At the outset of this blog, it behoves to be honest. I joined the Labour Party when I was 18, which was in 2004. It was the year after the Iraq War, about which I had little time to think given I was head down in my A Levels at the time. I cast my first vote in the 2004 European Elections, enthusiastically voting Labour without even giving it a second thought, and in the local government elections. I remember cycling to town listening to the results coming in and letting out a loud yelp when Plaid Cymru were kicked out of RCT in a huge landslide. The following year came the 2005 General Election, again I voted Labour. I put up a Vote Labour poster in my window in university – contrasting with my mate Frank’s Lib Dem ‘Winning Here’ one, and the general Toryness of the college. During the early part of my PhD I was extremely active in my local constituency party. And then came the 2010 General Election when my enthusiasm for Labour broke: the local MP, who had been around for decades, felt like a relic of the past, and I left the party in the autumn after the election. I did not rejoin until the autumn of 2015.
In that intervening time I still mostly voted Labour, admittedly, but occasionally let my vote be swayed by people I knew – on one occasion for a student of mine standing for TUSC for my local government ward in Yorkshire. Last year, as some readers of the blog will know, I joined Plaid Cymru in a moment of enthusiasm. I was curious, I’d reconnected with people I’d known years ago and met some new folks, and it seemed to offer an interesting angle on contemporary politics – not least an ability to anchor Labour to a stronger, grassroots vision of social democracy. At one point I was even elected vice chair of my local branch (further than I’d ever got in the Labour Party). But I knew, deep down, and said it openly too, that I wasn’t a nationalist. So did everyone else. I recoiled from their political language – the Welsh ‘nation’ versus the British ‘state’ (a non sequitur if you ask me, there would be a Welsh state after independence) – and I am deeply uncomfortable with the way the party over-emphasises the Welsh language as an antagonist of the English language. It was expected, I felt, that you be Cymrophone if anyone was to take you seriously or listen to what you had to say. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that impression it is what I’m left with.
Although there are a few Plaid people I’d probably vote for on a personal level, if anyone asks now, my reply is simply I tried nationalism once and didn’t like it. So there you have it: another one of those Labour-voting, Labour-supporting, Labour historians. Guilty as charged. At least I tried some of the alternatives, once.
I say all that because the labour movement matters; its rich, multi-faceted history matters a great deal. To iterate that is not to express a personal bias, but to tell the truth. This richness can be illustrated by looking at the activities of one branch – the Merthyr Tydfil branch. In the early twentieth century, it had a certain prestige attracted from the lustre of Keir Hardie’s election as the junior member for the Merthyr Boroughs in 1900. But Hardie spent relatively little time in the constituency – he never lived there – and so the development of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Labour Party subsequently, and the wider labour movement, was left to others. Within two decades of Hardie’s election, the ILP had grown sufficiently large that it was able to attract luminaries from across the labour movement from Dick Wallhead and Ramsay MacDonald to Minnie Pallister, James Winstone, Helen Crawfurd, and George Lansbury. They held free musical concerts in conjunction with the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union branch in the town, the aim being to encourage enthusiasm for ‘good music’ amongst the working population who might otherwise not have had access to the great works. They organised education classes teaching everything from Marxian economics to Esperanto and Irish to the social and cultural history of industrial South Wales. Art, literature, music, the very stuff of culture, was encouraged by a labour movement that understood the connection between politics and the everyday.
These days, given the post-devolution descent of the Labour Party – especially in Wales – into a kind of bureaucratic, managerial, centrist blandness (with a penchant for nostalgia), it’s hard to reconcile that kind of history with what people see and experience in their own lives. Certainly, as Dai Smith recently pointed out, some in the Labour Party see no value in culture, treating it as an appendage draining revenues that could be spent elsewhere, such as on the National Religion. But that’s the fault of devolution, not the Labour Party intrinsically. It’s the same impulse – and not merely enforced austerity from afar – that encourages ‘blockhead’ councillors to cut libraries, museums, and cultural venues (or to offload them to trusts), whilst corporatizing leisure and other council services and throwing money around building things. The bureaucratic mind adores objects, buildings: the very stuff of a materially-minded magpie. It’s awkwardly Soviet in a seventies kind of way. They’ve forgotten that libraries were central to the labour movement’s very idea of society and its collective access to culture and knowledge. A democratic route to the ideas for change, if you will. The Pontypridd ILP, for instance, held its education classes in Pontypridd Library, its talks in a local cinema, and its rallies in public parks and open spaces. The popular, the political, and the pedagogical all rolled into one sense of purpose.
