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Interview with Ron Davies

Andy Newman

Ron Davies's political career began as a Labour councillor in Caerphilly during the late 1960's. He became the local MP in 1983 and Shadow Welsh Secretary in 1992. In 1997 he became Welsh Secretary in Tony Blair's cabinet, and steered the Government of Wales Act through parliament that gave Wales for the first time, its own national assembly. Ron Davies is now a member of Forward Wales - the Welsh Socialist Party. He spoke to Andy Newman about how he sees the future of left politics in Wales.

 

Andy: What led you to join Forward Wales, and had you already resigned from the Labour Party before then?

Ron Davies: I left the Labour Party in the summer of 2003, at which time Forward Wales wasn't in existence.  Although John Marek had fought his seat in Wrexham as an independent, and I had had talks with John about what might emerge from that.  I think his view was that standing as a John Marek Independent Party candidate was very much a one off short term measure to cover him during that election period. And there was an intention that it would develop although the direction that it would develop really wasn't charted. I think at that stage there were contacts with the Scottish Socialist Party and there was a feeling that that might be the direction. During that summer I sat down and was reflecting on the course of politics, very much disillusioned with what was happening in London, particularly over the issue of the Iraq war, but generally the direction of Blair. I was never, in personal terms, on what you would regard as the far left or the hard left, I always considered myself as the traditional left of the Labour party. But it seemed to me that the left in the Labour Party had either been completely marginalised or had given up any pretence at fighting. And the Labour party had basically become a small c conservative party. I had spent my life looking for a socialist progressive party and hoping that the Labour Party was going to provide that, I just felt the Labour Party no longer represented the things I had believed in for so long.

It was also in the context particularly of Wales, where I felt there was a need not only to have that traditional left of centre party, but also one that spoke with a very strong Welsh accent. And it was clear from my own experience from 1992 up until 2003 that the Labour Party in London was never going to allow the Labour Party in Wales to develop its own identity, and there were many people in the Labour Party in Wales who were shying away from dealing with the realities of devolution. They didn't want differences to appear between London and Cardiff. And my own view was that the new party had to encompass that, and so I was looking at the issues of what the new party might be. Talking to John and putting together a draft constitution, set of founding principles - call it what you will. And then they were adopted by Forward Wales and I joined the party shortly thereafter.

Andy: What do you think the prospects are for the Labour Representation Committee? Or for those trade union leaders like Kevin Curran of the GMB who are demanding a radical and progressive third term government. Do you think it is possible for the left to make any advance in the Labour Party at the present?

Ron Davies: Certainly in my lifetimes experience it was always possible for the left to gain victories; either through the trade union movement, or through the political side of the movement. These struggles went on and sometimes there were gains for the left, although sadly they were often not implemented with much enthusiasm. There has been such a huge cultural shift now. It is not now as if we just have a Labour Party with a right wing leadership, the whole nature of the Labour party has changed. New Labour is now quite different from anything that I have experienced in politics, and at a grassroots level the party is dead. It is a top down organisation, al leadership led organisation. The culture now is very much New Labour, and I just cannot see a process whereby those left wing trade union leaders have the organisation capable of influencing the party in the direction they want to influence it. Those days are gone. You see the way that conference decisions of the Labour Party are now treated with contempt. There is not even any pretence that they will be treated seriously or considered. If people disagree with the line being promoted by the leadership they are just pushed aside.

Andy: Do you think that devolution in Scotland and Wales has opened a space for the left that doesn't really exist in England?

Ron Davies: Absolutely. The countries are smaller and the forces are greater. I think the public themselves will respond. There is a bit of a mind set for general elections in Britain that there is a choice between Conservatives and Labour - and possibly the Lib Dems depending on where you live. I think in Scotland and Wales devolution has freed up a new dynamic, a new "small n" nationalist dynamic, and the Labour Party cannot take for granted that they will get the left vote. There are other alternative left parties, either the Lib Dems, or Plaid traditionally, and hopefully Forward Wales will move into the field. I think people are freer to experiment with other parties and perhaps even to protest vote. There is a greater capability at a national - Scotland and Wales - level to move away from old tribal loyalties than there is at a general election, where the stakes seem to be much higher because you are voting for the UK government.

