Monday, April 6, 2009

The dragon faces to the left

Spring Conferences are well-known as set-piece, managed ways of reinvigorating the party membership and activists. In that sense it is obvious that nationalists are going to be feeling pleased with themselves after an event that showcased professional use of technology and the internet (with Plaid now being talked about as a party that 'gets' the internet, ahead of its opponents), a fresh and youthful image and a clear sense of purpose.

But it's not automatic for any party to be so enthused during a mid-term rally, as Plaid conferences in the past have rarely matched the same level of confidence that is now coming across in the media, and according to the few opinion polls the same sense of vibrancy is also having an impact on voters.

To be responsible for the Economic Development portfolio in government at a time of recession is a huge undertaking and not one you'd expect any politician in a capitalist country to be able to handle without taking a massive hit to their popularity and credibility. Consider the huge demonstrations in Ireland and London for example. Ieuan Wyn Jones, who has sometimes been not hugely popular with the left in Plaid Cymru, has managed to save Welsh jobs in a competent manner. While all the levers for the economy remain Westminster's responsibility, Jones has ensured that the Welsh response (such as it is) has at least been focused at workers rather than banks.

It's clear that Plaid is continuing to position itself as the credible party of the radical left in Wales. Even the party's more moderate figures (such as the aforementioned party leader) stressed that message in their speech. Plaid is pushing an economic message that is qualitatively and ideologically different to that of New Labour and the Tories, and although there is still alot of work to be done there were welcome words about sustainable development and co-operation, rather than privatising and undercutting. I am not saying that Plaid is moving any further away from the centre at this point, but that the party's appeal has always been based on being 'different' and having a passion and radicalism that the mainstream parties do not have.

Let us not have any illusions in Gordon Brown. He has not intervened in any socialist manner. He has concentrated on saving the financial institutions. Under his stewardship our welfare state has been undermined and eroded to the extent that we are going to be worse affected by the recession than most other Western countries (more so than France or Germany, for example). This is further compounded by New Labour's refusal to include a welfarist or socialist element in its bailout programme. Save the Children reported that only the far-right administration in Russia (out of all the most powerful states) included less support for children than the UK did in its bailouts for the economy.

With this in mind, I think that at a time when Labour is haemorhaging support all over the place, Plaid's vote at the coming elections will either hold up or increase. The polls suggest that Labour does best in Wales when it is "Welsh" Labour and when it is pushing left-leaning policies. Be that as it may, Plaid are consistently outflanking Welsh Labour by claiming credit for the progressive nature of the devolved administration. This is a fundamental characteristic of devolution- people want things done differently to Westminster, they don't want more of the same. The only way that Labour in Wales can outmuscle Plaid is by embracing Welshness and social democracy, and that is a path that will inevitably lead them into further conflict with the Ben Bradshaws and the Paul Murphys.

Whatever happens in Welsh politics, global history in the past 6 months suggests that now is a time for new ideas. The possibilities for Plaid Cymru to profit from this are manifold. They are our only hope if we want to see a 'different' Wales emerge from the recession. The UK is by far one of the most pro-market states in the European Union- and we will suffer most because of this. The UK's model is not one to follow and is one we need to break away from as we come out of the crisis.

Just a bit of analysis for a boring Monday!


  1. I think that you are pretty much bang on the money with a lot of that.

    Certainly Ieuan's managment of the economy portfolio, under very difficult circumstances, has boosted his standing in the party and beyond. He has been seen as tackling the issues in Wales without the levers to do so. A great accomplishment. The fact that Wales has been doing things differently is something I think a lot of people have been impressed by.

  2. Thanks! I pretty much agree, but things are going to change again if this £500m budget cut is forced on us by Westminster.

    I feel he could do more to be seen as being on the 'front line', i'm sure he has been meeting workers face to face but there hasn't been much coverage of it. I criticised the Welsh Govt before for not shouting about their anti-recession measures, but they have picked up since then. Maybe as times get harder we'll see this happening.

  3. PC,

    Government doesnt work like that in my view. IWJ is the minister for that portfolio, but its the Government that makes the decisions. This swings both ways, when the shit hits the fan and when things go right.

    Its Labour Ministers making decision on tuition fees, but IWJ sorting out the economy like some knight in shining armour - do you understand that contradiction?

    One Wales is suceeding in my view, both parties should point to that as a success point. Plaid as a minority partner must take credit as thus, Labour as the majority partner should do. The problem is that Plaid go missing and turn into juniors when it suits, then love the glory when something goes right.