These are grand, lofty ideas. But they happened everywhere, which is the point. And by everywhere I don’t just mean in big towns but in every small place: Bedlinog as much as Barry; Caerau as much as Cardiff; Seven Sisters as much as Swansea; Ynysybwl as much as Ystalyfera. That meant that everyone could feel some connection to the purpose of the labour movement, whether or not they voted Labour, ILP, or Communist, at election times. Or indeed, whether they bought their goods from the cooperative society; whether they got their news from the Daily Herald or Daily Worker or from the Western Mail; whether or not they worked in heavy industry. No matter where they came from, what religion the followed, what gender or sexuality, or what the colour of their skin happened to be.
Perhaps the most singular complaint about the Labour Party today is that it doesn’t understand the ‘national question’ sufficiently. Such a complaint typically comes from nationalists for whom the national question overrides everything else – it’s seen as the magic key that will make available the yellow brick road to prosperity, equality, social justice, and the magical wonderland where even yesterday’s mushrooms siarad cymraeg. Actually, the Labour Party understands the national question quite well, it always has done, as evidenced by its early support for Indian home rule, Irish home rule, and yes home rule for Scotland, England, and Wales. The reason it understood the national question in those contexts is because Labour was a broad movement.
A little over a century ago, the Rhondda was home to several Indian doctors – the phenomenon may be associated with post-war NHS needs, but that was not the first wave of medical migration. One of these doctors lived in Ferndale. He was popular with local workers and was adopted as the medical officer for the local medical aid scheme. He was also a member of the Independent Labour Party, not, as so many middle class professionals were in those days, a member of the Liberal Party. Several years before Keir Hardie travelled to India and was converted to the cause of Indian Home Rule, this doctor travelled around the valleys telling members of the ILP all about the causes of Indian nationalism, about why it was Indians sought freedom from the imperial yoke. It embedded the idea of Indian freedom in the minds of labour members and consistently they supported Indians in their struggles. The same was true of the Irish – although that story is more widely known. A similar sense of exclusion was instilled in the Cardiff labour movement by the people of Butetown, and across the region by Paul Robeson. Not by coincidence does the Abercraf lodge banner feature of miner of colour.
But what of Welsh nationhood? As my good friend, comrade, and colleague, Martin Wright demonstrates in his forthcoming book, a taster can be found here, nationhood, the Welsh language, and the very idea of Wales, was integral to the ILP’s activities here from the start. For all that the party recognised a cosmopolitan world in South Wales, they also recognised that their literature had to be in both languages, that speakers and organisers needed to be able to communicate in both languages, and that socialism needed to be spoken with a local voice. How easy it is to forget that Fabian tracts, including that famous first one Why are the many poor? were translated into the Welsh language for audiences to appreciate both in pamphlet form and in the Welsh-language press. Far from being completely antagonistic to ‘Wales’ as the Liberal Party presented it, wished it to be, the Labour pioneers sought to harness all parts of Wales to project a new vision for the nation. A socialist vision.
