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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A new challenge for Welsh socialists

Socialist Party Wales recently held a very successful conference in Swansea that discussed future developments in Wales. While Wales shares many features with the rest of Britain the general election result could throw up new challenges for socialists in Wales. On 10 February the Welsh assembly gained the right to pass legislation on the Welsh language. But the assembly's unanimous vote on 9 February to call an autumn referendum on gaining full law-making powers is even more significant. Working people in Wales, as in the rest of Britain, are bracing themselves as the bill for the capitalist crisis is presented to us. Even in the upturn, Wales fell behind the rest of Britain. In 1999 the assembly government set the target of raising Welsh GDP from 80% of the UK figure per head to 90%. Instead in 2009 it declined further to 74.3%. This is because of the failure to protect and develop high value manufacturing industry. Wales entered this recession still suffering the effects of the previous recessions. The decline of manufacturing and mining in Britain particularly affected Wales. Although official unemployment is not as high, economic inactivity is the highest in the United Kingdom.

Three regions of Wales - South West Wales, the Gwent Valleys and Anglesey - were among the five poorest in the UK in 2005. The inward investment celebrated by the Tories, New Labour and 'Welsh Labour' has consisted mainly of 'screwdriver' factories acting as satellites to the main production centres. Attracted by the relatively cheap and skilled labour in Wales and generous grants from the Welsh Development Agency and then the assembly they have been cheap to open and very easy to close. These companies are now moving production to where there is even cheaper labour in the so-called emerging economies in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. The German car parts manufacturer Bosch openly boasted that its wages bill in Hungary would be 45% of what it is paying Welsh workers when it announced the closure of its factory at Miskin in South Wales in January. Socialist Party Wales is demanding the nationalisation of the Bosch plant - the state paid for it in the first place! Employment in manufacturing fell by 16% between 2001 and 2008 and the finance industry grew at a slower rate than the rest of the UK.

The greatest growth was in the public sector which now accounts for 32% of employment. Therefore Welsh employment has been protected somewhat by the high proportion of workers in the public sector. So the attack threatened by both the Tories and New Labour on the public sector after the general election would hit employment in Wales particularly hard. The assembly controls the funding of health, education, local government, housing etc, so cuts will make a significant impact on the devolution settlement. Already the existing arrangements have been strained. The assembly government has been prevented from carrying out many basic measures by the limits of the assembly's powers and its inability to pass primary or even some secondary legislation. A compromise which enabled the assembly to promote primary legislation to Westminster through a complex process of Legislative Competence Orders (LCOs) has been slow and cumbersome and many LCOs have been buried or watered down in Whitehall.

Labour has been prevaricating about a referendum on law-making powers for the Welsh assembly since 1997. However one of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru's conditions for participating in the One Wales coalition government in 2007 was "a successful outcome of a referendum for full lawmaking powers" by May 2011. Labour's First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has begun the process of moving to a referendum on the issue by moving a vote for a referendum on further powers in the assembly. But Jones moved very slowly because of the pressure from Welsh Labour MPs who do not want to diminish their influence at Westminster. The 'West Lothian question' asks why Welsh and Scottish MPs vote on English public services in Westminster, while the same decisions for Wales and Scotland are decided in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Welsh MPs would be less likely to receive ministerial positions and perks in Westminster if the assembly powers are expanded. A Tory government might even reduce the number of Welsh and Scottish MPs.

The Welsh Labour leadership and Peter Hain, secretary of state for Wales, are not sure they would win the referendum. While a significant proportion of Welsh voters have always supported the option of an assembly with law-making powers there is not a consistently clear majority on the issue. A YouGov poll published in November 2009 estimated that 51% would vote in favour of a more powerful assembly and 30% would vote no. The All Wales Convention poll the same month found 47% in favour and 37% against. There is a possibility of a protest vote against the establishment politicians, increasing the 'no' vote sufficiently to defeat the referendum. Marxists have always supported the democratic right of national self-determination. This includes the right of Wales to secede from Britain if a majority vote in favour and the right of the Welsh assembly to call a referendum on Wales' relationship with Britain. The Socialist Party has always supported a Welsh parliament with law-making powers and the power to carry through socialist policies to benefit the working class - like a decent minimum wage, the abolition of the anti-union laws and the nationalisation of firms threatening large scale redundancies such as Bosch and Anglesey Aluminium.

We therefore support the calling of a multi-option referendum, including the options of the status quo, full legislative powers for the Welsh assembly or independence. We would call for a vote for the second option in such a referendum, linking it to the question of socialist policies to improve the lives of working people. Marxism's support for the democratic rights of nationalities within larger states in no way contradicts support for workers' internationalism and solidarity. We support a law-making parliament also as a means of mobilising the working class in Wales to fight for socialist policies, using the assembly as a rallying point and linking with the English and Scottish working class. The principle issue is the unity of the working class to fight for socialism. It is for that reason that, while defending the right of Wales to secede, we do not call for an independent Wales. A small minority of workers (between 10-15% of the population in most polls over the last decade) support independence, which is why even Plaid Cymru does not call for it. A call for independence would not gain an echo amongst most Welsh workers at this stage and would divide the Welsh working class.

Plaid Cymru's support for independence has been further undermined by the fate of two of their models of independent small nations, Iceland and Ireland. Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said in 2003: "Like Ireland, we believe Wales in Europe could become a beacon of regeneration". The left Plaid Cymru assembly member (AM) Leanne Wood wrote in 2007: "Take Iceland as an example. It has a population of around 300,000 and is the fifth most prosperous country in the world... If Iceland can do it; Wales can." Today the Icelandic economy is bankrupt with half the population considering emigration. Mired in a huge economic crisis, Ireland's government has carried through massive cutbacks in public spending to remain within the euro zone. On the other hand, the British economy could also go through great upheavals, which could undermine support in Wales for a continued union with Britain.

