Seb Cooke reports on the results of the Welsh Assembly elections, which saw UKIP gain seven seats. He argues that the task for socialists has to be to build a stronger radical left that can relate effectively to issues such as steel, fight racism and utilise Corbyn over anti-austerity
The Welsh Assembly is made up of 60 members (AMs). 40 of these members come from constituency seats that conform to the same boundaries as in a general election and are elected via a winner-takes-all, first past the post system. The other 20 AMs come from 5 big regional areas and are elected on a form of proportional representation.
There are a few big headlines from the election on Thursday: UKIP had a very good night, winning seven assembly seats, whereas previously they had zero. The Tories did badly, not matching their performance at the general election by failing to win any of their target eats off Labour. They lost three seats and were pushed into third. The second biggest figure in Welsh Labour, the uber-establishment Leighton Andrews, had his huge majority overhauled by Leanne Wood, the popular left leaning leader of Plaid Cymru. The Lib Dems have been all but wiped out in Wales, retaining only one AM. Labour feel they had a good night. Despite the loss of Leighton Andrews, and their share of the vote going down, they’ve only lost one seat and have seen off the Tories who were acting pretty cocky. It was predicted to be worse for Labour and they may be able to govern alone.
There have been various interpretations of this situation and what it ‘means’ for Welsh politics over the next few years or so.
Certainly, we can expect, and have already seen, a bigger platform for a party built around racism, bigotry and xenophobia. The growing number of political media outlets in Wales will now feel obliged to invite UKIP onto their programmes and into their news pages. In the run up to the EU referendum this will be even worse, and UKIP will no doubt use this to platform to peddle a nasty agenda aimed at refugees and migrants. This presents serious problems for these groups and for those of us who oppose this kind of disgusting racism.
The situation has taken a turn for the worse, but it’s not new in Wales. UKIP haven’t suddenly just popped up out of nowhere. The river of Islamaphobic and anti-migrant racism that keeps UKIP afloat washes over the whole of the UK and flows freely between borders. This was seen last year at the general election, when UKIP scored their highest ever share of the vote in Wales, getting 13% . Now, thanks to the unusual PR system here, they have benefitted far more from a very similar share of the vote.
It’s easy to blame the electoral system in the first instance for this, but the root of UKIP’s support in Wales clearly goes much, much deeper. It’s also not problem particular to Wales. The UKIP vote here follows a similar pattern to how they did in England in the general election last year. The difference is in the results that the electoral system has produced. In other words, if PR applied in the same way to an English Assembly, it’s likely that a similar number of UKIP candidates could get in there as have done in Wales. So it’s not a Welsh problem.
There is some debate about where UKIP’s vote is coming from, but it’s not easy to get a clear picture, and as a consequence it’s open to various interpretations. What seems certain is that it has come from all over the place: Tory heartland, Labour heartland, rural areas, urban areas, post-industrial towns in deep poverty. In the always-Labour Merthyr Tydfil, UKIP got 20% of the vote, one of it’s highest scores in Wales. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily all or even mostly ex-Labour voters, even if that’s the common assumption being made. It was the Lib Dem vote that collapsed the most there and research in England shows that these voters feed into UKIPs share more than Labour’s. Then there are Tory voters as well who undoubtedly go to UKIP. But it wasn’t just in places like Merthyr that UKIP did well. In Tory areas such as Pembrokeshire, they polled around 11%. They got two of their AMs from a region that’s split between Tories and Labour, polling 17%. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem vote shares went down almost everywhere, and in lots of places only UKIP seemed capable of capitalizing on this by gaining votes.
Even with this in mind it’s still hard to say exactly where their vote is coming from. The point is that it’s coming from lots of places and in significant numbers. And while it’s not true to say that it’s all down to ex-Labour voters, if UKIP continue to rise in this way then their ability to mobilise that voter base support will only increase. More urgent than the detailed psephology of it though is thinking how we stop their vote in the future.
Among the celebrations in Welsh Labour after a good result, there’s little thought being given to UKIP. The fact is that we’ve now got seven far-right, racist AMs and everything that comes with that.
UKIP got some of their highest votes in the South Wales valleys and in particularly across the top of the valleys, which are traditional Labour strongholds. They scored around 20%, way above their national average. This should be very worrying for Welsh Labour, but we only have to look at how some of their campaign was fought to see that we should retain little faith in their ability to stop UKIP by themselves.
