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Scotland’s No Vote: the end, or the end of the beginning?

Nick Davies

‘Settled for a generation’ was the  confident, reassured 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  fizzing, 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, and whether the opportunities for change presented by the campaign are taken or lost, will tell.

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 to  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-based 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 was 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 poses problems for both the large Westminster parties. Cameron allowed a referendum without a devo-max option on the ballot paper, clearly 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-nationalist, union-flag waving, Better Together campaign against independence, 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 which 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, 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  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.  It makes a nonsense of the accusations of ‘intimidation’ by ‘Yes’  supporters. Politics is ‘ugly’ when politicians ruin lives, not when the argument becomes raucous.  Of course many 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. In the case of the  ‘Labour door steppers’ bussed north to support the No vote, they simply don’t know what they are talking about.

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 not only against the inequality and centralisation  which 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 is a sign 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, 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. 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 Neil, of all people, seemed to have neither any clue that Wales was being short-changed in this way or 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.

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The Scottish Referendum: My kingdom for a house.

The Scots may have voted ‘No’ but the real loser is Labour in Scotland.

Introduction.

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.

  1. Labour in Scotland, and probably in Britain as a whole, is in very serious trouble.
  2. ‘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.
  3. 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

  1. 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;
  2. 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
  3. 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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jAWgC6qgXs). 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?

  1. A clear stance, with our allies, against Tory austerity, for alternatives.
  2. Stand up for our NHS, for National Insurance, for Social Security and a rights based welfare culture.
  3. Challenge the war-mongering culture, not least the ease with which vast funding is found for wars.
  4. Build Homes
  5. Promote a programme of child-care, social care and pensions.
  6. Make Wales a beacon of sustainability, a green investment bank, green energy and re-usables industries
  7. Rail and other public transport back into coordinated public ownership
  8. 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?”
  9. 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.

End

Gordon Gibson, September 2014

Here, a few references; the first two are bursting with lively debate.

Radical Independence Conference: http://radicalindependence.org/

Bella Caledonia: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/

Brett, Miriam. National Collective. Oh Scottish Labour What Have You Done? http://nationalcollective.com/2014/09/25/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 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/25/scotland-politics-left-purpose-snp-green-working-class-women

Jones, Owen. Whatever Scotland decides, the old order is dead and buried: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/07/scotland-decides-union-tories

Murray, Andy. FIFTY-FIVE per cent afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome. http://nicodemusscotticus.wordpress.com/

Welsh , Irvine. This glorious failure could yet be Scotland’s finest hour. 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/20/irvine-welsh-scottish-independence-glorious-failure

 

Question Time’s Welsh Problem

Nick Davies

If  fresh insight or stimulating discussion is what you’re after, BBC’s Question Time is likely to disappoint. The only relief from the stifling conformity of the Westminster consensus is the occasional non-politician (Owen Jones, Billy Bragg or Benjamin Zephaniah, for example). More recently, it has effectively become an almost-weekly audience with Nigel Farage. Many people who would normally be interested in political discussion refuse to watch it at all.

However, it also appears that Question Time has a ‘Welsh problem’. That is that that the panel membership fails to reflect the realities of modern Welsh political life, specifically that from 1999 we have had our own elected government which is responsible for a lot of what touches our everyday lives:  most notably  health and education.

This anomaly was exposed with brutal clarity in the programme from Newport screened on February 24th this year, when the issue of the NHS in Wales was raised. There followed a discussion between a hostile English Tory MP, a Labour MP from a London constituency, Rushanara Ali, who clearly hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, and a Plaid Westminster MP Elfyn Llwyd, who did know something about Wales, namely, of course, that health is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, none of whose members were on the panel. The remainder of the panel consisted of a food  writer and the right-wing London-based journalist Melanie Phillips. We learned nothing from this discussion except, of course, that the BBC, or at least the part of it which commissions Question Time panels, had been caught out in regarding, Wales, for these purposes, as a part of England.

If the BBC had  read the complaints that must have followed this farce, it took no notice. On June 5th when Question Time’was from Llandudno and the issue of the Welsh NHS  was unsurprisingly raised again, there was  no one from the Welsh government on the panel to answer the critics of that government’s record, or even any Assembly member from any party to provide an informed contribution. While  Labour‘s Liz Kendall (Leicester West!) at least attempted a defence of  the Welsh NHS (and, later, of Jobs Growth Wales) it should never have been left up to her. We were, however, treated to the buffoonish, sub-UKIP ruminations of the Call Centre’s Nev Wilshire, no doubt invited to give the ratings a boost and provide a ‘bit of fresh air’.

To add insult to injury, a later discussion concerned extra powers for the Welsh Assembly. A  call centre boss, a Spectator journalist and three Westminster MPs lazily kicked this topic around for a few minutes, but without a representative of the Assembly or it’s government, the discussion, if you can call it that, smacked of ‘make sure the children aren’t around while the grown-ups are talking’.

 Of course, Question Time goes out to a UK audience. However Question Time from  Dundee on January 23rd  2014 featured four panellists, all from Scotland including 3 from the Scottish parliament.  Question Time from  Falkirk (on November 28th 2013) featured six panellists, all from Scotland including 3 MSPs. When Question Time is in Wales, the audience is likely to be from Wales. They might just ask questions about, well, Wales, and in particular, Welsh health & education policies as well as the various other areas devolved to the Welsh Assembly. It would be useful, to say the least,  if someone from our legislative body, were invited. To do otherwise, especially in the context of the  regular attacks on the NHS in Wales from Cameron and his front bench, involves giving opponents of Welsh Labour policy in particular and Welsh devolution in general a free run and amounts to an appalling dereliction of the BBC’s duty, on it’s premier current affairs discussion programme, to discuss the affairs of Wales, properly, let alone impartially.

There are a number of possible reasons for this obvious lapse in broadcasting standards. (Since 2009, in thirteen editions that have come from Wales, only nine of the panelists in these programmes have been  AMs and  with three appearing on a single edition, in 2010, AMs are in fact  seen even less frequently  on Question Time than first appears). Obvious candidates are oversight, ignorance, metropolitan arrogance, a conscious anti-Welsh bias or the chasing after ratings either by aiming for fireworks at the expense of politics or,  as they might see it, scattering a little celebrity stardust onto the programme.

The BBC has  previously been criticised for its failure to deal with the reality of Scottish and Welsh devolution, failings which, to some extent, the organisation as a whole has attempted to remedy. However,  in general, ignorance of Wales and Welsh affairs, and indeed a lofty disdain for anywhere outside the M25 do not appear to have been cured by the move to Salford. Fear of the Tories over the licence fee and the possible  weakening of Ofcom (and resultant media deregulation) promised by Cameron in his election campaign, seems to have produced a move to the right, exemplified, to take two examples, by  a notable anti-Palestinian bias in the coverage of the Israeli attack of Gaza and John Humphries’ The Future of  the Welfare State, which broke the BBC’s own rules on impartiality. More recently, the BBC’s own Robert Peston has accused the BBC of  following an agenda set by  the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated both the metaphorical and literal bankruptcy of the free-market model of  capitalism that has prevailed since the early 1980s. The elite pretend that this is not so, blaming everyone but themselves. Even the most modest, reforming half-measures proposed by Ed Miliband are met by inane charges of ‘Marxism’ suggestive of a certain desperation in the protestations that ‘there is no alternative’. In Wales, there is an alternative: community comprehensive schools, a publicly funded, publicly provided NHS, no PFI and a successful interventionist  youth employment scheme. In a marriage of metropolitan insularity and right-wing bias,  is this  an alternative that the BBC would prefer not to be seen to be promoting, because that alternative’s principles are too much of a challenge to the media’s mental laziness, because of the risk of accusations of bias, and because it is in a faraway country of which they know nothing?

End

This article previously appeared in the blog Left Futures.

Nick Davies is a Councillor in Swansea and Chair of Welsh Labour Grassroots

 

Building Houses – Building Communities

Building Houses – Building Communities[1]

Housing is a complex subject. It can‘t be reduced to ‘housebuilding’. Housing development determines ‘how we live’; how our home lives relate to everything else in our work, rest and play; how new homes blend with and support adjoining bits of town; and the way that our living environments contribute to the sustainable functioning of the business and social resources that we look to when we leave the privacy of our homes. ‘Housing’ is a very rich package of social provision.

Rightly adding that developments should embrace new technologies, bring in renewable energies, sustainable drainage systems, central heat and power, insulation, bio-diversity, often omits that most vital of ‘sustainabilities’ – sustainable communities.    

