Severm Bridge. Photo: Gareth James/CC
Severm Bridge. Photo: Gareth James/CC

Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales

The next UK government is likely to be a Labour government led by Keir Starmer. The huge lead that Starmer currently enjoys is not a vote of confidence in him, the current leadership of the Labour Party or their (non) policies. Rather it is a reflection of the disgust with the divided Tory party and the effects of its austerity policies of the last 13 years. There are not huge expectations from a Starmer government but there is a hope beyond hope that something will improve after 13 years of the Tories in government.

But in one nation of the UK it is Labour that has been the party in power throughout austerity – in Wales. The idea that a Labour government will significantly improve on the Tories is disproved by the experience in Wales. There has been a Labour or Labour-led government in Wales for 24 years. Devolution has allowed Labour to control the provision of health, education, social care, local government, housing and other services in Wales for quarter of a century.

25 years ago, in July 1998, the Welsh Assembly was brought into being by the Government of Wales Act. Since then, opinion polls have shown large majorities in favour of retaining the National Assembly for Wales and its successor, the Senedd, and two referenda have returned decisive majorities in favour of more powers for the assembly. Socialist Party supported those votes.

All six elections to the assembly have returned Labour governments (some in coalition with the Lib Dems and one with Plaid Cymru). An examination just of electoral statistics in the last 25 years would give the impression of growing support for devolution and consistently solid support for Welsh Labour governments.

However, purely electoral statistics are a very poor indicator of social and political attitudes. They are snapshots of opinions at a particular time, and very distorted snapshots at that. Elections are arenas in which the electorate is presented with very limited choices, dominated by media coverage and a series of Hobson’s choices that do not reflect the changing attitudes in society.

The election of austerity driven Tory governments at Westminster has led to an increase in support for Welsh self-government and increasing dissatisfaction with the devolved status quo in Wales, reflected in the increasing support for independence which has grown from averaging 10% in polls to over 20% in the last few years. And even among the majority that support devolution but still oppose separation, there is increasing dissatisfaction with the current arrangement.

Welsh austerity

Despite some early reforms, the majority of the existence of the Welsh Assembly/Senedd has been dominated by the implementation by Welsh Labour of austerity measures. Since 2010, the Welsh Labour governments led by Carwyn Jones and Mark Drakeford have obediently passed on the huge cuts demanded by the UK Tory governments and reorganised Welsh public services to suit the budgets imposed by the Tories.

In the 1979 referendum, just 21% had supported devolution but the searing experience of Thatcher’s offensive and the brutal attacks on trade-union organisation, devastation of the coal and steel industries that dominated the Welsh economy, mass unemployment with all the social effects that went with it, and the cuts to the NHS and other public services, created a big groundswell of support for the idea of devolution. The Tories had just six MPs in Wales between 1992 and 1997, but Tory placemen and women were put in charge of Welsh public services through a series of quangos, a “quangocracy” imposed on Wales from Westminster.

The crushing defeat of the Tories in the 1997 general election, when every Tory MP in Wales was defeated, and a hope beyond hope that the Blair government would restore Welsh public services, reduced the need in the eyes of Welsh workers for a Welsh assembly. Support for devolution had diminished by the time of the referendum in September that year – hence the wafer-thin majority for devolution.

But by the time the Assembly was actually sworn in in 1999, Blair and Blairism had lost their shine as his Tory-lite policies of privatisation became clearer. The crude attempt to impose a Blairite first minister in the shape of Alun Michael (now the infamous South Wales Police commissioner) back-fired, Labour Assembly Members (AMs) rebelled and Michael was forced to resign to be replaced by Rhodri Morgan, who created the ‘Welsh Labour’ brand.

According to Morgan, Welsh Labour was distinctive from Blair’s New Labour in Westminster. It opposed private finance profiting from public services through PFI and did not introduce academy schools and foundation hospitals. “Clear, red water” separated Welsh Labour from Blairism, according to Morgan.

However, the reality was that the temporary boom in the UK economy at the beginning of the 2000s allowed a certain expansion in public spending and room for the Morgan government to pursue a more social democratic agenda. When the boom crashed in 2007-08 and the first big cuts to public spending were carried out by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster, Welsh Labour obediently cut Welsh budgets to public services.

In many service areas, Welsh Labour was more adept at cutting public services than the Tories in England. Hospital reorganisation was carried out more comprehensively in Wales by the then health minister Mark Drakeford – with A&E provision cut to just six hospitals in South Wales – so that when the Covid crisis hit in 2020 Wales had the lowest number of ICU beds per head in western Europe.

Shamefully, in the nation that celebrates the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan’s dream of the NHS, the NHS is in an even deeper crisis than in the rest of the UK, partly as a result of Welsh Labour government policies. Wales has the longest waiting lists in the UK – 576,000 individuals, 19% of the population, are on hospital wating lists and 30,000 wait more than two years for treatment. NHS dental treatment is in practice denied to thousands of patients including children.

