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Posts tagged ‘Welsh Labour Grassroots’

Wales back in the Red

Darren Williams, Secretary of Welsh Labour Grassroots, analyses the election results in Wales and what they mean for Labour and the campaign against austerity.

Voters across Wales delivered an unequivocal rebuff to the Con-Dems’ austerity policies on 3rd May, with Labour the clear beneficiary. The party made gains – generally substantial – in nineteen of the twenty-one councils that went to the polls, holding its position in the other two. It now controls ten of Wales’ twenty-two unitary authorities: the three major cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, plus all the South Wales valleys councils.  The Tories have lost control of the two councils they previously controlled, Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan, with Labour now the largest party in the latter. As for the Lib Dems, they have lost almost half their seats in Wales. In Newport, where they previously ran the council in coalition with the Tories, they have only one councillor left.

The contrast with the last elections in 2008 could hardly be greater. On that occasion, Labour under Gordon Brown was in the depths of its unpopularity, with the long-term damage done by Blair exacerbated by the economic crisis and faux pas like the abolition of the 10p tax rate. The party lost most of its valleys strongholds and was left in overall control of only two councils. This time around, Labour’s strong showing is almost certainly more a vote against the Westminster coalition than a positive vote for Labour – although the widespread support enjoyed by Carwyn Jones’ Cardiff administration will have helped the party capitalise on the Con-Dems’ unpopularity. The new Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, has acknowledged that Labour turned the elections into a referendum on the UK government, thus squeezing support for her party.

The question for the left now is what newly-elected Labour councils will do with the power they have been given. The party’s record where it has remained in office since 2008 has not been encouraging. In both Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taff (RCT), Labour administrations bullied their workforce with Section 188 notices, threatening mass redundancies if unions failed to accept inferior conditions. (RCT leader, Russell Roberts, has now lost his own seat, to the ‘gratification’ of Unite Wales regional secretary, Andy Richards, who commented at the Cardiff May Day Rally that ‘the wages of political treachery are political oblivion.’) 

There are grounds for optimism, however, in the election of a swathe of new left-wing Labour councillors, many of them members of Welsh Labour Grassroots. They will now have to work hard to ensure that Welsh Labour councils offer a real alternative to the cuts-and-privatisation agenda of the outgoing Con-Dem administrations. 

This article first appeared on the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) blog, where any comments can also be posted

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? Why?!!!

As the Welsh Labour Party gathers for its annual conference in Cardiff this weekend, the question is asked “Why, for goodness sake, does anyone support Labour?” Gordon Gibson reckons that the Welsh Party should top up its supplies of ‘clear red water’.

Visiting my mother in Scotland last week I was rather shaken by two events. Five years ago, Labour had 69 out of 79 seats on Glasgow council. Last week they wheeled out the infirm to secure a majority of 2 for their budget. With defections, deselections and disaffection galore, Scotland’s rock-solid bastion of Labour is now a hung council. On May 3rd, there is every likelihood that Glasgow will go SNP.

It came up in conversation when I met up with former flatmates and friends I hadn’t seen for decades, a not overtly political lot. Declaring my hand, I told them of Labour’s support in Wales. In disbelieving, unrehearsed unison they replied. “Why, for goodness sake?”

In Scotland, the drift away from Labour is frightening. The party appears hell-bent on retaining its New Labour character by, for example, raising Alastair Darling from the ashes to call for unity with Tories and LibDems to preserve the Union, and by having little political strategy other than to slag off the SNP. Unfortunately for Labour, the SNP, being the populist party it is and led by a very shrewd political operator in Alex Salmond, is saying all the things that people want to hear, things that Labour should be saying.

Scottish people, whose under-rated political traditions expressed themselves over the years with overwhelming social democratic and communist representation, don’t take kindly to Labour’s new leader, Johann Lamont, like her predecessor, shrugging off the dissent in her own back yard, and joining the tribalism. The Scots don’t have a problem with the SNP if it is standing up to the Tories. And it is. They, the Scots, will consider independence and its implications in due course. They know, as one wag said, that there are more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs, and that it is the Westminster Tories, jobs and cuts that are the issue for now. All they hear from Labour, both in Westminster and Holyrood, is, at best, a confusing message about the economy, debt and necessary cuts, wrapped up in anti-SNP rhetoric and tosh about ‘the Union’. As in Glasgow, the only outcome will be to drive voters into the haven of the SNP, and so towards independence.

In Scotland, during the Blair years and before the unforgivable Sheridan debacle, Scots had begun to see an alternative to New Labour in the likes of the Scottish Socialist Party. After the 2003 elections, the SSP had 6 MSPs – an extraordinary achievement for an avowedly left socialist party. Sheridan’s antics put paid to that, but the die was cast. Voters and, even more important, young people were looking for alternatives. Salmond and the SNP, never friends of socialism, were happy to provide the rhetoric and, wisely, no small gains and resistance to the Tories. Although always a home for disaffected Labourites, the SNP was, hitherto, not a party of left nationalism; it was always much messier. It’s another story now.

In Wales. Labour holds on to a fragile support, with a different back-cloth. The mainstream left divides itself into two camps: disaffected left socialists form a strong current in Plaid Cymru, finding expression in Leanne Wood, running as favourite to win next month’s leadership election. If she does, it is bound to shake up both Plaid and Labour. Plaid has matured from a traditionally ‘Welsh language nationalist’ party, with worrying pro-fascist elements in its history, currently being re-assessed by their leading left ideologue and former MP, Adam Price. Labour, on the other hand is tending to regress into a old-style male apparatus that finds ‘the national question’, not to mention ‘campaigning trade union resistance’, rather awkward.

Labour took its leftism into government after the devolution vote of 1997 and even drew Plaid into the ‘One Wales’ coalition from 2007-11. First Minister Rhodri Morgan, Welsh leader for most of 10 years from 2000, had described that leftism as ‘clear red water’ between Wales and Blair’s Westminster, as early as 2002.

Make no mistake, the achievements of devolution are not to be scoffed at. Morgan’s cabinet in 2000 was the first in the western world to have a majority of women ministers. Their constitution put sustainablity and equality above all else. Sure Start, focused on child poverty, was embraced, developed and is now protected in Wales. The Assembly was first with free travel for older and disabled people back in 2002, first with free prescriptions in 2007, first with a strategic planning policy in 2004; Scotland came first with subsidised student fees back in 2000, Wales came on board to underwrite against the Tory fee increases last year. And you can be sure that the NHS is a lot safer in Welsh and Scottish hands than it is in the Tories’.

Conference this weekend will test Welsh Labour’s mettle. New leader, Carwyn Jones, has no mean task on his hands. Ed Miliband’s trials and tribulations are analysed most generously as ‘biding his time’ while he endeavours to change the course of the entrenched, unaccountable apparatus and parliamentary party of Blair’s legacy. Carwyn dances, perhaps not quite with Rhodri’s aplomb, on tightropes of slashed budgets and Tory defiance, that still ambiguous leadership from London, and a burgeoning independence debate at odds, for Labour, with our experience of devolution – and all whilst onlooking Labour’s danse macabre, and the SNP’s jig, in Scotland.

The priorities remain to do all we can to protect jobs and services, seeking new and innovative ways to boost the Welsh economy, pursuing the green agenda, building resistance to the Tories. These themes form the core of Welsh Labour Grassroots conference fringe meeting on Saturday evening, 18th February, 6.00 pm at the Welsh Institute of Sport, Sophia Gardens, Cardiff CF11 9SW, with Lesley Griffiths AM (Welsh Health Minister); Mark Drakeford AM (Cardiff West); Siobhan Corria (Llandaff North council candidate); and Martin Mayer (Unite the Union and Labour party NECs).

That discussion is sharpened by the Plaid contest, where these same themes, laced with independence, are the essence of Leanne Wood’s bid for leadership. She is quite clear that she sees no circumstances for alliances with the Tories. That’s about jobs and cuts and a future for Wales, not just the Union. Labour take heed.

Spike! – Welsh Labour Grassroots supports Occupy Cardiff

The Occupy Cardiff campaign receives support from Welsh left socialists’ steering committee.

Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG), the network of left and centre-left activists in the Welsh Labour party, pledges our full support to ‘Occupy Cardiff’. The international ‘Occupy’ movement has been a huge inspiration to millions around the world seeking equality, social justice and democratic control over the economy. It has struck a chord with the ‘99%’ who are excluded from real power and has forced the global elite onto the defensive.

We therefore welcome the initiative to establish ‘Occupy Cardiff’ and deplore the eviction by the police, with wholly unnecessary force, of the initial encampment from the grounds of Cardiff Castle. We support your decision to reassemble at Transport House – the organisational hub of the labour movement in Wales – and we commend you for the links you have made between the occupations and industrial struggles and for your solidarity with trade unions taking strike action on 30th November.

Like you, we believe that direct action and industrial action are both important elements – alongside other campaigning methods – of the struggle for an alternative to the present unjust and irrational world order. Your efforts help to make the case for such an alternative and demonstrate that ordinary people can challenge the irresponsible and unaccountable ‘1%’.

We offer you our solidarity and pledge to raise awareness of, and support for, your actions through our activities in the Labour party, the trade unions and other areas of political activity.

Welsh Labour left debates anti-cuts strategy

Darren Williams

The impressive performance of Wales’ team in the Rugby World Cup has provided a welcome boost to a nation that otherwise has little to celebrate at the moment. With a bleak outlook for jobs and public services, the Welsh political system – and especially Carwyn Jones’ Labour administration – is under unprecedented pressure, needing to present an alternative to Tory austerity but with limited powers to do so.

With a higher proportion of its workforce employed in the public sector than any other part of the UK except Northern Ireland, Wales was always particularly vulnerable to the Con-Dem cuts. Sure enough, twelve months after Osborne’s June 2010 emergency budget, Wales had already lost 10,000 public sector jobs – with much deeper cuts expected. The Tory theory that the private sector would fill the gap has been demolished by the latest unemployment figures, which show the Welsh jobless total 13,000 higher in June-August 2011 than a year before, taking it from 8.1% to 9% of the economically active population. Only an incurable optimist would have expected the requisite surge in private sector employment, given the extent to which the Welsh economy was laid low by the 2008/09 recession, losing 49,000 jobs (3% of the total), almost 40% of them in manufacturing.

Last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review left the Welsh Government with the toughest budget settlement of any of the devolved administrations: a £1.9 billion (12.4%) real-terms cut by 2014/15. And this was against a background of long-term underfunding, given the Barnett Formula’s increasing incapacity to deliver budget increases proportionate to Wales’ real needs. While publicly berating the UK government for jeopardising economic recovery and social cohesion, Welsh ministers adopted the ‘dented shield’ approach: drawing up a budget that sought to protect the most vital services while spreading the pain around. NHS prescriptions and other services that had been made free at the point of delivery were protected and there was a commitment to avoid compulsory redundancies and work with the unions to manage job cuts and facilitate redeployment.

The Welsh Government has now published its draft budget for 2012/13, which continues largely in the same vein as its predecessor, although this time health and education (together accounting for the lion’s share of the budget) have been protected, at least in cash terms, with money drawn from the government’s reserves. The budget also allocates resources to fund key initiatives announced recently in Welsh Labour’s Programme for Government, such as the creation of a ‘Jobs Growth Wales’ fund to help young people into work or training and the expansion of ‘Flying Start’, which provides free childcare in deprived areas. Unlike last year, when it was in coalition with Plaid Cymru, Labour now governs alone, with exactly half of the Assembly’s 60 seats, so it will need to persuade at least one other party to support its budget or, at least, abstain.

On the left, there are two main responses to the Welsh Government’s efforts to shield Wales from the worst of Westminster’s austerity. For the Wales TUC, dominated by the big three Labour-affiliated unions, all responsibility for the cuts lies with the Con-Dems and the Cardiff administration is effectively beyond criticism (WTUC general secretary Martin Mansfield has even tried to block union demonstrations being organised in Cardiff, lest they be seen as directed against the Welsh Government). At the other extreme, the sectarian far left demands that the Welsh Government sets a ‘needs budget’ and, in effect, spends money it doesn’t have; its failure to do this supposedly demonstrates that Welsh Labour is no better than the Tories and Lib Dems – yet these critics fail to explain where the money will come from if Westminster doesn’t immediately cave in, given that the Welsh Government can neither raise taxes nor borrow (unlike other devolved administrations and local authorities) and its reserves are already dwindling rapidly.

The left needs to develop a coherent position that avoids these two extremes, recognising that Welsh ministers are trying to do their best for the Welsh people with limited options but being willing to offer comradely criticism, to challenge certain choices (big business-friendly policies like the proposed Enterprise Zones, for example, or the Government’s readiness to cut 1,500 of its own staff, albeit on a voluntary basis), and to suggest alternatives.  The Welsh Government should be applauded for lobbying Westminster for borrowing powers and reform of Barnett (to be considered by a new Commission) but it also needs to play a genuine leadership role in building a mass anti-cuts movement.

These issues will be debated at a timely AGM of Welsh Labour Grassroots on 5th November at the Welsh Institute of Sport in Cardiff (11.00 am until 4.00 pm).  Participants will include Welsh Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, and PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka. No-one on the Welsh Labour left can afford to miss this key event!

Darren Williams is a Trade Union Full-timer and a member of Cardiff West Constituency Labour Party and Welsh Labour Grass-roots

This article also appears in the November issue of Labour Briefing


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