When I was growing up in Swansea the Labour Party seemed to be everywhere, through the presence of its members and supporters in just about every organisation in the locality. Not least the local council. Though this influence was not confined to the public sector and local government; for at times it was difficult to determine who controlled some local companies, was it those who, nominally, owned these companies, or was it the trade unions? Whatever the answer, jobs, homes, and other ‘favours’ could be gained by knowing a local foot soldier; while being on friendly terms with a ‘capo’ could open many doors.
As I got to know our local Labour activists I found most of them very unattractive. (Maybe I was too idealistic. Or perhaps my standards of personal hygiene were too high.) But for whatever reason, they came across as grubby little men, drunk on what power they possessed, and determined to show off, or abuse, that power at every opportunity. They could mouth the class war slogans but the lack of deeper political understanding was obvious once the debate moved beyond slogans and rehearsed arguments. Equally obvious was the absence of principle. Most seemed driven by greed and envy. I often thought that they didn’t really want to raise up the masses so much as bring down the ‘nobs’. And if they’d won the football pools, or been left a tidy sum by Auntie Bessie in Chicago, then it would have been a case of, ‘The working class can kiss my arse . . .’. In other words, they were victims of circumstance, unhappy with their lot, looking for easy answers . . . and nothing provides more easily digestible answers for the uncomprehending ‘victims of the system’ than socialism.
These thoughts have come to me a few times recently as my attention has been drawn to the composition of the Labour Party in Swansea today. The most striking thing is the almost total absence of class warriors. Strange, really, when one considers that the gulf between rich and poor is greater today than at any time in recent history. The cloth caps have been replaced with the kind of headgear favoured by Afghans or Andean peasants. At times it seems not so much New Labour as New Age Labour.
The Leader is a Liverpudlian and there are many other councillors from outside Wales, even an Austrian. There are students fresh out of college, one from California. Then there are students who graduated in earlier years, including one who lists among his Interests “my beloved West Bromwich Albion”! There are also academics among the Labour group, making it clear that Swansea’s centres of higher education are a vital source of recruits for the local Labour Party. Another Labour councillor, born in Southend, is glad to be “back by the sea once more”. Ah, that’s nice.
One of the young ex-students, elected last year for a bedsit land ward on the west side of the city seems to be solely interested in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Trans-sexual (GLBT) matters, if his Twitter account is anything to go by. And this, ‘pet issues’ approach to politics, is found throughout the group. Making the controlling Labour group on Swansea council look like an eclectic collection of individuals held together by a belief that they represent ‘progressive’ elements that only the Labour Party can accommodate. Another interpretation would be that the Swansea Labour Party has lost out in a Faustian pact to people who have now taken over its organisation, structures and soul to promote their own agendas.
Don’t get me wrong, a little outside blood is always beneficial, whether to improve the breeding stock, or to introduce new thinking, but there comes a point beyond which the balance tips and the new element ousts the old. This is what appears to be happening with the Swansea Labour Party. It’s almost as if New Labour’s practice of ‘parachuting’ favourites into safe seats has reached down to ward level. Perhaps it has, for a number of these thrusting, ex-student councillors work for local MPs and AMs. A word in the right ear?
Now of course, even if the Labour group was made up entirely of persons born and bred in Swansea, lifelong Swans fans, etc., etc., these would still have their pet subjects, their hobby-horses, but at least they would know and be committed to the city of Swansea. When there are so many in the ruling group on the city council that a) don’t really know or understand the area and b) are pursuing their own agendas, then we have to ask how well that city can possibly be served by such an administration.
And when we add Swansea Labour’s profile to the well-documented – even award-winning (Private Eye) – troubled councils of Carmarthenshire, Ynys Môn, Caerffili and Wrecsam . . . and when we consider rule by cabinet, or the dictatorship of a chief executive; and when we spread this over the absurd number of twenty-two local authorities in a country of just three million people, then we realise that Welsh local government isn’t just in a mess, it needs to be dismantled and built again from scratch. And among the many changes so desperately needed, why not insist on ten years residence in an area before anyone can stand for the local council?
And yet, knowing Swansea as I do, and Wales, and the origins of the Labour Party, maybe what we see in Swansea today is simply the clock being turned back. Let me explain. I grew up in what amounted to a localised one-party state; yet from my grandparents and people of their generation I came to learn that what I regarded as the established order was, to them, something relatively recent in origin. And not entirely welcome.
