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Posts tagged ‘Welsh Labour’

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

Independence? What has ‘The Union’ ever done for us?(1)

by Gordon Gibson2

This paper was prepared as an introduction on the ‘national question’ for Swansea Labour Left, affiliate of Welsh Labour Grassroots. The indented text was not part of the initial verbal presentation.

Nation shall sing unto nation

Until nations cease to be

From ‘Unison in Harmony’, a song by Coope Boyes and Simpson,

These words are a fine encapsulation of ‘the national question’.

The ‘national question’ is a subject comfortably side-stepped by many socialists and Labour Party members, in both Wales and Scotland, often in the name of a supposed internationalism but more likely, although perhaps unconsciously, via promotion of a greater British chauvinism, favouring British nationalism. Meanwhile, rivals in Plaid or the SNP are brushed off as nationalists, who put patriotism above class unity.

With the electoral successes of the SNP in Scotland, the 2014 referendum, and reverberations here in Wales, not least Plaid Cymru’s new leadership revitalising their ‘independence’ profile, with a voice more publicly socialist than most of the voices we hear representing Labour,  we are being asked again, ‘should socialists support calls for independent nations?’.

In one sense, the political decision appears even easier these days. Is not the main cause to build unity in the fight against austerity, the protection of jobs, pensions, the NHS, the welfare state? ‘Nationalism’ is a dangerous diversion.

For some, this necessary unity excludes Plaid Cymru. For others, it excludes the Labour Party.

Austerity, we should be clear, is, of course, necessary to protect British ‘big nation’ nationalism and its capitalism.

We are not nationalists. I doubt if anyone here describes themselves as nationalist. I am an internationalist and a socialist. That is why I support self-determination.  Workers of the world unite! In fact it was, ‘Workers of all countries unite’, perhaps a closer articulation of what follows.

But let’s get things into perspective. First, Europe. The British left has traditionally had an anti-EU position, falling very closely towards the ‘sovereignty’, British nationalist, camp, albeit with lots of riders, most of which few people hear and fewer find meaningful. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the anti-EU argument for that very reason. At the level of ideas, I prefer that we promote unity with the workers of Europe, join with them in struggle against the rotten political cabal that is the EU, break the rules like the Greek Syriza left stood for yet, like the Greeks in opposition, be quite clear that we want to stay united with them. We are internationalists. We have no truck with petty nationalism. So there is a significant strand of a very British, perhaps English, nationalism in the anti-EU line.

And yet we are ‘patriotic’, are we not?

Even I, still with plenty Scottishness in me, find myself, after 40 years here, very ‘Welsh’ in the sense that ‘national fervour’, a national pride, passion and loyalty for one’s homeland impacts on us. What is that about? That rugby trip to Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris or Rome has a joy about it, amongst kindred spirits. ‘Patriotism’ is a mixed bag though, much exploited by bourgeois ideology, not least via Unionism in the north of Ireland. Scottish rugby has Princess Anne as its patron. The ever-popular song, ‘Scottish Soldier’, by stereotypical Scottish entertainer, Andy Stewart, lauds a soldier’s return home to die in the homeland after a lifetime in military defence of the empire.

The rugby ‘patriotism’ we enjoy with kindred spirits in Edinburgh, Dublin and even Paris and Rome is not matched by any fraternalism with the English. Twickenham has a different character about it. We unite in our – some even seriously overstate on these occasions – ‘hatred’ of the English. Why is that?

There is a strong element of ‘class’ about our disaffection with that perception of ‘Englishness’.  It is not English workers of course. We welcomed them into Wales, first from the copper mines of Cornwall and then to mine Welsh coal.

We happily give money and get out on the streets to support dock-workers, Grunwicks, miners, Stop the War, the occupy movement, all-sorts with whom we see common-cause. There will be a very large contingent of Welsh workers on the October 20th cuts and pensions demo in London.  Do you think that we would protest less against the London financiers and their government if we were more independent that we are?

We get pained by the English toffs and their media, the aloofness, superiority, their ignorance and disrespect of the Welsh, Scots or Irish; the lack of recognition of our history, our different (more ‘British’) history; the oppression or abuse of our culture and languages.

And that is reflected in our humour.

Did you hear about the Englishman with an inferiority complex? He thought he was the same as everyone else.

This humour is founded in the concept of oppressor versus oppressed nations; in the case of the English state and capitalist class, still founded on its feudal class trappings, via the monarchy, which absorbed Wales, Scotland and Ireland to form ‘The Union’ – an English led, fundamentally British Union, albeit with a Scottish king, brought down to consolidate the anti-catholic current that has since given a regressive religious structure to the British establishment and which, through the monarchy, still provides the constitutional and ‘philosophical’ underpinning of the British state, later to pull in European royals to maintain that primitive illusion of social superiority. [What an extraordinary hypocrisy that is in light of English xenophobia.] This oppressive, class history goes no small way to explaining why ‘independence’ and ‘republicanism’ have a significant resonance in Wales and Scotland.

Anti-Englishness scales up in proportion to the brutality of the oppression the British nation meted out. First, the Irish, whose brutal repression is reflected in the way British culture still makes them the brunt of ‘thick people’ humour. You beat them, impoverish them, starve them, then pillory them for being poor uneducated labourers. The Irish hate them the most but get them back with some subtlety.

Did you hear about the Irish, Evel Kneivel? [EK was an American motor-bike stunt-rider of the 60s and 70s.] He tried to jump over 50 Englishmen with a steam-road-roller!

The Scots still have the great battles in their collective memory and culture: Bannockburn, resisting the English in 1314, and Culloden Moor, 1746 – the last battle for independence, perhaps better described as a last gasp for control of the then British nation, when Charles Stuart led the French backed Jacobites against the House of Hanover, the British House of Hanover!

Scotland’s historic existence as a political state prior to 1707 provided ‘national’ institutional structures that do not exist in Wales. Wales has never existed as an independent political entity. Scotland has its own banking system and currency, it’s separate legal system with its own laws, it’s own education system and, re-established more recently, a rich, alternative and distinctive cultural life.

Scotland has won and uses a much greater degree of independence than Wales. And, as in Wales, more than in Wales, Scottish people will not go to the independence vote on some hypothetical prospect, like the EU was, or even the recent PR/AV referendum, both loaded with establishment propaganda. Scots will go to the referendum with a good taste of what ‘independence’ is offering.