The Achievements of Housebuilding

The decades before and after World War 2 teach us many lessons of housebuilding. In the days of Tory aristocrat, Harold MacMillan, housing production was achieved at a rate of 300 and 400 thousand homes per annum. Vast new estates were built, new systems and new architecture called in to play, swathes of town, city and countryside cleared, levelled and remodelled for council estates, tower blocks and new towns 

These were great achievements. New homes, embraced by tenants with genuine awe, provided warm and watertight roofs over the heads of kitchens with hot and cold running water, inside toilets, baths, two and three bedrooms, in neighbourhoods with schools and other community resources – it was all good stuff. Households with low incomes rightly welcomed these products of modernism albeit at the cost of their old communities, slum cleared for commerce and jobs, mostly for retail. In return, the early estates sought to replace the rich social provision that former inner city neighbourhoods provided – jobs, resources, shops, support systems, welfare halls, and much more. All had been lost for the best of motives – public health and overcrowding. Yet history has demonstrated that, in the long run, these achievements have not been sustainable.

The new estates had to replace a rich package. Families on low incomes were relocated to environments far from the basic daily needs that had hitherto been available virtually on their doorstep. To compensate, we built schools, small shopping centres, surgeries, community centres. Many of these are now closed.

Originally modelled on ‘garden city’ principles – here in Swansea, Townhill was laid out by Raymond Unwin, and launched with fine model homes in the Arts and Crafts style, council estates became unmanageable behemoths, often declining into decay, crime, domestic violence and drugs, despite valiant efforts of many stable and appreciative households. Single tenure, low income, socially stratified and low density – not by the total number of residents or homes spread over an estate – some of these estates can be measured in tens of thousands, but by the number of people per hectare, the number of people within reasonable walking distance of their daily resources, from a pint of milk to public transport and access to the jobs market. Developments were, and largely still are, low density and not sustainable.

High rise of the 1950s was similar. The post-Corbusian, international style that brought us tower blocks, again providing very welcome warm modern flats, heralded by their prophets as total living environments, “streets in the sky”[2], have also proved to be unsustainable, surrounded by open space, often characterised by ‘No Ball Games’ notices, lifts that didn’t work and shuttered shops, latterly run only by immigrant families that ‘charge too much’ but stay open all hours to generate sufficient turnover to survive. Everything was and is unsustainable.

The missing ingredient – people on streets!

Rarely did these estates build anything like the town that spawned them, neither the out-of-town estates nor the inner city tower blocks. They were mostly self-contained, zoned residential areas, paying little heed to their older more traditional neighbouring districts and doing virtually nothing for the city centres left behind. Despite the best of intentions, they were left to sort themselves out. Discounted ‘right to buy’ finished them off, leaving no-one with responsibility for diagnosis and remedy for their condition.

 One vital legacy of this peculiarly, if not exclusively, British phenomenon is that the concept of ‘residential density’ became historically tainted. Motives for the ‘garden city’ created the myth of a romantic suburban idyll that still dominates the private housing market. Even the developers’ late conversion to higher densities has resulted in related characteristics of exclusivity – gated developments, inward facing blocks and, still, single-use residential zoning, mitigated only by weak planning conditions (Section 106) insisting on the odd shop (sic) or play area. We look to Europe for encouragement, to the cities most of us love to visit – Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, in fact almost any European city or to wonderful Greenwich Village and other districts of Manhattan, where ‘good town’ generates enthusiasm, not the high rise commercial towers that falsely dominate our perceptions of New York.

In these cities, four, five and six storey houses and apartments, often with commercial activity in ground floors and semi-basements, demand, through their dense populations and supportive spatial structure[3], vitality, diversity, and all sorts of social resourcing. The best of new developments have learned and either reinforce established town or make a real effort to build new mixed-use districts – Heinrich Böll in Berlin, Kirchsteigfeld in Potsdam, and Freiberg, all in Germany. There are lots of examples.

Here in Swansea, our best effort by far has been the Marina. Three, four, five and six storey lifted homes and walk-ups have transformed the former Copperopolis docks and railway sidings to make Swansea’s fine bay [well, what shall we say?] at least visible, approachable; it is such an under-achieving asset. The Marina’s weakness is its single in-and-out access and a real failure to build in diverse uses. Businesses tend to have a short life. The most stable has been the eponymous Pump House, now a pub and restaurant, located by a neglected and  lost connecting swing bridge at the heart of the former docks, by fine Georgian residential remnants and the Captain Cat pedestrian bridge that is the main pedestrian and cycle link to the city from the newbuild.

