The myth of 'One Wales'

Cameron Richards looks at 'the most progressive government programme in Britain for 30 years'

The scale of the reformist left's defeat in Britain over recent weeks is all too obvious. The fact John McDonnell was not even able to get on the ballot paper to contest Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership means that there is now deep gloom on the Labour-loyal left about the prospects of the party being 'reclaimed' as the vehicle for socialist change in Britain. A major defeat has been inflicted on the Labour left and there is no other way of putting it. Not that communists rejoice in this, because in an important sense their defeat is a defeat for our revolutionary project too.

The better elements of the Labour left have, thankfully, not attempted to interpret Brown's coronation as, in some senses, representing a partial retreat from the politics of Blair. Indeed some of this left have even suggested that Gordon Brown will further extend the neoliberal attack on the working class. As McDonnell himself succinctly puts it, "If people thought Blair's politics were reactionary enough, they have seen nothing yet" (Labour Left Briefing July 2007).

Such an analysis is shared too by the external faction of the Labour left, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain. General secretary Robert Griffiths lambastes Brown for "the destruction of more than one million manufacturing jobs through high interest rates. He has propelled the private finance initiative and so-called 'public-private partnerships' into almost every area of the public sector, including education and health, attacked public-sector wages and pensions, made means-testing the basis for subsistence-level state pensions and slashed corporation tax on big business profits" (Morning Star June 4).

However, something curious is happening on this section of the left. If the onward march of neoliberalism continues at an all-Britain level, for some a beacon of hope has appeared in the shape of the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition that has finally emerged in Wales. The 'One Wales' agreement signifies, apparently, not continuity with the New Labour neoliberal project, but an important break from it. As a Morning Star editorial recently stated, "It might not be on quite the same revolutionary level as Lenin's 'peace, bread and land' proposals, but it is streets ahead of anything emanating from those prepared to ensconce themselves in Westminster as New Labour's pro-war, pro-privatisation voting fodder" (June 29). It seems that editor John Haylett intended no irony with his historical comparison.

Does the 'red-green' administration really represent a glimmer of hope for the left? An opportunity to unite the socialist and nationalist projects in Wales? Or does the optimistic response to it from the left wing of Labour and Plaid Cymru (as well as the CPB) mark a further moment in the programmatic collapse of the reformist left? What will be the consequences when the administration inevitably fails to deal meaningfully with the chronic problems facing Wales?


Before examining the true meaning of the 'One Wales' agreement, it is useful to briefly summarise the Welsh politics in the past decade or so. The referendum in 1997 demonstrated a growing, but highly uneven support for the devolution project. Despite the Blair honeymoon being in full swing, only 50.3% of those who voted supported the Labour government proposals for a national assembly with secondary powers of legislation. As only one in two of the electorate voted, the 'yes' vote amounted to little more than 25% of the voting population.

Grudgingly, the Labour Party accepted an element of proportional representation in elections to the assembly (33% are list seats compared to 43% in the Scottish parliament). Welsh Labour calculated on this basis that it would still win an absolute majority of seats. That it failed to do so in 1999 was due largely to Blair's virtual imposition of Alun Michael as leader in Wales, despite widespread support for Rhodri Morgan. The most significant aspect of the 1999 election was Plaid's electoral breakthrough in Labour's valley heartlands of south Wales.

Michael eventually resigned in 2000 and Morgan constructed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This lasted until 2003, when a rejuvenated Labour Party won 50% of the seats. Plaid lost the constituency seats it had won in south Wales.

In 2007 Labour suffered its worst set of results in Wales since 1918, winning only 43% of the seats. Plaid made a partial recovery, but its vote was not on the scale of 1999. A rainbow coalition of Plaid, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories seemed on the cards until the Liberal Democrats decided to go into opposition. A rebellion of the Plaid left beckoned.

