[When reading this article, note that it was written just after the Euro elections in May 2019 when Labour came in a distant third in Wales, with the Brexit Party having won convincingly and Plaid Cymru trailing second]
What would Wales be like without the Labour Party?
A lot of ink has been spilt already picking over last week’s election results, and it feels almost self-indulgent to be picking over them yet again. The circumstances are exceptional and it would be unwise to read too much into them. But even so…
Having carefully considered whether to stand, we in Gwlad decided that our best strategy would be to sit them out, and in retrospect that was undoubtedly the right thing to do. Our main appeal would have been to the same voters who went for the Brexit Party – decent people, fed up with the dishonest posturing of Labour and the Conservatives, and turned off by the disdainful arrogance of Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems.
Of all the analyses of the results that there have been, the one I enjoyed reading most was Allison Pearson’s account in the Daily Telegraph on Monday. The Carmarthen girl who never makes any secret of her Welshness wrote:
“At dinner on Saturday night, I told Remainer friends I was confident that my native Wales would cast out its treacherous Labour overlords and overwhelmingly back Nigel Farage’s party, which had promised to carry out its wishes.
“Auntie Alli right again!,” came the text from the same friends late on Sunday as the Brexit Party scorched to 32.5 per cent in the Land of my Fathers, miles ahead of its nearest rival, Plaid Cymru (19.6 per cent). No wonder Stephen Kinnock looked a seasick shade of green on the BBC. Wales had just converted the try, and drop-kicked his Labour party (15.3 per cent) back to its metropolitan madlands. Bloody brilliant, boys!”
Because that, of course, is the big story of this election. Not the triumph of the Brexit Party – that had an air of inevitability about it from the beginning. Not the showing of Plaid Cymru, which despite being impressive was still a whole 10% down on the 29.6% vote share they achieved in 1999 under Dafydd Wigley. No, seeing Labour knocked back into third place for the first time in over 100 years is a landmark to be savoured and perhaps, just perhaps, a sign that Wales’s long slide into poverty and irrelevance may yet be reversed.
An alien presence
To me the most telling expression in Pearson’s joyful prose is the wonderful phrase “drop-kicked his Labour party back to its metropolitan madlands”, simply because it encapsulates a vital truth: the Labour Party is not native to Wales, it is no friend of Wales, and Wales cannot prosper – indeed, can barely be sure of its survival – unless and until its baleful influence can be brought to an end. They, not the Conservatives nor the Brexit Party, are the real enemy.
How did we get here?
Or more to the point, how did they? We’ve been told so many times that ‘Wales is a Socialist country’ and have become so used to seeing Labour’s dominance in our national life that it is easy to forget how recent a phenomenon this is.
It is certainly true that Wales has a long history of what I’d call ‘pragmatic radicalism’. As early as the 1830s it was fertile ground for the Chartists. These, despite the occasional flare-up into political violence such as at Newport in 1839, were generally a peaceful movement: for example helping working people to acquire property so that they would thereby have the right to vote. Support for the Chartist General Strike of 1842, which caused widespread disruption across the industrialised areas of England and Scotland, was distinctly lukewarm in Wales.
In rural areas, of course, this was also the period of the Rebecca Riots, which flared in Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire between 1839 and 1843. These, though, were a very different matter; a movement of the rural workers and farmers, including many people we’d regard today as middle-class, against the poverty of infrastructure and general neglect of the interests of rural Wales.
In Daniel Owen’s thinly-disguised account of the run-up to the Mold Riots of 1869, he stresses how alien the concept of industrial unrest was to the local miners. “But these strikes are a very strange thing” says the wise, godly old chapel elder, Abel Hughes; “They’re things that have come from the English; they don’t belong to us, and I fear that they will do a lot of harm to this country”. The words that Owen puts into the mouth of the (fictionalised) miners’ leader, Bob Lewis, reflect the idea that at root the interests of the workers and the owners were closely aligned with one another, rather than being opposed. The incompetent English middle managers who’d been put in charge of the Caeau Cochion pit were, he said in the same breath, “oppressing the miners and damaging the interests of the owners.”
Generally, as Simon Brooks has pointed out so saliently elsewhere, the overwhelming political force in Wales throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries was Liberalism; not the authoritarian movement of social-justice warriors with which we associate that word nowadays, but a philosophy which, in substance if not in style, bore far more resemblance to Thatcherism than anything else we’re familiar with today; a belief in individual liberty, the importance of faith and family, free trade, and free enterprise. It’s two most towering figures – William Gladstone in the 19th Century and David Lloyd George in the 20th – were both men of North Wales.
The end of Liberalism
It wasn’t until 1900 that Labour gained its first seat in Wales but they had gained half of the Welsh parliamentary seats by 1922. There were at least four factors that contributed to this rapid advance.
To give credit where it’s due, without doubt one factor was that Labour activists often showed genuine concern for their communities, helping to organise practical relief for the poorest workers at times of particular distress.
Another, related to this, was the fact that the Nonconformist chapel denominations, most of which had been solidly evangelical up to around the 1870s, increasingly lost sight of Biblical teachings in the last quarter of the 19th Century and started to coalesce around new causes, Socialism being one of them (along with Teetotalism, of course).
