Most political pundits ignore local politics, feeling it a boring, bureaucratic irrelevance when compared to the real seat of power and influence. Local politics conjures up images of old women arguing over hedges and dog fouling, or Steve Coogan’s character in In The Loop, a bizarre individual obsessed with a collapsing wall as the UK is on the brink of war.
Yet so much of our everyday lives- from roads, to bin collections, to planning for housing- are run by local authorities: by your neighbours and people you know, not by MPs. And because it is so tangible, the local often matters to people in a way that bigger, macro- level issues may not: litter is annoying, parking tickets are annoying, traffic is annoying, dog fouling is annoying, collapsing walls are annoying.
Local politics are particularly important in Wales, a country which is intensely parochial in the truest sense of the word. Wales is different from the rest of the UK in two key ways when it comes to local politics. Firstly, compared to the rest of the UK, Wales is far less urbanized and has a higher proportion of smaller towns and villages. Many of these towns and villages are also relatively isolated because of Wales’ appalling transport infrastructure, and in many towns – particularly in the South – there is little migration in or out. This lack of mobility means that the local community becomes very important to people, and can be very influential in moulding people’s beliefs. The second distinct feature is the hegemonic dominance of the Labour party in Wales for over a century. This has produced sprawling local dynasties and a deep rooted local party apparatus which penetrates local civil society in a way which is not found anywhere else in the UK.
Whilst Welsh local politics occasionally displays a touch of Steve Coogan – witness Wayne David stealing signs out of people’s gardens far more often it is heated, intensely personal and bad tempered.
Mike Parker and the local hegemonic apparatus
Mike Parker’s excellent book ‘The Greasy Pole’ finally chronicled the more poisonous and disturbing side of Welsh local politics that most of us are aware of but which is rarely made public. Running as a Plaid Cymru candidate in Ceredigion – a county which has historically been dominated by the Lib Dems – Parker was the victim of a frighteningly well organized smear campaign orchestrated by the local Lib Dem party, operating through its proxy, the Cambrian News newspaper.
Parker’s book details just how influential the local level is, particularly for older people who still relish local debates in town halls, who still read the local newspapers. Like Cihan Tugal’s masterful study of the rise of the AKP in Turkey Parker demonstrates how hegemony – commonly understood as a macro level phenomenon – is also actively constructed at the local level. Local political control is buttressed by dense networks of support throughout local civil society – the ‘fortresses and earthworks’ that Gramsci speaks of are local ‘non political’ pressure groups, the local press, the local Union branch, and so on.
In Wales, Labour in particular are adept at mobilizing their local apparatuses to destroy their rivals, witness Unison Carmarthen’s impartial advice to members:
This is not to deny the influence of macro level forces – of course the national media influences people’s opinions. It is simply to say that people also understand politics through the local level, through their community. They understand and interpret political parties through local candidates. They may not vote for a certain party because they don’t like the local person who represents them. Crucially, local candidates and activists are often very influential in ‘explaining’ policies to people, even if this involves smearing and fear mongering.
Observe, for example, a Labour activist in North Wales collaring vulnerable people outside a hospital to campaign against Plaid’s proposed ‘cuts to the NHS’.
This is why we must pay close attention to the behaviour and conduct of the local faces of the state and of political parties – the local community remains a crucial scale for engaging people in politics and ultimately in determining the politics we want and the type of society we want to live in. There is little point cleaning up politics and trying to restore faith in politicians at the national level if local politics remains rotten and partisan.
The latest episode to grab headlines in Wales is in the Carmarthenshire village of Llangennech in Llanelli, (importantly, a Labour Assembly constituency which is hotly contested by Plaid). Over the last year, an extremely bitter dispute has broken out over the decision by Plaid Cymru led Carmarthenshire council to get rid of the English medium stream in Llangennech Primary School and formalize Welsh as the main medium of instruction. This policy is entirely in keeping with the Welsh Labour Government’s Welsh Language strategy. Indeed, Carmarthenshire’s own school language policy was put in place by Labour. This decision prompted the establishment of a ‘concerned parents’ group’ who protested against the change to Welsh medium. This ‘non-political’ group was heavily backed by local Labour party activists. You can read about the dispute in great detail elsewhere – but basically the campaign got way out of hand. As well as playing on some unfortunate tropes about the Welsh language the campaign has utilized extremely inflammatory language and claims about ‘segregation’ and ‘apartheid’ ‘forcing English medium children out’, and so on.
The campaign against Welsh medium education has recently come unstuck after the troubling views of some of the parents involved were exposed; and after the Labour activists behind the campaign decided to rope in UKIP to help their cause.
A toxic legacy
It is hard to overstate the significance of this dispute and how damaging it is to Wales as a society. Deep seated prejudices against the Welsh language (which many people thought had been laid to rest with devolution) have reared their head again, perhaps emboldened by Brexit and the rise of UKIP. A community has been divided, Welsh speakers and English speakers have been pitched against each other in a manner that is probably unprecedented, certainly in post-devolution Wales. Inevitably, these local divisions have begun to flow upstream, threatening to infect the whole nation. This rift may take a very long time to heal.
The animosity this campaign has cultivated is utterly debilitating to Wales’ political culture and fledgling democracy. It has completely undermined everything that post-devolution Wales was meant to be about. An inclusive, tolerant, bilingual nation. So much for that.
Why would people engage with politics when it is this poisonous and intimidating? How are politicians meant to work with each other under these circumstances? If you ever want to know why the ‘progressive alliance’ will never work, look to places like Llangennech.
Learning the lessons of Llangennech: Leadership, watchdogs and press scrutiny
Whilst one of the Labour members/’concerned parents’ has now belatedly been disciplined for sharing EDL memes the local Labour party leadership must shoulder their share of the blame. They should have been horrified by this campaign. They should have shown leadership and nipped the campaign in the bud at the start, or at the very least reigned in the activists involved in the dispute and told them to adjust the tone of the campaign. Or maybe they should have intervened when the campaign formed an alliance with UKIP.
Instead, they did nothing.
The most obvious reason for this is that they may have calculated that the campaign would end up discrediting Plaid and therefore benefiting Labour as planned. Who cares if a community is destroyed if we win, right? Politicians, even well-meaning ones (and it has to be said that Lee Waters and Nia Griffiths, for local AM and MP respectively, are fairly progressive people), will naturally be reluctant to discipline or confront experienced local organizers, who they depend upon to do all their campaigning and indeed do most of the unglamorous and dirty work for the party. That these people may hold extreme views or harbour deep seated grudges can be overlooked because they are ultimately the ones who put the work in at the coalface.
Whilst Llangennech represents a new low point, poisonous, disingenuous and intimidatory ‘campaigning’ routinely happens all over Wales, as does corruption. In many ways Llangennech was a long time coming. If we were to be more charitable to Lee Waters and Nia Griffith, maybe they were prevented from acting by the depressing normalization of this sort of behaviour in Wales.
They were also not helped by the absence of any structural constraints on behaviour like this. It is clear that we desperately need stricter codes of conduct around political campaigning and behaviour that politicians can rely upon to back them up when dealing with out of control local elements. Parties must be made to take practical steps to keep local attack dogs on shorter leashes. If these structures are put in place, perhaps Wales can one day become the non-partisan democracy that devolution was meant to create.
The other issue that must be addressed is the media. Llangennech has been bubbling away for a year, yet the BBC has only sporadically reported on it. It has instead been left to outstanding local bloggers to force the Welsh press to get involved. They, not the ‘official’ media, have exposed the Labour-UKIP alliance, the troubling views of some of the people involved in the campaign, and Labour’s hypocritical stance on the Welsh language. In doing so, they have helped put an end to the dispute, which should now be suspended by Labour in their attempt to avoid more bad publicity.
The hollowing out of the local press and the BBC’s reluctance to report on local issues, has effectively removed any scrutiny of the local level. Local politicians and activists frequently wield significant influence and power with no accountability. This vacuum directly contributes to developments like Llangennech and must be fixed if we are to avoid similar episodes in the future.