Nearby, The Vetch, former home of the city football team, and prime candidate for good solid inner city housing development, is being touted for low-rise, low density terraces more influenced by the private sector suburban idyll than its neighbouring Marina, let alone good European town, or its own history.

The land asset.

To generate housing, affordable housing, and good town in these difficult times of austerity, the greatest asset we have is land, often being sold off, in weak negotiations with housing developers, to make a bob-or-two for the strapped coffers of Local Authorities. This short-sighted policy omits to reflect on the miserable financial legacy of past out-of-town private sector developments, let alone our own experience with council estates. The cost of building and maintaining schools, health centres and, increasingly, road systems, all falls on the public purse. Servicing by public transport is invariably unviable. What payback do we get for this ‘investment’?

Compare that with inner city housing, close to existing social and commercial resources, with a footfall market that encourages the local economy, local businesses and entices ‘nationals’ towards vibrant 24-hour, mixed use city streets. The social and economic payback for city is overwhelming in comparison.

For that reason, we can afford to offer cheap or even free land deals to developers willing to meet our criteria for good town. Private sector bullies that threaten local authorities not to develop because our meagre ‘Section 106’ demands for affordable housing are supposedly not commercially acceptable, can be happily shown the door. There will be plenty takers for cheap land deals. Best placed for quick results, for house-building now, until we get public sector finance re-established, are the Registered Social Landlords. There may even be some in the private sector happy to talk. We just have to get our story right.

Homes that make good town; front doors and windows onto peopled streets, directly connected into the existing street network, feeding the main streets; integrated opportunities for small businesses in good locations; facilities for children and young people – out front, part of the community. (Check out the provision of parks and playspaces in high density Manhattan!). Older folks too. Safe streets, primarily for people.

Enhance that list yourselves – it is short and undemanding. The payback may be a bit longer term, not much, but it is perpetually rewarding if we get it right. Just look at these cities you love.

In the package, our towns and urban centres need homes for older people, close to a range of social resources that offer a good degree of independence. Yes, provision should continue for young singles, starters, etc but, most of all, think families. Think of the concentration of resources that they will demand of our urban centres. Like in European cities. Or Manhattan. It is just good business. And we are ready for it now, before the short-termists sell off the last of the family silver.

End

Gordon Gibson, July 2014

 

[1] This article is a product of a contribution I made to a Welsh Labour Grassroots discussion on Housing, led by Swansea Councillor, Bob Clay, in July 2014  

[2] A term attributed to English architects Patrick and Alison Smithson in the 1960s for their tower block theories and work in London.

[3] Usually, a well inter-connected, ground level street grid.

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

Wrecsam protest against Israeli team in Wales

Congratulations to the pro-Palestinian protesters who opposed the Wales v Israel women’s football game at the Racecourse in Wrecsam last week.

ImageCampaigners from the local area and across the country including south Wales, north west Wales, Liverpool, Chester, Manchester and London demonstrated inside and outside the football ground. The action was called in protest at Israel’s participation in international competitions while the Palestinian team is prevented from taking part, while Palestinian footballers including Mahmoud al Sarsak remain imprisoned without charge or trial, and while Israel continues to maintain its Apartheid regime.

Israel’s behaviour today towards the Palestinians is similar to that of South Africa’s apartheid regime towards the black population before 1990. Palestinians are being shot, imprisoned, harassed, separated from their families, stopped from working, blocked from farming their land by a ruthless military state purely on the basis of their nationality. Most noticeable is the 30′ apartheid wall being built around the Palestinians, effectively the biggest open prison in the world.

One of the most effective weapons in the struggle against apartheid was an economic boycott. Another was the sporting boycott, which meant that South Africa couldn’t pretend it was a normal society. It’s equally important that Israel cannot pretend it is “normal” either to its own citizens or those of other countries. Last week’s protest reminded both Welsh and Israeli football fans that there’s nothing normal about Israel.