Last year’s referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh government gave us a taste of the extent to which the people of Wales have recognised the value that increased independence has brought to Wales, with many, particularly social, benefits from children and childcare to student fees, bus and rail travel and prescriptions.

Welsh history and oppression are buried more deeply (by the English). We have the ancients in Owen Glyndwr and Hywyl Dda and, more relevant, a rich series of workers struggles like the Rebecca Riots, the Merthyr Rising, the Chartists in Newport, ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ not to mention Keir Hardie and the early Communist Party; all struggles against the English bourgeoisie of course.

Whilst our nations were oppressed, we have also been beneficiaries of the British Union.  Despite some overt ‘oppressions’, such as of the language in Wales (an oppression much exaggerated by the way), Wales and Scotland were assimilated into the British state and our workers have benefited enormously from the riches of the imperialist British Empire. So even the concept of ‘oppressed nation’ can cause difficulty.

The oppression of assimilation is exemplified in numerous ways. To take one example, the ‘traditional’ Scottish kilt was popularised not via William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or Mel Gibson.  That whole culture was fostered during the creation, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of Scottish regiments to send Scots workers to give their lives for the imperialist empire. It’s the same with the Welsh regiments, one of which was the first ‘nationalist’ regiment to be formed by the Westminster government. Similar arguments have been propounded about the emergence of the Eisteddfod and the druidic tradition.

The right to self-determination.

Self-determination is an inalienable right. But self-determination is not a synonym for independence or separation or national liberation. It is the right to form an independent state. That right arises only within an oppressor state that denies it.

This is the terrain we are on in Wales; the issue of ‘self-government’ has been raised. In talking of ‘independence’, this is really what we (socialists) mean – self-government. Some in Plaid will agree, others won’t but that is their contradiction, not ours.

Self-government is prominent in the current political climate in Britain. The existence of national sentiments, of the Senedd and of the Scottish Parliament, the distance, clear red water, that Welsh and Scots seek to establish between themselves and the Tories (not to mention Blair’s Labour) in Westminster all reflect, at least in part, the essence of the right of nations to self-determination.

The principle of ‘complete freedom of action’ for Welsh and Scots is being posed now. We want more powers to decide on an ability to determine for ourselves, of our own free will, questions of our inter-relations with other states.

Self determination is a right, a right to form a separate state. That and only that. It is not the right to ‘do what you want’; it is the right to form an independent state.

Does this apply to oppressor states like Britain, France, USA? No, they are already states. Self-determination does not arise.

When workers stand up, as they did in Ireland (or let’s say Wales) and say, ‘we are for socialism, we are breaking from our oppressor state’, it is false internationalism to reply ‘No, not independence. Workers of the World Unite’. In effect, this is to say, ‘We are for imperialism!’.

Self-determination is about the oppressed and the oppressor. Two principles apply – the inalienable right of the oppressed to self-determination, and the recognition of that right by the workers of the oppressor nation. It is the oppressed peoples that are to  decide how these rights are to be exercised; that is self-government. And, until oppressor nations recognise these rights, they will never themselves be free. This is not an easy matter for British workers, let alone where we Welsh and Scots stand.

Finally on this, from Lenin, who maintained and developed the importance of the national question and the need to struggle against all national inequality and national superiority right through to his death in 1923: nations may need to separate politically in order to grow closer at a later date. As the song says, ‘nation shall sing unto nation until nations cease to be’.

The Nation

Nations, being capitalist creations, following land grabs by monarchs and feudal barons, or states created and peoples divided by borders drawn by imperialist invaders, are rather amorphous phenomena, difficult, nay impossible, to define objectively. Language, culture, territory, economics are often used to inform a national consciousness but ‘nations’ cannot be reduced to such criteria. In real politics, they exist only in the minds of nationalist theoreticians, of course, but also in the consciousness of ordinary people.

Nations don’t really exist at all as objective entities; national consciousness does.

In the capitalist world, hugely international, global capitalism, the function of nations is to protect the narrow interests of national capitalists, one of the nearby examples being the Scottish bourgeoisie, with its own socio-economic infrastructure nonetheless deeply embedded in global capitalism as the RBS banking collapse demonstrates. That nation serves only to divide workers on a British and then a global scale. Socialism seeks to end capitalist domination and its political and democratic differentiation of people, to end their separation in a myriad of states.

Will national oppressions be relieved and national liberation be ensured? We don’t know;  we’ll see. We believe that national oppression is political oppression that can only, and increasingly ‘only’, be resolved by the establishment of regional, international, global equalities, by significant social changes, by socialism.

Many socialists and Marxists attempt to define nations by calling up language, culture, economy, and certain rights available only to citizens of dominant nations. But the denial of such rights and characteristics are only symptoms of national oppression. National oppression is the denial by one nation over another of the right to form an independent state.

Even for Wales, we get into serious trouble. The language is not universal (and probably never was), within boundaries that are largely arbitrary or of little substantive significance, under cultures that draw from very different traditions, in an economy that has never independently existed.

So is Wales a nation? Yes, of course it is. Back to Lenin, still the most authoritative voice on the national question: the ‘nation’ pertains ‘wholly and solely to the sphere of political democracy’. What is the historical consciousness of a people, their feelings, their impulses? What determines these sentiments is the current situation – attendant circumstances. And the history that led there.

People who think of themselves as Welsh think of Wales as a nation. That is the nearest we can get to an objective definition: that consciousness arises because of historical circumstances and it’s that consciousness that counts. Little else.

The ebb and flow of history has nurtured and flooded Wales with a social and cultural richness that some, but not all, of Wales welcomes and celebrates with open arms and hearts. The miners, many of them immigrants to Wales from other parts of British and Irish lands, not to mention Spanish, Italian and East European, are now part of the proud national heritage.

The only objective criteria we have are either from established nation-states, in which case there is no need for a right to self-determination, or from national movements, in which case we have to tread very carefully and respect that inalienable right.

In Scotland, where there has long been a sense of national identity, across classes, the present circumstances, not least since Thatcher’s Poll Tax, reinforce that national fervour to the point that independence, whatever it might mean, is seriously on the agenda.

And, by the way, Labour’s decision to use Alasdair Darling as a front man in unity with the Tories and LibDems to defend The Union and call for a NO vote in the referendum can only consolidate national consciousness and independence, and serve to further politically undermine Labour in Scotland. Labour, in the No campaign, has got just about everything wrong. Setting aside the execrable, and high public profile, alliance with the hated Tories and treacherous Liberals, the essential reason for the popular trend towards Scottish independence is to distance Scots from austerity, to follow or be tempted by the populist SNP’s optimistic, although not entirely unfounded, claims of economic viability. Scots have repeatedly made very clear that they want no part of Tory politics. As they say, there are more pandas in Edinburgh zoo (2) than there are Scottish Tory MPs in Westminster (1).

This is political ground onto which those who wish to oppose independence should be wary about treading. Aside from independence, we should wholly support the Scots in their stance against the Tories, not to mention their disaffection with such a Labour Party. Consider yourselves lucky to have had Rhodri and ‘Clear Red Water’.

Like workers in a factory, the first demand is to be recognised as a legitimate collective with identifiable common interests. We form unions and we fight for our rights. How the richness of these rights is achieved may well be best served by united struggle with other workers, even on a world scale. First we self-organise and make our own decisions.

Such debate is certainly extant for Wales and Scotland right now, under pressure to justify the feasibility of independent social and economic existence as if such an insular approach was being mooted by anyone other than die-hard nationalists, with whom we have no truck. Comrades may be reminded of the debate around the theme of ‘Socialism in one country’. The years gone by have only served to further justify and reinforce internationalist solutions.3

National self-determination is a chance to re-invigorate the class struggle against the British state.  As the then Cardiff councillor, Sue Essex, said at the Welsh Labour Conference in 1996, ‘the Assembly that we offer must be something genuinely new, which wakens and enlivens Welsh politics.’

[This does invoke discussion of how representative democratic structures work, of democratic organisation and accountability. Hence, even now, referenda on the nature of the voting system, the recall of AMs, the local democratic structures, the call for votes at 16 (recently adopted by the Welsh Government, although barely publicised), salaries, accountability, recallability,  frequency of elections and many such issues are very relevant to the democracy that one would wish to foster in a properly representative structure.]

How nations might function as independent states is a matter for their citizens to resolve when they have gained the right to make such decisions. As James Kelman puts it, “A people cannot be asked to settle in advance of independence how they shall act in hypothetical situations. We are being asked to provide a priori evidence of our fitness to determine our own existence before the freedom to do so is allowed.” 4

Autonomy – how close to Independence?

It is difficult to resist the call for independence in these circumstances, although the use of the term , ‘self-government’, provides a better, more instructive and less nationalist agitational slogan.  The problem is that when put on the scales with the substantive issues in the fight against austerity here in Wales, they tip heavily away from independence.  In Scotland, this is not so clear and independence is that much more seductive, not least as a tactic in the austerity battle.

In the current British context, it is not helpful to pursue the theoretical correctness of abstract positions on the national question or independence; the issue is entirely determined by our relationship with the British state and the demands and actions that will both strengthen the position and social-condition of Welsh workers and, in tandem, weaken, undermine, and directly challenge the hegemony of the class that dominates The Union. Right now, the determining issue is ‘austerity’ and we should do all in our power to resist, to unite with British and European workers to refute the fiscal parameters that deprive millions, the 99%, of their own earned rights and services in order to reimburse the rotten corrupt casino financiers who tell us what is best for us. Self-government assists us in this; it is neither an obstacle nor a diversion.

In reality, it is most unlikely that a truly independent state of Wales can have much meaning. Whilst the Welsh economy certainly needs to be re-generated and developed, following the demise of our traditional industries, future well-being is ineluctably and inextricably tied to the British and world economies. The M4 ‘corridor’ and the A55. ‘North Wales Expressway’ are built to service trade in England, only, at best, to throw crumbs at the Welsh economy.  A true Welsh transport strategy would establish east and west-side movement connections with north Wales, comparable with the rail and motorway connections between Glasgow and Edinburgh

The internationalisation of capital, global capitalism, clearly demands an international response. But this is pure rhetoric for day-to-day politics, frankly inconceivable in the present conditions.  So this begs the ‘national question’. When we get to ‘context’, there is a reality in the air.

The alternative is to remain ensnared within the carefully contrived limits of a constitution that for more than 300 years has successfully blocked all threats of radical change in order to preserve the stability of the oldest capitalist state form in the world. Socialists owe no kind of loyalty to that Britain.

The ending of the British warfare state, constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, republican citizenship, participatory democracy, genuinely popular control of public services, an economy run for the people rather than for profit – these and many other important areas of policy will be thrown into the melting pot from which people’s republics in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will emerge.

Genuine popular control over state institutions and the economic levers of power cannot happen in a British state in which the people are designated as subjects of a political sovereignty resting with the Crown-in-Parliament.

Social change in Britain is much depressed by a hereditary monarchy and an unelected House of Lords keeping tight political rein on a Commons majority elected with less and less of a popular vote. The breakup of the authoritarian British state is now a significant element in securing progressive socialist change for the peoples of this island.

Many who argue against independence are still in favour of increasing powers for the Welsh government. Where might that stop? It goes to the point of independence from the centralist, anti-democratic, banker-run, British state. For self-government!

We are in favour of our independent right to reject Westminster austerity, to stand alongside Scots and other Europeans and to seek alliance with English workers under a unified banner to reject austerity. Nor is it just British austerity, it is global, unregulated, free-market neo-liberal capitalism and we are in favour of the Welsh Assembly coming out clearly against it. And against Trident! Are we really to abstain on Trident because such decisions are to be made in Westminster?5

We are for autonomy, for self-government, for decisions affecting Welsh workers to be made in Wales. This is not to argue for separation or independence. But it is to argue for our rights.

The national question is exactly that.

We are not in favour of isolation. We have no illusions about the Welsh economy but the Welsh economy does need to be regenerated.

This is the paradox with which we have to grapple. Independence may not be a helpful concept, yet we are in favour of what I have been calling ‘degrees of independence’ – more powers to the Assembly. Let the Assembly decide its own powers with no right of veto from London or Brussels. We are in favour of autonomous rights to Welsh people, rights to demur. This is what clear red water means. An autonomous nation within a British federation, a European federation of states – the united states of Europe.

