“The Welsh make and remake Wales day by day and year after year. If they want to. ” – Gwyn Alf Williams
Where stands socialism in turbulent present-day Wales?
A timely question on the threshold of elections to the Senedd. Are there still politicians who are unrepentant socialists? If so, what kind of platform do they have? And if there isn’t a solid platform, how do we create a new one?
The publication of Leanne Wood’s document “The Rhondda’s Next Step”  stimulates thinking about these questions. She places herself unambiguously in the socialist tradition of her own neighbourhood, by referring to “The Miner’s Next Steps” , a pamphlet written in the Rhondda in 1912 following a conflict in the coalfields. And just as it can be said that that pamphlet offered local solutions based on principles that were universally applicable, so can we similarly interpret the current document. It offers examples of how to tackle local problems by practicing principles that can be applied throughout Wales. Principles based on community, respect for people and the environment. Below the surface can be heard a heartfelt cry to change the current oppressive order where decisions from above decimate communities on the ground.
“… there is wealth only in people and in their land and seas” – Raymond Williams
As this is a document to coincide with the election to Parliament in May this year, the phrase “a Plaid Cymru government will” appears regularly. Nevertheless, it is Leanne the socialist’s vision we see here, decked out in the livery of the Party that saw fit to replace her as leader.
There are proposals on what is needed for the Rhondda’s recovery following Covid, in the context of decades of economic decline; austerity imposed by the Westminster Government; numerous floods whose impact was catastrophic due to the legacy of the coal industry (and a foretaste of the effects of climate change); underinvestment in the Health Service; and worsening inequality.
Common sense pervades the document, with a particular view to the ”health and social care system; address our long‐term economic weaknesses; prepare our communities for climate change and equip our people with the skills needed to do the work that needs doing here.”
You can read the details for yourselves, but it may be useful here to consider the underpinning philosophy.
Essentially, it is argued that central government’s primary work should be to facilitate and strengthen the local. Not only improving the physical infrastructure (including housing, broadband, transport, energy), but also the social infrastructure – education, basic income, art, local procurement, support for parents and carers. In this way, local communities are empowered on many levels, not just the economic.
The section on “Cooperative Jobs – Rhondda Mutual” is revealing. Reference is made to examples where local co-operation works, and the clear suggestion is that this can be a model which can be replicated throughout Wales. “We will establish formal links and connections to learn from other place‐based cooperative movements like the Mondragon  cooperative movement in the Basque Country and Bro Ffestiniog  in the north of Wales, who are initiating ‘Community Movement Cymru’ (CMC). CMC aims to bring together people and community groups to form a network of similar cooperative and mutual communities of interest to share information, skills and resources. In their words, “CMC’s vision is a Wales of a community of prosperous and sustainable communities; the integrated development of the environment, economy, society, and culture of our communities”. (Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog, 2020).
“The Rhondda’s Next Step” is an update of “A Greenprint for the Valleys”  published by Leanne in 2011, of necessity less detailed as it is for election purposes. At that time, her star was in the ascendancy in Plaid Cymru, and she was the successful Left candidate for the leadership in 2012. It could be presumed that she was in a strong position as her profile rose after her performance during the 2015 General Election, followed by winning the Rhondda seat in the 2016 Assembly Election, and she published her “The change we need”  pamphlet in 2017, which offers an all-Wales analysis, and ideas for the future. The same principle of devolution of power is also seen here: “ Decentralist socialism should be a democratic exercise in stripping both political and economic power away from the multi-national corporations and the centralised state, bringing control back to the community through shared ownership and local democracy.” We know that her attempt to persuade her own party to support the vision in this pamphlet was futile, and Plaid soon returned to the more comfortable position of being led by a man in a suit.
This is where I should declare that I am not impartial – after a period of utter disillusionment when Wylfa B was supported by Ieuan Wyn Jones, the then leader, I left Plaid, rejoining when Leanne Wood became leader. After she was replaced, I left again, as I saw no hope of the socialist agenda getting the upper hand. Isn’t this exactly the position that exists in the Labour Party following the raising, undermining and then removing of Corbyn as leader? Isn’t the disillusionment with the two parties for this reason partly responsible for the fact there is a clear need for an organisation like Undod for left-wing supporters? Isn’t that why so many question the way we organize our one-sided democracy?
There is no comfortable home for a socialist of conviction within either Plaid Cymru or Welsh Labour, when we look at the sum of their actions.
