They breed men like Alec Jones there [in the Rhondda].
With these words the former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan gave tribute to Alec Jones, MP for the Rhondda, who died suddenly aged 58 on 20 March 1983. First elected to parliament in 1967, following the equally sudden death of Rhondda West MP Iori Thomas in December 1966, Jones went on to become MP for the unified Rhondda constituency in 1974. A teacher by training, Jones was the first Rhondda MP to have no personal connection to the mining industry. The 1967 by-election is now famous for having been one of a string in the late-1960s in which the Labour Party was assailed by nationalist parties (both in Scotland and Wales). Iori Thomas’s parliamentary majority at the 1966 General Election had been 16,888 or more than 67%. The by-election saw that fall to just 2,306. Or a swing of nearly 30 percent. Plaid Cymru, the beneficiaries of considerable discontent at pit closures, had taken to the challenge before them and run Labour closer in the Rhondda than at any time since 1945. Then, of course, Rhondda East had very nearly been captured by the Communist Party; the 1960s presented a quite different challenge to Labour’s hegemony.
By the time of his death in 1983, Jones had fundamentally reconstructed Labour’s majority in the Rhondda making it the safest Labour seat in the country. In 1970, following the blip in 1967, voters in Rhondda West gifted Labour a majority of more than 15,000. In Rhondda East it was more than 12,600. In October 1974, the combined Rhondda seat was held by Jones by a majority of 34,654. The largest Labour majority in Britain at the 2015 general election, by coincidence, is Knowsley on Merseyside where George Howarth has a majority of 34,655. Today’s Rhondda is nowhere near as attached to the Labour Party with Chris Bryant’s parliamentary majority in 2015 just 7,455 – not far off a fifth of Alec Jones’s forty years earlier.
The selection contest to replace Jones ahead of the 1983 General Election offers an interesting insight into the Labour Party’s very public internal vacillations at that time. For the most part, it would have been quite an uninteresting process – most parliamentary selections are – but for the seat being the safest one held by Labour ahead of the 1983 election and the entry of George Galloway. At the time, 28-year-old Galloway was Labour’s organiser in Dundee and had previously been chair of the Labour Party in Scotland. Galloway’s entry into the process had been facilitated by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&GWU), to which he belonged, and Mardy Lodge. He also won the support of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (now known as the GMB). ‘I’m honoured and privileged to be considered for the Rhondda’ Galloway remarked in an interview with the Glasgow Herald, ‘It’s steeped in Labour history and the old values of the Labour Party’.
But nothing was straightforward in a contest that not only split party loyalties but trade union ones as well. Whereas Mardy Lodge had nominated Galloway, one of those competing against him for the nomination was Len Jones, later secretary of the lodge, who won the support of the South Wales Area (NUM). The core of Galloway’s support in Mardy Lodge actually came from those, such as the lodge chairman, Arfon Evans, who were members of the Communist Party. A reflection, undoubtedly, both of Galloway’s left-wing reputation but also his attempt in the early 1980s to secure affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party, ostensibly on the grounds of countering Trotskyite entryism and what he saw as the ‘vacuum’ of the traditional Labour Left. As he explained in an interview with the Scottish Marxist, the Scottish magazine of the CP, in 1981:
I myself would favour a situation where the CP were an affiliated organisation. In a sense like, if I can say this without your tape breaking, the Fabian Society though they would obviously be infinitely more significant.
If the British CP were an affiliate of the British Labour Party, bringing with it its Marxist tradition, its cadre of militants, its educational and theoretical abilities, its journals, its newspaper, this would be an enormous step forward for the British Labour movement, and the Communists and the rest of the British Left.
For several years, the Communist Party had been pursuing what it called the ‘Broad Democratic Alliance’. The 1977 revision of the CP’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, set out what this meant:
The work of the left is vital in building the broad democratic alliance. Left unity needs to be promoted both in the practical development of activity and in the battle of ideas. […] Communists and the Labour left have a special role to play in developing broad left unity and in helping to build the alliances, of which only the most politically conscious sections of the new forces will see the need, between different sections of the working class and different social and political movements.
A bit of a rhetorical mouthful but in essence it meant working with the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the emerging ecology movement, the peace movement, nationalists, social liberals, trade unions, and the Labour Party (shorn of its reactionary tendencies) in order to bring about unity of purpose on the Left. Only through unity – it was believed – could capitalism be overcome and socialism implemented. The high point of the Broad Democratic Alliance came during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, but its meaning is certainly conveyed in the language and organisational framework used in this period by groups as various as the National Union of Students, the National Union of Mineworkers, and, at times, the Bennite wing of the Labour Party (of which Galloway was a part).
