Around Britain

Road to Nowhere

Nick Davies, Swansea West CLP, criticises Keir Starmer’s Road Ahead for Wales.

Those in Wales who took the trouble to read Keir Starmer’s catchily titled ‘The Road Ahead’, (not, it must be said, a significant cohort), noted only one mention of Wales among 11,500 words. They were right to be annoyed, but they shouldn’t be surprised. Peter Mandelson is newly reinstalled as Starmer’s consigliere. New Labour control freaks never liked devolution much.

More important is the threat of a good example posed by Wales and Welsh Labour. New Labour Revisited has abandoned the economic radicalism of the 2017 manifesto, lurching to the right and adopting  flags-and-crowns UK patriotism to win back ‘red wall’ voters – Hartlepool told us how well that’s going. Welsh Labour, on the other hand has eschewed academy schools and the NHS internal market, all from the New Labour playbook, ended council house sales and prescription charges, and been continuously in power since 1999.

When Covid-19 struck, despite Boris Johnson’s lethal incompetence Starmer could barely lay a glove on him. Mark Drakeford’s commitment to public health over private profit was rewarded with Welsh Labour’s joint best election result ever and, to cap it all, he got the Blairites into full pearl-clutching mode by speaking at ‘The World Transformed’ alongside the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Loach.

Faced with the assault by Boris Johnson’s muscular unionism on Welsh devolution and thus, Welsh Labour, Starmer has demonstrated a spectacular tin ear by denouncing the ‘multi-headed hydra of nationalism’. His  argument that Labour should be ‘proudly patriotic’  but should ‘reject the divisiveness of nationalism’ suggests that he does not understand what is taking place either in Scotland, where the Blairites have reduced Scottish Labour to an unelectable husk, or Wales, where Labour has entered into a Senedd co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru.

In the past, Labour has entered into formal agreements with both Plaid and Lib-Dems, either confidence and supply agreements or one-off agreements to pass specific legislation, notably budgets. The nature of this ‘co-operation’ has not been elaborated other than to say that the parties are ‘exploring ways of building a more equal, just and democratic nation for all.’ However, informed speculation says that this is to strengthen Wales position vis a vis England; in particular, creating the ‘super-majority’ of 40 which would be necessary to increase the size of the Senedd, potentially to 90 members, as a counterweight to the Tories’ proposals to reduce the number of Welsh Westminster seats, a measure which will increase the existing democratic deficit summed up as ‘Wales Votes Labour but gets the Tories’.

But why stop at this? Why not use the ‘super majority’ or, eventually, the enlarged Senedd, to deal with Wales’ housing crisis? Young people in Welsh speaking communities are living in caravans, priced out of local homes by second-home owners from England, a crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 (if you don’t have to work in an office, why work in a city at all? Into the bargain, you can change the name of the house from ‘Golwg y Mor’ to ‘Seaview’).

Why not fix Wales’ social care system? Why not press for the devolution of criminal justice and social security? The assumption here is that these are worth fighting for because they can be done better in Wales by a Welsh democracy than being done to Wales by a semi-feudal, hostile institution which barely gives Wales a second thought other than to express its contempt.

The ever-widening policy divergence and the appalling events at the Brighton conference (although Welsh Labour’s own internal culture is far from perfect) have led to moves for Welsh Labour to separate from UK Labour. Mark Drakeford remains a Unionist, albeit a frustrated one, but party independence, an extension of devolution and the existential crisis besetting the UK leads ineluctably on to the conversation about independence, much wider and much livelier since 2019.

The more the Johnson government’s incompetence and arrogance reveals itself the more apparent it becomes that dependence on Westminster only keeps Wales poor and subservient, distorting its economy. The sense is that Tory and Labour unionists, such as Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty (who in his long career has changed his position on every question except Wales’ right to govern itself) are getting increasingly defensive. Their narrative, long-dominant, that Wales is too poor, too small and too stupid to govern itself, is now being openly and widely challenged. Those who oppose independence are having to say why. While support for independence may still be a minority cause, it has visibly entered the political bloodstream.

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