Welfare devolution would be Welsh Labour at its finest — Harry Thompson
The founding purpose of the Labour Party was nothing less than the transformation of society towards a model wherein all people had access to the basic fundamentals of life; a good standard of housing, fulfilling and well paid jobs with empowered workers, good food on their table, healthcare when they needed it regardless of bank balance, and the ability to pursue happiness as they as individuals defined it. Great strides have been made, but in 2018, still too many of these fundamentals remain unfulfilled.
Socialism is part of the origin story of Wales. Robert Owen theorised a utopian future wherein society systemically bettered itself. He understood true human nature — a provably malleable concept wherein people act and achieve according to the conditions they were raised in — better than any of those who mistakenly believe human beings to inherently dislike one another. Where Robert Owen theorised, miners personified. Communities running themselves and looking after those around them. There is still a chance for people to look back on today and say that our contribution to this legacy was the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, and all that came with it.
The idea that the fundamental aims and desires of the Labour Party remain unfulfilled is not a controversial one. A simple walk through the streets of Cardiff over the years tells you all you need to know. Well over a hundred years since the creation of the Labour Party, and nearly twenty years since Welsh Labour took power in the National Assembly for Wales, people still sleep on our streets. Inadequate access to housing, to good jobs, to the pursuit of happiness. This isn’t, as some would claim, because Labour has stopped caring. It isn’t because the people in the upper reaches of the Welsh Labour Government have lost the ambition to end homelessness and poverty.
It’s because of a lack of power.
“A young miner in a South Wales colliery, my concern was with the one practical question, where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?”
Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear
The question of power was a complicated one for Aneurin Bevan. Gaining the ability to empower working people to transform their own lives was a difficult task for a young miner in the early 1900’s. For us in Wales, however, it is a simple one.
Wales is a diffuse country with multiple personalities, and like any other in Europe, grapples with difficult issues surrounding identity and belonging. It is no utopia and it and its people are not perfect. However, no political tradition is more entwined with Wales than socialism, not only in history, not only in voting patterns, but in contemporary attitudes. Success isn’t leaving your community behind, success is bringing your community with you.
Too often the United Kingdom operates like a pendulum; Labour builds and advances, Tories destroy and pull back. It can sometimes seem, away from obvious outliers such as the NHS, as though many of Labour’s greatest achievements have a lifespan of around ten years. Children educated under a Labour government get a shot at life. Children privately educated under Conservative governments get a shot at life.
But there is a way to break this cycle. Devolution holds the answer. If Wales is inherently a socialistic country, then the political empowerment of the Welsh people is an inherently socialistic act. When the choice is as stark as the deciding whether the fate of the most vulnerable people in Wales should be decided by Conservatives in the Palace of Westminster, or by Labour representatives of the Welsh people, the answer is surely obvious.
Sure Start was a policy positively Owenite in its ambitions. Its aim was the break the poverty trap. As Robert Owen might have put it, it was an attempt to positively influence the formation of human character. I refer to Sure Start in the past tense because it has been decimated in England. In Wales, it is a roaring success. Research published in the British Medical Journal examined the effectiveness in the Welsh version of the policy, undecimated by Tory cuts. It found significant improvements, as intended. The transfer of power from Westminster to Wales improved the lives of those Labour was created to help.
Now look at where Wales has created policy and others have followed. Plastic bag charges. Organ donation. Smoking bans. The National Assembly for Wales has proved useful as a vehicle for the disproving of right-wing claims of impossibility or unworkableness.
This should inform our thinking about the impending storm that is Universal Credit.
“I was in the deepest, darkest place. No gas, no electric on. I was down to about six stone, I think. I was on the verge of ending it all. A neighbour knocked on my door to check on me, and I burst into tears, in such a terrible state. So they got an ambulance for me and I was in hospital for a while, in psychiatric care.”
Maria Amos (56), tells The Big Issue of her experience with Universal Credit.
This is the reality of what happens when the Conservative Party is let loose on the lives of the vulnerable. People end up on the streets. When they aren’t on the streets, they are starving to death with no heating or electricity. We shouldn’t be under any illusions that this is happening in Wales today.
It is therefore surprising to me that the devolution of welfare is not top on of the list of priorities for Welsh Labour. The arguments against it are emotive and powerful: what good is stopping the hardship for Welsh people when there are English people suffering the same? Is our best strategy now simply to cut and run, condemning thousands to the empathetic instincts of a Boris Johnson government?
These are emotive and powerful arguments because they are good ones, and well intentioned. But they are misplaced. The devolution of welfare is not cut-and-run. It’s do-what-we-can. It’s lead-the-way. Devolving welfare does not stop us campaigning for a Labour Government across the UK. It doesn’t stop us condemning what happens in England, or donating to foodbanks there.
What it does do is live up to the responsibility that Welsh Labour have been given by voters in Wales. We were elected to government in the National Assembly for Wales to do what we can to look after the most vulnerable in Wales. Nothing, except perhaps the NHS, is more pertinent to the vulnerable than the welfare system.
For that reason, we should be doing as Aneurin Bevan suggested all those years ago, and seeking the power to change the lives of the vulnerable, and pushing for devolution of welfare. It is possibly the purest act of socialism we can achieve in Wales today. We could be developing a world-leading welfare system based on empathy and inclusivity, true to the Welsh socialist tradition. We could be proving to whoever takes power in Westminster that such a system is workable in a UK context. We could be taking Wales’ homeless and vulnerable out of the grasp of Westminster Conservative politicians forever. We just have to attain the power first.
Harry Thompson is a member of the Labour Party.