And Plaid? Many Labour socialists are against the rival political party that is Plaid, and so are against independence. It was easy when the ‘language nationalists’ were in the driving seat. Serious political debate about the national question could be avoided under the veil of party tribalism.

Now, to keep it simple, given the rich socialist programme that Leanne Wood is espousing in Plaid, a platform, remember, that won majority support in her party, the only real difference is her promotion of independence, Raymond Williams’ ‘real independence’ as she puts it.

In my opinion, her emphasis on independence is too strong vis-a-vis building unity against the Tory onslaught, but she does have her party history and a strong ‘disaffected-with-Labour-in-Westminster cohort’ to contend with. If she brings Plaid into unity against austerity, they should be welcomed. They should be welcomed at face value and also because that is the real foundation of self-government, an interpretation of ‘independence’ to be supported.

And so we come to the problem for Labour. Wood is castigated for ‘opportunist’ approaches to the unions for the fight against austerity, for her disrespect for the queen, for her to go to church and shake the queen’s hand like Martin McGuinness,  for her failure to support ‘self-determination in the Malvinas’ (if ever there was a demonstration of a weak position on the national question, that’s it!), for her small-scale economic solutions, for her jumping on Carwyn’s blunder of weapons of mass destruction in Milford, for her opposition to the ‘job creation’ of a new Wylfa nuclear power station. This is not to mention some of her entirely justified attacks on Labour local authorities in the valleys. The problem is that party tribalism triumphs over political reason. That tribalism oft-times disguises a ‘greater British chauvinism’ that deters a political dialogue with socialists like Leanne Wood and others. The detritus only serves to weaken unified Welsh resistance to the Tories.

The ‘national question’ and ‘Independence’ are almost words in a game of semantics – independence versus ‘autonomous self-government’ – not unlike the ‘autonomous women’s movement’ that proved so difficult for many socialists. (Where would we be without the strength of the Women’s Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s?)

Our aim is to unify round our collective interests, perhaps independently at first but always with a view to unity with others, nearby, in other countries, and in other continents.

The aim of self-government is greater unity, on an equal basis and on a clearer platform, between the working people of all countries. Boundaries are to be broken, but only on an equal basis. If ‘the national question’ serves that aim then we should be very careful about saying ‘No’. Indeed, why should we say ‘No’ when it relies on the defence of almost everything we oppose? In fact, what has ‘The Union’ ever done for us?

Notes.

  1. With acknowledgement to the highly recommended satirical posting on YouTube called ‘What have the unions ever done for us?’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=184NTV2CE_c  The heading here is not satirical.
  2. This paper has drawn heavily on the writings two left-wing socialists, the late Ceri Evans, and Ed George. Ed has been most helpful in the preparation of this paper, for which much thanks, although this version is for me only to answer for.
  3. In fact we should be sympathetic to small nation nationalism, (1) because they’re oppressed; and (2) their struggle has a progressive logic. It was Trotsky who said, with regard to black nationalism in discussion with CLR James that, although we’re not nationalists, the most consistent fighters for black nationalism will join the fight for socialism because of who and what they’re fighting against. The dialectic of that is seen in feminism, trade unionism, the whole raft of ‘partial’ struggles: if you’re oppressed and you fight consistently against your oppression you generalise. We saw that in the miners strike, with Ireland, LGBT struggles. This was Lenin’s mature position, that you can’t talk about nations in the abstract.
  4. James Kelman (2012) On self-determination is reproduced in Celyn at https://celynwales.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/on-self-determination/
  5. Mark Drakeford (2012) No to Trident. A speech to the Welsh Assembly Government, reprinted in Celyn at https://celynwales.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/no-to-trident/

Other notes and references

Lenin (1916): The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination in Lenin Selected Works Lawrence and Wishart 1969

Writings of Ceri Evans and Ed George can be found in Ceri’s archive at http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/ in both sections ‘Ceri’s writings’ and ‘Other material’. Ed George keeps his writings at http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/, his ‘Close reading of Marx’s Capital’ at http://readingmarx.wordpress.com/, and earlier writing on http://search.gmane.org/?query=&author=Ed+George&group=&sort=relevance&DEFAULTOP=and&query=

A relevant selection of these writings is

Evans (1994). Nationalism, Marxism and the Irish Question, http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/writings/ireland.htm

Evans  (1995) Ten draft points on the national question http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/writings/ten_draft_points.htm

Author? (1981) Notes on Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/other_material/notes_welsh_nationalism.htm

George (1999) On Marx, Engels and the national Question [Section IV is particularly relevant here.] http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/mywritings/menat.html

George (2001) The Secret of the Forest is the Trees http://www.oocities.org/edgeorge2001es/mywritings/Forest.html

George (2002) A Note on Welsh History and Politics http://www.angelfire.com/alt/ceri_evans/other_material/note_history_politics.htm

George (2002) Re Scottish independence and the SSP http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.politics.marxism.marxmail/3172

Labour reorganisation delayed in Wales. Time for autonomy?

By Jon Lansman.

Next week’s meeting of Labour’s executive is likely to agree to defer reorganising constituency Labour parties in Wales in what should be seen as an indication of the acceptance of greater autonomy for the Welsh party. Whereas all other constituency parties in Britain are to be reorganised from January 2013 in the light of proposals for new constituency boundaries, reorganisation in Wales is to be delayed until after a UK government consultation on changing the basis of constituencies for the National Assembly for Wales. This will also permit a subsequent decision on whether Welsh boundaries should be based on Westminster boundaries or Welsh Assembly boundaries (in line with what is to happen in Scotland) — should they end up being different. In Scotland the new CLPs will be based on the boundaries of the Scottish Parliament. This followed the decision to create the post of Leader of a largely autonomous Scottish Labour Party, a measure forced by the disastrous performance against the SNP in the Holyrood elections in 2011. Although Welsh Labour’s electoral performance was very different — a consequence of the political autonomy it had shown through the latter years of New Labour — many party members in Wales eagerly sought the same level of organisational autonomy.  Currently there are forty constituency seats in the National Assembly for Wales elected by first-past-the-post with a further twenty “top-up” seats elected in five regional groups under PR. The government is now consulting on whether that system should be changed, potentially to a new system based on 30 constituency seats and 30 “top-up” seats. If adopted, this would in all likelihood create coterminous assembly and Westminster boundaries. It would also make the assembly more proportionate (and, in consequence, make an overall majority more difficult for Labour to attain).  Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has already made clear his opposition to changing the electoral system:

We don’t want to see any change. Nobody has a mandate for change. Nobody thought we’d have a Green Paper such as this in this age of devolution, seeking to impose change on the people of Wales without their consent. We thought we were beyond those days and the Prime Minister has given me assurances there’d be no change. without the agreement of the Assembly.

