The unthinkable alliance with Plaid

Despite the spectre of nationalists holding power in both Wales and Scotland we should not recoil fr

A week ago, after much debate, Labour Party members in Wales voted to go into coalition in the National Assembly with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists. So, how did this previously unthinkable alliance come about, and what does it mean for Wales’ place in the United Kingdom?

The situation the Assembly Members found themselves in was produced by the Assembly’s unusual electoral system. Despite winning by far the largest number of votes and seats, Labour were left four seats short of a majority, with the three opposition parties threatening to band together in a coalition of the unprincipled.

While Rhodri Morgan faced an undeniable mathematical dilemma, I disagreed with the proposal to share power with the Nationalists. For me, the conflict of ideology with Plaid - our vastly differing ambitions for Wales - meant that I did not favour the coalition.

Labour should always prioritise the public services that people care about, and the fight for social justice that changes lives. I felt that an alliance with Plaid Cymru, with their fixation about constitutional issues, endangered that. However, now that the Party has spoken, Rhodri has my support in what is bound to be an interesting few years.

One issue that came up on the fringes of this debate, and will need to be addressed in the future, is the role of Welsh MPs in this new context. Some people questioned the right of Members of Parliament to contribute to the debate on the coalition. ‘MPs should keep their attentions on Westminster and stay off the thorny areas of internal Welsh politics’, they said. But, even leaving aside the fact that many issues in the ‘One Wales’ document directly involve MPs, this position is both wrong and counter-productive for Wales.

Welsh Labour has, and always should, make the argument that Wales works best with AMs and MPs co-operating, working in partnership. A fellow Welsh MP, Chris Bryant, recently made the suggestion that practical steps should be taken to strengthen this relationship and help give us a better understanding of the situations and pressures each other face. Labour AMs and MPs should meet jointly more often, for example, especially when specific issues can be better addressed through working together. This is something I endorse; not because of any wish to direct operations from Westminster, but because a stronger partnership would be beneficial for Wales.

During the wider media debate, I was also puzzled to hear mentions of a ‘unionist wing’ of Welsh Labour. The Labour Party, in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is a ‘unionist’ party. We believe that, through being part of the Union, Wales benefits greatly – as the Union benefits from the presence of Wales. On the contrary, Plaid Cymru is the party that truly has a division between ‘unionists’ who want to stay part of the UK, and those who will publicly admit to their obsession with independence.

What’s more, polls consistently show that a huge majority of Welsh people don’t want independence. Not because they ‘lack self-confidence’, but because they can see the logic and good sense of working together within the U.K. for the benefit of Wales. They are proud to be Welsh and British and reject the attempts of nationalism to drive a wedge between the two. That’s why I welcome Gordon Brown’s proposal to fly the Union Flag from public buildings – we should be proud to fly both the British and Welsh flags, and show confidence and pride in our dual identity.

In 1997, we argued that devolution would strengthen, not weaken, the Union. Despite the spectre of nationalists holding power in both Wales and Scotland, we should not recoil from that argument now.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times