SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

Wales: the fight for working-class votes

Charlotte Church is an unlikely figure to rally opposition to the Tories, but the popular singer’s call for protests and her placard – ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’ – reflected the real mood of opposition to austerity that the election campaign of the main parties obscured. Up to 1,000 marched through Cardiff to protest the Tories’ election win.

The Tories claimed a big victory in Wales, gaining three seats and taking them to eleven. Labour lost two to the Tories and gained one from Liberal Democrats. Yet the Tories’ share of the vote rose only by 1.1%, from 2010, little more than Labour’s 0.8%. The big changes were the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote and the rise of UKIP’s. The Lib Dems retained only one seat in Wales, its vote collapsing from 20% to under 7%. UKIP gained 11.2%, to reach 13.6% of the vote

So Tory and Labour votes were up slightly, the Lib Dems were down enormously and UKIP rose significantly. No analysis has been carried out for the changes in vote share, but it is likely that much of UKIP’s gains was from ex-Labour voters as well as ex-Tory voters because, while the Tory vote remained steady in traditionally solid Labour seats, UKIP’s vote rose dramatically. It looks like the Lib Dems collapsed to both Labour and Tory, and UKIP took votes from both.

Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) did not benefit greatly from the ‘Scotland effect’. It had hoped to do better than usual, and to gain from dissatisfaction with Labour in Wales, from a heightened profile for Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, in the leadership debates and, above all, to benefit from the slipstream effect of the rise in support for its sister party, the Scottish National Party (SNP). But Plaid’s vote only rose by the same as Labour’s from 2010 and it slipped to the fourth party in Wales just behind UKIP. Only in Wood’s own Rhondda constituency did Plaid make clear gains. Elsewhere, its vote was also cut into by UKIP.

Plaid echoed the SNP’s ‘anti-austerity’ message. Like the SNP, however, this is mainly a verbal opposition. The Plaid-led council in Gwynedd is carrying out cuts as keenly as Labour councils (or SNP councils in Scotland). But the SNP appears to have a plan of an escape route from austerity: independence. Plaid really has no strategy to oppose cuts.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) stood in twelve seats in South Wales (30% of Welsh seats) and won nearly 2,000 votes. Wherever TUSC campaigned there was big support for its message. But it was very difficult for a small organisation fighting austerity to get its voice heard. There was a virtual media blackout of any mention of TUSC and we had to fight to get into the hustings. In those that took place, TUSC won the debates.

So, most people would not have known that TUSC was standing until they reached the polling station – let alone know what it stands for. Nonetheless, standing in that many constituencies allowed TUSC to start developing a wide layer of supporters, and to begin to fill out TUSC as a political formation. New TUSC associations are being formed.

The rise of the UKIP vote in the South Wales Valleys constituencies, which have been Labour heartlands for over 100 years, poses a problem to the organised working class. In 1992, there were 21 constituencies in the UK with a Labour majority of 20,000 or more. Eleven of them were in South Wales, mainly in the Valleys. Of those eleven, in 2015 UKIP came second in six and got more than 15% in ten. Only in the Rhondda did UKIP get less than 15% where an increase in Plaid’s vote cut across it.

Some on the left bemoan ‘a shift to the right’ in the working class in the Valleys, but what has happened is much more profound. For over 30 years these communities with deep labour movement traditions have been battered by waves of neoliberal policies. The local economies have never recovered from industry being devastated in the 1980s and 1990s. Mass unemployment has been followed by successive cuts in welfare payments since the 1990s. Young people are forced to move or travel long distances to find work. Public services acquired a new importance to local economies with the demise of industry but have been brutally cut in the recent rounds of austerity.

Labour’s majorities in South Wales were not down to some kind of lazy partisanship by working-class people as is sometimes portrayed. The heavy concentration of industrial workers and decades of workers’ struggles in the 20th century created a strong working-class activism. Trade unionism and community struggle fought against capitalism and the Tories.

The shift to business-oriented New Labour moved the party away from its working-class base. Had the trade union leaders drawn the correct conclusions and started a new workers’ party, it would have swept aside Labour in the Valleys – especially if there had been years of determined struggle. But the past period has been marked by economic depression and depopulation, and a significant new layer of activists has not arisen to build a left alternative. Plaid was able to make big gains in 1999 by appearing to provide that alternative. It captured the Rhondda from Labour and won Rhondda Cynon Taff (RCT) council, but then did very little different from the previous Labour administration. RCT returned to Labour in 2003.