Soon after Corbyn was elected Labour leader there were a few elections in England that saw Labour’s vote increase and the UKIP vote go down. Corbyn’s message and what he represented seemed to have an effect. This was confirmed by my own experience, when over a period of time I spoke to several families in an ex-mining village that was blighted by deep poverty and the bedroom tax for an article I was writing. I heard lots of stories about people thinking about voting UKIP as a response to a political system that had consistently failed them. After Corbyn was elected, the mood started to change and Labour felt like an option again. But instead of using Corbyn in this way, where he would have been able to make the election about fighting austerity, cuts coming from Westminster and both mobilise the Labour vote and undermine UKIP’s, Welsh Labour told him to stay away. Corbyn did come to Wales and spoke in the valleys, in a place similar to where I had been. It was huge, with people reporting that it was the biggest left wing rally in the valleys for a generation. The problem was that it was back in February and Corbyn has barely been back since.
The Welsh election has subsequently been fought on very narrow terms, set by Welsh Labour and much more like Ed Millibands failed general election bid last year.
There was only one constituency in the valleys where UKIP scored less than 10%: Rhondda. There, the left-winger Leanne Wood caused the biggest upsets of the night by defeating one of Welsh Labour’s most senior figures in the form of Leighton Andrews. There were local dynamics to this campaign, but there was clearly huge momentum behind Plaid as well. Leanne is a known socialist, often sounding more like Jeremy Corbyn than Carwyn Jones does. This has to be seen as a factor in her success, and should be held up as proof that a more political, left wing anti-establishment message can undermine UKIP’s support.
The Rhondda result was an exception, and in the end Labour held on, sometimes not by much, and generally UKIP gained big. However, far from seeing UKIP’s rise as being at least helped, if not caused, by the narrowness of Welsh Labour’s campaign and a refusal to go in hard over Tory austerity, a conclusion is emerging that says Labour did OK because Corbyn was kept away. But this just doesn’t bear out. Yes, there were people who hated Corbyn (I met a few and spoke to others with a similar experience), not surprising given the fact that he’s regularly assaulted in the media. But those people said they wouldn’t vote Labour and sometimes had never voted Labour. You can’t evidence a constituency of people that voted Labour whilst holding their nose out of disgust at Corbyn.
In many ways, you could argue that the Labour vote in Wales held up regardless of Corbyn, but you can also say that it could have been much stronger had he been a presence and the election was fought on broader terms around Westminster driven austerity (an issue not favourable ground to either the Tories or UKIP).
Then there is steel, which has become a major issue in Wales for obvious reasons. Some Tories have been complaining that Labour retook areas that were lost to the Conservatives at last year’s general election because of the steel crisis. One even called the election a ‘referendum on steel’. People in Labour also think steel was a big issue. But here, on an area that has managed to mobilise a left wing Labour vote against the Tories, Carwyn Jones can’t be allowed to take the credit. It was Corbyn who visited Port Talbot first. It was Corbyn and McDonell who put the Tories on the back foot when it came to nationalisation. While the Tories were getting hammered by the Labour leadership and polls were showing overwhelming support for state ownership, Carwyn was busy Tweeting that he’d been having friendly chats with the government. So yes Welsh Labour have been the beneficiaries of the anger over Steel, but they didn’t make it an issue that was toxic for the Tories and set the agenda on nationalisation. (In Port Talbot Plaid Cymru, to their credit, have also campaigned hard over steel but this has received much less attention than Corbyn’s intervention).
The terms on which the campaign has been run in Wales, and the conclusions being drawn from the vote, should make us sceptical about the same people’s ability to effectively fight UKIP. Some of the initial responses to the party seem to rest on the idea that there doesn’t really need to be a response at all. Central to this is often touted notion is that UKIP will expose themselves and simply tear each other apart. Just sit back and watch, give them enough rope. That kind of thing.
The problem with this scenario is that it never seems to play out in the way it’s supposed to, just look through history and even parts of Europe today where the far-right has gained a foothold. Actually, just look at Wales. UKIP couldn’t have had a worse run up to their campaign in Wales. The Welsh party fell out big-time with the UK leadership. They were furious that candidates such as Mark Reckless and Neil Hamilton had been imposed on them from the party machine in London. Their crisis was all over the media, along with a digging up of Hamilton’s dodgy past. They were exposed and they were divided and they were tearing each other apart. It didn’t matter. Their voters didn’t care. This alone should be enough evidence to say that sitting back and watching them crumble at the hands of the Welsh media (who are now gladly congratulating them on their historic victory) is at best a highly risky strategy and at worst very dangerous. UKIP need to be destroyed as a political force, we can’t rely on them to do it for us.
There is also another danger. Immigration has been no more of an issue in Welsh politics than anywhere else. In fact there has been very little of the sickening racism that’s come out of Westminster with talk of ‘swarms’ and ‘bunches’ of migrants or the disgraceful Islamaphobia seen most recently from Cameron and Zac Goldsmith. Racism of this kind is clearly a problem in Wales; it’s just that it is rarely purposefully stoked by politicians in the Welsh Assembly. This is a good thing, but there’s no reason that it will automatically stay like that.
Labour will be worried about UKIP, and there will be a debate about how to deal with them, especially as they’ll be launching more attacks than they could do previously. Some people in Labour will think that the response should be to ‘appeal to UKIP voters’ by ‘listening to their concerns’. This is political speak for bashing groups of people who are targeted by UKIP. Regardless of how dangerous this tactic is, it was shown to fail on its own terms in the general election last year; when even an anti-immigrant Labour mug couldn’t stop UKIP doing well in the North and in Wales. It just makes the problem worse and legitimises their politics, handing them a series of victories that they can feed off. The same goes for the Tories who will be even more inclined to up the racist rhetoric in a bid to win back UKIP voters. It means that Welsh politics could get more racist throughout, not just from the UKIP AMs. There will be a need to resist this and defend people from disgraceful attacks at a Welsh level in a way we haven’t experienced before.
Beyond that, there will hopefully now be moves to grow the national campaigns to oppose UKIP and expose them for exactly what they are. These will need to be broad based, but also clear that UKIP are not just ‘dodgy’ but are a party of nasty racists. Included in this is a demand to isolate UKIP AMs in the way they operate.
Thanet is clearly a model on how to defeat UKIP, but doing an anti-UKIP campaign of that intensity in several constituencies across Wales will be very hard. To stop UKIP rising any higher, the left also needs to be able to challenge austerity in Wales.
Austerity is less direct in Wales but is still severe. It passes through a filter of the Welsh Labour government. People sometimes talk about this as a ‘dented shield’ protecting people from the very worst aspects of Tory policy. Yes, some of this is true. In policy areas such as health and education things are increasingly different (there are no academies in Wales, the NHS faces very little privatisation compared to England and tuition fees are still a steal at only £3k a year here). The state still has a role in areas other than war and policing and that doesn’t feel under constant threat. This is why it’s good that the Tories did badly, because that position feels in some way shored up. Ideologically, that’s important. Lots of people voted Labour to defend these precious things of health and education from the Tory vultures.
But if the ‘dented shield’ applies in some areas, it offers no protection at all in other parts of life. Wales has been battered by welfare cuts and by a huge attack on public spending meaning job losses and wage stagnation across the public sector. Lots of Welsh councils are on their knees. Even in the protected areas cuts are passed down. As they do for councils, the Tories don’t just demand austerity on the Welsh Assembly, they try to make it the only viable option by starving them of money. Welsh Labour has managed this situation so far but their declining vote and the strength of UKIP shows that it can’t go on. More years of blankly passing on cuts isn’t a viable option.
There are few things to come out of all of this. Corbyn needs to be dragged into Welsh politics and used as a way to mobilise a movement around austerity with a focus primarily on the Tories in Westminster. If Labour are to halt their decline and push back the Tories and UKIP, this is how they will do it. There are no signs of this happening from the top, so people outside and inside Labour who want to fight against austerity need to push for Corbyn and McDonnell’s involvement in the anti austerity movement and build around that. This isn’t motivated by a desire to build Welsh Labour, but because it would be the most effective way of building a strong movement against austerity.
Similarly, if Plaid Cymru want to do well, and Welsh Labour remain hostile to Corbyn, they will seek to drive a wedge between the Labour party in Wales and the leadership in London. As Leanne Wood’s spectacular result showed in Rhondda, this strategy can be very successful. To do this they would need to be much more political in what they are saying. Overall, their campaign felt very narrow, wrongly had a go at the Welsh NHS, and spoke abstractly about a better Wales. Whether they now have the capacity to challenge Labour from the left depends on Leanne Wood, who is now much stronger, but also on how Welsh Labour handle themselves from now on.
The task for socialists has to be to build wherever possible a stronger radical left that can relate effectively to issues such as steel, fight racism and utilise Corbyn over anti-austerity. This also involves trying to build a broad group that can hit UKIP. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive and what the Welsh election shows us is that they are urgent tasks. Watching the results for the radical left in elections in Northern Ireland has been an inspiration. The dynamics of Labourism in Wales make a similar proposition here more tricky, but the ability to organise our side still exists. This can be seen right now in the incredible all out strike by museum workers across Wales.
These are opportunities to build from. They need to be taken as the situation as it is can’t last. There is a long term crisis and we, not the right, need to be able to seize this.