Even prior to austerity, Welsh public services were under-resourced compared to the rest of the UK. The Barnett formula from the 1970s gave Welsh public services the same per-capita funding as England, but did not take into account the greater social needs of a poorer and older population that required more health and social care spending.

This gap widened in the 21st Century. The Holtham Commission in 2009 estimated that Wales was underfunded by £300 million. The spending gap is even greater in transport and other services. For example, rail transport is only partially devolved so that spending is not subject to the Barnett formula and, unlike Scotland, spending on rail infrastructure is lumped in with England’s. The Tory UK government has starved the Welsh rail network of investment while spending £130 billion on the HS2 project that has sucked in most of the funding for rail investment for England and Wales, while Scotland received a ‘consequential’ subvention from HS2. This has forced the Welsh government to dip into other funding to electrify Wales’s Victorian local railways, while only electrification of part of the line from England into South Wales is funded by the UK government.

But the passive approach of successive Welsh governments has allowed Tory cuts and attacks to be implemented with scarcely a whimper of protest. Despite in words opposing spending cuts, Welsh governments have implemented all the cuts imposed by the Tories and put a Welsh spin on them – in effect they have acted as the Welsh PR department for austerity – the Tories have achieved all their spending cuts in Wales with the minimum of fuss. The social effects have been devastating – close to half of Welsh children in poverty, the highest proportion of people in prison in western Europe, the longest NHS waiting lists and lowest number of hospital beds per capita in the UK.

Make Westminster pay

A socialist Welsh government would have refused to carry out the cuts, drawn on the hundreds of millions of pounds it and Welsh local authorities hold in reserves, maintained services while launching a mass campaign of resistance to the Westminster cuts. The Militant-led Liverpool council extracted millions of pounds from the vicious Tory government of “Iron Lady” Thatcher in the 1980s. If they could achieve that by campaigning from one city, imagine what a Welsh socialist government could achieve if it mobilised a nation!

Instead, the Welsh government has built up over £500 million in reserves while holding back public spending – so much that £155 million was clawed back this year by the UK government, because the Welsh government exceeded its reserves limit! Welsh Labour is silent on demanding that a future Starmer government  gives the necessary funding to implement even the limited recommendations of the Holtham Commission.

Scandalously, the Welsh government has steadfastly refused to maintain free school meals through the school summer holidays to children on Universal Credit. Welsh Labour only conceded free school meals to all primary school children in the first place when forced under pressure as part of the agreement with Plaid Cymru.

Also this July, Welsh health minister Eluned Morgan celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS by repeating the Tory line that people should “look after their own health and wellbeing”. She accepts the lowest spending on health in western Europe – “There is only one cake, and my responsibility as the minister is to determine how that is cut up,” she said. She doesn’t want to train more doctors and nurses because they will move to England or abroad to practice, rather than an imaginative programme to encourage newly trained medical professionals to commit to the NHS in Wales.

And Welsh Labour claims to be to the left of UK Labour.

If this is the experience of Labour administrations that have at least started out with worthy intentions then what can we expect from a Starmer government that has boasted to big business that it has no intention of expanding public services?

Labour kowtow to markets

True, in theory a Starmer government has much more control over its own finances. The Welsh government relies for the bulk of its revenue on the UK Treasury. But Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have made it clear that they will accept completely the diktats of the corporate boardrooms and continue with Tory spending levels. The spending constraints that Welsh Labour has accepted from Westminster will be replicated by a Starmer government by the spending constraints demanded by the City of London and world capitalist markets.

Given the dire state of British capitalism, even though they will slavishly hold down spending, a run on the pound or in the bond markets is still entirely possible. A Starmer government would then attack public spending even further.

In 1931, following a run on the pound, the only way that Labour prime minister Ramsey Macdonald could force through savage austerity was by leaving the party, taking a small rump of Labour MPs and joining with the Tories in the National government. Today, Starmer will not need to significantly split the Labour Party – he can rely on most of the MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party to toe the line. Even the mildest critics are weeded out by Stalinistic manipulation of the Labour candidate selection process. Figures on the left of Labour, like Beth Winter, MP for Cynon Valley, are cast aside – the Starmer leadership attempting to remove MPs it worries would be particularly susceptible to working-class pressure.

Unlike in 1931, Labour MPs are largely immune from pressure from the rank-and-file of the party and the trade unions, as Labour has transformed to an openly pro-capitalist party. Labour’s majority would more likely be wiped out by the anger to its attacks on working people – especially if a new mass party of the working class confronts it on the electoral field.

Any residual hopes that Starmer is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – talking down expectations of reforms to placate the media, then carrying out reforms when elected – will be removed rapidly when in power. Conditions in which a new mass workers’ party can develop rapidly, to provide a genuine alternative to angry and disillusioned working people, especially if left unions were to take the lead. This could be accelerated if a significant trade union-based electoral challenge to Labour was mounted at the election, as well as after it.