Forward Wales: five ways Welsh progressives need to take back control

The fallout from Brexit is an existential crisis for the future of devolution and Wales’ so-called ‘progressive’ identity.

Paul Atkins Sam Coates
6 October 2016

The Welsh Assembly, by eNil, Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of the 24th June 2016 the wound inflicted on Welsh progressives was doubly sore.

Despite a legacy of industrial decline, in the post-devolution era Wales had sought to forge a new path, eschewing the public sector reforms of the New Labour period and managing to curtail the worst excesses of Tory cuts. The struggle to access EU funding was the defining issue in the early days of the Welsh Assembly and the eventual funds were used to pour money into much needed social programmes and infrastructure projects. 

Although we were always to some extent eclipsed by our more rebellious (and self-assured) Scottish neighbours, we made much of our apparently outward looking civic nationalism, a patriotism based not on race but on comradeship, community and belonging. Whilst there has always been some truth to such claims, this was always based on a romanticised, often rose-tinted view of our industrial past. To those familiar with the devastating impact of industrial decline in the parts of Wales most eulogised by the defenders of civic nationalism, the unprecedented breakthrough of UKIP in the 2016 Assembly elections came as no surprise. 

Suffice to say, the news that the majority of the Welsh electorate had voted to the leave the EU, sent shock waves through the hearts of anybody who considered themselves a 'progressive' or any such deviation of the term – 'socialist', 'leftist' or 'social democrat'. For many the EU – despite its many faults – became symbolic of the internationalist cause, a rallying cry for a working-class culture that had sadly eroded long before the construction of the Senedd. 

How could Wales – a net beneficiary of the EU – vote so overwhelming for its overthrow? As Richard Wyn Jones wrote a few days later “Turkeys it seems do vote for Christmas – at least if they are Welsh”.

In the wake of Brexit and with the possible secession of Scotland, the very existence of the UK as we know it is deeply uncertain. For Wales there are two distinct futures. One possibility is that we grow ever closer to England, become a sort of super-metro region with devolved powers, but effectively still in the political and culture sphere of influence of Westminster and London. The other option is that we seek to build a progressive society in which we implement in practice the ideals we have become so good at giving lip service to.

We should be under no illusion of the enormity of the task. We are not Scotland – in so many important ways our economic and civic institutions are underdeveloped and building the necessary civic infrastructure needed for change will be no mean feat. Make no mistake, this is a colossal national project and progressives of all stripes will have to put aside entrenched tribal differences or risk defeat at the hands of a resurgent populist right.

Across Wales, voters have become disillusioned, they desperately want to feel included in the decision making process. It's not surprising that one of the most devastatingly effective arguments made by the Leave camp, was the need to 'take back control'. Following in this frame, Welsh progressives should examine carefully the experiences of our Scottish counterparts and seek to regain the political agenda. 

The following is not an exhaustive list of solutions, but merely a few suggestions about some of the places we could start.

1) Reversing the disastrous decline in Welsh local media

Depending on how you square it, Cardiff can make a decent claim to be the UK's biggest media centre outside of London. Despite this, bemoaning the decline of local media in Wales has become something of a national sport for politicians and the chattering classes, but so far very little has been done to address the issue.

At the centre of the problem is the nation's over reliance on a London-centric English media. Polling by the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University has shown that only 61% of respondents knew that the Welsh Government was responsible for education in Wales and even less, 48%, knew the Welsh Government was responsible for the NHS. 

This is not that surprising when you consider the shocking lack of coverage given to the Assembly. Declining newspaper sales has exacerbated this trend – the only organisation to have a full time correspondent in the Senedd is Golwg, a Welsh language current affairs magazine that virtually no-one outside the Cardiff Bay bubble has heard of.

Trinity Mirror dominates the local newspaper scene in Wales, and owns the Western Mail, the closest thing we have to a national newspaper. Its online presence WalesOnline is a fairly formidable player, however there is a notable lack of the kind of in depth coverage of the sort found in the Scotsman, Daily Record or The Herald.

Broadcast media has an incredibly important function in Wales. The vast majority of English speakers in Wales get most of their Welsh news from BBC Wales. This is an incredibly  important resource but one that is constantly under-threat from extinction. Meanwhile since HTV Wales became ITV Wales in 2002, coverage of distinctly Welsh issues outside of local news bulletins have become increasingly rare and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. 

S4C is undoubtedly a huge national asset, the best analysis of current affairs is often done by Welsh language programmes such as CF99, unfortunately  this is totally unaccessible to the people who most need to be engaged in the national debate.

There are a number of things which could be done at a government level, giving the Welsh government more power over media could open up many interesting opportunities, particularly in the broadcast sector. On the other-hand the time for trying to establish new newspapers is probably over – it’s time to build a serious online alternative media along the lines Scotland's Bella Calledonia and The National. It's important to recognize that new digital content platforms can become important and influential players in a relatively short about of time. 

Representation is about much more than news and current affairs. The Welsh television sector has been instrumental in holding up a mirror to the nation with international hits such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Gavin and Stacey, not to mention recent additions such as the ambitious Hinterland. We should never under-estimate the role of creatives in shaping the national debate.  

2) A long (ish) march through the institutions. Set up some truly independent civic institutions

Welsh civil society has historically been pretty weak. This is perhaps a function of a century of economic centralisation and the dominance of the Labour party. Traditionally if you wanted to get on in Welsh politics then Labour was the only game in town. No matter what your views on the relative merits of Welsh Labour, most reasonable people would agree that the dominance of the party in so many parts of civic life is an unhealthy relic of its historic hegemony.

