The Labour‑Plaid Cymru Agreement: A Step Forward?

Geoff Ryan reports on the Labour-Plaid Cymru agreement in Wales.

Yesterday (1st December 2021) First Minister Mark Drakeford and Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, formally signed the cooperation agreement between the Welsh Labour government and Plaid Cymru. The agreement had been overwhelmingly supported by Plaid Cymru members at their online conference the previous weekend.

The deal covers a huge range of policies including free school meals for all primary children, free child-care for 2-year-olds, plans for north-south rail connections, second homes and holiday lets, establishing a national construction company Unnos to improve the supply of social and affordable housing as well as introducing rent controls, supporting Welsh media and the compulsory teaching of Welsh history in schools. There is also an extensive section on climate change, biodiversity, sustainable farming and although the aim of ‘net zero’ (rather than ‘zero’) emissions can be criticised there is much that can be supported. The agreement also aims to increase the number of MSs to between 80 to 100

In his article for Undod (republished on the ACR site) Sam Coates argued that ‘The Labour-Plaid deal is the faintest outline of a Wales beyond neoliberalism’. I largely agree with this assessment. But what is interesting is the effect the agreement has already had on politics in Wales and the gap it reveals between Labour MPs and Labour MSs.

There has still not been a single word about the agreement from Keir Starmer – and not because he doesn’t want to interfere in the affairs of the Welsh party. Starmer is hardly afraid to interfere in the running of the Labour Party, of which, as far as he is concerned, the Welsh Labour Party is a mere branch of the British party. Nicola Sturgeon and even the Welsh Liberal Democrats have welcomed the agreement but the leader of the Labour Party has nothing to say.

In fact, very few MPs (4 out of 22 representing Welsh constituencies) have even commented on, let alone welcomed the agreement. That is at least one fewer than those Welsh Labour MPs who have commented on a byelection in England. Senior figures such as Carolyn Harris and Jo Stevens (Shadow Secretary of State for Wales) have had nothing to say about the deal, though Jo Stevens has found time to tweet about the Old Bexley and Sidcup byelection, share a message about the Scottish government’s policies and even to comment on Toy Story.

But perhaps their silence is preferable to the comments of Llanelli MP Nia Griffith who wrote that she was pleased to hear that Plaid Cymru was supporting the Prif Weinidog (First Minister) – so far so good – but then went on to claim that Plaid was supporting ‘our excellent progressive Welsh Labour policies’ which, according to Griffith, included extending free school meal provision. There is a slight problem with this claim.

Up until now, the Welsh Labour government have systematically voted AGAINST extending free school meals despite Wales having the worst provision in the UK. Their change of heart is certainly to be welcomed but represents a victory for Plaid Cymru, the People’s Assembly for Wales, the Bevan Foundation and Child Poverty Action Group Wales who have spent much of the last 2 years arguing against Labour Members of the Senedd who resolutely refused to budge on the issue. No wonder Plaid Cymru MS Mabon ap Gwynfor called Griffith’s post ‘gutter politics’.

Not surprisingly the most fulsome endorsement of the agreement came from Beth Winter, MP for Cynon Valley and the only MP from Wales who supported the campaign to extend free school meals. And for Beth Winter the agreement was not just something to benefit the Labour Party (or Plaid Cymru) but something that could bring positive benefits for the working class in Wales.

Independently of the agreement with Plaid, the Welsh government has launched a Constitutional Commission to examine Wales relationship with the rest of the UK. The Commission, headed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, can examine all options, including independence. Since the former leader of Plaid Cymru is one of the commissioners the issue of independence will not be lightly shrugged off.

Of course, not everyone has welcomed the Labour-Plaid agreement even less so the Constitutional Commission. The Welsh Tories not surprisingly are totally hostile, attacking both Mark Drakeford and Adam Price. Delyn MP Rob Roberts (suspended from Westminster for 6 weeks for sexual harassment) criticised the extension of free school meals to all primary school children (apparently unaware that the Tories had at times voted in the Senedd in favour of Plaid’s motions on extending free school meals provision. But then Roberts is not the brightest of MPs. He openly supported the criticism of England football players for taking the knee made by Lee Anderson, Tory MP for Ashfield). Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not happy about rent controls while the Daily Telegraph has complained about the measures to curb second homes and holiday lets. Again not really surprising as the Telegraph frequently urges its readers to buy holiday homes in Wales, a country it dismisses with the term ‘Principality’.

And naturally, the Westminster government continues on its aggressively English nationalist agenda, the latest manifestation being over transport. Although neither the original nor the downsized version of HS2 enters Wales according to the Johnson government Wales benefits from the scheme. Between 2011-12 and 2019-20, Wales received £514 million less than it would have done under a population-based share of UK rail infrastructure expenditure. And on the basis of the projected £96 billion cost of HS2 Wales should receive about £5bn

For people in Wales, the most important improvement to rail services is probably on a north-south axis. It can take six hours to travel by train the 40 or so miles from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, a journey which involves going into England and back out again. Whereas for Westminster it is east-west: i.e. ‘binding Wales closely to England’ as the Tory government put it. For Johnson, the ability of capitalism to move goods between England and Wales, then on to Ireland, is much more important than the ability of people to travel comfortably, safely and relatively quickly within Wales. This is not to say that other improvements to the rail network are not needed, improvements that could be carried out with the £5bn Wales is owed from HS2.

However, the Labour-Plaid agreement has also had positive effects on the left. Individuals in the Labour Party who have always been hostile to Plaid Cymru have spoken or posted in favour of the agreement. And it has probably accelerated a trend towards unity that was already developing among sections of the left. A recent meeting to discuss forming a Radical Independence Campaign was attended by people from Plaid Cymru (including Leanne Wood and an MS), Undod, Left Unity, People’s Assembly Wales and Anti Capitalist Resistance, as well as 2 people from the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland.

There was an agreement to work together to build a radical pole in the independence campaign and to oppose any attempts at its upcoming EGM to get YesCymru to water down its commitment to making an independent Wales the state of everyone who chooses to live there, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, language, country of origin etc. There should be no concessions to those who argue for a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism.

Undod is encouraging its members to attend the YesCymru EGM though is not making any recommendations on how people should vote on the proposed new structure of ‘a company limited by guarantee’. The proposals, drawn up by lawyers, are not subject to amendment so I think the left in YesCymru has no choice but to vote against and defend the existing structures and constitution. Certainly, the current proposals for YesCymru show why there is a need for a Radical Independence Campaign. Undod will be central to this development, not least by providing translation facilities so Welsh speakers can contribute in their native language. Hopefully, this spirit of cooperation will grow and allow the Left in Wales to become an important player on the national stage.

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Geoff Ryan is a member of Undod, YesCymru, Labour For An Independent Wales, and Carmarthen East & Dynefwr Labour Party.

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