Thirdly, the Liberal Party almost went out of its way to make itself unpopular: Winston Churchill, as the Liberal Home Secretary (before he defected to the Conservatives) sent the Army in to suppress a riot in Tonypandy in 1910. After the end of the First World War, the party tore itself apart over the question of Home Rule for Ireland, in much the same way as the Conservatives are currently doing to themselves over Brexit (and Labour would be if they were in government).
Fourthly – and I say this carefully, reiterating that Gwlad is not an anti-immigration party – there was mass immigration from parts of England where the Labour Party was already strong. Wales was the only part of the UK to experience net immigration between 1860 and 1914, and at its peak between 1900 and 1914 Wales was receiving more immigration than any other country in the world except for the USA. The great majority of these people came from the southern counties of England, including metropolitan London. Some made a huge contribution to Welsh life – William Hazell, one of the pioneers of the Cooperative movement in Wales who arrived from London in 1906, stands out as an example – but many others brought with them a much more militant strain of Socialism than anything that was native to Wales.
How Labour changed Wales
The result of this shift was that Welsh public life became much more influenced by a statist, centralised approach to industry and society than ever before. In Labour’s hands the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, a shining example of bottom-up community organisation by Liberal Wales, became the centralised behemoth that is today’s NHS; allegedly the envy of the world, though no other country in the world has sought to imitate it. Indeed, every other country in Europe today operates insurance-based health services which are far closer to the spirit of the Tredegar Society, and provide more cost-effective care and better outcomes than the NHS.
As for industry, my colleague Mike Murphy wrote only a few days ago about how the post-war Labour government took the successful privately-owned Steel Company of Wales, nationalised it and ran it into the ground, consistently favouring the interests of Yorkshire steelworkers over those in Wales. As for the coal industry, it was already clear to Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s that coal production in Wales had little long-term future, yet the overwhelming power of the local Labour Party and its associated trade unions in South Wales prevented the orderly transition of the economy to a more diverse base.
Even though Wilson closed more mines than Thatcher subsequently did, this had to be done furtively and expensively, keeping many mines open for much longer than was economically justifiable. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the South Wales Valleys with other regions in Europe which were once heavily dependent on coalmining and steelmaking – Luxembourg, or the Limburg area of the southern Netherlands, for example – which weren’t hotbeds of the sort of militant socialism experienced in Wales. There, governments and communities were able to work together to redevelop the local economies, leading to those areas today having some of the most diverse and prosperous industrial bases in Europe.
And I haven’t touched yet on Labour’s fierce campaign against the Welsh language that lasted most of the 20th Century. Simon Brooks has rightly said that “by the end of the 20th Century, the Labour Party had been more responsible for undermining the Welsh people’s national and language rights than any other institution in the whole of Welsh history.”
The fundamental problem faced by any socialist political party is this: having won political power by appealing to the poor, they can only retain that power by keeping their supporters poor. Make them rich, or even allow them to have the serious prospect of a better life, and they’ll turn their back on socialism and seek a more optimistic alternative. Yet this has to be done stealthily, so that the game is not exposed. Labour in Wales have proved themselves to be masters at this, portraying themselves as champions of the poor while undermining the Welsh economy in every way imaginable: whether by hindering its industrial development, diverting resources to the bloated Third Sector, undermining its healthcare and education systems, or specifically targeting the least productive people to be imported into Wales whether they want to come here or not. Finally… at last… it’s beginning to look like the game may almost be up.
How Wales can recover
The people who’ve been voting Labour for the last century in Wales haven’t been doing so because they’re wicked or stupid – ‘Morlocks’, as a Plaid Cymru supporter recently labelled the good people of Blaenau Gwent – but because no-one has offered them a viable alternative. None of the other parties have been able to formulate an attractive offer or a positive way forward. And unless there’s a compelling alternative, people do what they’ve always done: party loyalty kicks in, and that’s a difficult thing to shift.
Yet Ifan Morgan Jones, writing on nation.cymru last week during the hiatus between the European election itself and the announcement of the results, yet knowing what they were likely to be, gave one of the most perceptive commentaries on Welsh contemporary politics I’ve seen for a long time.
“The theory behind Plaid Cymru being the next Welsh Government was that when Welsh voters did eventually, one day, become fed up with Labour that Plaid would get their votes.
This election has cast real doubt on that – and added to my suspicions that it’s small-c conservatism rather than Labour’s socialist principles that has maintained their vote in the valleys for so long.
Plaid Cymru have long sold themselves as more socialist than the Labour Party, banking that an appeal to people’s economic circumstances would sway their vote. But perhaps that simply isn’t what voters have been looking for.
After all, the huge vote for the Brexit Party suggests that people don’t feel that strong an attachment to Labour – when a party has come along that they do prefer, they have voted for it with few qualms.”
I expect that the Brexit Party is going to cause a few more upsets yet – it seems inconceivable that they won’t win the Peterborough by-election, and probably any others that crop up between now and when we eventually leave the EU – but they won’t be around forever. They have, however, showed that there is a yearning in Labour’s heartlands for a party that respects people’s choices, isn’t afraid to identify as small-c conservative, and longs above all to shake off the poverty and lack-of-ambition that has characterised so much of the past – and seek an optimistic future. We believe that Gwlad is that party; but we’re more than happy for the Brexit party to soften the Labour vote for us in the meantime.