One Wales 2 – A Government of National Unity?

The “57 Varieties” of Crisis.
 
As the Welsh people survey the pandemic scarred landscape all recognise that 2020 is a year that will indelibly mark history. Yet its full repercussions are only starting to be revealed. Exceptional years are catalysts that propel history forward and this is one of those. But it transcends that. It is the zenith of successive crises that have proved to be ever more severe, spreading rapidly through an economy based on globalisation and a world powered by destructive carbon.

What should be our response?

Pause for a moment to contemplate ten challenges that directly impact on every person across Wales:

  • A climate emergency where there is a narrowing window to overt catastrophe.
  • The ongoing implications of the Covid 19 pandemic and the public health crisis.
  • The consequences of the first potential economic depression since the 1930s.
  • An unemployment crisis focused on young people exacerbated by new forms of automation.
  • A crisis of poverty and inequality leading to rising debt and stagnant growth.
  • The possibility of a No Deal Brexit.
  • The rise of national populism in Wales, UK and across Europe. 
  • The resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the attack on structural racism across the UK.
  • The fracturing of an increasingly dysfunctional UK state.
  • A public realm ravaged by ten years of austerity.

What is astounding is that these points are not exhaustive. Viewed through a Welsh lens they dramatically impinge on our identity and national survival. We are active participants in this extraordinary drama whether we like it or not. The growth and rejection of globalisation has helped fuel the contradictory and perplexing political shifts which are still in play. All these macro issues leach into the micro-dimensions of everyday living. Their impact in Llanelli is as big as that in Los Angeles or Lagos. 

Remaking Wales.

Hyperbole demands that every forthcoming election is the most important since devolution; but this time it’s true. The Senedd elections that occur in May 2021 will be historic. Who knows the scale of deep social problems that will arise from the months of a confined lock down? During this time far too many have tragically lost close relatives and friends. Some have experienced a revolution in home working, others have been key workers on the frontline throughout. Public services face financial meltdown, the private sector has been hammered and Welsh politicians are exhausted.

How do you write a political manifesto in such a maelstrom? The tactical considerations are paramount. The Welsh political tradition since 1999 is a cautious affair. It is always easier to continue what you’re doing, in the hope of doing it better. Caveat statements with terms like “powers reserved for the UK” and the “limitations of the devolution settlement”. In any case the argument goes, the Treasury holds the key and we must look to Westminster for salvation. 

If this occurs Wales is lost.

A State of Emergency? 

The straitjacket of the current devolution settlement is a given over the next period. Nonetheless this should not preclude key interventions from local and Welsh Government to initiate in order to support economic activity and social wellbeing. Statecraft in Welsh politics at this moment is assessing the scale of risk. Brave decisions have already been taken during the pandemic on the five-mile rule and extended lockdown. Why not apply those same considerations of risk analysis to the economy and communities? 

To pose the obvious question does the situation demand an ongoing emergency response from devolved Government?

The unwinding of the furlough scheme in the autumn is expected to see thousands of people unemployed. A possible second wave of COVID 19 is a clear and present danger. But most of all the spectre of the vast climate emergency haunts all our social and ecological systems.

The One Wales coalition that commenced in 2007 is generally viewed as one of the more successful phases of devolution. Could another coupling of Labour and Plaid be a positive or are there other political possibilities which do not involve formal coalitions? A move for opposition parties to come together at Westminster to avert a no-deal Brexit saw them flirt with the concept of a government of national unity. This based on a desire to act in the collective good at the time of a national emergency. If Brexit demanded such positioning surely the storms about to hit Wales demand even more serious consideration? 

To be realistic this will not happen in advance of the election. The desire or will is not there, relationships are not intimate enough and the chance of it imploding are far too precarious.  It would be greeted with outrage by activists and is potential political kryptonite.  To stress coalitions are also one option amongst many.