Andy: I think many people in England don't appreciate the extent that devolution can bring limited but real gains. Over specific issues in education, health provision and housing, for example: when you speak to specialists in these fields. To give just one example, the maternity services national framework, the one published as Welsh policy is more progressive than the one in England. There is some space for making things a bit better.

Ron Davies: Actually there is space for making things a lot better. Unfortunately there are New Labour attitudes in the Labour Party in Wales. There are gains, but the timidity of New Labour is preventing us from making even more gains. Timidity in not just philosophical terms but in policy terms as well. There is an unwillingness to be as radical as we could and should be and there is an issue of competence, it has to be said.

Andy: It is interesting you raise timidity, because I believe you were the architect of Welsh devolution, and the Welsh Assembly has fewer powers than the Scottish parliament. I suppose the context is that in 1979 the Welsh voted not to have devolution at all?

Ron Davies: That was one consideration I suppose. The arguments in Wales about devolution are very long and complex. I think for me the big issue was that in Scotland in the period from the mid 1980s the campaign for Scottish devolution was gaining on the back of anti-Thatcher rhetoric and then the poll tax, which was implemented first in Scotland. There was a much clearer sense of national identity and a clearer idea that Scotland wanted devolution. Scotland had actually had its own parliament that had existed 300 years before. In Wales that sense of national identity was never that strong, we had never had our own parliament, and as you say in 1979 a battle was lost which was a tremendous blow. And there were many people n the Labour party, and there still are, who find it very hard to reconcile their patriotism, their love for Wales, with their commitment to socialism, or to the Labour party I should say.

Because they believed and argued very strongly in 1979, and still do, that the solutions to the problems of Wales are to be found in exactly the same mechanism as the problems of the North of England or wherever. The answer is a strong labour government in Westminster who will legislate all these problems away.

It doesn't understand that there are issues about patriotism, of identity, of wanting to do things differently in Wales, of nation building if you like. To free up the initiatives we have in Wales, because our scale is different, because we do have different values, there is a greater sense of community, we do have distinctive policy issues of our own we do have issues about language and so on. And there is a large part of the Labour Party that is entirely uncomfortable with that agenda, and didn't want to go down that track. That didn't exist in Scotland. In the settlement we had in the late1990s, the Labour Party was taken towards devolution very, very reluctantly. Part of the price that had to be paid to accommodate that reluctance was a Welsh assembly someway short of a Scottish Parliament.

The leadership of Tony Blair was very influenced by views from the Labour Party in Wales against devolution, whereas when John Smith was the leader his view was quite clear. He wanted devolution to Wales in the same way as he wanted devolution to Scotland. There should be a Welsh parliament akin to the Scottish parliament. But Blair was much more cautious to accommodate the anti-devolution sentiment in the Labour Party, and prior to the 1997 election fearful of what would happen in England, if the Labour party was seen as too strongly pushing devolution for Wales when the people of Wales were not sold on it. They feared an English backlash.

Andy: You talk about nation building. Do you think this can be negative in reinforcing anti- English feeling?

Ron Davies: I think that English people who are viewing these events from England are perhaps less understanding and less sympathetic to the arguments because they are viewed from afar. Certainly I have lots of English friends, people who were born in England and are now living in Wales, and are very enthusiastic patriots. A good example are the people who have gone down to Ceredigion during the 80s and 90s in West Wales looking for the idyllic rural life, wishing to immerse themselves in rural communities pursuing environmentally friendly farming practices, and developing tourism and craft industries, and many of them are very comfortable with the idea of Welsh identity because the idea of Welsh identity is not based upon ethnicity it is based upon a sort of civic identity. So if you identify with Wales you are Welsh. It is not about blood ties or ethnicity it is about belonging and commitment.

Andy: So it is about a celebration of aspects of your local community, rather than thinking you are better or different from anyone else?

Ron Davies: Absolutely. And if have always believed, and believe more strongly with every day that passes, that you have to be confident in your own identity, and you have to be prepared to cherish and value it, and then you can start to value other peoples' identity, and you can start to develop cherish a complete commitment to diversity. It is something that potentially strengthens us rather than weakens us. Particularly when based upon civic identity.

Andy: The traditional argument from the left has been that the day to day experience of Welsh, Scottish and English workers is all the same, and promoting national differences can undermine their class links. Certainly if the Welsh set up separate trade unions from the ones in England, that would be a set back for the unions wouldn't it?