However, Andrew Davies, Leader of the Tory group of AMs also opposes change:

I am in favour of the status quo and in favour of de-coupling. I will be feeding this into the consultation process over the next few weeks. The current 40:20 model has serve the Assembly well.

Although the Lib Dems support a “fully proportionate system” and Plaid Cymru support STV, it seems quite likely that “de-coupling” (i.e. adopting different boundaries for Westminster and assembly seats) will happen. Labour members in Wales are advised to consider the implications.

This article first appeared on the blog Left Futures, here, where comments should be added. Celyn requests that such comments are also copied to our site. Thanks 

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

The politics of the Scottish independence referendum

By Neil Davidson
[Celyn is anxious to promote broad debate on the burgeoning topic of independence. The left’s historic caution over the issue has been jolted by Leanne Wood’s election to the leadership of Plaid Cymru and this article from International Socialism, the journal of the Socialist Workers Party, no advocate of independence hitherto and written by an erstwhile sceptic, vividly reflects the strength of the social movement that is afoot. If anything, Davidson’s analysis of the SNP is even more applicable to Plaid, although Labour in Wales is certainly a more complex phenomenon than the Scottish version. Celyn Editors]

David Cameron chose to open 2012 with one of those tactical misjudgements increasingly typical of the overconfident, untested politicians of the coalition. On this occasion the subject was the timing and content of a future referendum on Scottish independence. Under the Scotland Act (1998) all constitutional issues relating to the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland are reserved to Westminster. If the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh held a consultative referendum on the question of independence it would certainly carry great moral and political weight, at least in Scotland, but in legal terms it would be little more than a gigantic opinion poll. Cameron presumably hoped to outmanoeuvre Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond by offering to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum, but only if the latter accepted that it be held within 18 months and that it consisted of a single question, for or against Scottish independence.

Within days of Cameron making this offer on 8 January the entire episode had backfired. For one thing, he had now conceded that there would definitely be a referendum (which the Tories had not previously accepted). And his blundering attempt to bully Salmond left the SNP leader with the moral advantage, leading to increased levels of support for independence and an influx of new members to the SNP (over 700 in the second week in January) in response. At the time of writing (mid-February) it looks as if Salmond will hold the referendum at the time of his choosing in autumn 2014, although the nature of the question or questions is still unresolved. Salmond is probably the most effective British bourgeois politician of his generation; Cameron, on the other hand, is not, but there is more at play here than their respective qualities. Why was Cameron so insistent on setting conditions for timing and content of the referendum and what attitude should revolutionary socialists take towards it?

The timing issue was a relatively trivial piece of political gamesmanship. The SNP’s 2011 manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary election said that a referendum would be held in the latter half of the parliamentary term (ie after May 2013). Salmond allegedly had plans to arrange it for 24 June 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle which is usually, if inaccurately, supposed to have secured the independence of the feudal Scottish kingdom from England. Regardless of the truth of this (and it would be untypically crass of Salmond, who never indulges in vulgar anti-English posturing), imposing a deadline would have narrowed the range of dates in which a vote could be held while, if he refused to accept such a timescale, the coalition could pretend that the SNP were running scared of the referendum because they knew there was not a majority for independence.

The attempt to confine the choice to either the status quo or independence results from more fundamental considerations. Cameron has no desire to be responsible for the break-up of Britain: if Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom there would be a real threat that the state could unravel. One immediate consequence would be to place a question mark over the viability of Northern Ireland, since the union has always been with Britain, not England and—as Loyalists of all varieties are well aware—Sinn Fein would almost certainly begin agitation for an all-Irish referendum on reunification. British state managers would find their geopolitical position weakened by the loss of territory involved, leading, for example, to the removal of the rest of the UK (“Little Britain”) from permanent membership of the UN Security Council. There would also be difficulties if the SNP fulfilled its promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde, since there are virtually no other deep water bases on the UK coastline where the submarines that carry them can be docked, and to construct them would involve massive expenditure.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the political situation is simply reducible to SNP support for independence and Tory support for the status quo. In fact, the majority of the leadership of both parties would find a third option, so-called “maximum devolution” or “devo max”, preferable, although for different reasons neither can publicly admit it. Devo max is the option overwhelmingly supported by most Scots: it would leave the Scottish Parliament in control of all state functions (including taxation) with the exception of those controlled by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Bank of England (ie in relation to setting interest rates). Most of the SNP leadership recognise that there is not a majority for independence, or at least not one that would currently make the transition from opinion poll to voting booth. Devo max is what they hope to achieve—and more importantly, what they think they can achieve—in the short to medium term.

But although Salmond would prefer three options to be included in the referendum—status quo, devolution max and independence—he cannot openly argue for this without incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist-nationalist wing of his party, for whom anything less than independence is a betrayal. What he seems to want is for enough popular pressure to be expressed through “civil society” (ie the institutions of the Scottish professional and technical-managerial middle classes, plus the Scottish TUC and its constituent trade unions) to make it impossible for the devo max option to be excluded from the ballot paper, but without his direct intervention.

The situation is further complicated, however, by the fact that, in certain circumstances, devo max would probably be acceptable to a majority of Tories if it was politically necessary. Cameron certainly wants to win a vote against independence but, tactically inept though he is, he is also aware that even if this is achieved, the demand for further devolution will be unstoppable, and would probably result in pressure for a subsequent referendum asking Scottish voters to choose between the status quo and devo max. Cameron effectively conceded this in his speech in Edinburgh on 16 February, when he offered further measures of devolution if voters rejected independence. Salmond for tactical reasons affected to believe this was a ruse to lull the Scots into voting for the status quo, after which the promise would be quietly forgotten. It is usually wise to believe the worst about Tory intentions, but in this case Cameron is probably genuine.