The condition of Welsh politics suggests that May 2021 will be a bruising election. An “Anti-Assembly” strain is emerging in Wales. Of more significance are recent polls suggesting that an activist Conservative strategy towards Wales may see them perform well with the Brexit party neutralised. The contours of their thinking will be based on attacking “20 years of Labour failure” especially over the NHS. It will be reinforced by an appeal to “culture war” values aimed at those socially conservative and pro no-deal Brexit voters.    

While Labour will publicly state it is going for an all-out majority, the calculus of a broken electoral system will probably deny this. Fixing the dysfunctional hybrid of the loaded compromise that is the additional member system is a democratic imperative. The average turnout at Assembly election between 1999 and 2016 was 42.6%. In comparison to the other devolved nations and internationally, Wales’ turnout is abnormally low. Surely it is time for Welsh Labour to recognise this democratic deficit and support change to the Senedd’s voting system to make it fairer and more proportional?

As the economy worsens throughout the winter opinion polls will fluctuate wildly. The faint possibility of a clear majority may diminish further. Labour and Plaid might end up shackled together and must formally cooperate in order to survive. Alternatively another looser wider form of arrangement may emerge.

All will depend on the outcome of the electoral mathematics next May and the level of political will and expediency. The potential scenarios are boundless. There has already been speculation about the possibility of a “rotating” First Minister following the Irish example. But whatever the final outcome a far more important principle is at stake. 

For all in Wales delivering an ethical, just, and sustainable response to this crisis is the biggest duty and challenge we have collectively faced in decades. This transcends Welsh Government and party politics. As historian Gwyn Alf Williams repeatedly reminded us “the Welsh have lived by making and remaking themselves in generation after generation, usually against the odds… Wales is an artefact that the Welsh produce”.

An Ideas Coalition?

@ResetCymru believes that merely rebooting Wales’s pre-pandemic economic model is not an option. The new government must frame a sustainable alternative. Alarm bells are sounding again on Tata Steel. Across Wales there is a besieged aviation industry, retail in terminal decline and new conference centres have been built or planned that sit empty. Whether the City and growth deals across Wales can use agglomerative heft to really transform local economies is debatable. The danger is of partnerships based on principles of economic boosterism seeking investment that does not exist or missing the primary shifts in the economy that are edging back to the local. 

This is not to be dismissive. Many have worked hard to position Wales to compete within the predominant models of economic growth. This is tied to the fact that Government will only trigger the release of finance by the City Deals signing up to targets for a 5% uplift in regional Gross Value Added (GVA). These were ambitious targets pre Covid but today they look Herculean. As Kate Raworth has argued this is the same system that saw sluggish GDP growth of high-income countries that has infamously been accompanied by widening inequalities and grossly unbalanced ecological footprints.  In Wales an economic system in which a rising share of the population faces increasing poverty and insecurity, is, in a primary sense, a failed economic system. Green cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Portland point towards the possibilities. With smaller populations and municipal budgets than Wales their innovations have been ground-breaking. 

Redefining the purposes of devolved government is at the heart of this, creating a state which supports social self-organisation, empowered local government and moving away from a growth fetish of GDP.  The model below illustrates. 

This approach also requires a new form of civic leadership that is empowering, that welcomes debate and not just from the usual suspects. The culture of silence and silencing that permeates Welsh civic society holds back Wales. In this respect it is no coincidence that the strongest leadership during the crisis has come from women like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Denmark’s Mette Fredricksen, Finland’s Sanna Marin and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. They have recast political leadership in their own feminine image, showing empathy, ordinariness, warmth and compassion. These are qualities that male leaders have traditionally rejected or otherwise, attempted to unauthentically act out.

Moving forward at the political level a simpler objective is hiding in plain sight. The aim is the creation of a safe and just operating space for the people of Wales. To achieve this requires a unified commitment to key ideas pre-election where supporting parties or politicians commit to implement progressive policies. 

