Conferences, tribalism and priorities
As Labour in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales hold their national conferences, what messages are they sending us?
Plaid’s theoretical guru, Adam Price, presents a virulent opposition to any prospect of coalition with Welsh Labour under the present First Minister Carwyn Jones. Scotland’s leader sees an unconvincing ‘independent party’ as their panacea. Gordon Gibson comments.
Come next May, the current prognosis in Wales is that Labour will lose its majority. Cons and UKIP will gain, the latter as a result of PR, and Plaid will stay much the same. Plaid will likely remain the third party after Labour and the Tories. Adam Price’s suggestion that Plaid might only go into coalition if offered the First Minister post is, at best, rather a long shot.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s pre-Corbyn replacement for the hapless Jim Murphy, tells us that the key issue is to create an independent Scottish Labour Party, no longer a branch office of the Westminster coterie. This line certainly responds to legitimate criticism that the party has earned over decades but, in truth, it is only a symptom of the malaise that the Scottish electorate has long since inoculated itself against.
Policy and politics drove Scots to the SNP, Westminster Labour was a hook to hang it on. Dugdale’s problem is that she is far from seeing that her Labour, still very much tied to Blair Labour (she was Murphy’s devoted side-kick remember), is in its death throes in Scotland precisely because the SNP has stolen its social democratic clothing. The emergent opposition in Scotland is coming from the left, from currents that played a huge and unifying role in the referendum campaign, taking activism back into the working class communities and to new young voters.
Politics in Scotland is inspiring because the SNP has taken on board a classic social democratic mantle and political debates, even in their mainstream media, are essentially towards the left.
Here in Wales, Plaid thinks it can do the same. They are dreamers. Political history and contemporary context are quite different. That’s not to say that Welsh Labour doesn’t deserve a good shaking up. Their record since Rhodri Morgan and the early years with a majority women cabinet, and good years with Plaid, is certainly slipping under the pressure of neo-liberalism and Tory austerity. Plaid has good reason to be critical. Jones’ Welsh Labour is not Murphy’s rotten Scottish Labour but it is politically weak, draining away the ‘clear red water’ that Morgan identified between Wales and Blair’s Labour. But let’s get real here. Welsh Labour’s weakness is also a symptom of the Blair years, of the inability, perhaps political unwillingness, to raise resistance to austerity.
With Corbyn, those days have gone. Wales can see clear red water flowing in the other direction, leaving Wales stranded from a reinvigorated British Labour Party.
The lesson for Plaid, and for the Labour left, is to develop a unifying programme of commitments on health, social care, public transport, environment, that takes job-creating, income protecting policies into the heart of the discussion on Wales’ future. Only Labour, with unblinkered support from Plaid, can be made to contemplate that sort of approach. The alternative that Adam Price’s counsel points to, the door to a Tory, LibDem, Plaid amalgam, something that Leanne Wood would both baulk at and deny, is a shocking prospect and, frankly, would finish Plaid in much the same way as obsolescence beckons Labour in Scotland.
This is a challenge to Labour and Plaid, both intent on mutual deprecation. Start talking now, be real. How can we unite to protect Wales? I’d take that approach to the electorate. Me, extremist that I am, would even contemplate an electoral alliance to maximise the Labour Plaid composition in the Senedd.
If we are not careful, there may be a Tory LibDem UKIP option. The numbers are already close and that is a much more likely outcome than a Plaid victory.
This is a time for new politics south of the border. The Scots are way ahead of the game and have left Labour behind. At best, Corbyn has muddied the water for Plaid’s claim to be the party for Wales. For Labour, he has refilled with clear red water. For both parties, if either and both convincingly believe in some form of social democratic defence against the IMF/ World Bank/ G7 / TTIP/ global onslaught currently underway, then we’d like like to see some Corbyn-like efforts of seeking to unify our efforts around what are, as far as the electorate can see, a very similar set of values. Perhaps we might set aside ‘independence’ for now, although even there, in the short term for devolution and more powers, there is also much to agree on.
Tribal rhetoric, diverting us from anti-austerity unity, will lead us nowhere and that’s what alienates many would-be social voters from mainstream politics.