SC Cook

SC Cook

The Valleys Banlieues?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

In our latest letter from abroad, journalist SC Cook tells us that the anger concentrating in parts of Wales is being underestimated by those who think Brexit is its highest expression. With a general election on, will Corbyn’s message of transformation resonate in the Valleys?

Scan through the web pages of Wales’ depleted stock of local papers on any given week and you’ll find, buried beneath stories of local sporting heroes and endless pop-up adverts, snapshots of immense poverty, social isolation and despair.

They include children being denied a hot meal at school in a country where 1 in 3 grow up in poverty, school girls using socks and kitchen paper because they can’t afford sanitary products when they are on their period, the young and elderly abandoned in small villages as the local council abolishes entire bus routes, 28,000 jobs gone from local authorities in just 8 years and now, a fresh wave of redundancies sweeping through the private sector; 280 posts gone at Quinn Radiators, Newport, in June, 239 job losses announced as a furniture factory went into administration in Merthyr Tydfil in October, 380 set to disappear as Orb Steel is closed, 220 jobs at a car factory in Llanelli set to go by the end of 2019 and 130 redundancies announced at the Honeywell plastics plant in St Asaph, North Wales, in March this year. The list goes on and on and on.

As things stand, the economic system has failed so many working class communities in Wales. Many people now see only the promise of further misery within the status quo.

When I recently interviewed an independent councillor from a village in the upper Afan valley, a place that had lost almost all local services and was now running a foodbank for the first time in its history, she confessed to me that people in the area felt such a strong sense of despair that they had told her the whole valley should just be flooded to make a reservoir, better that than go through another decade of pain and loss. 

In the face of this social catastrophe there has been extraordinary passivity from the Welsh Labour Government and Welsh councils. As I write, they are drawing up further spending cuts for next year that will involve more libraries being shut, teaching assistants being sacked and council taxes rising.

It should be cause for outcry that, faced with a Tory government that has no majority, the institutions of Welsh politics run by the official opposition are not fronting a campaign to immediately halt the barbaric economic policies that come from Westminster and which have plunged so much of Wales into deep poverty. In fact much of official Wales exists in a bubble, almost in denial at what is happening.

Even the unions, despite some notable exceptions, have not mounted a sufficient fightback.

The question that follows from all of this, is where does this situation lead, and do we have any control over its destination. How long can the social fabric of Wales be shaken like this before there is an explosion? We need only examine recent events to begin to answer this question.

In 2016, just weeks ahead of the EU referendum, the results of the Welsh Assembly elections were a sign of what was to come. Both UKIP and Plaid Cymru did well at the expense of Welsh Labour, with Plaid’s then leader Leanne Wood unseating the uber-establishment figure of Leighton Andrews in the Rhondda.

This was the beginning of a move away from established politics – in this case Welsh Labour – that was breaking in different political directions. But this was largely ignored by the majority of official Wales or dismissed as a blip.

Then, just a month later, a genuine political earthquake occurred. As the Financial Times declared the day after the referendum result, in voting to leave the EU Britain had “swept away 50 years of foreign policy, turning its back on the EU in an extraordinary political upheaval that deposed its prime minister, sank its currency and reopened the possibility of Scottish independence.” 

Wales played its part, delivering 850,000 leave votes, and we can now add the prospect of Welsh independence to the above list of consequences.  

Every constituency in the South Wales valleys voted to leave the EU, as well as Powys and the four populous seats in the north east. It was not, and never has been, possible to ascribe this vote to a simple rightward shift.

The two most Tory constituencies in the South East, Vale of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, both bucked the national trend and majority voted to remain. By contrast, in the Labour stronghold of Blaenau Gwent, leave won by a 24 point margin with 21,500 votes and on a turnout of 68 per cent.

Pinpointing where those votes came from is almost impossible, and certainly wasn’t traceable to a traditional Eurosceptic voter base. In comparable elections, the combined right wing vote (UKIP and Tory) was 9,000, 5,000 and 6,000 in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 general elections respectively. It is also telling that a year after the uniquely high leave vote, the combined 2015 rightwing vote in Blaenau Gwent fell by 3,000. There was no clear rightwing bounce after the leave vote. May’s strategy – of harvesting the leave vote with ‘no-deal is better than a bad deal’ – failed miserably. 

But in the same election, Labour’s vote share in Blaenau Gwent stayed exactly the same at 48 per cent in 2017. Considering Labour are the establishment in Wales, and taking into account their downward trajectory up to this point, it was an impressive outcome. The party surely owes the result – and others like it in Wales – to Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgent campaign that climbed some 20 points during the course of the election. It did so by placing itself firmly against the economic and political status quo, promising in its manifesto to challenge the neoliberal doctrine that, as we know, has been a disaster for Wales. Blaenau Gwent itself has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country.

Fast forward to the Euro elections in May 2019. Even accounting for the particularly strange nature of these elections – which effectively became a second referendum with little real-world consequence – it was nevertheless remarkable that the Brexit Party won 19 out of the 22 local authority areas contested, gaining 32 per cent of the vote with 271,000 ballots cast for the party. Still, we should remind ourselves that the vote totals for the Brexit party were nothing near the scale of the leave vote in Wales.

We can learn one very simple lesson about the political effects of the crisis in Wales. There is a sharp breakdown in the relationship between the mass of ordinary people and the political system that has governed over them for decades. This goes all the way back to Thatcher but it intensified with Iraq and the austerity decade following the financial crisis. And that breakdown can present itself as a rightward force, as in the recent European elections, or it can present itself as a more leftwing phenomenon, as was the case in the general election of 2017.

