Jamie Insole argues for a national campaign to address a crisis in democratic engagement in Wales
How does the unsettled question of under funding relate to a renewed interest in ‘asset based’ models for regeneration? Is there a single strategy by which Wales can reverse her fortunes and settle this most vexed yet least ‘popular’ of issues?
What the First Minister described as a bung to Northern Ireland, actually constitutes an additional payment on top of an existing £3.726m difference in total identifiable expenditure. Whereas the funding question cannot become a race to the bottom, it is useful to briefly consider the harms perpetrated by present arrangements.
Economists have long argued that the UK government underestimates the multiplier effect that public investment has in strengthening the economy. Far from ‘crowding out’ private enterprise, the public sector, by putting cash in people’s pockets, increases the amount of money in circulation, thus strengthening local economies. While true elsewhere in the UK, this is particularly true in Wales where much of our employment is part-time, poorly paid, and insecure.
Under-employment can be re-framed as ‘idle capacity’ in the Welsh economy. There is a very real prospect that better types of work are being denied to Wales, as a consequence of regional funding differentials. Since a sweatshop cannot simply transform into a high-tech start-up, ‘bad work’ can leave a long term economic scar, affecting future generations as well as causing misery today
Since 2012, 3 in every 4 private sector jobs created in Wales have paid below the real, living wage. Add to this the billions taken out of the Welsh economy by benefit cuts, and it is easy to get a sense of vandalism having been inflicted on Welsh communities.
Moreover, as our government trends increasingly towards the logic of triage, letting slip all but the highest priorities, there is a more subtle fall-out.
As a case in point, Welsh Government recently sought to confer with social tenants, following the Grenfell disaster. It became apparent that there was a lack of truly representative organisations. Welsh Tenants, previously an obvious organisation to undertake such work, has now lost its grant, and there is nothing to replace it.
Such dislocation is now widespread. Lack of funding for community activity will undermine any asset-based approach. Atomised and ignored people do not coalesce. They are silent.
Wales has achieved some incredible things. Free prescriptions; no NHS internal market; no academies or free schools; continuing democratic accountability; a more preventative approach to health policy, etc. However, and as the hollowing of Welsh Labour’s Assembly vote suggested, this has not yet combined into a widely felt narrative.
Let us be honest. Wales is in the grip of an emergency. Anybody who has sat through a poverty seminar or read a Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee report will know this. Consultation responses increasingly evoke loud screams that go unheard in obscure places. So far, the funding issue has been fought in the polite confines of ministerial chambers. This is unfortunate since the argument’s invisibility all too often translates into an appearance of complacency in the face of overwhelming need.
All of this suggests a crisis of democratic capacity. If opinion is uninformed by facts, that is only because our politics and media lack the potency to engage. If Senedd business goes largely ignored, this is because it lacks traction and relevance. Indeed, any notion that the Senedd should collapse creative disagreement, signals our political destitution.
So, imagine a real national effort. A campaign that manifests across the whole spectrum of Welsh public life. Street parties on estates. Competitions in our schools. Village and town meetings. Academic symposiums and cross-sector gatherings. Our trade unions making the case shoulder to shoulder with the best of our business leaders. Beginning with local mobilisations, the Welsh cultural and sporting community might combine to field regional gigs. Then, during the summer months, people would gather for exciting, carnival festivals.
Shared interest is the foundation of common purpose – where experience is shared, ideas emerge. Welsh people will have the occasion to voice their own priorities. Not only will this mend our dislocated politics but also swiftly work to re-establish the connections of community. Our media too, will find fresh relevance, breaking through the thick crust of UK nationals to report a movement in which so many are engaged.
Such a bold strategy would not be without challenges. Whether in terms of accountability or lifted expectation, once the genie is out of the bottle, there would be no going back. That said, the brittleness of UK government presents Welsh Labour with a unique opportunity to mobilise all of Wales in a healing drive for economic justice.
Does this seem naive? Just consider what the GLC achieved against a far more robust adversary with a similar schema of festivals and coordinated drives throughout the 80’s. Look at Catalonia, or indeed, Scotland. During the European Cup, thousands gathered in our town and city centres to watch the game on the big screen. If the activity was attractive, would they not do the same to ensure that their family and kids received the services and jobs they deserve?
Increasingly, people demand ‘activist governments’ that palpably side with them. Having been offered the rose, it would be rude for Welsh Labour to refuse the dance!
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