At some point late in the day yesterday, Vaughan Roderick apparently commented that Welsh Labour are one of the few social democratic governments left in Europe. At face value this comment may appear to be true, given the Labour Party’s pedigree, and the fact that the leader was a Corbyn supporter who came to power on a platform of 21st century socialism, backed by Welsh Labour Grassroots, the home of Momentum in Wales.
However, one might pose a series of questions in response to this apparently innocuous statement: What countries with genuine social democratic governments have such high levels of poverty that nearly 40% of children live in poverty? What sort of social democratic country allows their people to be denied homes through being priced out of the housing market by inflowing capital and a lack of genuinely affordable or social housing? What genuine social democratic country would throw millions at multi-nationals rather than invest that money in its own people and infrastructure?
The questions could go on, for despite over twenty years of Labour rule we have nothing resembling a social democratic society. Notably, and what has been under greater scrutiny this time around, the ‘democratic’ part of this moniker must also be questioned. We have a voting system that is inexplicable and does not even allow for properly informed tactical voting because of the vagaries of the regional counting system. More fundamental is the woeful turnout and the dearth of political education provided in our institutions – and the feeling of disempowerment in our communities, from Nefyn to the south of Cardiff.
In terms of any purported socialism, the main problem is obvious, of course. A country cannot hope to develop along a socially democratic path when it has limited devolved powers, and is lumbered with a nation-state that has become increasingly entrenched in its aristocratic, elitist and exclusionary traditions. The United Kingdom is one of the most unequal societies in the west, governed through an embedded neoliberalism that puts government in service of markets not people, and leaves Wales (via the Barnett Formula) short-changed to boot. There is no starker illustration of this than the way we have suffered during the pandemic; witness the success of a genuine social democracy in New Zealand compared to what at best has been a rear-guard action fought here in Wales, against an overlord who was content to see the bodies piled high.
“For there is a problem with Welsh Labour itself: it is not a social democratic party.”
This is one of the reasons so many Labour voters are attracted to independence. They see that the values of equality, fairness and justice are illusory within the United Kingdom. But it is not only Welsh Labour’s flaccidity in the face of devolved and constitutional issues that is the issue here. For there is a problem with Welsh Labour itself: it is not a social democratic party.
A party that values democracy would not preside over this travesty of an electoral system nor accept the low levels of voter engagement that persisted.
More pointedly, a party that is left of centre would not preside over policies and systems that prioritise the privileged. Witness for example the way Landlords have been prioritised over tenants, a situation that has come to a head during the pandemic. Think about the dreadful impact of our justice system and policing on minority communities. In this context, Dan Evans, Kieron Smith and I have been working with fantastic contributors on an edited collection, looking at how neoliberalism has worked its way into our politics in insidious ways; it is startling to see how far removed our actual politics is from the progressive, ‘radical’ discourse which the Labour Party uses to dress up its policies.
“it is startling to see how far removed our actual politics is from the progressive, ‘radical’ discourse which the Labour Party uses to dress up its policies.”
It is edifying to see Mark Drakeford, a serious, thoughtful socialist being rewarded for his management of this crisis, and he has done much for the credibility of the Senedd and no doubt contributed to the demolishing of Abolish and stymieing of the Tories. However, in terms of his ambitions for a 21st century socialism, we need to appreciate the obstacles he is up against.
Welsh Labour’s managerialism and lack of ambition can sometimes appear as indomitable a force as the pandemic itself – especially because of the way in which the party itself is seemingly impervious to any self-reflection or criticism on the matter. There are serious questions about Drakeford himself, given the manner in which his administration has been carried forward in a manner befitting of a continuity candidate rather than a genuine socialist – with little change in personnel either in the cabinet or behind the scenes. One illustration of this came at the beginning of the crisis, when any socialist’s instinct was to close events such as the rugby and the Stereophonics gigs, but Vaughan Gething the health minister cowtowed to the Westminster line until they buckled under huge public pressure, on the one event at least.
Changing this political culture is imperative, and must come from outside the party as well. There’s no small irony in the fact that Wales’ foremost socialist has been removed from the Senedd, with such zeal and enthusiasm. Labour threw the kitchen sink at Leanne Wood, and strategically this was the obvious move. She makes them look bad, and she’d secured a bridgehead in the valleys that could have led to genuine change. Make no bones about it, this is bad news for the progressive politics that Drakeford himself wants to see.
“There’s no small irony in the fact that Wales’ foremost socialist has been removed from the Senedd, with such zeal and enthusiasm.”
He has rightly won the plaudits for this victory. It is his to claim, and he has won many hearts and minds – and a good deal of ground for the independence campaign – by demonstrating how the exercise of even our limited powers can make a difference. This is therefore a personal mandate for him to carry Wales forward in the way he sees fit. One hopes that this emboldens him to do what he knows is right: changing the voting system and devolving broadcasting are just two of the obvious policies with regard to democratizing our society. The possibilities for making it more socialist are manifold.
We must watch with interest to see what unfolds now that he reigns supreme within his own party, and who he brings into his cabinet, and more crucially I would argue, his backroom team. Whilst he has spent the last year fighting forces beyond his control, there is now an opportunity to unleash the forces within his own party that can bring genuine change. Lives depend upon it.