There are already significant political stirrings on this. The Liberal Democrat and Plaid Parliamentary groups plus some Welsh Labour MPs wrote to the Chancellor in April urging support for a Recovery Universal Basic Income. A cross Party Reset group including Caroline Lucas MP. Clive Lewis MP and Liz Saville Roberts MP has been set up to promote Green New Deal policies and bring people and politicians together to shape the future.

More recently in Wales the Labour member Jack Sargeant MS has called for the following:

  • Trialling a universal basic income;
  • A Welsh government push towards a four-day week with no loss of income or rights.  
  • A green new deal trusting communities to build infrastructure and create support growth by handing them significant budgets to do this;

Approaching the Senedd Election in May 2021.

It is because of this in the run up to the election that @ResetCymru calls on all progressive politicians to coalesce around a new radical policy consensus. There are now a range of ideas whose time has come. Our wider proposals in the document “For Wales, By Wales’ are available to read on this blog. Specifically in terms of the Welsh economy we would urge all political parties to sign up and support these five core ideas approaching the Senedd elections– 

  • Develop a Green New Deal for Wales based on the tenet of differential growth that will see some sectors grow rapidly whilst others recede and close down with the aim of creating a net zero-carbon economy in Wales by 2030.
  • Introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to alleviate economic insecurity and socialise the impact and costs of automation.
  • Support a four-day working week to improve productivity, wellbeing and address the huge problem of overwork that permeates our culture
  • Double the amount of green affordable social housing through a partnership of Welsh Government, local authorities and housing associations. 
  • Ensure that funding for schools through local authorities matches the uplifts in the NHS and that every 16-24-year-old gets a job guarantee and full access to apprenticeship opportunities. Also introduce new maintenance grants to encourage the under 25s to extend their education by a year.

The question of whether or not the lockdown has accelerated a perception shift is already subject to intense debate. Compelling evidence demonstrates that it has hastened existing inequalities between rich and poor. BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis powerful debunking of the myth of the disease as a great leveller was viewed over 2.5 million times on Twitter. There is evidence however that the Welsh response has been communal and supportive. The central question is whether it was a brief passing moment that quickly wanes. The focus on a collective community a chimera, the clean air and drop in nitrogen dioxide a passing statistic?  Ultimately for the Welsh people does it mean an immediate return to what the German economist Wolfgang Streeck has characterised as a society based on “Coping, hoping, doping and shopping”. Alternatively is this a unique change possibility which transcends a narrow and traditional framing of economic recovery centred on growth and the deceptive allure of ever-increasing GDP?

Conclusion.

Plainly the task of ensuring that Covid 19 is controlled and eventually eradicated is the core task of any new Government. Wales has had over 1500 deaths and the tragic events in our care homes demonstrate the need for immediate reform of social care. Throughout the people of Wales have shown and demonstrated real maturity. It is also to the credit of Welsh Government that they have stuck to a stricter lockdown to protect public health. Mark Drakeford’s insistence that “England isn’t the template for the rest of the UK to follow” resonated across Wales. It is that level of leadership confidence that the Welsh people are seeking. If we truly want to Reset Cymru there is an urgent need to review how our political establishment, make and implement decisions. This needs to be a two way deal with the people, where we encourage our politicians to be brave and take decisions that will ultimately offer the greatest benefits to our population, whilst at the same time acknowledging that mistakes will be made, and that we won’t solve everything for everyone overnight.

There is no need to rehearse the parlous state of Welsh economic and social indices prior to Covid 19. Across health, educational standards, and inequality we have become a “lower quartile nation”. One thing is certain, this pandemic and its systematic ongoing consequences will sweep over decades. Things can never be the same. This poses huge problems but also significant opportunities. It will permanently shift the axis of our current economic and social thinking. As Mark Fisher wrote in his book “Capitalist Realism” once the door is open “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility…. from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” 

@ResetCymru

June 2020

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