Eventually the stalemate was broken by a coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid. An overwhelming majority of both parties' members backed the deal, although there was a minority of assembly members opposed. Interestingly, a majority of Labour MPs opposed the coalition with Plaid, fearing that the only beneficiary would be Welsh nationalism.

'One Wales'

In one important sense, the new coalition administration is historic. Eighty-two years after its founding, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, is a party of government for the first time, albeit as a junior partner. Indeed, a crucial part of 'One Wales' is agreement between the two parties to campaign at some unspecified time between now and 2011 for a 'yes' vote in a referendum on giving Wales similar primary law-making powers to Scotland. That Welsh Labour has agreed to meet Plaid's main medium-term goal is a cause for celebration amongst the nationalists, as well as a cause for gloom amongst a section of the Labour Party.

This is why a large number of Labour MPs in Wales and assorted luminaries like Lord Kinnock opposed the deal. They sense that politics is moving in a nationalist direction. Whilst there is 'wriggle room' in this part of the agreement and whilst it will be extremely difficult for Welsh Labour to unite for a 'yes' vote, the 'unionist' wing of the Labour Party (as it has been dubbed) is correct to see this as a victory for Plaid.

Of course, Plaid's victory comes at a price. To ensure a referendum does finally take place it is forced to back the Labour-led administration for the next few years at least. Undoubtedly, the oppositional stance that the party has successfully projected over the years will be somewhat undone as Plaid itself will have to defend the inevitable blunders, failures and misfortunes that will be bound to come the way of a government dependent on Westminster for funding and legislative 'innovation'. Splits in the Plaid camp may occur.

However, Plaid claims this is more than made up for by the array of concessions it has wrung from Labour in terms of policy pledges, in particular in relation to health, education and housing. The Plaid left again presents this as a victory for the party's 'left opposition' to Labour in the past decade.

There is a grain of truth in this claim. Amongst the most eye-catching are the pledges to rule out PFI ventures in the NHS, the ending of the right to buy in certain areas where there is particular pressure on council housing and further reductions in class sizes for three to seven-year-olds. But only a grain of truth.

The left

The most surprising reaction to these mild, if not downright puny, pledges has come from much of the left in Wales. So far, even the absurdity of the title of the document is lost on them. Instead of seeing both the constitutional and social pledges as thoroughly inadequate for dealing with the national question and the economic and social blight that affects many areas in Wales, they have responded will undisguised glee.

This was fully in evidence at a Morning Star-sponsored meeting in Pontypridd last week. The gathering of about 30 people heard Rick Newnham (secretary of CPB Wales), Leanne Wood (Plaid's most leftwing member) and Darren Williams (secretary of Labour Grassroots in Wales and longstanding member of the now defunct Workers Action, now selling Labour Left Briefing) unite to celebrate the agreement. Not a cigarette paper could be put between the 'official communist', the left nationalist and the Trot.

Of course, they were careful not to dress up the 'One Wales' document as a socialist programme. How could it be, so they argued, when the assembly has so few powers? Yet, as comrade Newnham outlined in his opening, the document represents the most "progressive" (the favourite word of the night) programme to come out of any government in the British Isles in the last 30 years.

But he did not stop at this formally correct, but utterly meaningless, interpretation of British politics since the rise of Thatcher. Not only that: the agreement in its pledges "challenged the neoliberal consensus" that has built up in British politics during this period. To cap it all, he claimed that the document was "unique in Europe" in its scope.

Far from Trotskyist Darren Williams putting comrade Newnham his place, all he could do was echo the 'official communist' line. Indeed, comrade Williams argued that the left should unite around an agreement that, potentially, heralded a new realignment of left politics in Wales. For comrade Williams there was a chance to fuse the socialist and national projects that had up to now followed separate paths. From Trotsky's transitional programme to the Welsh road to socialism.

