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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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7.2.2 The Labour tradition in twenty-first century Wales

Earlier I talked about Labour identities and Welsh identities. One consequence of the Welsh Assembly is that discussions of ‘Welsh’ values and ‘Welsh’ political priorities have blossomed. In numerous political statements and speeches, the NHS and the assumed principles behind it have been ascribed a prominent role in an apparently distinct ‘Welsh way’. This assumed trajectory includes commitment to more communitarian and collective policies than in many other parts of the UK (Tanner and Michael, 2007, p. 38). Read Extract 10, from an article written by Duncan Tanner and Pam Michael, which builds on Activity 22 on Labour values and Welsh values. Consider how this extract corresponds with your own ideas.

Extract 10

Few people can detect a neat transition from ‘English’ to ‘Welsh’ values upon entering Wales. Nevertheless, references to ‘Welsh values’ within policy circles and political debate are now common. During the campaign for devolution and since the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, politicians have frequently appealed to ‘Welsh values’ as a distinctive marker and as a justification for policy deviation. Indeed, an appeal to ‘Welsh values’ has almost become a hallmark of true ‘Welshness’. It is much used by politicians seeking to establish their credentials as representatives of Welsh opinion and by central government ministers charged with managing Welsh affairs – perhaps especially where their own policies are not particularly distinctive or are tied by the policies of a UK-wide party. Thus on 26 November 2002 Peter Hain, newly appointed Secretary of State for Wales in the Labour government, duly assessed the National Assembly for Wales, declaring the need to protect ‘our very own and very special values in Wales ... Welsh values of community. Welsh values of caring. Welsh values of family life. Welsh values of mutual co-operation and mutual respect. Welsh values of democracy. Welsh values of internationalism. Welsh values of multi-racialism’ ... The innumerable references to Aneurin Bevan in political speeches ... and to the NHS, is part of a process through which populist history has become a powerful contemporary influence. For example, in 1998, Alun Michael, then Secretary of State for Wales, enunciated Wales’ special commitment to the principles of the NHS and adherence to the values articulated in the NHS in the preface to the policy document Putting Patients First: ‘None of the values enshrined in the NHS when Aneurin Bevan created it will be lost. The NHS in Wales will continue to be a truly national service available to all on the basis of need’... Swearing allegiance to Bevan’s legacy is an important political gesture in Wales. In an online opinion poll in 2005 to find the top 100 Welsh heroes, Aneurin Bevan beat allcomers, ahead of the charismatic 15th-century hero of Welsh resistance to English rule, Owain Glyndwr, the singer Tom Jones, and the ‘Welsh wizard’ and architect of state pensions, David Lloyd George.

Tanner and Michael, 2007, pp. 39–40

So, reference to tradition and history is an important mechanism for allowing the current crop of Labour politicians to develop a message that has resonance, allowing them to communicate ideas and values that ordinary people can engage with and understand.

Labour has tapped into its heritage and traditions in other ways. Under the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats in 2000, policy priorities included the abolition of prescription charges and dental charges for over-60s, free school milk, free travel for pensioners and educational reforms. It is no exaggeration to suggest that these policies are not far removed from the priorities of radical political parties in Wales a hundred years ago. When Wales became the first and only country in the UK to have free prescriptions in 2007, this was another example of radical attempts to pursue a distinctive socialist agenda in Wales and one with long-standing resonance.

Of course, developing policies around devolution has presented numerous problems and challenges. As has always been the case, the merits and demerits of devolution have continued to divide opinion in Labour’s ranks. As I suggested earlier, the establishment of a Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition government, marked by the publication of the One Wales policy document in 2007 was a major achievement and a landmark in the history of the radical/Labour tradition in Wales (especially as this was an alliance unthinkable in the 1970s and unlikely in the 1980s and 1990s). Across the political spectrum in Wales there are people determined to see devolution succeed, and determined that it does so in a way that does justice to the history, traditions and cultures of Wales. But there are still those who (like Bevan sixty years ago and Kinnock in the 1970s) see devolution as a waste of time and a waste of money. When, in 2003, the Richard Commission was looking into the possibility of extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly, it took evidence from a number of individuals and bodies in Wales. Among the individuals was the Labour MP Llew Smith, one of the few no campaigners in 1997 to receive significant media attention. Extract 11 comes from Smith’s evidence to the Commission. Read the extract and note why Smith remained reticent about the value of the Welsh Assembly.

