Conference season: the view from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

This week, OurKingdom is examining how UK politics changed with conference season. Today, John Osmond finds what matters in Wales is what happens in London, Adam Ramsay sees the SNP launch a new phase in their referendum campaign, and Lorcan Mullen shows Northern Ireland is a different world.

John Osmond Adam Ramsay and Lorcan Mullen
31 October 2013

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond/wikimedia

John Osmond: Westminster determines dynamics of Welsh politics

A contrast between Scottish and Welsh politics is that while the SNP thrive when Conservatives rule at Westminster, Plaid Cymru prefers Labour to be in charge. This goes some way to explaining the differing political dynamics in each country.

In Scotland the one thing calculated to increase a Yes vote in next year’s referendum would be the threat of a Conservative victory in 2015. That is why Cameron is refusing to debate independence with Salmond – it would present the Scottish leader with just the platform he needs to ‘stand up’ for his country.

In Wales, however, the soft nationalist pitch ‘Standing up for Wales’ was used successfully by Labour at the last Assembly election. However, if Labour regains power in Westminster in 2015, Carwyn Jones will be unable to deploy that slogan in the Assembly election the following year. Plaid Cymru is hoping its main political opponent will face just that prospect.

In Scotland, 'unionist' Labour sounds uncertain when arguing for greater powers for Holyrood. Many Scots vote SNP to ensure Scotland receives attention from London.

In Wales the roles are different. With Tories running Westminster Plaid Cymru is left trying to outbid Welsh Labour in pressing the Welsh case. At their recent conference in Aberystwyth they were reduced to deploying the rather tired slogan ‘Wales First’.

The result of Labour and Plaid competing for the same narrow ground at the Welsh level is that they tend to fashion a chasm between themselves at the local level. This is why local government cuts and threats to hospital services are such toxic issues in Welsh politics.

Plaid leader Leanne Wood’s most eye catching policy in her conference speech was the so-called ‘pop tax’. She said a Plaid Welsh Government would recruit 1,000 more doctors by taking on Coca Cola and putting a 20p per litre levy on obesity-inducing sugary drinks. These doctors would then shore up the A&E and maternity wards being threatened with closure or downgrading by the Welsh Labour Government.

Labour’s sensitivity to such ideas was evidenced earlier this year when their leading lights in the Rhondda – MP Chris Bryant and AM and then Education Minister Leighton Andrews – led protests against their own Government’s proposals to downgrade A&E services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital .

A few weeks later Leighton Andrews protested again, this time against the projected closure of Pentre’s primary school in the Rhondda . On this occasion the perceived inconsistency of an Education Minister opposing the implementation of his own policy led to his resignation.

Such local issues seem destined to frame the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections in marginal seats across Wales. Yet in many cases the outcome will be determined by factors further afield such as whether Labour or Tories are in power at Westminster and the strength of UKIP’s vote.

It will be ironic if, at the end of the day, an indecisive result forces Labour and Plaid into coalition negotiations. At this point they will join hands in a new government, creating an echo of the One Wales coalition that followed the 2007 Assembly elections. And as happened then, one of the new coalition government’s preoccupations will be to force budgetary and constitutional concessions from whatever government happens to be in power at Westminster.

John is Editor of ClickonWales.

 Adam Ramsay: “the independence referendum has entered a new phase"

The SNP conference marked the start of a new phase in the yes campaign. If phase one was to allow the no campaign (self-christened 'project fear') to repeatedly cry wolf until the Scots start to ignore them, then phase two is to set up the battle lines: this is the people of Scotland vs the Westminter elite; left vs right.

To understand this, you are best enjoying SNP leader Alex Salmond and deputy Nicola Sturgeon's speeches, in full. But for the skim readers, consider these quotes:


“Where we have the power we have chosen a different path - a path that reflects Scotland’s social democratic consensus, our shared progressive values - our priorities as a society.”

(on EU co-operation): “We will not allow action on youth unemployment to be restricted by the parochial insularity of Westminster.”

“In the 1990s, the Poll Tax became a symbol of why devolution was necessary. The Bedroom Tax is becoming a symbol of why independence is necessary.”

“The Edinburgh playwright David Greig says the independence debate allows us to explore every aspect of our national life and ask ourselves the question – ‘does it have to be like this?’ I don’t believe it does.”


