I have decided to re-visit the May 7th General Election partly because I haven’t posted anything for over a week and partly because much has been said since I published my earlier analysis on the 11th.
A recent example would be what was said by Kim Howells, former MP for Pontypridd, on BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme on May 24th, arguing that Labour didn’t do as badly in Wales as in England because ” . . . people have greater trust in Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Assembly Government . . . “. Which is a strange thing to say. Not least because this was a UK General Election, in which Carwyn Jones and his team were sidelined. Even when we had the televised debate of Welsh party leaders Labour was represented by Owen Smith MP not Carwyn Jones AM.
Yet we are expected to believe that when Dai and Sharon Public went to vote each thought, ‘Yes, I know Miliband is a twonk, and the party is run by a metropolitan elite that doesn’t give a toss about people like me, but I shall still vote Labour because I am so impressed with Carl Sargeant, and Lesley Griffiths . . . and then there’s that Theodore Huckle – what a wonderful Counsel General! This argument is – as we political commentators are wont to say – a load of old bollocks.
Though if Howells is right, then it’s a hell of a put-down for the aforementioned Owen Smith and his parliamentary colleagues. And not without irony. For it means that Welsh Labour MPs escaped paying the price for their blind obedience to the metropolitan elite because of the “trust” people have in an Assembly many of them resent as a challenge to their position, an institution many of them do not wish to see attain any further powers.
Though if Howells really believes what he said maybe this chimes with a regularly repeated theory that says Labour in Wales has avoided the fate of its Caledonian comrades because it adapted better to devolution, with part of that adaptation being the development of a kind of ‘nationalism with a small n’ that puts some distance between the Labour Party in Wales and its bosses in London. The “clear red water” suggested by former First Minister Rhodri Morgan. Which if true, only reminds us again of the irony, even hypocrisy, attaching to the attitudes of Labour MPs from Wales.
Something else Kim Howells said was, “If we ever want to be back in government again, we need to win southern England”. This no doubt is the argument we’ve heard over and over since May 7th that says Labour must appeal to the ‘aspirational’. Yet Labour appealing to the aspirational / southern England puts it in direct competition with the Conservative Party, so where does that leave Labour’s traditional heartlands and supporters? And how does a Labour Party winning over voters in the Home Counties with promises of cuts in public services, and the privatisation of the NHS, win back Glasgow and Dundee? Come to that, what would such a party have to say to most Welsh voters? It can’t be done. It’s a circle that cannot be squared.
This is the nightmare scenario for Labour, the day of reckoning that was postponed by the razzmatazz and flim-flam of the Blair era. For almost a century, Labour relied on a unionised working class with a few idealists and romantics from further up the social ladder to smooth over the rough edges. A support base that rapidly declined in the closing decades of the twentieth century. What remains of the unionised working class is no longer umbilicaly tied to the party. The children and grandchildren of those long-gone miners, steelworkers, dockers, etc, either still vote Labour out of habit or, increasingly, don’t vote at all, or else are quite happy to give their votes to other parties.
The only obvious replacement for this lost support appears to be immigrants to the UK. But this is a poisoned chalice. For being supported by immigrants (and doing well in inner cities) allows the Tory media to accuse Labour of being ‘soft on immigration’ and of favouring ‘benefit scroungers’. And there just aren’t enough immigrants, nor a large enough ethnic minority population, for Labour to emulate the Democratic Party in the USA. (The dream of many Labourites.)
If Labour follows the advice that tells it to appeal to the aspirational and to woo southern England then it can kiss Scotland good-bye for ever, and it will haemorrhage support in traditional heartlands south of the border. In this scenario, Labour’s only hope of future success is to replace the Conservative Party by, effectively, becoming more Conservative than the Conservatives. But why should anyone who normally votes Tory consider voting Labour (with its history) even if it promises to deport all foreigners, sterilise the poor, and abolish all taxation?
Let’s go back to former communist and NUM official Kim Howells. He believes the party is in the “deepest crisis” he can remember. He went on, “If the Labour party doesn’t come up with fresh thinking, with some radical analysis of what’s going on in society and what people need out of society, it could well dwindle to a very small number of MPs.” Ed Miliband was “dull”, Labour’s next leader would need to be “much more radical” (while appealing to southern England?) Asked for her views, former MEP Baroness Eluned Morgan ‘admitted the party needed a “thorough rethink”‘ and went on to say that ‘the party needed to readdress the way it approached politics and the way it makes contact with society if it was to move forward successfully’.
Another giving evidence at the open and ongoing inquest was Gerald Holtham – ‘Who he?’, you cry . . . well Holtham is an economist, and regarded by many as one of Labour’s cleverest supporters. Just a few days before Howells and Morgan made their contributions Holtham weighed in with his analysis. It was full of dire warnings about relying on the “tribal” or “sentimental” vote, demanding that the party think hard “about real problems”, warning the party against a “sterile debate”, and then reassuring us that the public is not stupid. This presumably is the same public that we find in areas like Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Swansea East and other constituencies; the same public that has voted Labour for three or four generations and is now tempted to take a punt on Ukip. How could anyone possibly think such people are stupid!
Did you ever read such vacuous nonsense in your life? So many words that say nothing? That’s because Howells, Morgan and Holtham are lost, they don’t have a clue! They all have opinions on where Labour went wrong – expressed in cliches and sound bites – but no one has an answer to where Labour goes from here. When you realise what a mess the Labour party is in, you begin to understand why it was almost wiped out in Scotland. But you also begin to realise that it was only saved from worse results in Wales by Plaid Cymru‘s refusal to connect with Welsh voters.
Personally, I suspect that all three are looking to avoid being honest about the Labour Party’s lucky escape on May 7th, though Holtham goes some way towards acknowledging the troubling reality with his remarks about “tribal” and “sentimental” voters. For the way I see it, the Labour Party in Wales is like an old wildebeest, still managing to stay on its legs, and from a distance even looking healthy, but in truth surviving only because there is no predator around to finish it off. Scavengers have had a nip here and there, but ‘Welsh’ Labour survives because there is no local cousin of the SNP lion to finish it off.
To repeat, Labour’s traditional support is gone and it can never be replaced. Tailoring the party’s message for different audiences – which is what Labour does – is doomed to fail in this age of 24-hour news coverage and social media. By comparison, the Conservative Party can put out the same message from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. (And the SNP the same message from the border to the Northern Isles.)
Here in Wales the Labour Party is in for more disappointment next May in the Assembly elections . . . despite the allure of Carwyn Jones and his cabinet of all the talents. Though the cracks will probably be papered over, and the inevitable delayed, through the “tribal” vote referred to by Holtham. Because with a Tory government in Westminster many of our unstupid Welsh electors will be persuaded to ignore everything wrong with Wales and ‘send a message to London’, again.
So don’t knock it, Holtham. Labour’s “tribal” vote is all that keeps Owen Smith and his gang in the comfort to which they have become so accustomed, and is the guarantee that your party stays top dog down Cardiff docks. Without it, the shadows encroach.