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What would a Leanne Wood victory mean for Labour

Leanne Wood’s campaign to become leader of Plaid goes from strength to strength, now gaining the endorsement of Dafydd Iwan, former president of the party, and a renowned Welsh-language musician. Iwan’s support is significant as it bridges the gap between the traditionalist Welsh speaking foundations of Plaid’s support in the West and North of the country with the left-wing republicanism that Leanne avows.

Jon Lansman recently asked the question whether a Plaid led by Leanne Wood could pose the same sort of threat to Labour in Wales as the SNP does in Scotland. Jon makes the interesting point:

Last year, Plaid suffered the consequences of a term of Coalition government with a Welsh Labour party that had, under Rhodri Morgan, put clear red water between itself and New Labour. Poorly differentiated from Labour, and in the context of a Tory-Liberal Coalition in London, Plaid lost 4 seats in the 60-seat assembly. Now governing Wales alone, Labour is being forced to make substantial cuts whilst, in Westminster, Labour is announcing that “the starting point….is we’re going to have to keep all these cuts” when it returns to government and accept real-term cuts in public sector pay in the meantime.

The poor differentiation between Plaid and Labour was not accidental, it is because when Labour speaks for Wales, and embraces the social democratic values that dominate Welsh political life, then Plaid becomes eclipsed.

It is important to understand how labourism creates the space for Plaid to exist. Geoffrey Foote’s indispensable 1986 book The Labour Party’s Political Thought argues that the coalitional nature of the Labour Party, involving as it does both the trade unions and a political movement, provides an envelope that constrains the limits of the party’s politics, not only to left and right, but also over issues that sit uncomfortably with the perspectives of trade unionism. Any deviation that strays so far away from the horizons of the unions risks rupturing the coalitional nature of the party. This explains the phenomenon of essentially social democratic parties arising outwith Labour, expressing a single issue that the Labour Party could not accomodate, such as the Common Wealth Party’s advocacy of a second front during the second world war, or Respect’s opposition to the Iraq war.

But is also explains how the Labour Party, with its orientation towards the British national state and therefore towards British national identity has struggled with expressions of Welsh and Scottish identity. As the architect of devolution, Ron Davies, explained to me in an interview in 2005:

There were many people in the Labour party, and there still are, who find it very hard to reconcile their patriotism, their love for Wales, with their commitment to socialism, or to the Labour party I should say.

Because they believed and argued very strongly in 1979, and still do, that the solutions to the problems of Wales are to be found in exactly the same mechanism as the problems of the North of England or wherever. The answer is a strong labour government in Westminster who will legislate all these problems away.

It doesn’t understand that there are issues about patriotism, of identity, of wanting to do things differently in Wales, of nation building if you like. To free up the initiatives we have in Wales, because our scale is different, because we do have different values, there is a greater sense of community, we do have distinctive policy issues of our own we do have issues about language and so on. And there is a large part of the Labour Party that is entirely uncomfortable with that agenda, and didn’t want to go down that track.

Labour’s support in Wales and Scotland is therefore jeapordised by the very arts of triangulation towards swing voters in the South East of England, which many on the Blairite wing of the party still believe is the magic feather for winning elections.

The paradox is that David Miliband’s recent article in the New Statesman advocates moving away from the idea he atributes to Roy Hattersley, that the “mechanism … for furthering social democratic goals is the central state”. Yet Miliband fails to acknowledge that Labour does not only exercise power in his own words in “Newcastle, Lambeth, Liverpool – and South Tyneside”, there is also a Labour government in Wales. Miliband confuses two issues: the practical devolution of power to the nations and regions is an entirely different question from whether the state itself should directly intervene in the economy and be the provider of services. Therefore David Miliband demonstrates no recognition that there could be a different political culture in Wales, or indeed in the English regions away from the South East.

What is more, the economic policies of the Blair/Brown government benefitted the South East of England more than the regions and nations. As Dr Éoin Clarke argued last year:

[Since 1995] incomes of the south east and London grew significantly more that Labour heartlands. Now that’s the thing. Labour already succeeded in boosting the pockets of southerners more disproportionately than the north [of England] but what thanks or indeed recognition did they get? The lesson is clear, don’t build you political strategy around courting those who have no intention of voting for you anyway. Cosying up to big business, vested interests and the filthy rich did Labour no favours at election time. It is the reason why our working class voters stayed away in such vast numbers.

David Miliband’s article in the Statesman does make sone sensible points. There is a potential danger of Labour succumbing to a self-referential agenda of reassurance, instead of developing a vision of a better society, and a strategy of acheiving it. It is true that some sections of the left, for example, do have an overly optimistic belief that Labour could win elections by simply being more left wing. However, David Miliband should look in the mirror: the greatest danger for Labour being sucked into an electorally damaging  and self-indulgent nostalgia comes from the Blairite right.

Firstly, the economic and social policies of the Tory led coalition are so damaging that they cannot simply be triangulated around, they needed to be oppsoed by a credible alternative vision; but secondly, the process of devolution has created increasingly differentiated political contexts in the other nations of the UK outside London. The world is bigger than Portculis House, and a preoccupation with the incestuous London chatterati does not lead to politics that works on the streets of Middlesborough, Swindon or Bolton; let alone in Dundee or Caerffili.

This is why the prospect of Leanne Wood winning the leadership of Plaid is such a potential challenge. As Dafyyd Iwan says:

“Wales and Plaid Cymru need the involvement and support of people from every part of our nation. Leanne is the candidate who can – and does – fire the imagination of new supporters, and she also is the one who has grasped the original economic vision of Plaid Cymru, based on the community.”

Leanne argues for politics that are broadly within the traditional envelope of labourism, particularly the traditions of Welsh non-conformist radicalism; but that are outside the box of tricks and wheezes beloved of the Blairites. As an articulate, intelligent and charismatic woman, with considerable political skills, and the ability to communicate and empathise with ordinary voters, Leanne could reposition Plaid as a modern radical party that directly challenges Labour based upon a set of values and policies that will be familiar and comfortable to Labour voters.

Rhodri Morgan very cleverly positioned Labour in Wales to articulate a distinct identity from London. To an extent Carwen Jones has been able to continue that, but holding office in a devolved administration with a Tory government in Westminster, and a global economic downturn are challenging circumstances.

The danger for Labour in Wales is that the arguments of David Miliband and his co-thinkers prevail in the national party, and commit Labour to a set of policies and values that do not accord with the political predispositions of the Welsh electorate. That is the context where a reinvigorated Plaid might represent a threat.

The interesting thing though is that the type of pragmatic but principled socialism that Leanne advocates, is actually not tainted by the nostalgic iconography and political tiredness that David Miliband identifies as a threat to Labour’s electablity. The vision that Leanne is bringing to Plaid is actually an exciting belief that radical politics can connect with ordinary voters if it is also rooted in values that the electorate already respects, such as loyalty to community, civic pride and a redefined patriotism based upon the virutue of creating a society that cares equally for all its citizens. These are ideas that Labour can learn from, while still remaining true to our own values and traditions.

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