All three speakers couched their admiration in terms of the need for 'critical support' for the new government, and 'maximum unity' of the left to ensure that the pledges are carried out. In response to a contribution from the floor by the CPGB, comrade Wood even went so far as to suggest that in return for the Westminster government not impeding the programme of the Welsh administration, we should be careful not to be too critical of Brown in areas where the national assembly does not possess jurisdiction. Where this will leave Leanne, a passionate and principled opponent of British imperialism, when first minister Morgan dodges another question about the war in Iraq, is a moot point.

For, in an important sense, this is at the heart of the dilemma facing the left supporters of the coalition. It needs Westminster backing to fund its promises or faces making cuts elsewhere. Furthermore, the Government of Wales Act 2006 allows enhanced assembly powers only with the expressed approval of the Brown government for each and every new area of policy expansion. It is not only Plaid Cymru that finds itself in this bind, but now sections of the left too. Do they greet Brown on his next visit to Wales with noisy demonstrations or handshakes? Only he can currently makes all their wishes come true. How long will it be before the contradictions of this balancing act unravel? Not very long, probably.

It also means that in their unconditional support for a 'yes' vote in a referendum on parity with Scotland, they will be forced to deceive the Welsh working class that their lot will be substantially improved by a parliament with few sources of revenue of its own. It is a diversion from the real battle for democracy that needs to be taken up.


That is not to say socialists in Wales should ignore the national question. Far from it. The working class must take the lead in the battle for democracy. Wales should have a parliament which can freely determine its relationship with the rest of Britain. Yet at the same time we need to argue in favour of the closest political unity in a federal republic of Wales, England and Scotland. This must be seen in the context of our fight for a Communist Party of the European Union and the democratisation of the EU. Socialism, if it is to be viable, has to begin with continental proportions. The notion that an independent or semi-autonomous Wales can somehow lead to socialism is a silly pipe-dream.

Rather than back the cross-class campaign that Labour and Plaid have promised to promote in support of a 'yes' vote, the left needs its own campaign to argue in a principled way for a programme that opposes unionism, nationalism and capitalism. Of course, welcome any reforms the assembly is forced to concede that improve the conditions of workers. Put pressure on the coalition to ensure it carries out its modest pledges. But do not enter the camp of supporters, however critical, of this administration.

Rhodri Morgan has shown himself over the years to be a first minister that New Labour in London is happy to work with. As for Ieuan Wyn Jones, Plaid's leader and new deputy first minister, he was only too happy to enter into the proposed coalition with the Tories a few weeks back. Across Wales, local authorities, whether Labour-led or Plaid-led, attack the working class with their cuts.

National socialism

That some sections of the left foster illusions in such a pro-capitalist set of ministers in Cardiff says much about the bankruptcy of their present programme for socialism. It tells us that in the unlikely event that Brown's government were to shift in even the mildest sense to the left of Blair, the reformist left might end up as some of his biggest cheerleaders - at least temporarily until disappointment sets in.

Much more possible in Wales, however, is that we might just see the 'historic compromise' between Labour and Plaid - something that the Plaid left has been suggesting for some time now - as a consensus is reached on the national question. A rocky road lies ahead for this project with splits in the future likely. Unlike in Scotland a decade ago, Labour is divided over further devolution. Proportional representation might help facilitate this. Some on the left will accept a watered down version of social democracy, others will resist. Yet it appears likely that it will be the left of each party that will be most enthusiastic about the fusion of nationalism and 'socialism'.

Indeed such a fusion might just take a specific party form in the creation of a type of national socialist project for Wales. Fume at these accusations they might, but this is the logic of their present trajectory, intended or not at the moment. All it might take is for the inevitable disappointment with the Labour-Plaid project to set in.

So far the Socialist Party in Wales has correctly taken a position of opposition to the new administration. Presumably so will the Socialist Workers Party, though it has not seen fit to comment on events in Wales as yet. Both oppose Welsh nationalism on paper (as does the CPB).

Whether they will resist riding the nationalist tiger is unclear. Certainly, Welsh nationalism remains much weaker than its Scottish counterpart. But the devolution project in its Welsh form, which had successfully held until recently, is inevitably moving beyond its original very limited intentions.