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Navigating to Unity Against Austerity

The call was for ‘Plan B’ but unity was the dominant theme at Compass Wales’ panel debate in Cardiff this week. A fine array of speakers, led by Guardian columnist, John Harris, came together to debate Compass’s ‘Plan B’, their alternative to austerity.

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, the Green Party’s Anthony Slaughter and John McInally, vice president of the PCS union all spoke convincingly but it was Mark Drakeford who made the first challenge to the Compass project by claiming there is no alternative. “We are locked into a period of austerity.” His bitter pill was sweetened by agreement that everything must be done to resist and minimise the pain. Devolution and the Welsh Assembly, he said, have qualitatively improved local government in Wales, have initiated an alternative approach to politics and have demonstrated unity over most of the life of the Assembly, first with the Liberals (long before their current treachery) and then with Plaid for the 4-year ‘One Wales’ coalition. Unity is a key element of Welsh politics.

Drakeford’s concluding plea to promote the unique ‘social, environmental and cultural character of Wales’ linked to his strong endorsement of the role of women in those invaluable early years of the Assembly could not have been a more direct pointer to a unity strategy.

Unity, at least in its top-down version, would be very well served by asking Wood and Drakeford to get together to map out an anti-austerity strategy along with new social and economic initiatives for Wales. And both know that ‘bottom-up’ is vital too. Leanne expressed these principles and opened her contribution with a call for unity against the Tories, whilst seeking to bring jobs back to Wales and regenerate the Welsh economy with green manufacturing, community led food production, green banks and credit unions.

But, to use a cliché of the moment, there was an elephant in the room: capitalism, and both Mark and Leanne know and addressed its presence, although perhaps rarely explicitly.

Ten years ago, the mention of ‘capitalism’ caused eyes to roll and withering criticisms of lefties. Now, even bourgeois commentators talk of its failings and weaknesses. The public has seen that capitalism is rotten to the core: a vicious class government led by elitist millionaire toffs launching an ideological offensive against the 99%; newspapers exposed as corrupt; senior police officers resigning for vile cover-ups (Hillsborough, the miners’ strike not to mention again and again during trials of Irish republicans; now it is Muslims); banking and financial systems out of control, gorging themselves on our bail-out money, now being extracted from pensions, the disabled, our health service. Our whole public sector system is destined, if the Tories get their way, to become the weakest in the western world.

The rot that is capitalism has entered popular consciousness: not just austerity and bonuses but the wars, oil, the climate, all sorts. To top it all, the abject squalor of the Savile affair is openly seen to reach into the BBC, the highest levels of government, the very heart of the establishment.

We see it all. And we yearn for a political leadership that says it like it is. John Harris pointed out that everyone, from the Greens to Welsh Labour, supports most of the 10 points of the Compass declaration. But not Labour in Westminster – zero support there. That’s why Wood and Drakeford stand out like beacons. Never, I repeat ‘never’, will there be an opportunity like now to bring together a united Welsh resistance and ambition like that presented by Plaid’s new leadership and clearly expressed at the Compass forum.

But there’s the elephant. Welsh Labour, taking its lead from the two Eds, tends towards tribalism rather than challenging the values of capitalism. A highlight of the last session of the Assembly was Mark Drakeford’s magnificent speech against Trident, when Labour members were whipped to stand by Carwyn Jones’ outrageous and tribal rejection of Plaid’s opposition to Trident in Wales. How easy (and inconsequential) would it have been to join in a clear statement of opposition to weapons of mass destruction in Wales?

There are worrying signs of a Welsh Labour drift away from Rhodri’s modest but nonetheless significant ‘clear red water’ between Wales and Westminster. Perhaps it is best considered by reference to Labour in Scotland, in suicide mode, allying with the Tories and LibDems before the Scottish public, to defend unionism and the austerity project. Labour’s Margaret Curran, on Question Time, patronises her young constituency questioner who fails to comprehend why young people in Glasgow’s tough Easterhouse estate are being charged £33 to play football. It’s the ‘harsh realities of life’, she said; ‘in a world of finite resources, it’s about what you prioritise’. And you young people are going to have to pay to underwrite the bankers, she should have added.

Perversely, this horrid Labour/ Tory cabal is likely to win the 2014 referendum, not because they will win the argument (they probably won’t) but because bourgeois elections and referenda are not won, they are lost. And the SNP is set to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by championing NATO, Trident, the monarchy, Scottish bankers and more, including austerity, to come. These are the issues, along with student fees, prescription charges and the like, that took Scots voters away from Labour.

The SNP is not Plaid, not a patch, and certainly not Leanne Wood’s Plaid. The SNP is an opportunist populist nationalist party given rein solely by Scottish Labour’s shocking betrayal of its socialist heritage. Thanks to Labour, the referendum is likely to further the Scottish electors’ disaffection with politicians and their politics. The bottom line is people want to hear the obvious home truths, not double-speak and spin. A bit of humility thrown in wouldn’t go amiss either. [For those who see a positive side to a Scottish break from the Union, the Scottish left is organising separately in support of the Yes vote. See Radical Independence Conference.]

So here in Wales we should start declaring our hand. Stand up like the PCS union, well represented by John McInally at the meeting. He began to elaborate a programme for unity: no to privatisation; strengthen social security; require childcare from employers. The meeting added pensions, disability and young people. Leanne and Anthony Slaughter for the Green Party had plenty to add about local economies and, not least, giving more public work and jobs to people and companies in Wales. That programme, linked to Mark Drakeford’s social, environmental and cultural Welsh branding are more than enough to forge the anti-austerity unity that the people of Wales and Scotland are crying out for. And the English will be pretty glad to hear it too.

Gordon Gibson

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