Thursday, 12 July 2012

Where's the centre ground in Welsh politics?

There was an interesting article on Click on Wales the other day, following off the back of the launch of David Melding's (Con, South Wales Central) new "centre-right" think tank - Gorwel - at the end of June.

I don't really have that much time for think tanks. They have their place, but I'm not sure they're always practical-minded in the application of their work. They're somtimes bogged down in the theoretical (ahem), and a more up-market and credible version of the likes of the Taxpayers' Alliance - designed to pressure policy makers into following a set way, rather than looking at things objectively.

However, a new voice is always welcome in Welsh civic society. I genuinely hope Gorwel is a success, as we don't have enough to counter, or challenge, the left-wing "cosy consensus" in Wales (you can tell I wrote this before this week's "drama", can't you?).

I might myself be left-leaning, but it does frustrate me sometimes that the fundamentals of economics are ignored for the sake psudo-socialist grandstanding between three broadly left-wing parties with the Tories sitting in the corner sucking their thumbs. It's partially why Wales is stagnating, in my opinion.

It does make you wonder where in Wales "the centre" lies.

Firstly, we need to define what a "centre ground" is. I'd deem it a "blind spot" in the political spectrum, where the major parties fight for moderate/floating voters, but doesn't have a defined party of its own.

It doesn't have to be in the centre of a left-right axis - and this is a significant difference between Wales and much of the rest of the UK as I see it. I've given an idea of where I think the various parties are in this diagram below:

A Welsh political spectrum? Is this where the centre ground is?
(Click to enlarge)

Welsh Labour are very clearly left-authoritarians - rightly or wrongly seeing the state, social justice and social order as the way to drive Wales forward. They're not "hands off" at all, even if you could accuse the current Welsh Government of laziness. They micro-manage, strategise and centralise from the top down. Classic "Old Labour", but in 21st century clothes.

Plaid are a few notches down the authoritarian ladder, and are probably a bit more left-wing than Welsh Labour. It's the same ideals – seeing the state as the way to drive Wales forward, but from the bottom-up : co-operatives, mutualism and communitarianism. It's a much more "hands off" approach than Welsh Labour, and probably the major difference between the two parties, aside from the constitution and specific issues like nuclear power.

Where do the Liberal Democrats fit in? The Lib Dems tread similar ground to Plaid, but perhaps see individualism as a greater influence than collectivism. This could be considered the classic "Welsh liberalism". But that's been dead for a long time.

Accuse me of bias all you want, but Plaid have taken that, mixed it with Welsh-language radicalism, and can now be said to carry the banner of the "Welsh liberal/rural radical tradition" into the 21st century. The Lib Dems are probably the party closest to that centre ground, but they haven't made a major breakthrough except at a local level.

Devolution allowed a left-ward shift in the axis of Welsh politics. This has had its affect on the Welsh Conservatives too. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the Welsh Conservatives under Nick Bourne probably had more in common with New Labour than Rhodri Morgan's Welsh Labour ever had : support for competition in public services, support for PFI and radical reforms in health services for example.

While Nick didn't shift them that far to the left, he certainly de-toxified the brand by adopting the other thing that throws all of this into a tailspin – Welsh (small-n) nationalism.

Prior to Andrew RT Davies becoming leader, you could argue that the Welsh Conservatives were on their way to becoming something similar to a centre-right nationalist parties in Catalonia or the Basque Country. Their manifesto for the 2011 Welsh General Election was extraordinary in its small-n nationalism : big support for the Welsh language, ambitious goals for the Welsh economy, ambitious goals to improve the capacity of national structures and all tied to an almost patriotic zeal that could go toe to toe with anything Plaid could produce or advocate - short of independence.

I think that's been undone now, and while even Andrew might accept that the last manifesto was a pretty good one, don't expect to see many of these things come 2016. The party has shifted largely to be in line with the UK party, and have become a mouthpiece for them, as well as more solidly Unionist once again.