    Government just doesnt work like that mate - come on, you know this.

  4. "Its Labour Ministers making decision on tuition fees, but IWJ sorting out the economy like some knight in shining armour - do you understand that contradiction?"

    Marcus that isn't a contradiction but a confirmation. Jane Hutt is responsible for education therfore she is making the decision on tuition fees. IWJ is responsible for the economy so he is making the decisions there.

    You have just made Plaid's point for them!

  5. "Its Labour Ministers making decision on tuition fees, but IWJ sorting out the economy like some knight in shining armour - do you understand that contradiction? "

    Quite true but Ieuan isn't going to do anything risky that Labour will be able to attack him on. His way of handling the portfolio is a pretty safe 'Welsh Labour'/old-school way, so he's hardly going to get attacked on that.

    The only criticism of Ieuan will actually be from a more radical perspective, more likely from Plaid grassroots members who are disappointed about the PFI at St. Athan, or environmentalists who want less road building. Welsh Labour have got nothing to attack Ieuan on because he has seamlessly occupied their ground.

    Ieuan could've gone missing on tuition fees but didn't, he went against his own party to keep the coalition stable, so he can't really be accused on that front. His advantage is also that he has no loyalty to forces outside of Wales. Free rein to criticise Westminster.

    Never thought a socialist like myself would be so supportive but there you go.

  6. Ieuan Wyn Jones...has managed to save Welsh jobs in a competent manner. While all the levers for the economy remain Westminster's responsibility, Jones has ensured that the Welsh response (such as it is) has at least been focused at workers rather than banks.

    Is this really the case. The latest Labour Market Statistics show the unemployment rate in Wales as now the highest of all UK nations. Moreover, this is comparatively recent - a few years ago, for example, it was the lowest.

    This has happened because while the other three nations’ rates have drifted comparatively slowly upwards (England and Scotland’s rates have increased by 0.9% over the two quarters, while the NI rate has gone up by 1%) Wales’s rate has surged by more than double that - 2.1%.

    So in fact jobs are being lost in Wales at a greater rate than England, Scotland or NI. I don't suggest that the WAG or IWJ are responsible for this, incidentally, but neither am I sure it is correct to characterise the administration as succeeding in saving Welsh jobs.



  7. Valid points but a national analysis has to take into account that the Assembly Government only has influence over a certain percentage of the Welsh economy (an academic might be able to determine how much but it's a task simply beyond me).

    It's also true that in terms of jobs gained or jobs lost, it might be down to a project approved by the UK Government, so new power stations might represent the UK creating jobs, and civil service. Similarly if a regional selective assistance grant (for example) approved by Ieuan Wyn Jones safeguards a factory and jobs, it might be statistically worth very little if a dozen service sector companies are going bust because they cannot access credit from the British banking system. A national analysis of Wales' picture won't reveal much about the Minister's performance, but we could perhaps judge the impact of the Assembly Government's economic policies.

    And of course, no government has much control over the market anymore as the recent crisis demonstrates.

    The way unemployment in Wales was consistently below the UK average until later 2008 and is now significantly above the UK average needs further investigation, but I don't have the knowledge.

  8. I meant to say in the second paragraph 'civil service cuts would represent the UK taking away jobs' as has happened in the HMRC office closures, DWP office closures and job centre closures and the widespread cuts across those areas of the civil service that are not 'devolved'.

  9. The trouble, I suspect, is that we are in counterfactual territory; the question is not how many jobs the WAG/IWJ have saved per se but how many would have been saved had this tier of government not existed, or had not been democratised in 1999.

    As you say, that is difficult to measure with precision. But we can take the comparator English region of the North East. Here we find that Wales has performed far worse; with a near double increase in the unemployment rate over the previous two quarters.*

    It's not exact. Wales and the North East might be similar in some respects, but they are different in others. Nevertheless, both have companies who are struggling to access credit from the British banking system. They have both suffered reductions in public sector employment (or in some areas at least; the net effect may be somewhat different).

    As you say, it would be worth looking back at the period from the early 2000s until recently when the Welsh rate was lower than the UK average and trying to understand why. It may be that these jobs were proportionately more exposed to the sort of credit-squeezed downturn we are now seeing. But either way, the proposition that the Welsh economy - or the Welsh labour market at least - has benefited from the WAG and IWJ's approach seems difficult to sustain on the face of it. It may even be that they have done more harm than good.


    * Although it's worth pointing out that if one goes back further to Q108 we see NE unemployment rising while it is falling in Wales.