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Wales: The Labour-Plaid Cymru agreement - jam tomorrow, maybe
Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales
Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have reached an agreement that will give the Welsh Labour government, led by Mark Drakeford, a working majority. Labour won 30 out of the 60 Senedd seats in the election earlier this year, not enough for a controlling majority, and so has had to reach an agreement with Plaid Cymru which has 13 seats.
The agreement has been lauded in the media, and by some on the left, as offering significant reforms. Any improvement on the current state of some services is to be welcomed, and some of the promises offer genuine steps forward. However, a closer examination reveals that most of the headline reforms promise jam tomorrow - maybe.
And hanging over this agreement is the overarching fact that a decade of austerity implemented by the Welsh Labour government has decimated many public services, and this agreement will do nothing to even patch them up. £3 billion in real terms will have been cut from the Welsh government budget by 2024 compared to 2010.
Glaringly absent from the agreement is any direct mention of the NHS. Previous Labour governments have closed hospitals and removed thousands of beds, so the NHS was hanging by a thread when the pandemic hit. Now, the NHS in Wales is in a permanent state of crisis with patients waiting for twelve hours for ambulances or in A&E. Hundreds of frontline NHS workers are leaving, driven out by stress, overwork and low pay. The Labour-Plaid Cymru agreement does nothing to address this crisis in the flagship public service, nor the pressing need for a decent pay rise for NHS workers.
Many council services barely survive too, and this is not addressed in the agreement. The Welsh Labour government, now supported by Plaid Cymru, is likely to pass Tory cuts to funding down to local councils again next year. Labour and Plaid councils should fight those cuts and refuse to carry them out, drawing on reserves and beginning a mass campaign for more funds. The Socialist Party, part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, will challenge those cuts at the council elections next year.
Free school meals
The headline reform is for free school meals for primary schoolchildren. But this will be delivered by 2025 and is far too limited. One in three Welsh children live in poverty and free school meal provision in Wales is the most miserly of anywhere in the UK. Even under the Tories in England there is greater universal provision of free school meals in primary schools.
Ensuring every child gets at least one decent meal a day is a proven way to reduce poverty, and to help educational attainment, but this scandal will still continue for high school students in Wales for many years to come according to this agreement.
There is an ominous threat to "reform school term dates to bring them more in line with patterns of family life and employment." In practice, what is being looked at is cutting the summer school holidays and having more holidays in the winter and autumn to save school heating bills. And education workers will be concerned that the promise to "explore options to reform the rhythm of the school day" without extra funding will mean even longer hours for an already exhausted workforce.
The agreement headlines a 'National Care Service' to provide social care, implying NHS-style universal provision. But actually all that is promised is an expert group to examine an implementation plan in 2023.
Rent control and housing
Similarly, the headline promise of rent control is phrased very cautiously in the text of the agreement - to look at "the role a system of fair rents (rent control) could have in making the private rental market affordable for local people on local incomes". Already landlords' organisations have started to put pressure on the government to water down any proposals.
The danger is that by the time firm proposals see the light of day they will be watered down so much that they will be ineffective. All sorts of threats will be made by the landlords and a timid approach from the start will not deliver for tenants. Socialist Party Wales calls for fair rent tribunals to be run by representatives of tenants' groups, housing workers and trade unions that can set rents at truly affordable levels.
The Welsh government has form on its failure to defend tenants in the face of opposition from landlords and developers. The Renting Wales Act was passed in 2016 but, incredibly, five years later hasn't been implemented. The Act puts some limited restrictions on landlords who intend to evict tenants, but even these timid reforms have been ferociously fought by landlords, and in response the Welsh Labour government has kicked them into the long grass.
The document promises: "New approaches to making homes affordable" but nowhere is there any mention of the old, tried and tested approach - building council houses. Council house building ground to a halt in the 1990s and the current building rate is not even keeping pace with the growth in the population, let alone addressing the huge shortage of truly affordable homes in Wales.
It also promises reform of council tax, which is one of the most regressive taxes of all. But again, it will report on firm proposals a long time from now.
There are promises to set up publicly owned energy and construction companies - Ynni Cymru and Unnos - but they promise to be puny, ineffective minnows compared to the energy and construction giants. We call for the construction companies to be nationalised and development to be centred on a crash programme of building council homes.
Ynni Cymru will be limited to community-owned renewable energy generation rather than tackling the carbon-emitting energy giants. Why not expand the idea to take over the energy companies and, as we call for, start a truly ambitious nationalised energy company that would construct tidal lagoons in North and South Wales which, according to experts, could provide enough electricity to power Wales twice over? It could also provide thousands of jobs insulating every house in Wales that needs insulation.
Similarly, there are vague references to "invest more in flood management and mitigation" which, given the threat to dozens of communities in Wales and the destruction already inflicted in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot, is completely insufficient.
The agreement also promises a more proportional voting system in an enlarged Senedd. This would make it easier for a new party for working people to elect representatives.
And that is what working people in Wales desperately need - a real socialist alternative that can address the developing social crisis in our communities drawing on the fighting militant traditions of the Welsh working class.
In The Socialist 1 December 2021: