Clear Red Water. Really?
Rhodri Morgan (retired First Minister) takes centre stage in this book. Written by two left-wing Labour activists (that’s a rarity in itself), it is an interesting and passionate analysis of Welsh Labour rule and the Plaid/Labour Coalition which followed. It seeks to explain the implications and importance of Morgan’s “clear red water” speech, showing how radically post-devolution Welsh politics has differed from its New Labour counterpart in Westminster.
The authors acknowledge the achievements of Welsh Labour in the Assembly, giving credit where it hasn’t always been given. The key principle here is “equality of outcome” – universal benefits such as free school breakfasts are cited as examples of success. The stance in much of the book is in fact a campaigning one of the nature suggested; and there are many indications that the authors would like to see more public ownership, for instance in January 2001 when Ron Davies and Plaid Cymru urged the Assembly government to take over the Corus plants which were closing.
However, from the outset, the problem for this book is the word “socialist” on the cover: a word Morgan used in his speech and thereafter, but which was ditched by Blair. If you check in a dictionary, what Morgan meant by “Socialism” was definitely “social democracy”. Not for a moment was he arguing for “control of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The authors only begin to deal with this contradiction on page 169, when they delineate how far Welsh Labour is removed from genuine Socialism.
Paul Flynn’s foreword isn’t always that helpful either: he covers up Rhodri Morgan’s failure to condemn the war in Iraq by saying that “the Labour Party in Wales had their objections silenced by bureaucratic procedure” – which applied to Conference, but certainly not to their leadership.
Besides “Socialism”, the other problem throughout the book is that the finest achievements are hardly mentioned, while the cases where Welsh Labour has reneged on promises such as top-up fees tend to be glossed over. Not that the book is not very critical of those in the Labour Party who resisted devolution and those in Wales TUC who prevented a democratic Conference. But the gloss on student fees seems more protective of Jane Davidson, who is given guru status by the authors.
In education especially, the finest achievements have surely been the abolition of SATs and league tables and the refusal to implement New Labour’s specialist schools and Academies. All these are not dealt with, yet they have combined to enhance the Comprehensive system and make schools here in Wales reasonably enjoyable places of learning rather than fanatical test-factories.
The authors instead prefer to laud the Foundation Phase (another of Davidson’s pet projects), a much more dubious reform. While its emphasis on play in early years is laudable, unfortunately Foundation means that many pupils will be taught by assistants. Standards of literacy and numeracy will go down, so this policy will have to be altered: a combination of play and formal learning is needed.
The authors make a powerful case for a much broader Left alliance and recognise that Plaid Cymru has a commitment to “Socialism” (in reality, social democracy) and that the Coalition has furthered these policies. They acknowledge and explain the frustrations of WAG in trying to pass “measures” (laws), and the need for primary law-making powers as soon as possible. I found fascinating their argument that a referendum shouldn’t be needed to do this, as it’s merely an extension of already existing constitutional arrangements.
So, was there really “clear red water” between Wales and Westminster? I was particularly persuaded of this, and Rhodri Morgan’s refusal to use PFI schemes is an indicator. Yet, doubts remain. When it came to policy which proved most unpopular for Blair, the war in Iraq, Welsh Labour failed to take the lead fought for by its Conference.