UKIP has been able to step into this vacuum. It has targeted Valleys seats, pouring a lot of money into opening shops and campaign centres. Its support has partly come from whipping up fears about immigration and foreign aid, backed by the right-wing press. It has been able to capitalise on the dissatisfaction with politicians and bourgeois politics, including Welsh assembly politicians who have been awarded a 19% pay rise next year. UKIP pointed to the gap in funding for Welsh public services arising from the outdated ‘Barnett formula’. With few votes to lose in Scotland, it cynically called for the gap to be closed by abolishing the formula, cutting funding to Scotland and increasing spending in Wales.

UKIP also sought to build support by hiding the policies of its right-wing leadership and taking up the social problems of working people, especially the NHS. For example, Socialist Party members in Caerphilly, who have led the campaign for the return of accident and emergency facilities to the local hospital, were surprised to hear that the UKIP candidate was inspired to get involved in politics by this very issue, despite never seeing him at a single meeting, protest or lobby organised by the campaign! UKIP poured thousands and thousands of pounds into the Caerphilly campaign, paying for a special battle Land Rover bedecked in UKIP colours and insignia.

Labour was incapable of answering these points because it has been complicit in the cuts to public services in Wales. Labour councils have implemented the cuts with enthusiasm: rolling out 188 notices against council workforces, threatening to withdraw from national agreements and steal council workers’ paltry 1% pay rise, cutting nursery education, closing libraries, etc. The majority Labour administration in the Welsh assembly has cut even more from the NHS than the Con-Dem coalition government. Its unpopular hospital centralisation programme preceded the Tories’ plans in England.

Already the parties are preparing for next year’s Welsh assembly elections. The Tories claim to be confident of winning more seats, but that is unlikely because their gain in vote share was quite low. Even if they were able to win the same seats they won in this election, they would lose regional list seats because their share of the vote would not rise.

Welsh Labour is doing some soul searching to find out what can be put right for the assembly elections, but the answer is quite simple. While it might benefit next year from unpopularity with the Tories at Westminster, its capitulation to Tory cuts has undermined its support. The Welsh assembly has implemented Tory cuts as faithfully as any Tory government would, with scarcely a murmur of dissent. Labour’s reorganisation of the NHS with the closure of a number of A&E departments and hospital services has been deeply unpopular. That might mean losses in the assembly elections.

Plaid Cymru was hoping to use the general election as a stepping stone towards the Welsh assembly elections, and maybe to open up the possibility of a new coalition with Labour. But Plaid’s potential growth next year will also be cut across by UKIP, which could gain seven or eight seats in the proportional representation element of the assembly election.

UKIP is an unstable formation as recent splits have demonstrated and it is unclear in which direction it will travel. This right-wing, populist party has whipped up fears about immigration as a lever to win support. In Wales, however, its base has also been built on concerns about protecting public services and the NHS, even though UKIP leaders come from exactly the opposite direction: campaigning for deeper cuts and more privatisation. It will use demagogic attacks on the assembly politicians and the underfunding of Welsh public services to win support, but the views of its leaders and of its supporters in the Valleys could come into conflict at some point.

A new workers’ party is the only force that could cut across the rise of UKIP in working-class areas. If more trade unions came round to that conclusion and in the next few months formed such a party, pledged to fight austerity, it would win huge support and completely alter the situation in Wales. Until then it will fall to TUSC to carry that banner into the assembly elections. TUSC will fight to popularise the idea of a new workers’ party in the media, but above all in the communities across Wales, exposing the UKIP fraud and offering a real alternative that addresses the concerns of working people.

Austerity has begun to reshape the devolution settlement of 1997. In Scotland it has hastened the movement towards independence as, in the absence of a mass workers’ party, the working class attempts to use that avenue to escape Tory cut-backs. The Tories are also hoping to use devolution, but as a way of implementing the cuts. The example of the Welsh assembly doing the Tories’ dirty work has evidently encouraged the government to propose devolution to cities in northern England. Like their Welsh cousins, the Labour grandees in northern England relish the prestige that comes with the ‘power’ handed to them, but the purse strings will be controlled by chancellor George Osborne, the cuts implemented by Labour.

While allowing the Welsh assembly to carry out its dirty work, and then attacking it for doing so, the Tories are also considering whether to allow it more tax and borrowing powers. The assembly is more concerned with increasing funding – Wales is underfunded by at least £300 million a year, compared to average levels of expenditure in England, and by £1.2 billion when compared to Scotland. So it is possible that the Tories will try and ‘force’ the Welsh assembly to accept new funding arrangements that will make the situation even worse, while allowing it new taxation powers. The right to tax is not worth much to the assembly when Welsh GDP is about three-quarters of the UK average. Only 87 homes in Wales would have qualified for Labour’s mansion tax – less than the Barbican development in east London!

Dave Reid

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