But there is greater resistance to the idea of independence in Wales than in Scotland because there are greater economic, social, geographical, cultural, legal and historical ties with England. However this opposition could change in the case of a big independence movement in Scotland and a right wing Westminster government carrying through attacks on the working class. Even then Socialist Party Wales would not call for an independent capitalist Wales. We would call for an independent socialist Wales as part of a socialist federation of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. The most likely result of the general election at the moment is a Tory victory, but the Tories would probably remain a minority party in Welsh politics. The national question will likely be raised as the Tories cut the budget of a Labour/Plaid assembly government in Cardiff. The Welsh assembly government would pin the blame for the cutbacks on the Tories even though Labour in Westminster would also cut back the budget should it win the election.

While the present One Wales government (a coalition of Labour and Plaid) is unlikely to decisively confront a Tory Westminster government, it would pose as a left alternative and attempt to deflect the blame for the cutbacks away from itself. The 'dented shield' argument, used by Labour's right wing in the 1980s to justify Labour councils implementing Tory cutbacks, could be dusted off and used to excuse the carrying out of cuts in public services. Should a referendum on law-making powers for the assembly take place just as a Tory government starts wielding the axe in public services, there could be a decisive 'yes' vote. If the cuts are delayed there could be a much closer vote. The assembly elections in 2011 would also be affected by the timing and the severity of the cuts in public services, and the struggles that take place against them. Plaid Cymru has increased its support since 2007 by appearing to champion more progressive policies than the New Labour government in Westminster. While unlikely to make significant gains in the Westminster elections it could gain in the assembly elections in the absence of a significant challenge from a new workers' party.

Welsh Labour could pose as a left alternative to the Tories more successfully than New Labour in Westminster. The rejection of Alun Michael, parachuted into the First Minister's position by Blair, and his replacement by Rhodri Morgan and now Carwyn Jones has enabled Welsh Labour to develop a distinct brand apart from New Labour. Welsh Labour shares the same ideas as New Labour, accepting the primacy of the market. But under pressure from the working class and after suffering a series of bloody noses in its traditional heartlands from Blaenau Gwent People's Voice, Forward Wales and Plaid Cymru, it has trod a slightly different path to New Labour. In health the 'internal market' is being abolished as the trusts and health boards are merged and foundation hospitals rejected. Prescription charges and hospital parking charges have been scrapped.

In education, SAT tests and academies have also been rejected and top-up fees for Welsh students paid for until recently. The Private Finance Initiative has generally been avoided in public building projects and there have been other public service reforms, emphasising public provision rather than private.
But the 'clear, red water' between New Labour and Welsh Labour is not very red. The tendering out of public services to the private sector continues in Wales and cutbacks and privatisation have been driven through local government by the assembly government. Welsh Labour's 'Designed For Life' health service reforms proposed dozens of hospital closures which were only halted by its poor results in the 2007 assembly elections and the formation of the One Wales government. The assembly learning grant that paid the top-up fees of Welsh students is now concentrated only on students from the poorest backgrounds. Welsh Labour continues to provide a large squad of right wing Labour MPs to Westminster who have voted for foundation hospitals and education academies in England and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The more progressive policies in Wales have only been possible because they have not involved spending extra money. A non aggression pact between Blair and Rhodri Morgan has continued under Brown in which, after the debacle of the 1999 assembly elections, New Labour has allowed Welsh Labour to paddle its own canoe as long as Welsh Labour does not criticise New Labour. A potential source of conflict in the Welsh Labour Party remains between Labour MPs from Wales and Welsh Labour in Cardiff but this could be pushed into the background if there is a Tory government. As in the rest of Britain the situation is crying out for a real political alternative for the working class in the form of a new workers' party. There have been several opportunities in Wales for new formations to move in the direction of a new party. Forward Wales, formed around the maverick Labour AM John Marek in Wrexham, could have drawn around it a large layer of trade unionists. But Marek refused to develop it in this direction and Forward Wales has now been formally wound up. Blaenau Gwent People's Voice has gained mass electoral support with an MP and AM and a number of councillors but has refused to expand into a wider movement. It has not developed outside the Gwent valleys. Some of its councillors have voted for cuts in public services.

The initial and local electoral successes of these two formations have shown the potential for a new workers' party to develop in Wales either as a Welsh formation or as part of an all-Britain party. Plaid Cymru has benefited most from the absence of a new workers' party. In the One Wales government they have been able to look relatively left compared to the Westminster government. But when in power in local councils, they have been indistinguishable from the other parties. In Gwynedd they have closed schools and introduced charges for school buses. In Rhondda Cynon Taff they introduced cuts in the council workforce and public services when in power in 1999-2003. In Cardiff they were dubbed "Lied Cymru" by environmental campaigners after supporting plans to build on city parks and have given support to the schools closure programme in coalition with the Liberals. While appearing to be more radical than the others, Plaid Cymru is still a pro-capitalist party. If a new broad workers' formation was to develop from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition it could provide a real alternative in the Welsh assembly elections and gain a significant vote. Such a formation could gain support in the trade union movement in Wales.

Additional possibilities include that left splits from pro-capitalist Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru could develop into new formations, and that they combine with developments in the trade union movement. Socialist Party Wales has made great strides forward in the last year, leading industrial struggles and increasing our membership by more than 50%. As opportunities develop, we will use this influence to assist the development of a new workers' party worthy of carrying on the heroic traditions of the Welsh working class.

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