If the essential integrity of the British state were maintained at the military-diplomatic level, the latter would be an acceptable outcome, particularly since it would place the responsibility for raising taxation and cutting expenditure on the Scottish government. Indeed, some Tory intellectuals, notably Tim Montgomerie, are arguing that Cameron should seize the opportunity to reconstruct the British constitution on a federal basis—a position which would bring the Tories into harmony with the Liberal Democrats, for whom this is a policy dating back to the days of the original Liberal Party.

Where is the Labour Party in all of this? The leadership has effectively entered a bloc with the Tories and Lib Dems against both independence and the inclusion of a devo max option on the ballot paper. As a demonstration of Labour’s apparently insatiable appetite for self-destruction this is almost on a par with Ed Balls’s recent declaration that a future Labour government would not reverse coalition spending cuts. Most party members, like most Scots, favour devo max, but they now have very limited mechanisms for influencing policy. There have, however, been initiatives by Labour-affiliated unions, above all Unite, to put pressure on the party hierarchy to shift position, and these provide an important forum for debate and intervention.

Although this retreat to outright Unionism will almost certainly be abandoned before the referendum, it is indicative of the sectarianism which Labour has always displayed towards the SNP, even its left, long after it became clear that the “tartan Tories” label had ceased to be applicable. The simple reason is that, of all the mainstream parliamentary parties, the SNP is the only one which has had the possibility of attracting a significant part of Labour’s working class electoral base, and is now beginning to do so—indeed, this was why it was able to form a majority administration in 2011. Labour’s greatest immediate concern in this respect is that the SNP will win Glasgow, the largest Scottish council and one of two which it still controls, in the May 2012 local elections.

The SNP stood a realistic chance of doing so even as things stood, but—in another manifestation of the suicidal tendency mentioned above—the Glasgow Labour Party has split. After voting against Labour proposals to cut services and jobs at a fractious council meeting on 9 February, an increasing number of Labour councillors (eight at the time of writing) have resigned and announced their intention to form a new party, provisionally called “Glasgow Labour”, to contest the May elections. Unfortunately, this split is not based on a principled opposition to budget cuts—their own proposals, like those of the SNP, merely rearranged them—but is a calculated opportunistic response by a group of councillors who had earlier been deselected and who hope to retain their seats by avoiding the opprobrium which will attach to the Labour group. The outcome is to make an SNP victory all the more likely.

Faced with the ongoing self-immolation of the Scottish Labour Party, it may seem redundant to ask why working class people are increasingly turning to the SNP, but there are also what Gramsci called “organic” as well as “contingent” reasons. Like similar social democratic organisations in Europe and Australasia, Labour has moved extraordinarily far to the right, although its attitude to devolution has never been comprehensible in left-right terms. Nevertheless, despite the rightward shift, Labour will remain a social democratic party so long as it at least retains a role in articulating the interests of the trade union bureaucracy, thus holding open the possibility that working class demands—in however mediated a form—might once again influence what it actually does. Since reformism remains the dominant form of consciousness
within the working class, it may appear that nothing much has changed and that this reformism will continue to find expression in the Labour Party as it has for the last hundred years or so. But there is no necessary connection between reformism in general and the specific form taken by Labourism.

A combination of Labour’s own behaviour in office and opposition—above all its acceptance of neoliberalism—together with structural changes in the nature of the working class and the current diminution of trade union membership and consciousness in the private sector, means that for many working class people, Labour does not appear to be fundamentally different from the other parties, but is simply “the least worst” of the choices on offer. In this connection it is important to remember that, although the “typical” member of the organised working class may be a public-sector employee who belongs to a Labour-affiliated union like Unite, the “typical” member of the working class as a whole is a private sector service worker in no union at all. In these circumstances, if a party other than Labour was to appear, offering reforms, sounding as if they actually believe in them, and invoking the social democratic tradition, workers, especially in the latter group, might well consider transferring their vote to it. In England no such party yet exists, and for several historical reasons one is unlikely to appear, but in Scotland it does, in the form of the SNP. It is worth noting that, even in the context of organised workers, over 40 percent of Unite members in Scotland voted for the SNP in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections

In general, the SNP accepts the neoliberal economic agenda—but the point is of limited importance since this is true of all the parties in the Scottish and UK parliaments, with the possible exception of the Greens. But the SNP has also positioned itself as the inheritor of the Scottish social democratic tradition and to make this credible it has adopted three tactics. First, it has retained all the reforms introduced by the previous Lib-Lab coalition, above all free care for the elderly. Second, it has legislated for its own reforms, such as free medical prescriptions. Third, and this is in many ways the most important, it has simply refused to carry through the counter-reforms of the previous Labour and current coalition governments in the areas where it has power: water privatisation, student fees and the fragmentation of the NHS. In many respects it is what the SNP has not done that has gained it support, rather than its relatively limited reform programme.

In these circumstances, revolutionary socialists have to argue four positions. First, only the Scottish people (ie people of whatever origin who actually live in Scotland) should have the right to vote in the referendum. Second, and quite independently of our attitude towards the SNP, the date of the referendum and questions on the ballot paper should be set without interference from the coalition at Westminster. Third, the devo max option should be included on the ballot paper. Fourth, working class people should nevertheless vote for independence. The first three are basic questions of democracy; the fourth perhaps requires further explanation.

Unless we put forward an argument for class politics within the referendum campaign, the alternatives will simply be between nationalist and unionist positions, with the rest of the left tail-ending the former, helping the SNP towards the hegemonic position it seeks in Scottish politics. This means active involvement in the campaign, including participation in bodies such as the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention. Among other things, we need absolute clarity that there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish independence; otherwise we face the danger of encouraging the popular but wholly false assumption that Scottish people are automatically more left wing than English people, which will in turn encourage dangerous illusions in a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism, or at least to a revived social democracy. The reasons for supporting independence lie elsewhere.

Britain is an imperial state at war. A referendum called while the occupation of Afghanistan is still ongoing, with the Iraqi and Libyan interventions a recent memory, would be inseparable from the arguments against these wars and the British state’s subordinate alliance with the American empire. Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the US. Britain has always been an imperialist state, but socialists have not always have called for support for independence and in other situations they were correct to oppose it, for example in the early 1920s. But devolution has changed the context in which we operate. The British state has already begun to fragment and so to call for its further fragmentation on an anti-war basis, in a situation where a majority opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, means that independence can be supported as a means to an anti-imperialist end, rather than as the political logic of Scottish nationalism.