Ron Davies: Well, we have had a Wales TUC for the best part of 30 years. And that argument was used when it was created. There was an argument that it would be divisive; as it happens the Wales TUC was largely the creation of George Wright who was a midlands trade unionist, and came to lead the TGWU in Wales. The 30 years we have had the Wales TUC it has strengthened the unions not weakened them. It is certainly the case that trade unions need to come to terms with the different structures of government in Wales, but if you look at the access that the welsh trade unions have to our government in Wales many of them are very conscious of the great advances and very proud that we have unions like my own Unison, which if it wants can call in government ministers almost every week, to talk about local government or health and housing issues. So there is close access, and in public sectors like education the unions have a far greater influence on policy than they do in England. There will be differences that have to be reflected in the structure of unions, but the gains which have accrued in Wales are substantial.

Andy: Do you see Forward Wales as a broad party in the Scottish Socialist Part sort of mould?  That can include people who regard themselves as revolutionaries, alongside people who see change coming through constitutional means? Left is left - is that what Forward Wales stands for?

Ron Davies: Yes, except there is a slight difference, in that if you are a member of Forward Wales then you cannot be a member of any other political party, so in that sense it is more conventional. But Forward Wales is very much looking to find a new way of engaging people in the political process. Far more open to working with local campaign groups, local tenants groups, local environmental groups and so on. It is far more open in that sense to working with others than conventional political parties.

Andy: So in the same way that Rifondazione in Italy has looked not to the conventional political process by to the "movement of movements"; the people involved in the sort of campaigns you are talking about.

Ron Davies: Yes and it's interesting at how politics has changed over the last 10 or 15 years.  People have given up hope that their efforts will be rewarded by channelling them into political parties. If they want to see environmental improvements, for example, if the want to safeguard their own local communities there is a belief it is far better doing it by direct action through a single issue pressure group or by initiating a protest movement. I think that is one reason why the vertical political process has become weakened because people are not prepared to put the same effort into wholesale political organisation when what they want to do is take forward one issue. Whereas, if they enter into the system it requires them to make so many compromises.

Andy: And the traditional political parties turn their back on that type of single issue campaigning anyway, haven't they?

Ron Davies: I think so, absolutely. And the movement towards the centre and towards discipline, and having a line to take, and that line being increasingly handed down from above, and the search for uniformity and respectable type politics has caused certainly the Labour Party to shy away from it.

Andy: I suppose people in the Labour Party would say they are prepared to make compromises to gain office, and that issue doesn't go away does it? For a party like the Scottish Socialist Party or Forward Wales, that for example they can do very well as a minor party and get between 5% and 10% but that is well short of what they need to form a government.

Ron Davies: There is nothing wrong in wanting to take office. I think the issue is the extent to which you are prepared to compromise on your basic principles.  In the case of the Labour Party they have not just compromised, they have jettisoned their basic principles; it no longer professes to be a left of centre or socialist party.

Andy: There is a debate about this. For example Rifondazione in Italy have said they are now prepared to enter a coalition government, and there are other people in the PRC, the class struggle element of that party, who say that would be a terrible mistake and they should continue to base themselves on the movement of movements. Some comrades in the Scottish Socialist Party have pointed out that if the party stalls electorally at around 5% they need to look at what distinguishes the SSP from other parties, which is its willingness to throw itself into the campaigns and working class struggle. So if you use the  5% as a platform to stand on to build the fight, then it is useful; but the other direction - like that taken by the Workers Party in Brazil - is to think we are never going to get to be the government unless you compromise. It is an issue that does need to be debated through these broad parties doesn't it?

Ron Davies: But that really is a theoretical question isn't it? Of course it is an interesting debate. The question of whether or not to join a coalition is not one facing Forward Wales, and not one likely to face Forward Wales. I can imagine there could be circumstances where if there were a clearly defined political gain for Wales and for the left then FW would want to join a coalition. But that would be in certain circumstances for a set purpose, for a set period of time.

Andy: It certainly isn't an issue facing you now. It seems now that FW is making a significant attempt to move the political agenda to the left in Wales.

Ron Davies: That is right, we are not Plaid Cymru and we are not the Lib Dems. If we wanted merely to be a small party eternally holding the balance we would presumably join the Lib Dems because that is who they are! Forward Wales is much more clearly defined in policy terms at least, we want to see meaningful devolution to Wales, and we want to see a left of centre political agenda. It may well be that you could construct circumstances where in a couple of years time a government in Cardiff wanted support on the basis of negotiating with the UK government for a full parliament, and I could well imagine under  those circumstances that Forward Wales members would say, yes we will support this government just over those limited objectives. And perhaps we could enter a coalition fro a year or two in order to bring that parliament about, but on the other hand if you are talking about propping up a discredited Labour administration like the Liberal Democrats would do, then no I think rightly members of Forward Wales would say no there is work to be done, we have to work outside in environmental campaigns, we have to work with trade unionists, we have to work with all the people who are agitating for social and economic improvement. That is where under those circumstances the Forward Wales tradition has to be.

Andy: At the moment Forward Wales has done very well in Wrexham, and did quite well across Wales in the European elections by the standards of far left parties in Europe, especially as it was its first election. But how do you see it growing to be a national force across Wales, I think it is currently relatively poorly represented in South Wales?

Ron Davies: We will be hoping to fight a number of seats in the general elections, and by that process will raise our profile, and we will make contacts. We have already established ourselves as the pre-eminent force on the left of Welsh politics, and the process of fighting parliamentary seats will continue to build up the profile and increase the membership of Forward Wales, and there will be other opportunities in local authority elections and by-elections to continue to fight. And the prize has to be the full elections to the National Assembly in two year time, and that has to be the time that we make the breakthrough. And I think then there is a realistic prospect of doing that. Either in the constituencies or through the list system where a relatively modest vote can produce Forward Wales Assembly Members elected and then you have full time campaigning politicians who are able to make a difference.

Andy: In the general election certainly the Socialist Party are standing I believe two candidates in Welsh constituencies, I am not sure if Respect are intending to stand anywhere. You have said that members of other parties cannot join FW, how do you see that any unity of the left can come about? How could members of the Socialist Party in Wales for example take part in that process if they couldn't join you?

Ron Davies: Well, we have to talk. It would be foolish if we were to stand against each other in parliamentary seats. We have had discussions with friends and colleagues from other political parties on the left, discussion where we have and where they have interests. I think there will be Respect candidates in Wales, there will certainly be Green Party candidates, but I would be very surprised if we end up fighting each other in constituencies. We have to try to find a way to work, where we can bring our fire on the main opposition and that isn't other left wing parties.

Andy: Do you agree that the only way that we can achieve any unity of purpose is by a long period of cooperation and building up trust. Not by an ultimatum saying we are the ones to join and everyone else is rubbish.

Ron Davies: That's right. I don't think anyone in Forward Wales is thinking like that. I think the fact we did have people elected into local government, and did have John Marek in the national assembly did have a decisive influence on our decision to be an exclusive political party, because otherwise you would have people who had a completely free hand, and would be doing things in the name of Forward Wales, for which John Marek would then have to answer. Far better we thought, to try to establish our own perspectives that were both left of centre and from an exclusively Welsh perspective, which was not an agenda shared by any other party. We thought it was important to get our own project off the ground and then use the opportunities - as we have done - talking to people from Respect, and from the Green Party; about issues and where their priorities are. It is a question of gradually building up confidence, and seeing if anyone can make the breakthrough: we have no problem in running joint campaigns.

Andy: You have come a long way from being a Labour Cabinet Minister to being in a small left of centre party. Do you think there are any more Ron Davies's in the Labour Party, who might take this route to the left?

Ron Davies: It is not a question of me having moved to the left, it really is a reflection of the extent that Labour Party has gone whizzing to the right. I would argue that my views now are what they were in 1972 when I led the local council as did David Skinner in Clay Cross, we led a rebellion against the Tory government over the issue of council housing. My politics then were firmly of the left, but I was never a revolutionary, I wanted to see a strong left wing Labour government elected, and I would still like to see a strong left of centre Labour government elected, but I don't think we are going to get it. I think the Labour Party has changed beyond all recognition. With a lifetime's political experience you can free yourself up and embrace long term issues about environmentalism, about investment in communities. In a way when you are a politician just looking for votes you have to respond to more immediate issues. Events have freed me up to be truer to my own beliefs.

Andy: Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the political future? Are we going to achieve socialism?

Ron Davies: Not through the Labour Party we aren't, brother!

 

January 2005

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