Despite being widely mocked, think tanks serve an important function in helping governments form policy. They do this either by advocating for specific proposals or conducting research that helps ministers come at problems from a radically different perspective to those presented by their party advisers and civil servants. Wales has surprisingly few such institutions, the most influential of these is the Institute for Welsh Affairs, although important to the national debate, its reputation as the Welsh think tank has meant it has functioned largely as an ideas smorgasbord, reinforcing the managerial focus of Welsh politics, rather than acting as an agent of progressive change.

Then there’s the Bevan Foundation. It’s unashamedly progressive, and the only organisation really trying to signpost the way for politicians rather than being indivisible from the Senedd corridors. Though it remains small and is again aimed at influencing politics with an insider strategy, rather than organising communities to demand change.

Adam Ramsay has often said that whilst the English left spent the last century running around getting lost in the corridors of Westminster, the Scottish left was quietly building the civic institutions that gave the independence movement the infrastructure it needed to become a mass movement so quickly. We do not currently have anything that resembles the Jimmy Reid Foundation or Common Weal, but we desperately need it if we are to conceive of a progressive Wales that goes beyond the Labour party’s limited field of vision.

3) Disentangle the cause from the Welsh language

The Welsh language is a massively important part of Welsh culture. Unfortunately the world of Eisteddfodau and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg is a million miles away from the Wales that people in Merthyr Tydful identify with.

And this is why Plaid Cymru cannot be – certainly not in the near future – the only rallying point for the new politics we need to create. If they were to be successful in emulating the success of their sister party in Scotland, Plaid would need to grow its base substantially  beyond their historic heartlands in Caernarfon and Pwllheli. Regardless of their intentions, Plaid has become (at least in the eyes of most of the electorate) not so much the party of Wales as the party of Welsh speakers.

Plaid Cymru's pro-independence line is also wildly out of sync with that of the electorate. In the wake of the Brexit vote, Welsh nationalists staged a number of small pro-independence rallies in Aberystwyth, Conwy and Cardiff. This rather puts the cart before the horse and emphases the chasm opening up between Welsh nationalists and the 53% of the Welsh electorate which voted for Brexit.

Defending Welsh speaking communities in the north and west of Wales is hugely important, but the movements that have sustained them are simply not capable of building the much broader identity needed to steer Wales in the direction we need.

4) Grassroots organising to save Welsh communatarianism

Back in their industrial prime, areas like the South Wales Valleys were working models of a successful proletarian culture. A camaraderie forged underground in the dangerous, often deadly mining collieries gave birth to a rich culture of mass worker education and collectivist communities. The politicians that came up from these communities, were pragmatic, practical radicals who took on the establishment and won. 

This strong community spirit still exists in a lot of Wales, but as society becomes more atomised and the memory of the industries that sustained it fade, we are at risk of losing something very special and crucial for delivering progressive change. There are warning signs already, such as the so far ephemeral “Welsh Resistance” anti-refugee and Islamaphobic group.

We need to re-mobilise our communities, not least since it’s the only way to sustain the kind of shift in politics we are discussing. Whilst we don’t yet have an independence campaign to get behind, we need to start knocking on doors, bringing people into rooms together to talk about what’s affecting their lives, communities, and how it needs to change. This won't change the macroeconomic forces shaping people’s circumstances, but it can provide a basis for action, resistance and political education. With levels of poverty as they are in some parts of Wales (some have been in permanent depression since the 1930s), we also need to look towards the Greek solidarity movement and Syriza’s crucial role in mobilizing the poorest parts of the electorate to action . It’s time to flex those solidarity synapses again.

5) Wales needs a progressive outlet for anti-establishment feeling

One of the most interesting things about the referendum result in Wales was the additional axis that influenced how people voted. Cosmopolitan Cardiff and it’s affluent hinterland voted Remain. As did well-heeled (and ever so slightly English looking) Monmouthshire, but so did most of Plaid Cymru’s western heartland.

Ceredigion and Gwynedd, are easily as deprived as many of the counties that voted Leave. The difference is in these areas there has existed a progressive outlet for people’s alienation from neo-liberalism in the form of Plaid Cymru. In this region the dynamic is strikingly  similar to Scotland, where people who would have voted Leave in England voted to stay, having expressed their political control through voting SNP.

Wales briefly had a taste of this in the first Assembly elections in 1999, where Plaid snatched several of Labour’s valleys strongholds and actually did better than the SNP that year. Turning that moment into a longer term project wasn’t to be, with Welsh Labour managing to hit the reset button in 2003.

Just as in England, communities across Wales have been devastated by neo-liberalism and may people feel that the Welsh Government has made little difference to their lives. This is not a story unique to Wales; politicians everywhere would do well to understand that the electorate base their vote on the overall 'temperature' of the economy. Too cold and no amount of promises to adjust the thermostat slowly, after a careful consideration of all the options will cut mustard. At sub-zero temperatures politics ceases to function. The voters at some point will scream 'turn up the damn heating' and they will be right!

Unfortunately UKIP is as much the vehicle for this kind of alienation as anywhere in England. Progressives may sneer at what are undoubtedly a fairly undisciplined, ragtag bunch of carpetbaggers, but this rather misses the point, people were voting to send a message. 

So, Welsh progressives urgently need to start building an alternative outlet for this feeling. This doesn’t need to be a political party, it doesn’t need to push people towards independence right now, but we do need a way for people to express their anger and hurt at the tragic injustices suffered at the hands of a cruel and rigid economic dogma. We also need an added ingredient, hope. Hope for the possibility of a new Wales, based not on the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, but in the progressive values we have always claimed to be central to our identity.

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