Wales, the Corbyn Surge, and the Direction of the Democratic Left: A Roundtable Discussion with Gideon Calder, David Marquand, Leanne Wood and Neal Lawson

Soundings, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Wales, the Corbyn Surge, and the Direction of the Democratic Left: A Roundtable Discussion with Gideon Calder, David Marquand, Leanne Wood and Neal Lawson


Introduction

The morning after Sadiq Khan's election as Mayor of London in May 2016 it was hailed by one journalist as Labour's 'first victory in a major election since 2005'. Though the post has since been deleted, it was a revealing comment. In that time, Labour has been elected three times as the largest party in the Senedd--the home of Wales's National Assembly. It has formed the Welsh Government either alone or in coalition for every term since its inception in 1999. This confirms a widely-shared sense in Wales that things are often done differently here--and in ways that are often overlooked by the far larger neighbour next door. All this seems to slip off the radar of large parts of the English establishment.

The differences take various forms. Because the Welsh government has control over key aspects of policy such as health and education, the NHS in Wales operates without internal markets, and with the explicit intent of resisting privatisation; and university tuition fees are subsidised by two thirds for Welsh-domiciled students. So these are clearly areas where things have played out differently since devolution. But because the Assembly does not have tax-raising powers, it works within Westminster constraints--in Scotland, where the devolution settlement gave more powers, sooner, there is more room for manoeuvre. So it's not as if there's a complete change of political climate as you cross the border. But there is a different story going on.

The same applies to the Labour Party. There is, of course, a strong, and sometimes romantic, tradition of Labour 'big names' with roots or seats in Wales: Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan, James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Glenys Kinnock, Neil Kinnock. The nation was a cradle of the wider British labour movement through the twentieth century. But, though some are remembered as firebrands, many are 'establishment' names. There is a sense of clubby hierarchy here, with a conservative, paternalistic thread running through it. If Wales has strong Labour roots, it has also often felt taken for granted by the party And, as elsewhere, these roots are loosening and changing shape. Plaid Cymru has consistently pitched itself as a social democratic alternative, often to the left of Labour. As in the north of England, Ukip is strongest in Wales in the hardest-hit areas of the post-industrial landscape: in Merthyr and across the heads of the valleys, for example, which routinely feature at the wrong end of UK deprivation league tables. In these parts of Wales they speak of Cardiff's 'metropolitan elite' sooner than London's.

Labour's collapse in Scotland finds no mirror in Wales: in the May 2016 election results there was a stark contrast between the general holding-up of seats in Cardiff and the slippage into third place in Edinburgh. If there are tectonic shifts afoot in anyway equivalent to the SNP boom, they are unfolding far more slowly. But there are stirrings of a sense that things will be different.

Most significant, perhaps, is the backdrop of the Corbyn surge: the shift in the register of English Labour. This has certainly been felt in Wales--where of course Carwyn Jones is leader of a separate party, and First Minister. But there are clear ambivalences about the London leadership within its Cardiff counterpart. The big Corbyn switches of vocabulary--on austerity, on neoliberalism, on doing politics differently--are not installed in the lexicon of the Welsh Labour leadership. Yet here, as elsewhere across Europe, there is a clear sense that a different kind of left, at a clear distance from New Labour, more strongly egalitarian, decentralising and anti-austerity, is finding the space to emerge.

Such is the backdrop for this discussion, in which the contributors were invited to discuss the prospects for social democracy in the wake of the Corbyn leadership victory. (1) How should we read this story? Was it a game-changer? Do political horizons remain much as they were? …

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