A related reason is that the campaign for a “no” vote will effectively be asking voters to endorse a conception of Britishness which is built around racism and anti-migrant, anti-Islamic hysteria. No doubt some well-meaning but deluded members of the left will argue that the issue is the unity of the British working class, but we should be clear: for the anti-independence side, this will not be about the Chartists, the Suffragettes, anti-fascism or Saltley Gates; it will be about the virtues of white, Christian, imperial Britannia, at best alloyed with a little official multiculturalism. For socialists to give this “left colouration” to the pro-union cause would be politically fatal.

The unity of workers and the oppressed in the British Isles is not secured by the constitutional form of the state or by the bureaucratic structures of union organisation; but by the willingness to show solidarity and take joint collective action, across borders if necessary. Many workers in Southern Ireland belong to the same unions as workers in Britain; workers in Canada often belong to the same unions as workers in the US: there is no reason why workers in Scotland could not belong to the same unions as workers in the rest of the UK. To argue that this is a decisive reason for opposing independence is either scaremongering or a concealed defence of the British state. Part of the process of maintaining unity is for Scottish workers to support the struggles of English and Welsh workers, and for English and Welsh workers to support the right to self-determination of the Scots.1

What of the alternative? The meaning of devolution has changed over the decades, which is why, as I suggested earlier, the Tories could accept devo max if necessary. Previously, it was a way of meeting popular aspirations without threatening the economic order; now it is also potentially useful for further implanting social neoliberalism. The more politics is emptied of content, the more social neoliberal regimes need to prove that democracy is still meaningful—not, of course, by extending the areas of social life under democratic control, but by multiplying the opportunities for citizen-consumers
to take part in elections for local councillors, mayors, members of the Welsh and London Assemblies, and the Scottish, British and European parliaments.

It has not, of course, reversed the growing public withdrawal from official politics and in that sense has failed as a neoliberal strategy of legitimation. On the other hand, devolution is also part of a neoliberal strategy of delegation, and in this respect has been much more successful. Here responsibility for implementing anti-reforms is spread beyond governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and—as in the case of local councils—reliance on the Treasury for most of their funding.

In the case of the devolved nations the assumption is that the people most likely to participate in local decision-making will be members of the middle class, who can be expected to behave, en masse, in ways which will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate. The distribution of responsibility for decision-making downward to the localities will continue
and gather further momentum following the onset of recession and still greater spending restraints. We too easily dismiss the “Big Society” as a joke, but what it ultimately means is atomised citizens voting for which services they want to close. If nothing else, in a separate state the responsibility could no longer be passed up the line to Westminster, by either the SNP or Labour.

Finally, participation in a campaign for independence will involve revolutionaries working alongside SNP members: what attitude should we take towards them? We approach the Tories and Lib Dems in one way (as open enemies) and Labour in another (as someone we expect to be a friend). Neither approach fits exactly in the case of the SNP, but it would seem more productive to tilt in the latter direction, partly because—unlike the Tories or Lib Dems—there are actual socialists in the SNP, but partly because it claims to be governing in a social democratic model.

In that case our demands should be for the SNP to prove it, in relation to refusing to implement the cuts, remaining opposed to student fees while reining in university principals, getting on with removing Trident from Scottish soil, etc. The contradictions for the SNP are already enormous, but as long as large sections of the working class regard them, however wrongly, as a viable reformist organisation, we should take that as our starting point. It should go without saying that none of this is meant to imply that we should stop working alongside Labour activists: our attitude towards them should continue to be one of fraternal engagement in the unions and campaigns.

All this is conditional upon class struggle—there are circumstances in which working class resistance could reach such a level that the question of independence would be irrelevant or even reactionary; we are far from that stage yet, although we may be at it by the time the referendum takes place, so the position set out here has to be kept under constant review. Nevertheless, we should beware of assuming that high levels of class struggle will result in “normal service being resumed”, with workers returning to Labour. There is no historical warrant for this: in 1974, after six years of the most intense class struggle since 1919, Labour limped into office at Westminster and the SNP received the biggest vote it had ever received (and bigger than it has ever received since) in a UK election. Nor will the Scottish national question simply disappear in a wave of strikes and demonstrations: workers—and the biggest increase in support for independence has been registered among young, unskilled workers—might understandably still see a logic in separating themselves from a Tory-led Westminster government, even when the class struggle is on the rise. Economics and politics are not autonomous from each other, but the mediations between them are deeply complex. Revolutionaries, not least in Scotland, ignore this at their peril.

Note

1: Contrary to what Lenin sometimes suggested, “the right of nations to self-determination” does not necessarily mean the right to separate, it means the right to decide whether or not to separate; if the Scots voted to remain part of the UK they would nevertheless have exercised their right to self-determination.

This article first appeared in the March issue (134) of International Socialism

A red current flows from the valleys of Wales

by Gordon Gibson

Leanne Wood says 'Thanks' to her Welsh Party

The election of Rhondda socialist Leanne Wood to the leadership of Plaid Cymru is a historic event, not just for Wales, but for British politics. Never has a mainstream political party been led by such a committed campaigning socialist. Plaid may be on the margins of British mainstream but, make no mistake, this result can shift the tectonic plates of Britain’s increasingly spin-driven boys’ club politics.

Plaid Cymru is now led, chaired and managed by women. It’s young out-reaching future is bound to appeal to women and youth. During Wood’s vigorous campaign, Plaid’s membership grew by 24%. At the same time, Welsh Labour is tormented by internal strife and squalor over all-women short-lists in the run-in to the May elections. Not since Rhodri Morgan constructed the world’s first majority-women cabinet have we seen such a positive statement of new politics.

Leanne Wood is about to be subjected to vicious political and media pressure. Under the guise of her modest valleys background, her feminism, her campaigning style, her lack of complicity in the games of politics, she will be victimised and abused, from within and outside her party. The real reason is that her politics are dangerous for the establishment. All socialists should give her unconditional support in her new role.

