Tuesday, 4 September 2012

We all need enemies?

I’ve often heard it said, or seen it written, that the Labour Party have a vested interest in Wales remaining comparatively poor, and that they will never, as a result, actually do anything about it.  I’ve tended to dismiss that as just a piece of political rhetoric.

A week or so ago, however, Chris Dillow drew attention to this paper, which actually provides some statistical backing for the idea.  The maths is complex, and the specific situation to which it applies – the continuation of a guerilla conflict in Colombia – doesn’t immediately strike me as having a great deal of resonance in Wales.
However, the hypothesis which the research set out to test has a more general application, and the fact that the researchers found evidence to support their hypothesis makes its applicability to Wales an interesting conjecture at the least. 
Their hypothesis in essence was this.  “We develop a political economy model where some politicians have a comparative advantage in undertaking a task and this gives them an electoral advantage.  This creates an incentive to underperform in the task in order to maintain their advantage”.
Applied to the proposition above about the Labour Party, one could paraphrase it as saying “as long as Labour gain electoral advantage from the perception that they are the best party to tackle poverty, they have an incentive not to tackle that poverty too effectively because to do so would be to remove that electoral advantage”.
Similarly, by defining itself largely in terms of “not the Tories” the Labour Party has also given itself a vested interest in ensuring that the Tories remain a credible electoral threat.
It’s not only Labour that this applies to though.  One could equally say of the Tories that “as long as they are perceived to be the best party to tackle economic problems, they have a vested interest in the perpetuation of those problems”.  If it were not for the inconvenient fact that the perception of their ability in this area is rapidly evaporating, the Chancellor’s cack-handed handling of the economy might even start to look like a stroke of political genius.
But why stop at Labour and the Tories?  Could we not equally say that any politician who pitches his or her appeal on the unfair way in which Wales is treated has a vested interest in that continuing unfair treatment of Wales.  And by the same token, those who seek to define themselves by opposition to the UK state have a need to ensure the continuation of that state. 
There are three things which would mitigate against reaching the conclusion that politicians have a clear incentive to perpetuate the existence of those people, parties, and institutions which they claim to be against.
The first is to do with the underlying assumption that most politicians are more interested in the pursuit and retention of power then in what they do with it once they get it.  Whilst there are exceptions to every rule, observation suggests that exceptions to this particular rule are fairly few and far between. 
The second would be if more politicians started to define themselves and their parties more in terms of what they are and what they stand for than in terms of what they’re not and what they’re against.  Given how much easier the negative argument is, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
The third of course is that we could simply see through them, and stop believing that they are ever going to act against their own interests.


Anonymous said...

Very good post John, though it's alot to take in. It could logically be argued that nationalists would actively want the union to disadvantage Wales, because it may be in their interests for it to fail. If someone offered nationalists a union that was fair and actually worked, what would they say? Hypothetically, if a group of unionists came together and advocated a union in which Wales was for some unknown reason given a disproportionately strong and beneficial role, would nationalists still oppose it? If you want to end the union you have a vested interest in looking for the ways in which it is 'bad' and not mentioning the ways in which it is 'good'.

There are all sorts of contradictions going on.

I think with Labour they play it both ways. They are sustained by povetry and by people being disadvantaged, but they have also been able to whittle away at poverty and take credit for the temporary erosion of poverty during the New Labour years when they were the "aspirational" party. Then when poverty inevitably comes back they can revert to selling themselves as the party of the poor.

The argument that Labour deliberately keeps Wales poor usually contains one grain of truth, in that they need the Tories to be there as the bogeyman.

Nigel Bull said...

John what interesting timing.

I yesterday had a long discussion that started along the lines that I looked forward to the day when Wales "might" (but I doubt it) one day be doing well enough economically to be able to afford the balanced consideration of independance, not the current Students union alcohol fuelled level of debate. The conclusion however was that we are likely to go to right and elect more Tories before that ever happens. This together with the preocupation with this issue by Plaid makes them as a party with its current drift to the left untenable in the long term. Labour was not left out of the conversation and the conclusions were no different to yours.

A Salmond has done very well with his cards untill this year when an unusually high number have been misplayed. He might yet show some progress for his goals over the next few years. Unfortunately for Plaid we dont have the Oil income which should also include the large amount from the highly paid production jobs, so another dead end for Plaid. It's going to Labour dominated in Wales for a long time yet with no incentive to improve too much. Remember the Gren slogan written on the side of sheep "Ban mint sauce"

farmland investment said...

Labour may well have a vested interest in keeping Wales poor; however, one would certainly hope that politicians have not become that utterly cynical that they would actually be thinking that way. Then again, in an environment where one sees the Prime Minsiter essentially selling private meetings for 250K, well, I suppose anything is possible.

Anonymous said...

If Scotland didn't have oil, law and finance they would be in a similar economic boat to Wales. Possibly worse in some cases. It's not just the oil revenues but the existence of a huge onshore sector providing thousands of well-paid jobs. Scottish law as well, though public sector, acts as a magnet for financial firms, property firms etc, and alot of private sector activity.

Even with all this Salmond can only just about balance the books for an independent Scotland. Plaid Cymru needs to prepare in case Scotland votes 'no' because if they do, alot of commentators and rival parties will write Plaid off and say well if even Scotland voted no, that means Wales is even further behind, so what's the point of Plaid Cymru or Welsh independence now? A clever response will be needed.

John Dixon said...

Anon 13:35,

"Hypothetically, if a group of unionists came together and advocated a union in which Wales was for some unknown reason given a disproportionately strong and beneficial role, would nationalists still oppose it?"

I think that the answer to that depends on how you define 'nationalists'. If you are using the term to describe those people who want to see an independent Wales, then yes, they would continue to oppose it. If you are using the term (in the way that some do) to refer to members of Plaid Cymru, then the answer would be quite different. It has long been very clear to me that there are many in the party who would be quite content with something a long way short of the party's stated aim.


I sort of agree with some of what you say, and sort of disagree with other bits. The underlying question, which I've covered in previous postings as well, is whether independence creates an economic problem for Wales, or whether it is the answer (or part thereof) to the current economic problems. And that is far from being as simple a question to answer as it is to ask.

Anon 12:26,

"Even with all this Salmond can only just about balance the books for an independent Scotland."

True. But a lot better than George Osbourne can do for an independent UK. There is a danger that people are applying different viability rules to a state which does not yet exist than they are applying to a state which currently exists.

If Scotland votes 'no' (which incidentally I still believe to be the likeliest option in the first independence referendum), what are the implications for Welsh politics? Hard to say at this stage. I don't doubt that some will immediately argue that Independence has become an irrelevance, but I think that's an over simplistic response. The fact that people vote a particular way in a particular election or referendum doesn't actually change that much over the longer term. And the concept of independence for Wales (and Scotland) is, and always has been, a long-term project.