive and I am sure the Scottish people did view that as the end of the matter for a generation. That is not the reason for the SNP's success on 7th May, it is not a "surge of nationalism". In Wales, we also have a nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (PC). For UK issues, the electorate trusts Labour to represent them. But for Welsh issues, I have repeatedly seen ordinarily Labour supporters voting for the determinedly “Welsh party”, as they see it – albeit mistakenly - which is why PC is so disproportionately strong in the Welsh Assembly.

Rather than trust loyal supporters to understand the socialist arguments for the UK, Labour aligned itself too closely with the Tories over the independence referendum, “talking down” to voters. Then, after the referendum, Labour in London foisted upon Scottish Labour an openly Blairite leader, the clear message being that he intended simply to march the electors on Westminster to win the General Election.

So the Scots see first a betrayal, then know they are to be taken for granted and just as pawns in the bigger fight; the Scottish people saw their decision to stay within the UK rewarded by no-one actually listening to their wants and needs.

The Scottish people did what I have seen people do in Wales many times: turn to the nationalists as a party which appears determined to stand up for Scotland. The SNP's prime objective is as irrelevant to the immediate question as it has been for many decades: they want someone to speak for the Scottish people now.

The blame should be placed squarely where it belongs: with a Labour leadership that ignored its members in all parts of the UK when they consistently told the party it needed to offer the British people an alternative to – not a watered down version of – the Tories, to stand up for people in the way they expect of Labour.

When the people were obviously unhappy with energy, communications and transport companies ripping them off, almost completely unregulated, the answer is not a 15 month electricity prices freeze. When pay is driven down and people forced to accept whatever insecure employment they are offered, the answer is not to pledge to raise the minimum wage by 30p a year to 2020. When the NHS is being carved up for privateers, the answer is not to trim back some of the more obvious profiteering.

Blame belongs to the Labour leadership who argued we must not “scare the horses” with socialist policies, instead of trusting the electorate to embrace policies befitting the Labour Party.

It is difficult to see how Labour can rebuild in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but a good start would be to begin to shape policies that offer a real alternative to government for the rich.
Which brings me to my the second thing I believe we need to do...

2. Labour's Policy Process needs to be subject to binding votes

Labour's National Policy Forum elections are due soon, which is good, as we need to be getting on with policy reformulation, so we can offer a real alternative to government by and for the rich.

But if all we do is start the same process again, we will lose again and let down the British people again. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Only one major change is needed: to make the policy process subject to binding votes amongst members. We cannot again obediently receive meandering documents on subjects chosen for us behind closed doors, debate points at members' policy forums, then submit comments that we all know are largely ignored, resulting in a programme bearing little resemblance to the wishes of Labour Party members.

Wanting to subject the party's policy process to binding votes will be condemned by the Right as risking showing damaging discord and disunity in public. That is a lie that the Right has successfully employed for decades to allow them to run the party as the personal fiefdom of an elite few. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being seen to work out policies by frank and open debate. Making policies in secret and acting as if we need the media's permission to be elected clearly and emphatically failed.

Blairites, Progress will argue we need to move to the right to capture more Tory voters. That is clearly nonsense, acting like neo-Tories was a big part of our failure in the General Election. We should not again allow our leaders to treat the electorate as if they are fools. 

I believe members of the Labour Party need to demand that the policy process be democratised, so we can get on with the business of forming policies and a programme relevant to the people of Britain.

Mike Bird, ordinary member of Aberconwy Constituency

After the Debacle: where now for Wales and Welsh Labour? By Nick Davies

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.

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.