ImageAlthough most people stayed outside the ground holding banners, chanting, handing out flyers and engaging with punters, some activists gained entry. Others were refused – security were (selectively) asking to look in bags and one woman was prevented from using her free ticket for the match after a pro-Palestine sticker was found on her mobile phone. However, while she was arguing with security, others walked through unchallenged. Inside the ground there was an attempted pitch invasion, some people managed to wave flags and express their opposition loudly before being removed, while one man was thrown out merely for revealing his Palestine football shirt. The would-be streaker didn’t make it into the ground, unfortunately. Undeterred by one ejection, a couple of women went round the back of the stadium and gained entry to ‘the Kop’ via student accommodation recently built on the stadium car park (Glyndŵr University are the new owners of the Racecourse, or rather a subsidiary called Glyndŵr Innovations Ltd, the ‘delivering business solutions’ arm of what was once an establishment devoted to education). The activists unfurled their flags in a prime position facing the fans and right behind the media and made enough noise to be heard clearly inside the pub at the other side of the ground.

The main demonstration outside the ground wound up at around 6.30pm, and some activists stayed around and engaged with people leaving the ground after the match, which ended in a 5-nil victory for Wales.

When they tear down the walls and treat Palestinians as equals, they can play football in peace.

This article and images are assembled from reports in Indymedia UK and on the Plaid Cymru Wrecsam Blog.

Leanne Wood wins Plaid leadership: victory for the left


By Darren Williams

Leanne Wood, the left candidate, founder member of the Celyn editorial team and occasional ‘Labour Briefing’ contributor, has won Plaid Cymru’s leadership election. The South Wales Central Assembly Member secured 55% of the vote over her main rival, Elin Jones, on the second ballot, after former leader, Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas had been eliminated.

Her victory is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, she came from behind: virtually no-one was predicting that she would win when the contest began in January. She overtook her rivals partly through the sheer energy and determination of her campaign, which saw her speaking at meetings all over Wales on a nightly basis, while also making extensive use of social networking and other online tools. But equally important has been the clarity and forcefulness of her ideas, and the passion with which she has communicated them. While Leanne’s campaign inspired young people in particular, and undoubtedly played a big part in the 23% increase in Plaid’s membership during the campaign, the original favourite, Elin Jones, was left looking staid and complacent.

Second, the result is significant because of who Leanne is. She the first woman to lead Plaid, the first leader from a working class background in the South Wales Valleys and the first not to have grown up speaking Welsh as her first language (although, as a long-time adult learner of Welsh, she had become sufficiently confident to take part in hustings conducted entirely in the language – which will have impressed many in her party).  By contrast, Elin Jones is a farmer’s daughter from rural West Wales, who has spoken Welsh all her life – far more the leader one might have expected Plaid to have chosen.

Third, Leanne is left-wing not just in Plaid terms but by comparison with virtually anyone involved in electoral politics in Britain today. She is a sincere and committed socialist, whose ideas have been profoundly influenced by those of Marxists like Raymond Williams and Gwyn Alf Williams, and who has looked to Cuba for inspiration. She is an outspoken republican, who has consistently boycotted the Queen’s visits to the Assembly, latterly opting to work with the homeless instead. And she is as passionate and serious-minded about green politics as any politician today: see her ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’, which sets out proposals for the sustainable economic regeneration, on a co-operative basis, of South Wales’ ravaged former industrial communities.

Of course, Leanne’s election does not mean that Plaid as a whole has embraced her socialist ideas in their entirety: the party remains a very broad coalition, stretching from Leanne herself to conservative cultural nationalists on the right. But her election shows that it is Leanne and her comrades on the Plaid left who will now be setting the party’s agenda. Part of her success can be attributed to her serious and unapologetic approach to the issue of Welsh independence, which has relied neither on romantic appeals to ‘blood and soil’ nationalism nor to a preoccupation with purely juridical sovereignty. Instead, she has talked about ‘real independence’: the social and economic substance behind any meaningful conception of self-government.