It’s worth saying, at this juncture, that the Alliance certainly achieved some success – it was not merely a rhetorical flourish. In gay liberation, for instance, the Communist Party took a lead in linking the question of gay rights with the social and political instincts of the British Left, always taking the more radical position of liberation rather than settling – as Labour eventually did – for a rights-based course. This meant, in effect, that the Communist Party became the guardians of the ideas and activities of the Gay Liberation Front. It’s also worth adding that although Party membership was clearly in decline throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was, for much of this time, a gradual depletion of resources and personnel. In 1970, there were around 1,700 communists in Wales; by the end of the decade there were still around 1,500. And in the National Union of Mineworkers, in particular, communists were found in much of the party’s hierarchy. As the Western Mail put it, sardonically, in the mid-1960s, ‘it is as traditional that a Communist be president of the South Wales NUM as it is that the chairman [sic] of the Cheltenham Women’s Institute be a Conservative’.
But by the mid-1980s, there were more people voting for the indefatigable Arthur True in the Rhondda at General Elections, than were members of the Communist Party in Wales as a whole. More than 1,300 voted for True in 1983, and nearly 900 in 1987, but party membership was just over 750 at that stage and falling quickly. Less than a handful were members of the CP’s youth movement. To put this into context – Scotland had more than 3,000 CP members at the end of 1985, Lancashire some 1,400, and Yorkshire 920. It’s easy, therefore, to exaggerate the extent of communist influence in a place like the Rhondda (or in Wales as a whole). It may be the case, as Arfon Evans explained to the historian Ben Curtis, that they were ‘a small force but […] a very influence force’, but they could only carry Labour-voting members with them if they were effective leaders and demonstrated clear integrity. Nowhere was the principle of a Broad Democratic Alliance more vital, then, than in communities where the CP found itself in positions of leadership, but lacked activist numbers. It was symbolic that Galloway won the support of CP-led Mardy Lodge, but no more than that.
In the event, Rhondda CLP elected Allan Rodgers as its prospective parliamentary candidate ahead of similar figures like Ann Clwyd. Elected MEP for South East Wales at the 1979 European Elections, although he held firm anti-Common Market views, Rodgers was a known quantity. A geologist by training, Rodgers came from a mining family, as he acknowledged in his maiden speech, and a more moderate figure than Galloway, although not without his own perspectives particularly on the Northern Ireland question (where he was no friend of the Loyalist organisations) and devolution. On the latter, Rodgers called the White Paper on Welsh devolution presented in 1997 a ‘nationalistic, rather than parliamentary’ response to the democratic deficit that had emerged during Conservative rule after 1979. In the event, Rhondda Cynon Taff did vote for devolution in 1997, albeit on a less than 50 percent turnout. Here is not the place to enter into a debate on the merits of devolution, but Rodgers was hardly out of step with a large number of his own constituents. Nor, indeed, was he out of step on the Common Market: Mid Glamorgan (which included the Rhondda) being the most Euro-sceptic part of England and Wales in the 1975 Referendum.
There can be no doubt that George Galloway would have been a higher profile and more interesting MP for the Rhondda than Allan Rodgers was. And that is what makes the 1983 selection contest a fascinating moment to explore. But the Rhondda, like much of South Wales in its post-industrial twilight, was changing. There was at least some recognition of that change in the selection of Alec Jones – who was not connected to the industry – as MP for the unified Rhondda constituency in 1974. Jones focused in his time in parliament on social security, housing, and jobs, the very essence of the problems that faced the Rhondda as coal ceased to be the primary employer. In Galloway’s own words: ‘It’s not like “How green was my valley” now. It’s a modern community with modern problems’.
One of those ‘modern problems’ is political disengagement. When Allan Rodgers won the Rhondda in 1983, he had 29,448 votes out of a total voterate of 47,694. Last year, Chris Bryant won the Rhondda with 15,976 votes out of a total voterate of 31,538. Their nearest respective rivals were the SDP on 8,078 and Plaid Cymru on 8,521. The clear difference is the loss of thousands of Labour voters, not the rise of a more substantial opposition. Those votes have not gone elsewhere, they have not, indeed, gone anywhere; they simply do not register any longer. The question I ask myself – and I’m sure I’m not alone – is whether it is healthy in a twenty-first century democracy to have such inassailable majorities? ‘There are people inside active politics’, wrote Tony Benn in 1979 (this is not a new phenomenon), ‘who believe that the alienation of Parliament from the people constitutes a genuine cause for concern’. He was right, and the point still holds true, although it remains to be seen how far grassroots activiation translates into parliamentary action. I’ll leave you with this thought, then. Can pressure from without – as it used to be known – ever force a set of doors that open outwards, not inwards, by its own strength alone?