Left on the margins

The second election to the Welsh national assembly on May 1 resulted in modest gains for the Labour Party, giving it 30 of the 60 seats. Labour must decide now whether to reactivate its coalition with the Liberal Democrats or attempt to govern alone. The only real disappointment for Labour was its defeat in the Wrexham constituency, where deselected assembly member John Marek, standing as an independent, was able to beat the Labour candidate. The defeat in a previously safe Labour constituency has deprived Welsh Labour of a clear working majority in the new assembly. Yet the most interesting aspect of the results was the collapse of Plaid Cymru. The number of seats won by the nationalists fell from the 17 it won in 1999 to just 12 - just one more than the Conservatives. Its decline was greatest in South Wales, where it lost all three of the constituency seats - Rhondda, Islwyn, and Llanelli - that it won from Labour four years ago. In both Rhondda and Islwyn Plaid's share of the vote sunk by some 22%. In the latter constituency the vote for the Plaid candidate was only 1,700 more than the third-placed candidate - Paul Taylor, who stood as the Tinker Against the Assembly. Clearly the forward march of the nationalists in the English-speaking industrial areas of south Wales has been halted and reversed. It is possible, at least in some ways, to see the 1999 result as an aberration, caused in part by Tony Bair's decision to foist the unwanted Alun Michael on the Welsh Labour Party. Also, Rhodri Morgan's strategy to place some 'clear red water' between Welsh Labour and the party nationally has also paid dividends. With a modest revival of the principality's economy in recent years, this has also persuaded disenchanted working class voters to return to the fold. Despite the eccentric backing of RMT's Bob Crow, in no sense should socialists mourn the decline in Plaid's vote. The party is nothing more than a petty bourgeois nationalist organisation, which mouths left rhetoric only when it searches for votes in south Wales. The experience of Plaid-dominated councils has been enough to demonstrate that its practice is anti-working class to the core. Yet it would be wrong to write off Plaid as a significant force in Welsh politics. The Labour revival was a modest one, based on a turnout of only 38%, down eight percent on the already low figure of 46% in 1999. Labour only needs to be blown off course by political and economic events for a resurgence of Plaid to take place. This is even more likely to be the case, given that Plaid is still widely regarded as the only political alternative for working class voters in Wales. Unlike Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Party has now become a significant force, the left still spectacularly fails to make any inroads into the political consciousness of workers. Divided as it is between a myriad of competing tendencies, the left in Wales remains on the extreme margins. Despite the appearance of Arthur Scargill's name on the ballot paper, the Socialist Labour Party's performance was dismal. In the Ogmore constituency, Chris Herriott was unable to repeat the 7% he achieved in the 2002 by-election, this time receiving less than three percent of the vote. Standing on the three regional lists in south Wales, Scargill's party could only muster between 1.8% and 2.5% of the vote, well beaten by the Greens and the UK Independence Party. Scargill's absurd boast that the SLP was Britain's "fourth largest party" has long since been exposed for what it was. Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party, standing on the Socialist Alternative ticket, contested two constituencies. In Aberavon its candidate, Rob Williams, won 3.2% of the vote, whilst in Cardiff South and Penarth Dave Bartlett received 2.9%. Not any kind of success by a long road, but it will at least allow the SP to brag that it is a more effective electoral force than the Welsh Socialist Alliance. Welsh Socialist Alliance Against the War stood in five of the 40 constituency seats. Effectively moribund, the alliance lacked any semblance of a coordinated national campaign - no manifesto, no broadcast - nothing other than a set of amateurish localist campaigns. Thus WSA candidates got sadly predictable results. The share of the vote for the five candidates was 0.8%, 0.9%, 1.4%, 1.8% and 2.6%. The latter vote was achieved by Raja Gul Raiz in Cardiff Central, where he was able to capitalise, at least a little, on the anti-war sentiment of local muslims. Yet with an average of just 1.5% of the vote in the constituencies contested, the WSA will have little to be pleased about. Clearly the staggering contrast with the performance of the SSP must surely force the left in Wales and England to wake up urgently to take a close look at itself. Divided into inconsequential sects, it has been slow to recognise the need for unity and the necessity for a unified party. Whether the left has either the imagination or ambition to break from its old habits remains to be seen. Already there is speculation that John Marek might seek to organise a party to the left of Labour. Yet this seems an unlikely prospect. Whilst it may have been tactically correct for socialists to advocate a vote for Marek in the elections, he is not a credible leader of a leftwing party - Marek is, at best, a maverick, without any track record of principled socialist activity. Yet the fact that someone like Marek can be touted as a leader shows really how the left in the principality has failed to make headway in forging a genuine socialist alternative to Labourism and Welsh nationalism. Cameron Richards