The decisive factor in which way the political mood will turn rests on who can define themselves against the failures of the past and the rotten state of the political system which led us to where we are. If the radical right can monopolise the anti-establishment space they can win. And if they win, they can pull people to the right on issues of racism, Islamophobia and immigration. But if the left successfully contests the space, as it did in 2017, then it can win, and in turn pull politics to the left.


It should be of no surprise, then, that Boris Johnson has tried to lay the ground for what he hopes will be a ‘people vs parliament’ election, where he stands on the side of the majority in relation to Brexit. He and his strategists recognise the potential in such a message and in Wales they hope to pull off the unimaginable: win Valleys seats off Labour. His strategy appears to be gaining traction, with a recent Welsh voting intention poll putting the Tories on top, with 29 per cent.

But what is far less understandable is the position adopted by Welsh Labour, which is that it will, regardless of any Brexit deal which may have been negotiated by a Corbyn government, campaign for Remain in a second referendum. On top of this, the Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford has also reiterated his support for the United Kingdom itself in the face of an insurgent movement for independence.

Declaring that the best deal with the EU and the UK is the one we’ve currently got, Drakeford is signalling to people in Wales that the current economic set up is a panacea. It doesn’t take a genius to look at the catastrophe unfolding for so many communities in Wales and see how badly that message will be received. Couple it with the rage so many will feel at the wilful attempt to disregard their vote without even trying to implement it, and Welsh Labour could be facing a torrid time in the next assembly elections. 

Thankfully, and owing in part to the weakness of the Welsh media, it will be Labour’s national message – pushed hard by Corbyn at the campaign launch yesterday – of confrontation with the rich and powerful, that will be heard by the majority of Welsh voters. It is this that stands a chance of beating Johnson.

Afterall, we cannot rely on Plaid Cymru to make a serious play for people disillusioned with mainstream politics. The party seem to determined to disown any radical credentials they have by taking their Remain stance to extremis and flirting with the Lib Dems in electoral pacts.

Into this political void, the question of Welsh independence has suddenly shot up the political agenda. In presenting itself as being against the status quo, with a strong, grassroots radical element separate from Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Indy movement has been able to pull in sections of the working class who might not consider themselves Welsh nationalists, but who nevertheless can see independence as a possible way out of the mire.

While this movement will almost certainly strengthen and build, it would be wrong to assume that it will just follow the same pattern as the Scottish independence campaign in 2015.

In fact one of the biggest mistakes that we can make in analysing the current situation in Wales is thinking that the Brexit vote represented the high point of the crisis, or that our upheaval will conclude in an electoral outcome, whether that be a Corbyn victory or a referendum leading to an independent Wales. Both would represent a genuine rupture in the political geography of the UK, and be the beginning of a new phase to the crisis, rather than the beginning of the end. Yet it does a disservice to the severity of the social crisis in Wales to assume that anger will only lead to the ballot box.

Even the official parts of Welsh society recognise that the conditions that led to Brexit could create far greater earthquakes in the future. In his Patrick Hannan Lecture for Radio Wales at the beginning of October, the veteran BBC journalist Vaughan Roderick said: “If you want to know why places like the upper Rhymney valley voted heavily to leave the EU you can over think the answer. The answer I think is very simple. People look around at what they had before Britain joined the common market in 1973. And they had Hymac [Hydraulac excavator factory], and they had Austin Morris, they had Rhymney brewery, they had deep mines and drifts, pubs, clubs, chapels, shops, banks. All of that. And they look at what they’ve got now and it’s not much. And they put two and two together and they get four.”

Roderick’s conclusion is that if the deep poverty and despair that exists in these areas is not addressed, then they will become like the French Banlieues that surround Paris and other large cities in France. He does not take the comparison any further but the Banlieues were not just places of extreme poverty and alienation. They also produced riots. We should be prepared for the kind of street explosions of anger we have seen with the Gilets Jaunes, a movement that has smashed the graceful facade of Emmanuel Macron’s liberal victory. Equally, Wales is ripe terrain for kind of protests against neoliberalism and poverty that have rocked Chile, Ecuador, Beirut and Baghdad. Anyone who dismisses this as a possibility is not looking at the material reality of Welsh life.

The clear danger for the socialist left is that it fails to articulate and organise the anger. If this happens, then the forces on the right won’t simply contest elections, they’ll contest the streets too.

The successful march in Newport recently against the closure of a steel plant was a welcome sign that the labour movement is starting to take more action.

On one hand, we must agitate over the issues thrown up by the crisis, but we have also to fight for an independent, anti-capitalist position that does not accept the current economic model of the UK or the EU, and which pushes for a confrontation with these institutions. On the immediate horizon, a Corbyn victory in the general election is an opportunity for the left to assert itself in the current climate, provoke a confrontation with British capitalism and make the case for socialism as a living, breathing movement capable of tackling the crisis.

Huge challenges now lie ahead. A clear danger is that both Corbynism and the movement for independence get pulled to the centre while seeing each other as political enemies. Instead both movements must be the biggest advocates of a rupture with the status quo, and see each other as a means of radically changing society for the better.

Through this we can hope to have some influence over the social explosions which could be coming our way. 

Pictures: Jordan Stimpson, Jeremy Segrott

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