Welsh Labour genetically statist

Dan Boucher asks what do you if you are a Conservative and believe in the co-operative ideal

As a member of the Welsh Conservatives with a background in the voluntary sector, there is something that bothers me about the history of my home city, Swansea.

It was in 1917 that Swansea hosted the Co-operative Congress. At the gathering the movement determined that in order to secure the influence it needed to effect change, it must form a political party. The result was the creation of the Co-operative Party. What is the problem with this? Well if you want to join the Co-operative Party you have to sign a form that says, among other things, “I am not a member of any political party other than the Labour Party”. Consequently the only Co-operative label in Parliament or in the National Assembly comes after Labour. There are Labour-Co-op MPs and AMs but no Conservative equivalents.

What do you do if you are a Welsh Conservative who believes in the co-operative ideal?

Launch of The Big Society in a Small Country

Dan Boucher’s book The Big Society in a Small Country: Wales, social capital, mutualism, and self-help is being launched today at an event in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay, between 6.30pm and 8.00pm. Cultural commentator Peter Stead will be in conversation with Dan Boucher and Lord Brian Griffiths about the themes of the book and their relevance to contemporary Wales. Places are still available to attend. Contact the IWA office 02920 660820, or turn up on the door. 

There are some who like to suggest that Conservatives are just a bunch of free market individualists. However, the reality is very different. The Conservative Party has a long tradition of commitment to social justice and enlightened social reform evidenced since Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (who, incidentally, devoted significant time to learning Welsh), and in more recent times by social entrepreneurs like Nat Wei.

The fact that the Co-operative Party has aligned itself with the Labour Party is entirely appropriate if that is what they want to do. We live in a free society and you can’t get much more basic than the freedom of association. However, by the same token we have to recognise that Labour does not have a monopoly when it comes to concern for and interest in the co-operative economy. Indeed, the truth is that the Co-operative economy in Wales is not doing as well under Labour as it would if it were able to benefit from the Big Society policies currently being rolled out by Francis Maude in England.

However, before reflecting on some of these Big Society changes on which Wales is missing out, we should pause to confront the suggestion of some that the Big Society is an English initiative that is alien to Wales?

The truth is that because of our strong tradition of conceiving Wales as an organic, ‘community of communities’, which must be understood from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down, it is actually hard to conceive of a nation where the Big Society would have better resonance. Indeed, although post 1918 the Labour Party embraced the Big State, prior to 1918 even Labour championed Big Society solutions, which continued to be strongly associated with Plaid particularly in the mid 20th Century.

The bottom-up, localist tradition is still alive in Wales today. But its potential is not being fully harnessed because it is saddled with government policy that is in love with the big state. The sad fact is that so much energy and attention has been focused on statist solutions that now, according to some measures, the public sector represents a massive 70 per cent of GDP in Wales. Most economists start getting concerned when this figure rises about 40 per cent!

Of course, the Welsh Government has a social enterprise plan which says the right things. However, when we compare delivery in England and Wales, there are some sharp contrasts. While the lead English minister on the Big Society Francis Maude is pressing ahead with his right to provide policy, working with those parts of the state that want to become mutuals rather than continuing to be part of big impersonal government departments, no comparable steps are being taken in Wales.

Moreover, while the Localism Act introduces the ‘community right to challenge’ which enables concerned community groups to bid to take over state functions in England, there is no comparable provision in Wales. What are we to make of this? Is it that people in England are up to this challenge, but the people of Wales are not?

Then again, an assessment of the cooperative economy across Great Britain in 2010 revealed that it is weakest in Wales – an odd state of affairs given our strong community of communities tradition.

It seems to me that, despite what they may say, Welsh Labour are at the end of the day genetically statist. They can provide good social enterprise rhetoric, as in their social enterprise plan, but they can’t really bring themselves to make the state smaller and society bigger by transferring functions from big impersonal government departments to mutuals. For all their talk about community, this goes against the grain.

This is why Wales badly needs the Welsh Conservative Big Society policies to help secure the appropriate rebalancing of our economy. Moreover, our community of communities culture means that the Big Society is not merely right for Wales because it addresses contemporary challenges but also because it will help to renew our national identity and national traditions in a way that Labour policy never can.

In this context it seems to me that it would be well worth providing a mechanism whereby Conservatives with a special interest in co-operative solutions can identify themselves as such. If Labour MPs can be categorised as Labour-Co-op, then it is time to think about presenting Conservative-Mutual candidates. This would demonstrate that Labour does not have a monopoly on the co-operative economy. In fact, it is the Welsh Conservatives who have far more radical policies to facilitate its advancement.

It would be particularly appropriate for this to emanate from Wales since the Labour-Co-op label can ultimately trace its roots back to that Cooperative Congress in Swansea in 1917.

Dan Boucher was the Welsh Conservative Assembly Candidate in Swansea East in the 2011 election. Today he works in public affairs at Westminster, also managing a team covering Stormont, Holyrood, Brussels and Strasbourg.

