Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales
Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour government has made much of the “four nations approach” to tackling the Covid-19 crisis, claiming to plot a different course to the Tory Westminster government. But the reality is that the Welsh government has been more like a small boat being pulled in the wake of an ocean liner. And in the case of the Johnson government, the liner resembles The Titanic.
Initially, the Welsh government implemented the same disastrous policy as the UK government, abandoning testing, and relying on ‘herd immunity’ to develop (which, if continued, would have led to 10,000 Covid-19 deaths in Wales) and then followed the Johnson government in drawing back from it. The result is that so far there have been 2,300 excess deaths in the pandemic in Wales, one of the highest rates in the world.
It is true that the Welsh government has been more cautious in lifting some lockdown restrictions than the UK government, but there the differences end. Wales has had the same testing failures, the same PPE fiasco, the same catastrophic neglect of care homes as England. And in attempting to return all school pupils back to class on 29 June it is actually endangering people more than Boris Johnson’s failed attempts in England.
Kirsty Williams, the education minister, announced that all school pupils will return for at least one day a week at the end of this month, and the school summer term will be extended by a week. This would mean that many teachers would be in contact with 150 school students a week – in contact with 150 families in effect – even if each class is smaller than normal.
The hubs that have been used to teach the children of key workers cannot operate any more, and online teaching will be scaled down as teachers will be in class at least four days a week.
The government is trying to impose this ill-thought-out plan with no consultation with the trade unions about the change, and no explanation as to how the teachers and other education workers’ contracts would be ripped up. Williams attacked the teaching unions when they had the temerity to point at that her plans risked the lives of pupils, parents and teachers. So much for the ‘social partnership’ approach claimed by the Welsh government.
The approach of tamely imitating the policies of the Tory government in the Covid-19 crisis is a continuation of the parallel path followed by Welsh Labour governments with regards to UK Tory governments.
Welsh governments have dutifully implemented the cuts to spending on devolved public services in Wales imposed by Tory governments. This failed policy has been cruelly exposed by the crisis that has engulfed the NHS during the Covid-19 crisis. Successive Welsh Labour governments have carried out a conscious policy of cutting hospital services in Wales.
They have closed or downgraded dozens of hospitals and centralised services in just a few ‘super-hospitals’. It was trying to force through the closure of the A&E at Royal Glamorgan Hospital just as the pandemic hit.
The result of this cutting back on hospital services is that Wales entered the coronavirus pandemic even worse prepared than England, with less hospital beds and ICU beds than any other part of the UK, and the lowest in western Europe, with just 153 critical care beds for the whole of Wales.
The fact that NHS Wales under Labour is even worse prepared than the NHS in England, which has been subjected to the deepest austerity programme in history by the Tories, should give Welsh Labour supporters pause for thought.
Welsh Labour denies that reduced spending is responsible for these cuts – it says that the governments have centralised and cut resources for clinical reasons. But the reality is that Welsh Labour has cut the suit of the NHS to match the cloth of Tory UK spending levels.
Instead, Socialist Party Wales has called for the Welsh government to refuse to carry out spending cuts on the Tories’ behalf, and organise a national protest led by the trade unions to force the UK government to return the money stolen from Welsh services.
The effect of the Welsh Labour government implementing Tory cuts on behalf of the UK Tories is that Labour has justifiably taken much of the blame for austerity, and devolution itself has been undermined to a layer of workers. Labour politicians in Wales have claimed that they are implementing a dented-shield policy. But the reality is that by taking the blame for Tory cuts, they have acted as a heat shield for Tory austerity.
The most significant change in Welsh politics in recent years has been the eroding of support for Welsh Labour in its traditional heartland seats in the South Wales valleys and the ‘red wall’ in North Wales.
In an opinion poll in April, the Tories had a lead over Labour for Senedd (Welsh parliament) elections of between 6-8%. If there had been a Welsh Parliament election then, the Tories would have won the most seats in the Senedd. Undoubtedly some of that was a knock-on from the ‘rally-to-the-flag’ effect as the Johnson government confronted the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the increasing unpopularity of the Johnson government is eroding support for the Tories in Wales. The Cummings scandal has undermined the false claims of Johnson that he stands against the elite.
Welsh Labour has gained in the polls, but only because the Tories in Westminster look so bad. A month later the Tories were down 11% in Wales. But the poll was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Welsh government, with Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru gaining as much as Welsh Labour.
There has been a certain polarisation on the national question. Support for independence has increased consistently over the past period, especially among the young, but there has been an increasing disillusionment with devolution amongst a layer of older workers. Both positions arise from the alienation of voters from the political establishment following the failure of the Welsh government to maintain public services, and the Westminster gridlock over Brexit.
For 30 years, support for independence oscillated around 10% in polls (falling to 5% at the time of the Scottish Indyref in 2014). But in September 2019 it reached a high of 24% in one poll, and the disgust with the chaotic Westminster parliamentary crises has been a factor in the rise in support.
More 18-24 year olds (42%) supported independence than opposed it. However, increased support for independence at this stage has not come so clearly from working-class people as it has in Scotland. There was slightly larger support for independence in the higher ABC1 social groups than the working-class C2DE social groups.
Much of the increased support has come from Remainers who see Welsh independence, possibly alongside Scottish independence, as an exit from Brexit. Support was highest among Lib Dem voters (55%), even higher than with Plaid Cymru voters (51%).
As dissatisfaction with the established parties and the incompetence of the governments are exposed, this polarisation might increase with a larger, more working-class layer supporting independence.
A mass workers’ party, if it existed, could channel this dissatisfaction in a socialist direction. As well as vigorously defending the interests of the working class against the onslaught of both coronavirus and the economic crisis to follow, it could explain how a lasting solution will only be possible by fighting for socialism.
Socialist Party Wales calls for:
- Reverse all the cuts – for the Welsh government and Welsh councils to set legal no-cuts budgets, pool reserves, and build a mass campaign to force the UK government to return the funds robbed from Welsh services
- For a Welsh parliament with a socialist government
- For a socialist Wales as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland