After the Corbyn Surge: What next for social democracy?’ (Abridged)

The title refers to today’s Compass organised, Leanne Wood sponsored talk and discussion held at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay.

 The panel is what attracted me to go and have a listen and take part:

    Leanne Wood, Leader of Plaid Cymru Needs no further introduction, I am sure.

    Professor David Marquand, historian and political writer who I have been aware of since his involvement in the formation of the SDP when I was at university. (His 2004 book Decline of the Public: The Hollowing Out of Citizenship had a big impact on me – I was a teacher in charge of the Citizenship part of the PSE programme at the time, but quit teaching later that year)

    Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, the prominent left-wing think tank that emerged from the Labour party to embrace progressive left-wingers from all parties and none.

David Marquand addressed the invited audience (of 30ish) first.

 He started with the confession that the Corbyn surge had led to both he and his wife rejoining the Labour Party after a long absence. Nonetheless, he is also clearly a big fan of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. He made the point that Labour always tends to veer off to the left for a while after a big election defeat, but recognised that there is more at play this time.

He suggested that there was a kind of revulsion with the ‘old politics’ of New Labour machine – with its top down modus operandi and manipulative, rather than participative, practices. This, he suggested gave Jeremy Corbyn huge appeal, with his old-fashioned virtues of humanity, honesty and integrity appearing refreshingly new and radical to young and old alike.

Added to all this is the very clear trend, right now, for social democracy to be in varying degrees of crisis, right across Europe, including in its traditional bastions of Scandinavia, coinciding with the establishment and entrenching of a neoliberal hegemony, represented by Osbornism in this country.

The way forward? He pretty much endorsed the position I have taken for a while now. We need the disparate groups of the left, in party politics and other campaigning arena, to develop and promote an alternative hegemonic vision. He quite explicitly saw both the SNP and PC having to be a part of this, with their potential to tap into people’s sense of identity being crucial. Indeed, he finished by comparing the prevailing values of Wales, with those of the rest of the UK (England especially, by implication).

The UK values: Choice/Customer/Competition

Welsh values: Voice/Citizens/Collaboration

Leanne Woods then responded.

 She pointed out that in the run-up to the election, there had been just the three progressive voices (PC/SNP/Greens) to romote the anti-austerity agenda. She therefore welcomed the rise of another strong, similar voice in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn; pointing out that his voting record in Parliament was much closer to that of Plaid MPs that the vast majority of Labour MPs. She therefore questioned whether Corbyn will be able to turn the Labour Party around to his way of thinking. Not that She is very impressed with his attitude to Scotland and Welsh devolution to date.

She then went on to highlight the lack of any progressive elements being evident in Welsh Labour, with their being more regressive than progressive features to their their unbroken run in power in the Senedd. Her frustration with Welsh Labour’s blocking of progressive proposals from PC was palpable.

One of the key ways she claimed PC is promoting progress is through the championing of decentralising decision-making, promoting community ownership and pushing for local procurement in public services.

She finished by pointing out that Scotland was bucking the Europe-wide trend by successfully achieving progressive social democracy, clearly hoping for something similar here in Wales.

Neal Lawson concluded the opening addresses.

 He opened by admitted to being somewhat bemused by what had happened since the General Election. He saw it as symptomatic of not just a crisis in social democracy, but also of the the growing crisis in capitalism. Essentially, it simply is not delivering, and this is most clear with young adults who are being saddled with monstrous debt for having a higher education, a lack of opportunity to utilise those costly qualifications when they graduate, and the nigh-impossibility of ever being able to get on the ‘housing ladder’ on their own. He therefore recognised that Corbyn has rode in on a progressive wave, but that we need to focus ‘on the wave, not the surfer’.

He seemed to share Leanne Wood’s scepticism about Labour being able to look outward and embrace kindred spirits. He pointed to their history of progressive milestones, like the setting up of the NHS in 1948, always being dictated from on high, in a top-down way. He suggested that this way of doing things simply won’t cut it in the modern world.

He suggested that we need to build on the opportunities presented by things like social media, and other technological innovations, to bold a more horizontal, flatter model of decision-making. He recognised that this also has the potential to reduce the need for people to work, requiring societal paradigm shifts and innovations like the Citizen’s Income. He is clearly hoping that our increased interconnectedness can be a positive factor in improving our democracy.

There follow an interesting Q&A session, offering much more food for thought.

 A common theme that kept recurring was the need for alliance building, again something I have been banging on about for a long time. Neal rather slapped Leanne down for suggesting that PC can form a Government in Wales next year, when the reality was that she needs to get her head around forming a coalition with Labour. There was, however, general consensus for Leanne’s response to this that, if Wales is to have a truly progressive future, Welsh Labour has to be removed from controlling Welsh Government.

Anthony Slaughter (Wales Green Party Deputy Leader) piped up about the the problem of building a consensus when all that happens is that Labour wants PC to step aside and PC wants the Greens to step aside and ‘the little guys are just expected to shut up’. He didn’t really get any response to this contribution. This kinda made the point in itself – if the little guys talk nonsense, they will just get ignored [I’ll explain what I mean by this in a PS at the end of this article, as it was not part of the meeting].

What was acknowledged, however, was that point that I made about the importance of electoral reform if the ‘little guys’ are ever going to get properly represented, and the fact that even when FPTP delivers like it did for the SNP, with it founded on a lot of marginal results, this surge of success can just as quickly be reversed. Neal pointed out that one of the sad consequences of FPTP is that when left parties compete against each other, it is parties like UKIP that reap the greatest reward from this.

 So all-in-all, a very interesting and thought provoking hour and a half. I confirmed my thoughts that I really do need to read more of David Marquand’s books (Neal gave his latest look, ‘Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay On Britain, Now’, a rave review The session also served to emphasise what a class act Leanne Wood has become. None of the panel and few of the audience were Plaid Cymru members, yet she commanded everyone’s respect and recognition for achievements to date. She is intelligent, articulate and passionate in a way that gives weight and conviction to what she says. I look at the other party leaders in Wales and recognise that she needs to become First Minister of Wales at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, I share Neal Lawson’s conviction that it ain’t gonna happen next year.

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