Extract 11

Are we, for example, to accept that the NHS in Wales is run more efficiently than in England, since many of the powers have been devolved to Cardiff. Do we accept that Wales is any less a quango state since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly? No. Is there anything fair about and Assembly continuing to subsidise one of the richest areas in Wales, in Cardiff Bay, at the expense of some of the poorest communities? Has the Assembly benefitted those deprived communities in a way which a Labour government would have failed to do so? No ... To save any further embarrassment for the Welsh Assembly, I will refrain from providing any other examples, but there are many ... other than a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the other claim made by Ron Davies and supported by the ‘Yes’ campaign was (that) £20 million would amply fund a democratically elected and accountable Welsh Assembly and with a lot to spare. This money ... will obviously not be sufficient ... the ridiculous claim that £20 million would fund the Welsh Assembly was highlighted by Jim Pickard in the Financial Times (8/3/02) when he revealed that ‘government officials have admitted that the annual running costs of the Welsh Assembly are now £148 million, more than double the £72 million spent in the last year of the Welsh Office ... The revelation makes a mockery of New Labour’s claim in 1997 that Welsh devolution would only cost an extra £15 – £20 million each year’.

Smith, 2003, pp. 45

As had been the case in the 1970s, the costs of running an Assembly and its alleged failure in bringing democratic accountability are at the forefront of Smith’s concerns.

For many, Labour’s disappointing performance in the 2007 Assembly elections was used as a rallying point to awaken Labour to the importance of its history and traditions. The emergence of movements and focus groups such as ‘Wales 20:20’ (a ‘think tank’ intended to prompt socialist debate) were formed to renew the Labour movement across Wales, remould Labour as a policy-driven organisation and help facilitate a wide-ranging and inclusive debate under what it calls the ‘democratic socialist’ banner in Wales. Among the most prominent activities of Wales 20:20 was the campaign to eradicate child poverty in Wales.

Through such groups and movements, new Labour figures have emerged who see the Welsh Assembly as a mechanism for improving the lives of ordinary people living in Wales. One who fits this category is Huw Lewis, Labour’s Assembly Member for Merthyr, and Minister for Education and Skills. Lewis was active in Wales 20:20, reviewed the Welsh Government’s flagship anti-poverty programme ‘Communities First’ and wrote the Welsh Government’s plan to eliminate child poverty. Making what many saw as a bid for the leadership of Welsh Labour in 2009, Lewis talked of the need to rekindle the bonds which have always been part of the Labour tradition. Extract 12 is from a pamphlet published by Lewis and ‘Wales 20:20’ in 2009. You will notice that he argues for a rekindling of the bonds that have always been part of the radical Welsh Labour tradition.

Extract 12

The Labour Party was created to represent the interests of progressive people organised in the workplace. In this respect little has changed – it is that group of people for whom we try to effect most change and who make up our most valuable resource in terms of members, thinkers and supporters. However, a growing dislocation between different branches of the Labour movement in Wales risks not just a weakening of these ties, but schism. There is something profoundly disturbing about the current relationship between the Labour Party in Wales and what should be its most natural of brethren – the Trade Unions and the cooperative movement. The latter have become the undervalued pair in the progressive triumvirate needed to drive Wales forward. Elsewhere in Europe, Trade Unions are the vanguard of policy creation in areas like health and safety and work/life balance – we need the same action and support in Wales. Genuine social partnership must be the cornerstone of a renewed Welsh Labour. Historically, co-operatives and the Unions have not just helped, or followed Labour in Wales, they have led on the policy agenda, and quietly through successful stand alone projects they continue to do fantastic work, but we have stopped recognising that and no longer progress common values from a common platform. This goes for all affiliates who make up the Labour family – Young Labour and Labour Students in Wales for example should be, as it once was, the training ground for new leaders and great Trade unionists of the future – these organisations are now undervalued, underused and underfunded.

Lewis, 2009, pp. 1415

You will probably have noted that the key feature of this extract is that Lewis sees a future for the traditional Labour Party/trade union alliance. You may also have made note of the way that he refers to the existence of a ‘Labour family’ in Wales.

Other prominent Welsh Labour figures have been making similar calls for a revival of a Labour tradition which seemed to have disappeared. Among these has been Peter Hain, Labour’s MP for Neath, who was Secretary of State for Wales from 2002 and to 2008. Extract 13 is from a paper written by Hain. As you read, you will note how he views the Labour tradition, its values, and the changes that have occurred since the 1980s.