Leanne’s victory should be welcomed by all serious socialists. Sadly, it will be greeted with hostility or indifference by many within Welsh Labour. Some will deny that anything has fundamentally changed, claiming that Plaid has no consistent commitment to social justice or the interests of working people. Others will be preoccupied by electoral considerations, fearing that Plaid will now take votes from many who previously supported Labour.  Yet, if nothing else, Leanne’s election almost certainly rules out any future coalition between Plaid and the Tories, something that was a real possibility after the 2007 Assembly election and opposition to which Leanne has made a an important plank of her leadership campaign. More fundamentally, Leanne’s victory will shift Welsh politics to the left, keeping Welsh Labour under pressure to maintain and strengthen its ‘clear red water’ policy programme and to resist the influence of the small but highly-placed number of crypto-Blairites seeking to drag the party to the right.

The Welsh political landscape has changed significantly in the last few days. Socialists should celebrate – and set about engaging with the new realities.

A version of this article was written for Labour Briefing magazine.

See also A red current flows from the valleys of Wales

Welsh Labour circles the wagons

By Darren Williams 

Wales is the one part of Britain (beyond municipal level) where Labour remains in government and this achievement elicited due respect from Ed Miliband, Iain McNicol and Douglas Alexander when they visited Welsh Labour conference in Cardiff on the weekend.

But, while Alexander was keen to co-opt the Welsh example of successful devolution for his campaign against the SNP’s independence proposals, he was notably reticent about the content of the ‘distinctly Welsh social-democratic offer’. The latter might succinctly be summarised as its commitment to equality of outcome and rejection of the New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem approach to the ’reform’ of public services. This contrasts of course, with Scottish Labour’s failure to distance itself significantly from Westminster. Miliband heaped praise on First Minister, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour’s values of ‘community, solidarity and responsibility’ but again had relatively little to say about the policies – although he did at least acknowledge, approvingly, that Wales had a rejected the ‘free market free-for-all’ in the NHS.

Carwyn’s own conference speech was a powerful restatement of Welsh Labour’s commitment to ‘fairness and social justice’. On healthcare he was particularly emphatic, saying that Welsh Labour believed in ‘citizen-centred public services for all, not “choice” for the few’, publicly funded and delivered. He added that the ‘privatisation and marketisation of the NHS will stop at the border’ – although there are some concerns that the competition clauses in Lansley’s bill might affect Wales because only the UK as a whole is seen a relevant jurisdiction under EU competition law.

There was little controversy on the conference floor, with the motions tending to offer encouragement to the Welsh Government, rather than criticism or demands. Aslef welcomed plans for a ‘not-for-dividend’ Welsh rail franchise and Unite praised the launch of Future Jobs Wales, which will provide 4,000 16-to-24 year olds annually with six months of work or training at the national minimum wage. One of the few potentially contentious matters was a proposal from Cardiff North CLP that, in the face of the forthcoming reduction of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30, Welsh Labour should follow the recent Scottish example and retain, as the basis of constituency organisation, the Assembly boundaries (thus far, coterminous with those for Westminster) rather than change to reflect the parliamentary map. While eminently sensible, this idea offends Welsh MPs and their camp followers and the issue has been referred for consideration to an ad hoc working group by the Welsh Executive Committee, which secured remission of the motion.

The election results announced at conference represented modest gains for the centre-left. The three Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) members on the WEC were all re-elected and were joined by fellow-travellers, Newport councillor, Debbie Wilcox and former AM, Christine Gwyther (remarkably, nine of the ten CLP seats on the WEC are now held by women). The two Welsh ‘regional’ seats on the NPF chosen by conference were both elected unopposed, one incumbent being WLG member, Mark Whitcutt.

As ever, some of the most interesting discussions took place at the fringes – particularly the well-attended meeting held by Welsh Labour Grassroots. Cardiff Council candidate, Siobhan Corria, argued that Labour needed to engage with local communities if it to win back Welsh town halls and run progressive administrations after May 3rd. Assembly Member and Welsh Labour policy guru, Mark Drakeford, excoriated Europe’s disastrous austerity policies and observed that the Obama administration, in contrast, had promoted growth and jobs – although, in a grossly unequal society, the benefits were flowing predominantly to capital and the rich. He hoped that, in Wales, we could ‘get both the economics and the politics right’.

Unite and Labour NEC member, Martin Mayer, described his union’s strategy for building an activist base in the party, able to develop and fight for socialist policies and secure the election of union-friendly MPs. And Welsh Health minister, Lesley Griffiths, reiterated Carwyn’s message about the NHS in Wales, reaffirming that reconfiguration would be governed by the best way to deliver quality services, not by neoliberal dogma. These discussions provided the activists present with valuable ammunition for the battles ahead.

