We Still Live in Labour Country

by Daryl Leeworthy

In the second feature in a series of in-depth opinion pieces on Wales’ major parties, historian Daryl Leeworthy draws on Labour’s early twentieth-century achievements in Wales to detail a vision for a new ‘future generations’ administration, and the obstacles that need to be overcome, following the Welsh Labour election victory – a now-rare triumph for a social democratic party in Europe.

Mark Drakeford and Boris Johnson © 10 Downing Street Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

Mark Drakeford and Boris Johnson © 10 Downing Street Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0 https://bit.ly/37gdocs

Labour is the true ‘party of Wales’. Indeed, it is the most successful political party in Welsh history and has dominated politics for nearly twice as long as the Liberal Party in its heyday between the 1860s and the First World War – a time when Wales was not yet a democracy. Unlike its chief opponents, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, the Labour Party does not have to prove its Welshness or that its brand of Welsh identity has a universal appeal. That is apparent enough.

Of course, there have been occasional challenges to Labour’s dominance, not least in 1983 and 2019, when the party’s position at the top of the electoral league table appeared in doubt, thanks in part to the spreadsheets and line graphs of pollsters, but the facts speak for themselves. Labour has won an absolute majority of Welsh seats in parliament since the general election of 1922 and, since the advent of devolution in 1999, has always been in government in the Senedd. If Wales is, by conviction, a social democratic country, then it is, in large part, because of Labour’s inherent strengths, its relationship with the electorate, and the consequences of both for policy development, legislative programming, and governance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us much about the potential of devolved government and about the extent to which ministers in Cardiff Bay can intervene in the lives of ordinary citizens, when called upon to do so. In my view, it has also illustrated the maturity of Welsh Labour as a party of government. No-one imagined, even a few years ago, that Cardiff – not London – would rule on whether shops could open, or whether residents in one county could cross into another, let alone that the Welsh Government would be able to deliver a mass vaccination programme at a speed almost unmatched internationally. We no longer need to use our collective imagination. We know precisely how far the Senedd can go, should it wish to do so, and not just in an emergency.

Victory at the 2021 Senedd elections has gifted Welsh Labour a remarkable opportunity to use the experiences of the past year and a half, and the knowledge of what the Senedd can achieve, to renew the social democratic contract between people and parliament, and to govern as a ‘Future Generations’ administration. This would not be the first time in its history that Labour has sat at this crossroads. When it came to power at the local level in large parts of Wales in the 1920s and 1930s, choices had to be made about the delivery of infrastructure, provision of services, renewal of communities, and how to manage the consequences of economic collapse created elsewhere. How far could the party use its local authority in defiance of a hostile Conservative government in London which held many of the purse strings and claimed absolute authority of power, for example.

When Labour subsequently won a parliamentary majority in 1945, similar questions about legislating for the future came to the fore. As they would again in 1964 and in 1997. We are all familiar with the answers, even if we argue over their meaning or their radicalism: the National Health Service, the Open University, devolution, expansion of further and higher education, and the liberalisation of society through reforms which removed (some of the) discrimination against women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a historian, I have always been interested in the reasons for Labour’s success as a political party and what that means for the people of Wales, for our close relationship with other parts of Britain, and the development of communities with which we feel a close connection – our cynefin. The reasons are various: political and economic, social and cultural, even intellectual. The consequences are no less so. One relevant conclusion to draw, especially considering recent political developments elsewhere, is that Wales is the last part of Britain to retain a twentieth-century political structure, and this ensures that Labour remains the largest party here. Scotland has moved on to a politics in which the central dynamic is between nation and union, a situation rather like that which prevailed in Ireland in the years prior to its independence a century ago. England, too, has undergone a shift with Brexit as the root cause and the Conservative Party the key beneficiary. Welsh politics continue to rest on the foundation of social class.