6 thoughts on “Welsh Labour genetically statist

  1. A very well argued case,as our people (small in number) have huge talents/drive. However, the current system was designed to garner all power to Welsh politicians,under the guise of democracy. Since 1999 we have created a government, with seemingly a permanent nationalist/socialist majority who are absolutely determined to not allow any initiatives in different provision of services,as their trade union ‘sponsors’ are opposed to such liberalisations. When you look at the social fabric of Wales,virtually all the a)chapels, b)sporting clubs,were started over 100 years ago by people with the drive/wealth/accumen to see things through and without a penny of public money wanted, or needed as their independance was a much valued part of their life. Let us compare and contrast with today, when seemingly all power/patronage ,and access to public money needs to go through the hoops,and over the hurdles of Welsh politicians, who of course have their own agendas.

    I cannot understand why Welsh people of real quality are denied, whilst still in the UK, the same opportunities as similar people ‘over the border’ to create schools outside the dead hand of the state. Lets be absolutely frank. Welsh politians absolutely ‘love power’. The thought of it being handed over to other people, with perhaps greater abilities, is anathema to them, no matter how poor the services are, relative to the public money spent on them. In a nutshell this is the impact of POLITICAL devolution with all power being centralised in Caerdydd and nothing will change until either a) the English cut our subsidies down to a realistic leve; or b) the systems collapse as seems to be happening in the NHS.

  2. ‘Statist’ and ‘Big Society’ are two vacuous terms.

    States exist. They exists because we organise ourselves to be more effective than an individual alone. A sports team will always be on the losing side if it is made up of individuals following their own values, tactics and interests. It is literally at the expense of the team. To this extent any political party is “Statist”.

    As I understand the usual Conservative attack is that Labour seeks an ever larger and dictatorial centralised State. But this is also true of the Conservatives. The English/British state has only grown slightly less fast under the Conservatives than Labour.

    The idea that either party believes in ‘Social Justice’, in any sense, is laughable.

    If the Conservative Party believed in individual freedom and social justice it would never be an imperialist party that believes in England’s inalienable right to rule other nations to England’s profit and the others’ expense.

    Labour’s no better. The root of the formation of the Labour movement involved, what we now call, Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. This the Labour party dumped at the beginning of the 20th Century in favour of English Nationalism, because they think that small nations can’t exert enough power for their aims, so they must be forced into ever bigger entities that Labour can rule with their brand of Socialism. Small nations, they believe, must be killed off for the benefit of the Working Class (only really an English concept).

    Both Labour and Conservatives want Britain to be a form of English Soviet Union. The only difference is which group rules it.

    The EU is a co-operative entity, but the Conservative, and other parties, are increasingly against it for this very reason. As one Conservative MP put it, “What are we doing being told what to do by these foreigners when we should be telling them what to do!”

    The UK is the opposite to the EU and is a centralised, dictatorial entity created by the English Monarchy and supported by the Conservative party in particular. If this article was true they’d be against it!

    What you could call the Welsh traditional co-operative society still exists in pockets, in particular with the Welsh language. But the aggressive Anglicisation promoted by both Labour and Conservative has actually sought to destroy it. In fact it’s a ‘Big Society’ that’s much easier to destroy than create. It’ll take more to create it than a new whiz-bang fashionable phrase from a PR man to describe something he has no concept of but is happy to destroy elsewhere.

    Commercial co-operatives have, prospectively, a much bigger role to play in our economy, but it has never been an idea supported by Conservatives as the Tower Colliery story proved.

  3. Co-operatives are enterprises owned by their workers eg Tower colliery. Mutuals are enterprises owned by their customers e.g. CWS or Principality building society. They are different beasts. In a way the mutual idea should appeal more to Conservatives who appriove of consumer sovereignty though in practice the UK Conservatives have never shown any enthusiasm, happily watching mutuals convert to PLCs in the financial sector. If Dan Boucher wants to give the Welsh Conservatives a mutual flavour he will have to work harder to differntiate his party from the London Tories. The big society is generally understood as a money-saving wheeze to get non-government groups to take responsibility for public services without the state providing the money it did when it took responsibility itself. It is therefore a tainted brand. That said, Labour in Wales is indeed statist because it is financed by public sector unions who are exclusively concerned with protecting the interests of their members and don’t give a hoot about the citizen who uses the services or the taxpayer who foots the bill.

  4. Howell, “seemingly a permanent nationalist/socialist majority”?

    Haven’t you noticed yet that ALL politics is nationalist the world over?

    Here the battle is between noble Welsh Nationalism and oppressive English, Unionist Nationalism.

  5. Dan Boucher sounds like a fascinating figure for conservatism, and his ideas about society finding its value away from the state are very inviting. But I’d have to level the charges he brings against Labour back to the Conservative Party – you might be good at the rhetoric, but a few years into the coalition you certainly haven’t done much to make it a reality. ‘Big Society’ has almost entirely faded from the coalition’s publicity, and the party has to start admitting that between poorly designed welfare reforms and cutbacks, a creeping vindictive nastiness, as well as the unfortunately-timed battle for the legacy of a uniquely divisive former PM, they still alienate huge swathes of people across the UK. Labour were in a laughable state in the run-up to the last UK election and the Conservative Party failed to win a majority even then.

    In Wales more than anywhere I’m starting to realise how much we need the Conservatives to be a strong party to make our public officials work for their money and for our support. But while Mr Boucher makes mutualism sound like a value that is central to Wales, it still seems a million miles away from Gideon and his ilk in London.

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