In the last few days, this has been complicated further by a (I have to say, slightly rogue-looking) poll that suggests UKIP could be on the threshold of a major breakthrough in the Assembly - something commented on elsewhere at National Left and Blog Menai. Most of that shift has been from current Conservative voters by the look of things. Something is seriously wrong there, and I picked up on that following the local elections in May.

I don't think the centre ground comes down to support for enterprise either. All of the parties support enterprise, especially small and medium-sized businesses. I think it's support for traditional free-market capitalism that's the big difference between the Conservatives and the others.

Plaid have their "Greenprint" for a communitarian, co-operative economy. Both Labour and Plaid support the co-operative sector as a whole. All of this is still "enterprise", just with different outcomes.

It's the dirtiest word in the English language in Wales that's the killer – "profit".

Labour, Plaid and probably a few Lib Dems too, loath it. They have to. The Welsh have an ingrained distrust of big capital, the capitalist class, big time charlies, and yes "profit" too. We've probably come off worse, historically, than most parts of the UK (other than NE England) in the pursuit of profit. It's lead to us lacking middle-class and upper-class patronage (with notable exceptions) and a failure to create a successful "indigenous" capitalist base.

The Welsh "centre ground" is probably what I've described before as a type of "Gaullism": Small-n nationalism (in a Welsh context), that embraces individualism, profit-motive (but not full on free-market capitalism), and perhaps a less-statist approach to social justice. They won't support independence, but would probably "love to see it happen, but it wouldn't work/can't afford it" – and I've heard that an awful lot down the years, even in Bridgend. They would, however, support a form of fiscal autonomy or federalism.

This is probably where the SNP is in Scotland, the only difference being they outright support independence.

If anything, in Wales it probably consists of the right-wing of Plaid, mixed with the "Meldingites" in the Welsh Conservatives, Lib Dem federalists, and any "New Labour" politicians.

There's not just room for a think tank there. It's a gaping hole that could be filled with a new political party. This one could become a very big player in Welsh politics, probably pushing Plaid to the margins as a more radical independence-seeking party, while consigning either the Welsh Conservatives, or Welsh Liberal Democrats (as they are), to the dustbin.


  1. From a quick glance i think you've written a superb article here Owen. Will read it in depth later to perhaps give further comments. Yes it's one for the anoraks but it's worthwhile.

    Your point about Nick Bourne (and Jonathan Morgan) being more New Labour than Rhodri Morgan is spot on and it has been made by other people, Martin Shipton said it in the past.

    Your placings of the parties on the left-right and state-individual axes are also accurate by my reading. You're good.

    But where you've gone wrong is in believing the Tories under RT (or even under Bourne) are similar to the Basque and Catalan centre-right parties. They are nowhere near them. The Basque Nationalists have a very specific Catholic social democratic economic policy that in Welsh terms would be seen as left-leaning, their centre-right position comes more from social and cultural issues and again the influence of the church. I know far less about Catalonia but I know CiU is all about developig Catalan society as an autonomous nation. The Conservatives were pretty far from this goal under Bourne. They are light years from it, and not remotely interested in it, under RT the "leader of the Assembly group, not the party".

  2. The Welsh Conservatives under Bourne were basically New Labour in terms of the policies they advocated for public service reform, so-called "aspirational" policies, "freeing" schools from local authority control, proposing competition in the NHS. I don't think that was or is the centre-ground for Wales but it says alot that the UK centre-ground manifests as the Tories here. Today I saw David Taylor (an ultra-Blairite Labour hack in Wales) calling for Jon Morgan to join the Labour party on a New Labour basis. Aside from the ridiculous hypocrisy of agitating against the Tories when he basically is one, it is completely consistent and logical to call for such a thing.

  3. I agree with your analysis, especially the point about there being room for a new party (although I think it will happen in the next decade). It's a shame that David Melding's 'Ymlaen' proposal didn't come to fruition.