“It’s called social security. It’s based on the principles of solidarity, togetherness and fairness: paying in and getting something back. Westminster says that it is reforming our system of social security. It isn't. Westminster is destroying our system of social security. Those paying the penalty are the disabled, young people looking for work, the single-parents and families struggling to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads. This isn’t pooling risks. It's pulling the rug from the poorest and most vulnerable.”

This is significant for the yes campaign. The left vote are the key swing constituency. But it is also significant for the left across the rest of the UK.

Consider two things. First, Scotland is not hugely more left wing on most issues than England as a whole, and certainly isn't any more so than many areas of England. Second, the SNP – run by these two people - are two years into their second term of government, and are polling around 40%. Despite the evidence of one by-election, they are still a remarkably popular mid-term government.

The lessons are as follows:

  • - There is such a thing as successful populist centre-left rhetoric in contemporary Britain. The English left could learn from it.

  • - The SNP are now working to make the referendum a clear left/right battle. If they are going to win, this will be how.

  • - Salmond's talk of Westminster's “parochial insularity” is a direct play to the fear of the Euro-referendum and the rise of UKIP. Expect more of this: polls show that if Scots believe the UK will vote out of Europe, the vote for independence from the UK catches up with the vote against.

A final observation. Nicola Sturgeon talked about “Working people” as often as she did “people of Scotland”. When she inevitably replaces Salmond in the top job, Labour will have to face for the first time not just a left wing SNP leader, but one who talks explicitly about class. Their last trick will be gone. 

Adam is co-editor of OurKingdom

Lorcan Mullen: finds little to love in any of Northern Ireland's main parties

In Northern Ireland, the mainstream unionist parties’ attitude reflects both a craven willingness to seek short term advantage through sectarianism and a genuine sympathy with majority rule nostalgia. The misogynist, homophobic, reflexively right-wing DUP only grows more noxious in office. Its pre-eminence in formal politics has gained them a coterie of silver-suited, shiny, more assiduously neoliberal young hacks to blend with their battalions of veteran Neanderthals. Their shamelessness in the face of numerous corruption scandals in housing and planning (party political funding remains entirely secret for ‘security reasons’) is a fine example of the clientelist stasis fomented by power-sharing. The UUP is a paler, more cringingly bourgeois manifestation of all of this. Two sentences flatters them; in a halfway-dynamic political system, they would be defunct.

The ‘non-sectarian’ Alliance and new NI21 parties are blandly neoliberal ciphers of the Greater Belfast bourgeoisie’s snobbish and incurious disengagement from the fundamental problems of the North. They articulate the grimly circumscribed dream that Northern Ireland should have ‘normal politics’.

On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein works earnestly to preserve power-sharing and the peace process but does next to nothing else practical for the communities it represents. They are locked into a system where the DUP holds veto powers. They are easy prey for economic orthodoxy and investment fetishism - ‘look, anything that brings jobs’. They are largely inured to critical thinking by war-bred tendencies to discipline and on-message relativism. They are terrified by the prospect of Tory direct rule, the instant result of any collapse of power-sharing.

This nominally left-wing party, the second largest in the Assembly, avoids major spending departments and poses no serious challenge to what’s coming from Westminster. Their resistance amounts to delay and modest tweaking at best. When challenged, many prominent figures at least show serious shame and discomfort. Unlike many left-wing parties, they remain grounded in marginalised, working-class communities. Efficient, assiduous community casework secures the continued sympathy of many. Clinging to this while ignoring the greater assaults on their heartlands is, of course, extremely disingenuous.

Finally, Sinn Fein must grapple with its ageing leader, Gerry Adams. While many take pleasure in his astonishingly strange twitter account, he has serious questions to answer following the conviction of his brother Liam Adams for child sex abuse. Chronically evasive and bizarre behaviour in this area should be impossible to sustain for the leader of a party also aiming to be a serious left alternative in the South.

The smaller nationalist party, the SDLP, remains an odd, stumbling creature. Nominally social democratic, it is conditioned by an overwhelmingly observant-Catholic bourgeois membership and activist base. Its most capable parliamentarian, Conall McDevitt, has departed politics after revelations that public funds were directed to his wife. Like the UUP, it would struggle to survive in a dynamic political system.

Lorcan is a Northern Irish trades union organiser. A longer version of Lorcan Mullen's piece was published last week under the title “Nothing ever happens in Northern Ireland?”


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