A version of this article appears in the March issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Welsh Labour Conference: Beware the Ides of March.

By Gordon Gibson

A few weeks early for the Ides, the backstabbing began. Not the ‘disruption’ the left is accused of when debate breaks out; Labour’s post-Blair democracy leaves little room for that sort of thing. At Welsh Labour’s 500-strong ‘best attended, best ever’ conference, all resolutions were passed virtually unanimously, with the full support of the Welsh Executive. Change days indeed.

Opposition and manoeuvring these days is for the spinners. Appropriately in back rooms, huddles and corridors of the conference’s cricket ground venue in Cardiff, they were much in evidence last weekend.

Highlight speech was from Ed Miliband, setting out policies that ordinary people want to hear. And he tentatively apologised for the Blair years, calling for Labour to ‘win back the trust’ of voters. To do that, he voiced some hitherto unmentionables: “tax bankers’ bonuses; create 100,000 jobs for young people; too many jobs low wage, low skill; good jobs, good wages; irresponsible capitalism; reform the banks”. For government contracts, “every company must provide apprenticeships for the next generation”. Banking is to be teased apart with a new British Investment Bank to ‘properly serve business’. Here, he’s weakest, not least with ‘an employee on every remuneration committee so that top executives have to look an ordinary member of staff in the eye before they award themselves that pay rise”. As if they care.

Note: not a word about taxes.

And how did the media cover this? They spotted Ed Balls’ seemingly mischievous press release calling for a reduction in income tax. They picked up disgraced expenses fiddler, LibDem banker David Laws, currently being rehabilitated by his millionaire friends in government, joining the media tax fetish. And poor old John Prescott (‘poor old’ only in this context) gets flayed for his rather brave and poignant reference to his inability to hug his beloved sons. Ed Miliband? Labour fightback? What’s that?

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Scot, was first up at conference, drawing lessons on Labour’s ‘historic defeat’ last May, when 1999’s “only true National Party of Scotland, found itself supported by only one in eight Scottish voters”. He appears to have learned little. Despite wondering that we may have got it right ‘Standing Up For Wales’, and holding on to power, Alexander spent much of his delivery berating the SNP and defending the Union. He rightly flags the SNP’s support for Tory votes in London; their claim that the Scots ‘didn’t mind’ Thatcher’s economic policies; their advocacy of corporation tax cuts for bankers; SNP capital investment cuts and public sector job losses greater that those of the Tories in Westminster. The problem is, Scottish voters associate these policies and many more with New Labour negativity. Because of that, Labour is facing devastation in Scotland.

ImageSo it fell to Carwyn to spell it out. Standing up for jobs, services, and the development of the Welsh economy is what wins votes, not carping about other parties, pandering to bankers, or overstating ‘the Union’. Of course he played to his audience with the obligatory lambasting of the other parties. Least appropriate was his line on ‘placard waving megaphone’ Plaid, an attack on the wing of Plaid that Labour should most identify with in the fight against the Tories. Of more political sharpness, exemplary in fact, was his positive approach, claiming Labour as the party of the language and of Wales – bringing in the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner, launching a new Welsh Language Strategy and placing the language at the centre of Welsh life and culture – ‘Llafur Cymru yw eich plaid’. Enacting policy is what Welsh (and Scottish) people want to see and feel in these hard times and Jones focused on jobs, employment and training for young people, services, the NHS, children, communities – ‘accessible, high quality, citizen-centred services for all’. ‘The forces of marketisation and privatisation of the NHS will stop at the border.’

Conference speeches get loaded with niceties and (often) false flattery. Peter Hain delivered the heaviest load. Praised as ‘friend’ by Ed, Douglas and Carwyn, Hain, as is the way with Oscar winners, saw fit to heap thanks on everyone under the sun, or under Welsh Labour’s red flag, naming, one by one, Union leaders, MPs, Assembly Members, councillors, party workers, his old auntie in Merthyr. (I lied about that last one.) One gets more than a trifle cynical. Peter Hain counts his political friends in Wales carefully. In recent years, the Labour machine in Wales, contrary to its much-lauded Hardie/ Bevan legacies, has set aside much of the radicalism it may have had. Hain names names to maintain support for his own project, interestingly revealed in his platform appearance at the Liam Byrne, Purple Book ‘Progress’ fringe meeting on Sunday.

