Felipe Araujo
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View from Bridgend: why a Welsh town is considering "anyone but Labour"

MPs have proved ineffective against the tides of globalisation and post-industrialisation. 

Walk around Bridgend town centre and one could be forgiven for not knowing local elections are just a few hours away. That alone is not news. Voter apathy has been a feature of UK politics for a while, and in this part of the country it’s no different. “Things never change no matter who’s in charge,” says one local. 

Except these are not your normal times. In recent decades Labour has ruled supreme in this sleepy town in South Wales. But in 2015, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon won the parliamentary constituency with a majority of less than 2,000. Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is popular with members but unpopular with voters at large. As Bob Dylan would say: "The Times They Are A Changin’" , and the Tories know it. 

That means little to Hailey Townsend. The 33-year-old Labour councillor is running for re-election in the Brackla ward. The Tories are interested in this ward too - on 25 April the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May made a surprise appearance in the hopes of galvanising a disenchanted electorate.

“I don’t really care about what the polls are saying," she says. "The polls told us we would be remaining in Europe and the UK voted to leave, the polls told us Ed Miliband would be our next Prime Minister and he is not.” 

Word on the street, though, is that Labour is no longer trusted to lead the way, even in a place still reeling by years of austerity measures spearheaded by the Conservatives.  

“Anything but Labour,” a passerby tells me when I approach him on the high street. “Corbyn can't be trusted.”

This is not just unfiltered anger fuelled by sensationalist newspaper headlines. People here have experienced the worst side of globalisation and the ineffectiveness of their elected leaders in protecting them.

Between 2005 and 2006, hundreds of people lost their jobs after Sony shut down its local plant. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, which decimated the once vibrant furniture industry. Fast forward to today and Bridgend’s economy is on its knees. The rows of boarded up shops on the high street are a painful reminder of a bygone era.

“If you want to see what Bridgend is all about go and spend a day outside the bus station,” I am advised by a local. “It’s all about drugs and alcohol.”

This used to be coal country. “The best coal in the world used to come from these surrounding valleys,” my taxi driver, an ex-coal miner, told me. “I haven’t been able to find a better job since.” And yet, when asked about how he intended to vote at today’s local elections, he was sure of only one thing. “I’m not voting Labour.”

During my two-day stay in the city it is hard to find people willing to talk politics, until I meet Peter Foley and his friend, Howard Lewis, at the local Wetherspoon pub. At 71, Foley, a retired school governor, is running as an independent for a seat at the local council. Lewis, 80, is still an active member of the Labour party. Both men have dedicated their lives to grassroots politics, but today they see a Labour party happy to compromise its identity and core beliefs for the sake of power.

“I find it hard to detect left-wing socialism in the Labour party in Wales,” Foley tells me when we sat in his living room, where I am given coffee served in a Che Guevara mug. 

The retired teacher is unapologetically left-wing and if one is in any doubt of where he stands politically, all it takes is a look around his home: the carpet, the walls, the upstairs bedroom. Everything comes in red.

Contrary to popular belief, the pair don’t think Jeremy Corbyn, who is “saying things that should have been said a long time ago,” is to blame for Labour’s current turmoil.

“We are now in a time of career politicians, where they can see the advantages of being in Westminster,” Lewis says. “Whereas years ago there were far more people that were committed to bring about change, dramatic socialist changes, and I think Jeremy Corbyn reflects that.”

And then there is the word on everyone’s lips: Brexit. Wales voted to leave but Labour, which in Bridgend alone has been in power for the last 30 years, wanted to remain. In the eyes of many here, the campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum which Townsend describes “as the most divisive campaign she has ever been involved in”, was all about one thing.

“That campaign wasn’t about austerity, it was all about immigration and controlled immigration and that’s what we were getting on the doorstep," he says. "David Cameron played a clever game in saying he would bring a referendum forward because a lot of people out there are concerned about immigration.”

But as bleak as the immediate future might look for Welsh Labour, Foley believes the party can  still be a force to be reckoned with if it manages to steer the ship and go back to its roots. 

“The struggle needs to be pretty vigorous,” he tells me. “It has got to be mounted through trade unions, and if the Labour Party part doesn’t latch on to that genuine popular feeling, it will be marginalised because it is too centrist. It needs to commit itself to the people who I represent, who are desperately, desperately poor.” 

 

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

Photo: Getty
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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia