As the Eisteddfod begins TREVOR JONES assesses prospects for change
The past two years have opened up the possibility of transforming the political situation in Wales. But only if the processes set in motion by the European Union referendum of May 2016 and the general election of June 2017 reach a successful conclusion.
The majority of electors in Wales voted to leave the EU by a slightly larger majority than in England or Britain and on a marginally higher turnout.
Eleven of the 40 Welsh constituencies voted to remain in the EU, most of them centred on cities — notably Cardiff and half each of Swansea and Newport — outside the south Wales valleys, together with the three more rural constituencies now held by Plaid Cymru.
The biggest votes to leave were recorded in traditionally Labour-supporting constituencies in northeast Wales and the industrial valleys of the south.
Only five Welsh MPs campaigned for a Leave vote, all of them Tories, showing how out of touch Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru were with the preferences of many of their supporters and of the Welsh people as a whole.
Nevertheless, Welsh Labour increased its share of the vote in the June 2017 general election by 12 points to 49 per cent.
Most of the credit for this advance should go to Jeremy Corbyn, his enthusiastic supporters, Labour’s leadership team and the party’s manifesto policies to end austerity, raise wages, extend public ownership, tax the rich and big business, invest in public services and respect the EU referendum result.
Unfortunately, the Welsh Labour leadership contributed little or nothing to its own advance. It refused to feature Corbyn and many of Labour’s policies in its unambitious and timid campaigning. Along with some Welsh Labour MPs, it failed to take a clear position to respect the EU vote of the Welsh people.
Furthermore, the Welsh Labour leaders adopted a defeatist policy not to campaign in Tory-held constituencies. Instead, they circled their wagons around Labour’s own seats, which the media had claimed would be under threat from the Tories and Ukip. Fortunately, plenty of trade unionists, Welsh Labour Grassroots and other activists were prepared to fight for every seat, helping Labour to win Cardiff North, Gower and Brecon & Radnor from the Tories.
It is now vital that the labour movement in Wales learn the lessons from the past two years.
Clarity, boldness and mass activity can change people’s minds and actions. The right-wing and ruling class mass media can be overcome. The working class, its trade unions and its Labour and Communist parties can play the leading role in bringing about political change.
In Wales, apart from the Tories and Ukip, only the Communist Party and some other small socialist parties opposed the EU in the referendum campaign, alongside three trade unions and some Labour dissidents.
Through Lexit: the Left Leave Campaign, Communists helped ensure that that the working class, left and internationalist case against EU membership was put at public meetings (including at the Wales TUC conference), in the media, through leafleting and in debates in the labour and progressive movements.
We did not accept that a Remain vote was inevitable, or that a Leave victory would hugely strengthen the Tory right and Ukip at the expense of Labour and the working-class movement.
We argued that a Leave vote would represent a defeat for the Tory government and a setback for big business and the ruling class.
So it proved, although the labour movement has failed to capitalise fully on the aftermath as some Welsh Labour MPs and other pro-EU elements still seek to undermine Corbyn as Labour Party leader. They are determined to tie Wales and Britain to the European Single Market or Customs Union if they cannot sabotage the referendum result altogether.
This makes it vital to continue the battle of ideas about the class character of the EU, its treaties, institutions and European Single Market rules.
The labour movement must be won to understand that tariff-free access to the European Single Market should not be negotiated at any price, whether an exorbitant financial settlement or continuing acceptance of “free movement” rules or the jurisdiction of the anti-worker, anti-trade union EU Court of Justice.
Democratically elected governments must be free to control the movement of capital, regulate trade, raise and invest funds in public-sector industries and services, reform or abolish VAT and prevent the super-exploitation of migrant workers.
In Wales, for example, there should be no EU ban on emergency measures to maintain strategic industries such as steel, whether through renationalisation, state subsidies or import controls.
Local authorities and other public-sector bodies should be free to insist upon contract compliance measures that promote trade union membership and recognition, facility time, job creation, research and development, equal pay and opportunities, training and apprenticeships, disability access, pensions, use of local resources, etc.
Regional development policies which seek to direct industrial and office development into areas that need them most must once again become options available to Welsh and British governments.
In Wales, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy could mean more measures to assist small family, dairy, sheep and hill farms rather than making excessive payments to big landowners, cereal farmers and agribusiness. A new fishing regime could help revive the industry and small ports and harbours alongside the Irish and Celtic seas and Bristol Channel.
In these and other fields, the case must be put even more intensively for a “people’s exit” from the EU, for a settlement and new arrangements which benefit workers and their families in Wales, rather than the interests of monopoly capital.
Within Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, trades unions and People’s Assembly groups, there are plenty of socialists and progressives who support such an exit. The Welsh Communist Party will be approaching them to consider what united campaigning might be possible.
In the meantime, the fight against austerity and privatisation must continue. This will have to include opposing Welsh government plans to consider awarding the Wales and the Borders train franchise to a privatised operating company — against previous pledges to place it in public ownership — and to commission a privately owned railway station to the east of Cardiff.
As the lowest paid nation and region of Britain, Wales needs a pay rise. Welsh Communists will play their full part in mobilising the trade union movement for a militant movement to fight low pay and extend collective bargaining. This would be strengthened by building a genuinely non-sectarian broad left alliance in the Welsh labour movement.
Wales and CND Cymru must also continue to play a prominent part in the campaign against renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system and any Welsh involvement in it.
On all these fronts, the Welsh Communist Party puts forward its own positive perspectives and alternatives in its programme Real Power for the People of Wales. These proposals include:
- A real “people’s parliament” for Wales with wider legislative and supplementary financial powers, voting rights at 16 and the right to set sectorial minimum wages.
- An Economic Plan for Wales, backed by a Welsh National Economic Development Authority and a Welsh National Investment Bank.
- A Welsh Energy Strategy to develop solar, wind, thermal and tidal energy resources under democratic, co-operative and local control.
- An ambitious plan to promote the Welsh language beyond the Welsh government’s welcome target of achieving one million Welsh-speakers by 2050, so that Welsh becomes a majority language in Wales once again, alongside English.
In our view, Wales and Britain must move towards a fully federal system. In place of the House of Lords, there should be a federal chamber where the representatives from England, Scotland and Wales have equal national status, in which all proposals for Britain as a whole must receive the support of a majority from each nation.
This should be combined with a constitutional duty upon the federal chamber to enact measures that redistribute wealth and public funds to the working class and people in all the nations and regions of Britain, thereby counteracting the huge concentration of wealth in the hands of a small super-rich minority in the south-east of England.
In this way, federalism would differentiate itself from the separatism that would deny the people of Wales and Scotland access to the wealth that they have created over successive generations — and from the “independence” that would still mean rule by the Bank of England, the British monarchy, the EU and Nato.
Trevor Jones is the secretary of the Welsh Communist Party