In the nineteenth century we Welsh supported the Liberal Party, even when most of us were denied a vote. This loyalty was taken with them by rural immigrants to the industrial areas (like four of my great-grandparents, who came up from Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire). Inevitably, the ‘human reservoir’ of south west Wales eventually began to dry up; so by the end of the century the workers needed in the southern industries came increasingly from England’s western counties, Ireland, and beyond. This new wave of immigrants found the Liberal Party less attractive than their Welsh workmates; for to them the Liberal Party was part of a ‘package’ that took in the Welsh language and the nonconformist chapels. This new element in Welsh society rejected that ‘package’ and looked for another political party. It arrived with amazingly good timing in the form of the Labour Party.
Which resulted in many of the older Welsh people in the industrial south in the first half of the twentieth century, especially – but not exclusively – those with roots in the Welsh-speaking rural areas, still regarding the Labour Party as something ‘alien’. For it had no Welsh ‘roots’, Labour had merely appropriated the Merthyr Rising, the Chartist Rebellion in Newport, and other specifically Welsh events as heralds of its own Coming. Ignoring the uncomfortable facts that Dic Penderyn may not have spoken English, and that the Newport Chartists called for a Silurian Republic. Labour to many people of my grandparents’ age and background was an English-Irish concoction that had displaced ‘their’ party. Of course this perception had weakened over time, as Welsh people joined the party. Yet even though they themselves may now have voted Labour – due to it having become the only viable opposition to the Tories – they still felt a certain pang of guilt, knowing that their parents and grandparents would have disapproved.
From the other side, due to its non-Welsh roots, and its rejection of the ‘package’, there was always within the Labour Party, particularly in the south east, a lurking suspicion of Welshness, with undisguised anti-Welshness often breaking to the surface. This has persisted to the present day. It goes a long way to explaining why a Welsh Government refuses to manage Wales in the interests of the Welsh. It explains the squandering of precious funding on the Third Sector shysters of the ‘Poverty Industry’. It explains the defeat of devolution in 1979. It goes a long way to explaining why Wales has no financial institutions of her own, few indigenous industries, and a colonial relationship with England. Only a political party with the origins and outlook of ‘Welsh’ Labour could facilitate and celebrate the exploitation of Welsh resources by arguing that to do otherwise would be to give in to ‘narrow nationalism’.
I didn’t intend to give a history lesson here, but maybe Welsh people, inside and outside the Labour Party, should better understand this schizophrenic monster that bestraddles our country. And remember that for every Cledwyn Hughes there was a Neil Kinnock. For every Gwilym Prys Davies a George Thomas. Of course, this will mean nothing to those I started off writing about. Which, I suppose, proves my point.
UPDATE 08.02.13 Last night Swansea council voted to allow wind turbines on Mynydd y Gwair on the northern outskirts of the city. During the debate it was argued that Mynydd y Gwair is a valuable recreation area, where people can walk and enjoy the views looking up towards the Brecon Beacons or out over the Severn Sea. One Labour councillor disagreed. In her Llansamlet ward people can’t afford cars, and so are unable to reach Mynydd y Gwair, which she seemed to think was reserved for rich people with 4 x 4s.
The land in question is owned by the Duke of Beaufort, one of the richest men in England, who owns a great deal of land around Swansea. Four years ago he was paid £280,000 by Swansea council for graciously allowing a new footbridge over the River Tawe, near the Liberty Stadium. The Mynydd y Gwair turbines will be erected – and the subsidies milked – by the massive German company RWE. So to spite the protesting local rich folks – in reality, farmers with old pick-ups grazing sheep on the mountain – the Swansea Labour Party decided to destroy a beauty spot and in so doing further enrich an English lord and a German multinational.
This defeat of the Welsh is doubtless being celebrated today by the brothers and sisters of Swansea’s English Labour Party. They can crack open another bottle of organic llama piss and congratulate themselves on ensuring that in the years ahead vast sums of money will be pumped to such deserving and needy recipients. While those poor souls in Llansamlet, condemned to poverty and public transport, will be paying for it all through rocketing electricity bills.