    I think the type of party you describe would do well in much of rural Wales as well as appealing to places like Bridgend and southern RCT.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Anon 18:01 - I concede that I was "optimistic" comparing the Welsh Tories to the Catalan and Basque "right-nationalists", but I think we'll both agree that they've taken a big step backwards from that now. There were teasing glimpses that they might've been heading that way in the 2011 manifesto - but that manifesto was written by David Melding IIRC.

    That's a real shame. I know this is going to sound stupid, but if they were less "conservative" in their approach to the union, but more crucially offer a coherent policy on health and the economy, they would hoover up votes (theoretically).

    Rydd - It would certainly be consistent. The problem is that Welsh Labour are solidly behind their clear red moat, and show no signs of changing their stances - not that they really need to. Many New Labour policies probably wouldn't work in Wales, and it made an awful lot of sense for Welsh Labour to avoid following them. You're average Welsh Labour voter is a small-c conservative, just left-wing - a mirror of "Concerned from Tunbridge Wells".

    They can't really be seen to jump into that void, but they're lucky nobody else has. The SNP did in Scotland, helped along by a charismatic leader, and look where they are now.

    Anon 20:07 - I don't think any of the main unionist parties in Wales will ever split from their "mother parties", except perhaps in some administrative ways, short of independence. It would just be a rebranding exercise at the end of the day.

    They can't really go through that process and just be a "federal" arm of a bigger party. What's the point? They would have to be completely new, autonomous parties to work properly - with AMs, Welsh councillors and MPs as members - and only "affiliated" to their counterparts in England. Hence, why I don't think it'll happen, however smart an idea it is.

  5. Owen. I agree with you. The correct way to see the Tories under Nick Bourne was that it was their group strategy in the Assembly to be more Welsh. They didn't really have "buy-in" from local Conservative Associations, the MPs, or the membership. Thats where Melding's Ymlaen idea would hit the walls. It would come across as centrist Welsh New Labour. That isn't actually fertile ground. They wouldn't be able to build up a significant party membership compared to the real Tories and Labour (or even Plaid).

    For these reasons the other Anon above is wrong and it will not happen. Melding was always clear he wanted to reform the Conservatives, not leave them.

  6. "If anything, in Wales (the centre-ground) probably consists of the right-wing of Plaid, mixed with the "Meldingites" in the Welsh Conservatives, Lib Dem federalists, and any "New Labour" politicians. "

    The ideological crossover between New Labour (never strong in Wales) and Meldingite/Bournite Tories is well covered on this thread. But I can't see the right of Plaid or the Lib Dems occupying the same ground. The right of Plaid are liberals, except for their support for independence they are indistinguishable from people like Aled Roberts. But that same support for independence means they would politically be miles away from New Labour.

    Also tribalism counts for alot more in Wales than Owen's rational post does, and that's why this idea of new parties or splinters is unrealistic. Key individuals within parties can migrate across the political spectrum if it suits them, or indeed if they genuinely change their views. Leighton Andrews e.g was once considered a Blairite, New Labour man, but as Minister he has shunned New Labour education policies and taken a generally socialist or 'Old Labour' coruse. Huw Lewis has also styled himself in different ways at different times. People change with time and as the facts change, or they jockey for position in internal elections or seek to outmanouvre their opponents.

  7. Thanks for the additional comments, apologies for my late response.

    Anon 08:58 - I also think, for the moment, a Welsh version of New Labour is unpalatable. However, I'm not sure that'll last forever with the current dog's dinner being made with regard NHS reorgansiation. I think that's where we might start to see some Blairite "reforms" begin to creep into the Welsh NHS. It won't be described as that, of course, and it'll perhaps all be done a different way (minimal PFI for example), but a "Welsh New Labour", as opposed to a Welsh-version of UK/England New Labour is possible. I think it'll be a generation before we start to see that happen though, the "old guard" will have to go.

