The Labour Party in crisis

Martin Plaut says the party is now under threat even in its heartland of Wales

Labour’s crisis

On the windy moorland high over the valleys of South Wales is a circle of stones. It was erected to commemorate the open-air speeches that Aneurin Bevan - one of Britain’s greatest social leaders – would make to his constituents. They would walk up from the towns of Tredegar and Ebbw Vale to this windy spot to hear what he had to say.

If there is anywhere that can claim to be the birthplace of Labour it is here.

Tens of thousands came to this area of Wales in search of work. All along the valleys were the coal mines that gave them employment. In Ebbw Vale there was once Europe’s largest integrated steel works: coal, limestone and iron ore went in at one end. Steel came out at the other.

It was a tough life, but it gave work to thousands. And they looked to the Labour Party to represent them.

Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie was elected in the neighbouring constituency of Merthyr Tydfil in 1900. Bevan used the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society as the model upon which he based the National Health Service – Labour’s greatest achievement.

Yet despite being steeped in Labour history, the area has fallen out of love with the party it helped bring into being. Labour lost control of councils of both Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent in local government elections on 4th of May.

It is not hard to see why: employment has evaporated. The Ebbw Vale steel works – a mile long – has been flattened. The plant, which once belched out smoke, blackening the washing of everyone in the area, has been replaced by green fields.

All along the sides of the valleys are villages and little towns that once bustled with life as men came and went to the pits. All life revolved around the mines, but today the area produces not a kilogramme of coal or steel. An air of sullen dissatisfaction hangs over the area.

Many younger people have left for jobs in Cardiff, Birmingham or London. Some have emigrated to seek their fortunes further afield. Those that remain see little to look forward to. And as the party that represented their hopes, Labour is seen to blame.

The Labour Party runs the Welsh National Assembly and it has sent members of parliament to Westminster for generations. But where has this got the people of these valleys?

It is not that Labour has made mistakes (though of course it has) but rather that it has not solved the key question facing these communities: what are we for? If it wasn’t for the mines and the steel works these valleys would be home to a handful of farmers. It might be a Welsh version of the English Lake District, with a few hundred families making a meagre living off the land. It was the industrial revolution that brought these towns into being, but industry has moved on, leaving communities behind wondering what the future holds for them.

If this was the United States they might become depopulated – like parts of Detroit, which has less than half the population it once had. But supported by European investment and the welfare state, these communities remain more or less intact.

This has not – however – transformed them into the thriving places they once were. The voters wonder what went wrong and blame those they supported down the years for failing to resolve their problems. And that means Labour.

As if Labour’s plight was not bad enough, it has elected a leader in Jeremy Corbyn who has little appeal. Corbyn currently has a negative poll rating of 40%. He is seen as a figure of derision by many across the UK and Wales is no exception.

Wales may have voted Labour for generations, but it is still a nation that loves its rugby, sends soldiers to the British army and respects the monarchy. Corbyn’s old-fashioned far-left proposals hold little attraction for many who regard him as unpatriotic, out of touch and incapable of leading his own party – let alone the country.

In a May poll that shocked Labour to the core, the Conservative party was ahead in Wales – one of Labour’s few remaining heartlands.

In the 2015 election Labour was wiped out in Scotland, leaving it with just one seat. Is the same about to happen in Wales?

The answer is probably no. The local government results were bad, but Labour hung on to the main towns and cities. And in constituencies like Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent it was independent candidates who took most of the seats on the 4th of May. The Councils will not be run by the Conservative Party or even the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru.

This means Labour may do better than the local election results would suggest. But no-one is holding their breaths. The 2017 election is unlikely to be one which Labour looks back on with any satisfaction, in Wales, or anywhere else across the British isles.