Where, then, in contemporary Wales, does this place Leanne Wood as Wales’ best known socialist?
Her career in the Assembly and Parliament over a continuous period since 2003 demonstrates the possibilities and limitations of socialism in the house built on sand that was given to Wales following the 1997 vote, when a hair’s breadth majority voted for devolution.
“A cage went in search of a bird” – Franz Kafka
Leanne, in her introduction to “The Next Step of the Rhondda”, says:
“It is time again to move on from previous leadership, to find new ways to organise and run the communities we live in and the local economy that sustains us. We can lead ourselves.”
And here’s what concludes the document:
“Many of the measures outlined in ‘The Rhondda’s Next Step’ require local and national government support. Even without that, it provides a template for what needs to be done, building on our strengths while planning for the future. There is a lot we can do for ourselves, independently. Let’s do it, together.”
Aren’t the words “even without that” central? The realisation that under our bureaucratic, flaccid, deadened system it is futile to expect truly transformational improvements. That we have a framework that is essentially vulnerable to political, moral, financial and environmental corruption. A framework that is easily geared towards a neo-liberal and capitalist direction. A framework that hides behind misleading rhetoric and vocabulary, which introduces austerity as an inevitable policy, which is unable to effectively wrestle with social inequality, health, homes, environment, whilst creating a bogeyman of the other. A framework that seeks to present plans in a way that suggests no there is no alternative – in fields as diverse as closing rural schools and supporting the arms industry.
Our people are conditioned to be politically illiterate. Their daily fare is provided by misleading media under the auspices of the international elite. A world where profit is king, and the flames of jealousy and hatred are fanned to create false enemies. All too often, poor people are persuaded that the enemy is someone poorer or different, not the rich. That is why it is a tough job for socialists in any parliamentary party, especially for leaders – the pressure to be silent or to be ‘moderate’ on issues that contradict their beliefs is immense. Of course it’s their beliefs which are moderate, compared to the unrestrained baying from the right. A party perceives that the best chance of success in an election is not to appear too far to the left – to try to appeal to people who aren’t their natural supporters, while at the same time hoping that their natural supporters accept the tactic as inevitable realpolitik.
Leanne Wood’s leadership was a candle extinguished for these reasons. But her socialist flame still burns – the question for her to consider is where can the fuel be found to rekindle the fire, and heat the house called Wales?
Has her party now become her cage?
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – Dylan Thomas
As the United Kingdom gallops furiously to the right, Wales is swept up by the dangerous currents that threaten our fundamental rights, our safety, our Health Service, our ability to remain within our communities, and ultimately our identity as Wales.
We now see a faint shadow of a shadow of the principles of socialism in the policies and actions of the major parties that try to convince us that they are on the left here. Neo-liberalism is the political frame for Wales, and both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru operate in a way that clearly shows that they are addicted to the drug of that worldview where they are in power – no matter how their rhetoric tries to persuade us differently. How else to explain the obvious failure to protect our people from the rapaciousness of capitalism? And the welcome given to some of the worst examples of the beast?
A country still under siege from a virus, a country buffeted by the crisis of rural and urban homes, a country riddled with child poverty and a country struggling to understand how to deal with racism and minorities of many kinds.
A country full of complexities.
And yet a land with amazing potential. It is rich in natural resources that can be used to create jobs and improve the quality of life without ruining the environment. It is also rich in human resources and talents – and the tragedy is that these are not used to accomplish anything more than feeding the machine that swallows them, digests them, and then throws them onto the waste tip.
This is being written during a fierce election campaign in the Rhondda where Welsh Labour is desperate to regain the seat, and where Leanne does not have the security of a regional seat to fall back on, so what about trying to answer my own questions at the beginning of this article?!
Where stands socialism in turbulent, present-day Wales? Within our formal political system and in the face of the obvious lack of public debate on the mainstream media – weak. Outside – alive and well but in need of clear direction.
Are there still politicians who are unrepentant socialists? Yes, and Leanne Wood is not the only one.
What kind of platform do they have? Limited within the leading parties.
And if there isn’t a solid platform, how do you create a new one? That, dear friends, is your task and mine! The successful development of Community Movement Cymru (another of the ideas of Sel Wilias who is a member of Unity) could be one possibility.
One provocative thought to conclude – would Welsh socialism benefit from Leanne being free of the shackles of party representation if she lost in the Rhondda? Her darkest hour could turn into a red dawn!!! Politics is far more than the parliamentary process.