    Anon 10:55 - You're probably right re. the right-wing of Plaid, and I think you're spot on in your assessment of the "manouvering" within Welsh Labour. With "clear red water", they've managed to become electorally successful, but I'm not sure how long that'll last while those policies continue to see underperformance.

    They're going to need to offer something new in the medium-term beyond the managerialism and focus on universal benefits we currently see. Yet the simple, but harsh, fact is perhaps that's what the Welsh electorate wants - a big state, with, not necessarily aggressive, but softly paternalistic leadership.

  8. Anon 13 July 10:5516 July 2012 at 11:23

    You're completely right Owen. The Welsh electorate, out of those that do vote, doesn't see a helping hand from the state as being a problem. In terms of the performance of public services I think Welsh voters are quite perceptive but they don't make the link with England and compare relative performance of Wales to the England or UK level. We make those comparisons because we see the two tables and compare the GCSE scores in Wales to the GCSE scores in England, and while both have improved (yes even Welsh GCSE rates have improved, as far as I understand), we see that England has improved faster. A voter in Bridgend or Cardiff or Wrexham doesn't compare the two tables.

  9. Thanks for the follow up, Anon 10:55.

    I think there is a "complex" with regard performance compared to England, but as you've said, perhaps voters in Wales are more concerned with how they personally interact with public services than statistics. If they think their local school is a good one, that's all that matters to them.

    I think "we" have to be careful when comparing any Welsh statistic with England, as England is also subdivided into regions, some of which underperform compared to Wales, usually due to similar factors like relative poverty and de-industrialisation. When Wales is compared to England alone it simply isn't a like-for-like comparison. We might as well compare Wales to the US as a whole or Russia as a whole.

    Sometimes I get the impression Wales is compared to England to make the English feel better about themselves (or the Welsh feel worse), or added into EnglandandWales to make other statistics look better (crime for example). We should either compare ourselves to similar sized nations (including Scotland and NI) or the regions of England in isolation.

  10. Me again, mate.

    Yes I agree. Do you think then there's a difference between comparing Wales to England and comparing Wales to the UK? Does the presence of Scotland and Northern Ireland skew things at all or are they to small?

    I think even if largely meaningless comparisons to England are put aside, the Welsh Government could set targets for public service performance. I'm not aware that it has done so, apart from the PISA tables aim (to get into the top 20 I think). But I haven't paid as much attention as you.

    One thing I want to see happen is Wales' relative GVA to the UK GVA increase. Does this mean Wales' economy has to grow faster than England's economy (or the UK's economy)? Is that possible? Can we make it happen? What has happened in the recent few blips where Wales' relative GVA grew? I think there was a blip in 2004/05 or so, and last year where we slightly "grew" by half a percent or thereabouts. These are questions I want to see answered by our politicians if we're seriously going to examine Welsh performance.

  11. I think it's a case of London, SE England and E England skewing everything else around it. Scotland might, slightly, but ultimately the "centre of gravity" is in the southern half of England. They so massively out-perform the rest of the UK, it drives the "average" even further out of Wales' reach.

    The Welsh Government does have "performance indicators" they are monitoring as part of their annual reports, but they are very specific, even slightly anal and irrelevant, except to anoraks like me.

    I think the Welsh Government have overpromised with regard targets, and subsequently under-delivered. The current WG are heading down the same direction to. Getting into the top 20 PISA for example, would probably require decades long reforms in education.

    On GVA growth, yes Wales' economy would have to grow significantly faster than all of England to close the gap. We're talking Chinese style levels of growth - 7-8% year on year - and hope that there's a slowdown in southern England. Short of striking oil, gas or gold, it's an impossible task.

    You would quite literally have to move a significant chunk of "The City" financial services industry to Wales to see that happen.

    I think a more sensible/realistic approach would be to aim for either an EU per capita average of 100% (Wales as a whole is hovering around 85% I think), or 90-100% of the UK figure, minus London, SE England and E England.