There’s the danger. Having led Labour to election disaster in Westminster and Scotland, alienating the party from its core support in the process, the Blairites, still dominant in Westminster and the party apparatus, remain obsessed with the middle ground – a cover for deep conservatism. In Wales, and perhaps with Ed Miliband in London (the jury is still out but we spotted a difference!), there is a glimmer of hope, some ‘clear red water’, what Carwyn chooses to call ‘the dividing line, stopping at the border’. Supportive policies and campaigning will win voters; best if they are clearly against the Tories and their banker-feeding austerity offensive. But there are dark forces at work within Labour too. And the media loves them.

Co-ops star in Wrecsam

The 'Seven Stars' pub. 'Ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things'.

by Marc Jones

In the past year, local people in Wrecsam have made a huge effort to turn the tide against closures and decline.

Wrecsam has always been a proudly Welsh town despite being only 10 miles from the border. The Football Association of Wales was founded there and football, together with the town’s iconic brewing industry, have been central to the market town’s image. Wrexham Lager was the first lager brewery in the UK, having been founded by German immigrants in the 1880s.

Both have taken a battering in recent years with brewing multinationals closing down the Wrexham Lager brewery and a series of property developers trying to asset strip Wrexham Football Club out of existence.

Last year, the football club was finally bought by a cooperative formed by 2000 members of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust. The club, among the oldest in Wales, has been safeguarded for the community and the team is currently pushing for promotion on a tide of goodwill and pride among supporters and the wider community.

Second, a local family enterprise has re-launched Wrexham Lager. That has created a huge buzz in the town and the lager is already on sale in 45 pubs across the area, despite the best efforts of the multinationals to hamper that expansion.

The re-opening of the former Seven Stars pub is a community effort to celebrate our town’s heritage, our Welshness and to symbolise the growth in the Welsh language locally. It’s a cooperative whose idea is far more ambitious than just reviving a pub.

The Seven Stars has been reborn as Saith Seren, the town’s new Welsh Centre. Initially, the cooperative – Canolfan Gymraeg Wrecsam – will operate the downstairs part of the building. The bar and kitchen are up and running and the pub’s tradition of live music is maintained. It was standing room only for Gwibdaith Hen Frân on Friday and Irish band The Wee Bag Band from Denbigh on Saturday.  Once Phase Two is open, this will be a real social centre.

The initial phase was achieved just six months after going public with a share offer, in which people were invited to become members of the cooperative. The money raised has enabled the cooperative to put in a brand new kitchen, decorate, buy stock and appoint six workers to run the centre seven days a week. Crucially, it allowed the coop to pay for a project manager with formidable experience in setting up co-ops. Amanda Brewer also had the contacts to get the best prices for a number of contracts and this, coupled with the expertise of centre manager Amanda Hughes, explains the lightning speed of opening the centre.

Re-opening a pub as a cooperative is something usually confined to villages abandoned by the market (specifically the rapacious pubcos that dominate the licensed trade). That’s been the case with the Raven in Llanarmon yn Iâl, Denbighshire, and the Pengwern in Llan Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, in recent years.

The re-opening of Saith Seren in Wrecsam town centre is a very different project. Phase two will see the upstairs renovated. The living accommodation will be adapted to community meeting rooms, offices for rent and classrooms for learners’ classes. The aim is to be a focus for Wrecsam’s growing army of Welsh learners and provide a hub for the many organisations involved in promoting Welsh language and culture.

It is, however, also a centre that is welcoming and open to all Wrecsam’s people, whatever language they speak. Many of the bands being put on will be Welsh-language acts but the stage is also being used by local bands and promoters.

Equally significantly, all these ventures have progressed with their own money, rather than relying on grants or government finance. All the money Saith Seren has raised is ours – all through the efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

The left in Wales can learn a lot from this DIY people power. We know we can’t, and perhaps don’t want to, rely on state grants that are often conditional on compromising your original intentions. The current economic climate means there are lots of empty buildings going for a song that could be bought by local coops as social centres or other innovative uses.

Anyone wishing to invest in phase two of Saith Seren can go to www.saithseren.com or contact me on 7seren@gmail.com

Marc Jones is Chair of Canolfan Gymraeg Wrecsam and Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Whitegate Ward of Wrecsam


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