I do not mean class in a Marxian sense, wherein the distinction is between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labour; that model of analysis requires an industrial society and this is no longer an industrial society. What we now have is a post-industrial class politics, in which the central cleavage is between those who are poorer and those who are wealthier; those who work in the public sector and those who work in the private sector; those who rent housing or own only the property they live in and those who are landlords of whatever scale. The irony is that this is almost identical to the situation which prevailed in a place like the Rhondda on the eve of the First World War. When miners smashed their way through the centre of Tonypandy on a cold November evening in 1910, their targets were housing landlords, shopkeepers who had extended lines of credit with high interest, and other profiteers. What has changed since that riot is that instead of working underground or elsewhere in heavy industry, and for the coal and steel magnates whose politics were often Liberal, the descendants of those who rebelled are now functionaries of the state. Or they are supported by the state by other means, at arm’s length.

Therefore, much of what was at stake a century ago, and brought Labour to power, is very much on the agenda once again. Take the issue of housing: affordability and overcrowding are as much a concern to us in 2021 as they were to our ancestors in 1921. Throughout the early twentieth century, Labour activists in communities as various as Merthyr Tydfil, Barry, Rhondda and Cardiff, compiled surveys about housing provision, identifying the weaknesses of the private sector and the impact of multiple occupancy on the health and wellbeing of working people. Looking at the 1911 census for the street I grew up in near Pontypridd, there were one hundred residents in thirteen houses. One house alone had fifteen inhabitants sharing just five rooms. The houses are cramped even with a modern family of four. Rents were paid to a landlord living in a leafy suburb of Cardiff or the Vale of Glamorgan or perhaps even Ceredigion. It all starts to sound rather familiar, doesn’t it?

Now, I do not mean to suggest that solutions to the political questions of the 1920s can be lifted wholesale and recycled a century later. History is better as a source of inspiration rather than as a how-to manual. But recognising that there are echoes between past and present is helpful. This is something the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, clearly understands. His early academic research was on the social credit movement and the desire amongst their leadership – men such as John Hargrave (1894-1982) of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a left-wing alternative to the Scouts – for a universal basic income (UBI) as a response to the hardship and deprivation of the of the interwar years. That desire would return in the 1970s, when a further economic downturn and changes to national welfare policy led to a hardening of attitudes towards social security. A national network of Claimants’ Unions emerged in response, with Welsh branches developed in places such as Swansea and Port Talbot. They too pushed for UBI.

The First Minister is not alone in his support for, and deep personal understanding of, the intellectual heritage of UBI and its potential effects on the poorest communities. The Cynon Valley MP, Beth Winter, the leading champion of UBI on the Welsh Labour benches in Westminster, noted in a question to the Welsh Secretary in February 2021 that the existing social security system is ‘insufficient’, that aspects such as the two-child limit are ‘damaging’, and therefore that UBI should be seen as a ‘solution to many of these issues’. She has gone on record more recently, in an interview with the Pontypridd-based radio station GTFM following Welsh Government announcements that it is considering a pilot project, to argue for ‘radical change that puts the wellbeing of people first and provides a real safety net’. Labour-controlled councils in Swansea and Rhondda Cynon Taf have both passed motions in favour of UBI pilots. Others will surely soon follow.

There are other areas of Future Generations policy – and potential Future Generations legislation – which have similarly deep roots, including progressive electoral reform, land value taxation, mutualisation of public services including housing, life-long access to education, and the environment. The list is not an exhaustive one. I raise these threads because if Welsh Labour is serious about policy ‘made in Wales, for Wales’, and such a desire is apparent, I think, then it has a duty to come to terms with its own intellectual ancestry. But that will not be easy to do in the absence of scholarly research. The number of people who are aware of (and care about) the historic debates within the labour movement in Wales about proportional representation or climate change or educational reform, for instance, is very small indeed.

If Welsh Labour is concerned about its future as an incubator of new ideas, and it should be, then it ought perhaps to be concerned about the relative absence of future generations of friendly academics and public intellectuals. The kind of people who take seriously the rich hinterland of the Labour Party, and the reasons for its growth and survival here in Wales, and who spend many hours poring critically over the ideas and policies dreamt up in different times but in response to similar questions. That might seem self-indulgent, at a personal and political level, but it is necessary, otherwise parties and governments lose the agility which they need to move forward as well as the rootedness which makes them successful in the first place.

This brings me to some of the challenges which will likely face the Labour Party in its sixth term in office. At some point, and soon, Welsh Government is going to have to intervene to support subjects (in both languages) that are not part of the acronym STEMM. That is, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. This will require an about-face on the part of government, I know, and will not be a comfortable policy alteration, however if the atrophy in arts, humanities and social science departments in higher education is allowed to continue, or to reach the same level of crisis now apparent in England, then opportunities to undertake specialist research ‘in Wales, of Wales, and for Wales’, and then to disseminate it for other purposes (including legislation) will diminish from already low levels. My own generation of doctoral researchers, be they historians or scholars of Welsh literature, the foundations of Wales Studies, has almost entirely disappeared from the sector and its cognisant neighbours. Let that be a useful warning for it creates resentment.

And it is resentment caused by lack of opportunities more broadly, rather than the potency of the other parties, which threatens Labour’s electoral prowess, I would argue. The scandal of second homes in the beautiful rural communities of the north and west, the subject of a high-profile report by Simon Brooks, is accompanied by the no less toxic scandal of landlordism – a long-standing scourge across the urban south. It too requires careful analysis, so that government can tackle the roots of housing inequality within the communities that residents care about. It may seem contrarian to write, but we do not all desire to live within the boundaries of Cardiff nor do we wish to fund the lifestyles of the absent.

Housing brings us quickly to jobs; the two exist in a state of symbiosis. The pandemic has shown just how uneven the contemporary Welsh economy is: those who have been able to work from home in whatever capacity have faced isolation, almost certainly, but they have generally escaped the dangers of virus transmission and material exploitation experienced by those in front-line service industries or in health and social work. This is not a simple class division, either, but one intersected by gender and race. More men are employed as managers and managers are more able to work from home, in the simplest formation of this question. According to a report by the House of Commons Library, which was released in March 2021 and based on figures from autumn 2020, almost half of all women in employment in Britain work in just three sectors: health and social work, wholesale and retail, and education. The three sectors upon which the weight of the pandemic has fallen most heavily.

If Welsh Labour is to truly govern as a ‘Future Generations’ administration, then it has to come to terms with the reality of these resentments as well as the consequences of the pandemic itself. The two are related but distinct. And if the party does do that, then the most significant ministry in the Sixth Senedd, it seems to me, and the key to Welsh Labour’s on-going success, is neither health nor education nor even the First Minister’s office, but social justice. It is significant, therefore, that the most experienced cabinet member in the Senedd, Jane Hutt, has been appointed to that ministry. She can draw on half a century of personal work in this field, from women’s aid in the 1970s to the provision of skills and training in the new electronics industries in the 1980s and 1990s, and her own deep roots in the intellectual development and practical implementation of policy.

These are interesting times, especially for social democrats. Across Europe, parties of the centre left are in retreat or have been forced, as in Germany, to make major compromises to remain in government in recent years. Of the twenty seven members of the European Union, social democrats are the ruling party in just six: Denmark, Finland, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. None has a record in government in the twenty-first century quite like that of Welsh Labour. In fact, if there is one political statistic which brings Wales to mind across Europe then it is not that the Conservatives can regularly win a third of the vote nor that there is a core of nationalist support which mirrors that of the Liberal Party a century ago, but rather it is the uninterrupted longevity of social democratic rule. Perhaps it is time for Welsh Labour to make something of its status as one of Europe’s most senior social democratic parties. They have certainly earned it. As for us here in Wales, one thing is certain. We still live in Labour Country.