Extract 13

Wales is a very different place compared with when I first came to live here 18 years ago, and has developed at a pace since Labour came to office in 1997, accelerating even further since the assembly began work in 1999 ...

The communities in which the roots of Labour’s support and bases of activism were bred and sustained for generations are disappearing, increasingly fragmented with neighbours more strangers than family friends. The caring values which have for generations epitomised many Welsh neighbourhoods – especially in the valleys – can no longer be taken for granted. The large workplaces that were the heart of the old labour movement in Wales as elsewhere have all but disappeared. Trade unions – the bedrock of the old Welsh Labour – have steadily declined. Even under Labour, trade union membership in the workforce fell sharply by 13 per cent between 1998 and 2006 ... significantly greater than almost every part of Britain: four times greater than Scotland and three times the north-east. While public sector membership is high (68 per cent), private sector membership is very low (22 per cent). Just a third of all Welsh workers are trade union members today – though high by European standards, sharply down on the past. Solidarity and class have been eroded as the key voting determinants. The Labour vote traditionally passed down from parents and grandparents to children and grandchildren is no longer the binding glue of the Labour party’s electorate. Typically, young people encountered on the doorstep ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ or ‘won’t vote’.

In traditional Labour areas in Wales where the older vote can be rock solid, the younger people are less likely to vote Labour or to vote at all. In the 2007 assembly elections fully 80 per cent of registered 18–34-year-olds did not vote; half of 18-24-year-olds knew nothing about the Assembly.

Hain, 2008

The challenges Labour faces as it seeks to rekindle its traditional appeal in Wales are numerous. In the following extract, also from Hain’s paper, he notes that Labour’s traditional appeal will need to be remoulded to fit contemporary needs and aspirations.

Extract 14

Alongside party renewal there are four ideological challenges facing Welsh Labour. First and above all, Welsh Labour must be the party for an aspirational Wales, and this means appealing both to ‘middle Wales’ as well as motivating our ‘traditional Welsh Wales’ vote to turn out in a way it has been increasingly reluctant to do. These constituencies are not at all incompatible: on the contrary, appealing to both simultaneously holds the key to a Labour revival, as was the case in 1997. Second, we have to win the argument for deepening devolution within Britain rather than as a bridgehead to separatism outside Britain. Third, we must not allow the nationalists to claim the Welsh language as their fiefdom: we must advance a positive vision for the language with a distinctive global perspective rather than the parochial one of Plaid and too many of their fellow travellers in Welsh public life. Where their instinct is to make Welsh speaking almost obligatory, ours is to ensure choice for all, Welsh and non-Welsh speakers alike. Fourth, we must claim authorship of a proud Welsh patriotism that is simultaneously British, European and internationalist, rather than separatist. Devolution for Labour was never about creating an inward looking, parochial Wales, or about satisfying that strand in Welsh society which is basically so insecure that it seeks to huddle with its back to the outside world ... Our citizens have quite different aspirations from 1997. The issues are no longer mass unemployment and collapsing public services. The modern Wales majority has different aspirations and different pressures. People now rightly expect to have not just any job, but a decent job with opportunity to progress; not just any school for their children but a high-achieving one; not just low hospital waiting times but high-quality personalised care; not just a roof over their heads but affordable housing to buy or rent; not just more police but better neighbourhood policing; not just reduced crime but reduced violence, reduced antisocial behaviour and more respect. And they are right to demand this of Welsh Labour.

Hain, 2008

In the wake of Rhodri Morgan’s decision to step down as Welsh Labour leader and First Minister in 2009, the battle for the leadership of the party encapsulated the need for labour to re-ignite and rediscover its traditional appeal in Wales. The victor of that contest was Carwyn Jones, Labour’s AM for Bridgend. He promised that Labour would fight back to restore its electoral fortunes in Wales, renewing its traditional appeal in Wales through a commitment to public services and to ‘putting ordinary working people first’ (Jones, 2009).

So, the challenges facing Labour in Wales are numerous. As Hain acknowledged, Wales has changed considerably from the one identified with the Labour tradition in the 1920s and 1930s. It is different, even, from the one that existed before devolution a decade ago. Labour needs to respond to the new challenges and new aspirations if the tradition is to survive.