Plaid Cymru has been conveniently written off as an elitist, language party, based, ironically, in the impoverished agricultural and obsolete slate quarry settlements of west and north Wales. The leadership campaign reflected this. Elin Jones, from the Welsh farming community, looked to that tradition, or its farmers and landowners, for her support. Dafydd Elis-Thomas, quite radical in the distant past, was true to his peerage and took a pro-union, cool on independence, slick language stance that saw him being eliminated with just 21% of the vote in the first round. Wood got an romping 48% .

Leanne brought her version of ‘hiraeth’ from the valleys, the less heralded Welsh traditions of self-organisation and struggle. Her campaign was launched on a ‘real independence’ platform, with admirable commitment to the language, even in TV debates. Brave. She established her credentials in the ‘Welsh’ party and won convincing support  from MPs, AMs, ideologues and party grandees. Plaid has been greatly influenced by the success of the SNP in Scotland. But latterly, Wood pursued a more sophisticated emphasis on the Welsh economy. If jobs are to be created, services protected, a Green Wales promoted, then Welsh people will have to do it themselves. She promises to bring together the best minds in Wales, both supporters and forces from outside the party, to take on that challenge. Building an inclusive, non-tribal campaigning party to  counter the Tories’ austerity offensive, set to cause untold damage in Wales, will win popular support, independence or not. That is the lesson from Scotland.

The model is not just the centrist SNP, pandering to petty-bourgeois nationalism and the Scottish establishment, while dishing out the sops that Scotland’s  Blairite Labour, more interested in being pro-Union and ‘realistic’ about austerity cuts, has been unable to bring itself to. More apposite is, was, the Scottish Socialist Party before its Sheridan-led implosion. The SSP had made a powerful impact  on Scottish politics, with 7 MSPs in no time. Prominent women, with Sheridan’s ego and legitimate record at the cutting edge, brought support for workers struggles and services, protection of women and children, schools, childcare, public transport, anti-nuclear campaigns, all-sorts, to the mainstream. They won extraordinary public support with their resolute commitment, their challenge to the ‘ripples-not-waves‘ style that pervades Labour.

The new leader’s challenge to Welsh Labour is immense, if she can survive. Labour’s danger is to revert to the ‘placard-waving’ criticism that their leader, Carwyn Jones, alluded to at Labour’s recent national conference in Cardiff. Carwyn has an uphill task too, for the Rhodri days are gone and Welsh Labour is burdened by careerist, Blairite, and apparatchik men who will relish the anti-independence, anti-campaigning, playground boys’ badinage that most are just about capable of. The opposite is the task. Socialists in Wales can unite in the fight against the Tories and LibDems. We can unite for a strong Welsh economy, for more powers to Welsh people and their Assembly. We can talk of independence as we go. Amongst socialists that is a healthy debate; amongst bourgeois nationalists it is quite something else.

There’s our challenge. Leanne Wood will need all the support she can get both within Plaid Cymru and beyond. Socialists should not hesitate to stand alongside her.

See also Leanne Wood wins Plaid leadership victory for left

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

NHS marketisation to ‘Stop at the Border’

by Lesley Griffiths AM

At the 2011 National Assembly election, all the political parties in Wales had the opportunity to set out and explain their vision for the NHS in Wales over the coming years.

This was a real – not contrived – battle of ideas, with some clear dividing lines coming to the fore during the course of the election campaign. In the end, it boiled down to choice between two competing set of values.

Either introducing marketisation and competition into the delivery of health services, or maintaining the fundamental founding principles of the NHS – namely, being publicly funded, publicly provided and free at the point of need.

It will be no surprise to anyone reading this article which side of the fence I was on in that debate.

Since that election, the dividing lines between the Tory-led UK government in London and the Welsh Labour government in Cardiff on how the NHS should be run has come sharply into focus.

Whilst the Tories in London aim to reduce the role of the state, I believe in a NHS with a strong public service ethos that places public interest above private profit. I believe in accessible, high quality, citizen-centred services for all, not choice for the few.

Unlike the current debacle over health reform being played out in England, we will have no truck with such ideologically driven dogma.

Unlike in England, all professional organisations and trades unions in Wales support our approach to the NHS.

Unlike in England, Welsh Labour has a mandate from the people to its vision on the future direction of the NHS.

As we have made clear – as long as Welsh Labour forms the government in Cardiff, the forces of marketisation will stop at the border.

The vast majority of people cannot remember life without an NHS. It is very difficult to even begin to comprehend what it must have been like before the NHS came into being and sometimes we just accept the fact that a free NHS will be there for us when we most need it.

Before the NHS existed, life was in some instances quite literally a lottery. It meant that if you were poor, you could not afford even the most basic treatments, you simply had to put up with whatever illnesses happened to come you way.

That’s why it’s important for me in the job I now do, to make clear that the NHS in Wales will not deviate from the founding principles that brought it into existence.

However, whilst the principles that underpin our NHS remain sacrosanct, that does not mean that change in whatever guise cannot happen. Striving for progress and excellence means that change in how services are provided, has to occur in order for improvements to take place.

The principle of needing to modernise services has been understood for many years – this change now has to happen.

Expert opinion and worldwide experience shows for some specialised services, such as for cancer, stroke or heart attack care, the best option for the future is centres of excellence where the best skilled staff and latest equipment are there to give round-the-clock care.

Good local hospital and community services will make sure patients quickly access those services and can continue their recovery closer to home.

We also need to provide better care for patients in their communities, whether at home or in local health facilities, and use our hospitals for care that can only be given in the sophisticated specialised facilities they provide.

The NHS of the future is not, and cannot, be just about hospitals. It has to be about the right care being carried out at the right time and in the right place by the right people.

Through our vision document, ‘Together for Health’, the Welsh government now has clear priorities and mechanisms in place for the future.

Working with the NHS, we have put improving health and preventing avoidable ill health at the heart of the planning process. We have made clear the importance of fairer outcomes for all.

We have been explicit about the requirements for the local health boards to identify and take responsibility for tackling inequities in health outcomes within their communities and we expect them to take increasingly robust and specific action to tackle them. There is a political and moral imperative to drive this forward – it is an issue of social justice.

This vision is the right one for Wales, especially as we are seen as the cradle of the NHS – something we can be extremely proud of.

Lesley Griffiths AM (Labour, Wrexham) is the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh government

This article first appeared in LeftFootForward, where comments should be added. Please also copy them here.

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.

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