In his recent work, Simon Brooks has argued that Wales ‘never was’, in the sense that Wales in the nineteenth century never escaped the multi-national state in the way that countries in central and eastern Europe eventually did. In the course of the twentieth century only three nations of northern and western Europe managed to gain independence: Norway, Ireland, and Iceland. Greenland remains as an autonomous country within the Danish kingdom, rather like the Faroe Islands. That version of Wales never was, but there was something more valuable. The idea of Wales that the ILP worked for, that the labour movement worked for, did come to fruition to some extent. Step into the coalfield in the 1920s and 1930s and you’ll have seen desperate poverty and hardship, yes, but you’d have also seen medical aid societies providing reasonably comprehensive healthcare, adult education classes providing a form of secondary and tertiary education (very much the model for the Open University decades later), a strong library network run both by the municipal authorities and the labour movement, successful moves in places towards the provision of early years education, and a network of leisure amenities that have since been squandered by subsequent generations. That’s before we even discuss the co-operatives which were a lifeline to valleys communities, but also so indicative of their sense of purpose. That, I think, shows that something happened in the first half of the twentieth century, even if today’s nationalists and labourites alike refuse to recognise it for what it was.
The reason nationalism has grown strong enough to compete with the labour movement in the early twenty-first century, in something of a role reversal of the late nineteenth century, is because the Labour Party has divorced itself to too great a degree from the labour movement. It has forgotten too much and relies instead on a partial, nostalgic image of a past that it thinks goes all the way back to the pioneers but really doesn’t. The statist Labour Party was only one outcome of the ideological thought processes of the interwar years, but in hindsight the wrong outcome won. People in the 1940s were worried about a slide back to the 1930s, to poverty and fascism, and thought that the state could provide the security to avoid that fate. From their point of view they had it right, but from ours they had it wrong. And this is ultimately why nationalism grew ever louder as the devil’s compromise of the state as guardian soured. Too distant. Too unresponsive to the real needs. Too prone to cronyism, to business interests, to corporatism. Too undemocratic. Listen carefully and these are the same complaints made by our cousins in North and West Wales of Westminster and of Cardiff, of the British state and the Welsh state. The authors of the Miners’ Next Step had it right when they lamented:
A leader implies at the outset some men who are being led; and the term is used to describe a man who, in a representative capacity, has acquired combined administrative and legislative power. As such, he sees no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions. Indeed such intelligence from his point of view, by breeding criticism and opposition, is an obstacle and causes confusion. His motto is, “Men be loyal to your leaders”.
We know this today as ‘all in it together’, ‘together for Wales’, ‘the change Wales needs’. The change Wales needs is measured in 1p, 2p, and £1 coins, not political jargon and fancy-shmancy graphics. Poverty and apathy go hand in hand. To put it another way: almost exactly one hundred years ago, at a gathering of comrades in Gorseinon, the original embodiment of One Wales – S. O. Davies – took the message of the Miners’ Next Step and came up with this clarion call which still has such relevance today:
Workers! The old order must be done away with. Take the tragic condition in Ireland, and in the whole of Europe. You and I can end all this strife; we can make wars cease. If we can kill the jealousy, apathy, etc., that is among the workers, we shall see poverty passing away. Let us have the courage to fight on. Socialism is getting a bit too respectable. A socialist is not branded unless he does some thinking; and so I implore you to commence thinking, then life will be sweet and pure.
Exchange Ireland for contemporary Greece, if you will, but what difference has one hundred years made? Are they really one hundred years of political progress? Not if we pick and choose moments, not if we follow the general line of nostalgia and selective memory making.
Labour matters because it has been the single most transformative political movement Wales – and Britain – has yet known. It matters because it can still be transformatory. But it must realise that nationalism isn’t an irritant that’ll go away if it starts making wasp noises too, rather nationalism is a sign that all is not well with the labour project, that it has become a bureaucratic monolith. Do we really want in fifty years’ time to have a set of Russian matryoshka dolls made of the first ministers of Wales akin to that of the Soviet leaders? The lessons for today’s Wales lie not in Slovenia but in Russia, in the decaying monolith of the USSR which became wedded to symbolism, nostalgia, and the eternal notion of ‘reform’. Even Gorbachev had his decade of delivery. It led directly to collapse. Labour matters too much to let that happen, but it must remember that Labour Wales was not built by the party but by the labour movement. And by the labour movement alone can the people of Wales really get the change that they so desperately desire.