Tuesday, 12 May 2015

You Get What You Ask For

The penny dropped for me when I was coming home one day and, cutting through the Council estate, I spotted a series of Tory placards in someone's garden. Taken aback, gawping, and bogged down temporarily with the perennial Welsh question "Who are you?", I almost crashed the car. The realization soon dawned on me that the house belonged to the former Chair of the local Workingmen's Club, the Brighton Road.

Over the next few weeks as the election campaign proceeded apace, a few more Tory placards sprang up around "North Gower". But they weren't just springing up in fields or on well-to-do housing estates, they were popping up on terraces, and in former mining villages. It occurred to me that something was up, and I suggested to my partner that Labour could lose the Gower seat. She didn't buy it. I went a little further. Labour have held Gower since 1906. If they lost a seat like this, they would be in trouble nationally. If Labour lost Gower, we'd have another Tory government. Which as it happens is exactly what we've got.

And there's nothing magical, mystical or mysterious about how we got here either.

You see, in Gower, the Tories got on in the back of a working class protest vote from the northern part of the constituency, where Labour have traditionally drawn their vote. Underneath the lazy rhetoric of the "Tory tide" surging across Wales is a complex mosaic of local stories. Labour have sat on this area for year after year after year while funding has been pumped into Swansea city centre on grandiose vanity projects. Ironically, in a climate of "Tory" cuts, local patience with Labour has run out. Why vote for Labour when they only offer more of the same thing?

This city-centre/periphery conflict was made all the worse by the disastrous decision to centrally impose a female candidate on the constituency, drawn from an all-woman short list. Parachuted in from the Hafod in Swansea (so we're told, although she didn't have a Hafod accent), the reaction of the local Party organisation was predictable. A large chunk of the local Labour Party effectively boycotted the election campaign.

Many on the Left of politics in Wales are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that people from communities that were hammered by the Tories in the 1980s could bring themselves to vote for "The Nasty Party". There is even a school of opinion in Left-leaning Nationalist circles that the Tory vote in Wales is made up largely of English incomers, as though migrants from over the border are some kind of "Fifth-column" for the Tory invader. Toryism in Wales, you see, is not an indigenous phenomenon. There may well be an element of truth to this perception, but it's not the whole truth.

For many in Wales, there's a kind of visceral reaction to the Tory Party that paradoxically leads them to defend, or at least refrain from attacking, a Party that has shifted so far towards the pro-business agenda of the Tories that it's almost indistinguishable from them now anyway - Labour. A madman runs towards you wielding a bloody great axe. It's a Tory, Run away! The chips are down and you suddenly feel the twist of the knife in your back. That's the modern Labour Party, who will then tell you it's for your own good, and if the Tory had done it, it could have been a whole lot worse...

And for that precise reason it shouldn't be hard to see why Labour and the working class are no longer synonymous in Wales, and why many people have given up on even the pretense of voting for Labour. For people who have been hammered by a recession Labour dragged us into, the Tory message of economic competence, whether you believe it or not, has some resonance. Those placards are a big "fuck you" to a Party that bombed the hell out of Iraq, fucked up the economy and embraced Neoliberalism even while arrogantly assuming our continued tribal loyalty.

Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, actually did alright in Gower. It upped it's vote despite running the local campaign on a shoe-string. Yet I have colleagues in Plaid who tell me they'd rather see Plaid lose it's deposit than let Tories get in. The rationale is that Labour voters will never forgive Plaid for splitting the vote and letting in the evil Tory bogeyman to steal our first-born children. What they neglect to understand is that many of these Labour voters have given up on Labour - and switched to the Tories anyway.

And there is the simple reality. Many Welsh people vote Tory. It would seem that the Welsh are more promiscuous than ever, and not only have they abandoned the Chapel in droves, they are even happily indulging in a little sado-masochism in the privacy of the polling booth a la UKIP. But there is a line it seems and that's where you aren't likely to see many defiant placards broadcasting a newly found conviction to the wider community. A source of some frustration to pollsters and Party activists, but also of hope for the future.

For UKIP, while articulating the very real economic and social concerns of ordinary people, demarcates the furthest reaches of Wales' flirtation with the Right. Beyond that point is the terra incognita of Welsh Independence. A prospect we're not quite ready for yet, but the only real alternative in a country that faces the prospect of being dragged out of Europe by Isolationist England.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party have articulated a clear and well-worked out vision of what an Independent Scotland would look like. In Wales, Independence is, er,...a long-term aim. A collection of policies is no substitute for a coherent vision of a future society. The SNP have grasped the thistle and realised that only Independence will give Scotland all the tools to do the job.

Yet who is really articulating the arguments for Welsh Independence?

Until they are made, you can expect the Tories and UKIP in Wales to continue filling the void left by Parties - Labour and Plaid included - that are not offering a compelling vision of the future. A vision strong and coherent enough to motivate people into taking that leap of faith into a future of unquantifiable but tantalising possibilities. A future that only we in Wales can make. Regardless of where we originally came from...