Where’s the centre ground in Welsh politics?

(Title Image: Institute of Welsh Affairs)

If there’s anything politics loves it’s to label things, but are those labels – particularly when it comes to ideology – now out of date?

What does “left”, “right” and “centre” mean?

The labels were derived from where politicians sat in the old French Estates General (parliament) during the French Revolution; supporters of monarchy sat on the right, supporters of a republic sat on the left.

This evolved to become wider ideological labels in 19th, 20th and 21st Century politics.

Traditionally, “left-wing” meant support for public ownership of key industries, a stronger welfare state and planned economics (where the government decides – to varying degrees – economic policy instead of the market). The left has traditionally been opposed to tradition, organised religion, militarism and supports stronger employment rights and rights for minority groups.

In the same vein, “right-wing” has often meant support for privatisation, charity (as opposed to welfare), market-led economics, strong borders & military, nationalism (when your nation is already independent), light regulation, the maintenance of traditions, social conformity and the family as the core social unit.

Centrists lie somewhere halfway between the two with some support for social progress whilst accepting the free market. When a party is said to need to move “towards the centre” it means they currently lie too far the left or right and want to cherry pick ideas from both sides to make themselves more electable – real-life examples would include Tony Blair’s New Labour and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition from 2010-2015.

The Four (New) Axes

Technocratic – There’s a specific political ideology called technocracy which has all but died out, but what I mean by this is “rule by expertise and evidence”. It’s based on bureaucracy, central planning, consultation and micro-management. Every new policy is thoroughly tested, has to fit certain criteria and has to have a set end goal; it’s an almost scientific approach to politics that broadly ignores popular opinion to “do what’s right” which can come across as elitist. It’s fine working with theories, frameworks and strategies, but it’s no good if you have no idea how they impact people in their everyday lives, can’t explain it to them or if it comes across as though you don’t trust people to do their own jobs.

Populist – “Rule by public opinion”. The end goal doesn’t necessarily matter, neither does the getting there. You could even say it’s “rule by anger” as it’s about directly acknowledging (rather than addressing) the concerns of ordinary people. Instead of seeing politics as a series of problems to be fixed like a technocrat, it’s a fixed system that’s the problem. Populism creates scapegoats, usually a corrupt and out of touch elite who don’t know how the other half live. Policies are often easily explainable and often popular but over-simplified or hard to deliver in practice (i.e Brexit); “Who cares if it works? We’re pissed off!”

Authoritarian – Strong state, restricted freedoms. The authority of the state, party or leader is paramount. They will protect you, citizen – both from everyone else and yourself. When you think “authoritarian” you probably have an image of dead men with epic facial hair, but there’s a soft authoritarianism too. It ranges from paternalistic/nanny state policies that are readily accepted now – like bans on smoking in public places – right through to nationalisation, strong police/state powers, heavy regulation, conscription and restrictions on civil liberties (whether the entire population or specific groups). If a party’s automatic instinct is to ban, regulate or control then they’re probably authoritarian.

Libertarian – Strong freedoms, restricted state. The authority of the individual is paramount. No state, government or party can exist without the consent of its citizens. The public perception of libertarianism ranges from anarchists right through to gun nuts, but all it’s about at heart is restricting the power of the state over everyday lives. There’s stronger support for civil liberties, light-touch regulations (or even none at all), open borders and small government. If a party’s instinct is to de-regulate, liberalise and uphold constitutional principles then they’re probably libertarian in scope to varying degrees.

Do the “wings” and a “centre ground” exist anymore?

The centre ground – what Americans call moderates and what UK political commentators call swing-voters – definitely exists. It’s basically everyone who either doesn’t have a credible party to support or who is willing to change sides if/when parties offer policies that appeal to them.

The thing that’s changed dramatically over the last decade is that ideology (left vs right) has become less important. What’s become more important – particularly in the internet age – is how policies are developed, promoted to the public and enacted in government to address the grievances of voters; do they think there’s an elite ruining things (populist)? Or are problems so complicated they need to be led by scholarly experts (technocratic)?

The split in politics now isn’t necessarily left vs right anymore but technocrats vs populists and this is playing out in Wales too – Neil McEvoy vs Plaid Cymru +/- lobbyists being the most prominent example at present.

Populists are winning after about 20 years of technocratic post-Cold War consensus. Brexit, Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, economic protectionism, UKIP in the Assembly are all examples of populist victories, not necessarily right or left wing ones.

UKIP and Donald Trump may, on most standard definitions, be right-wing, but they also support traditionally left-wing positions such as nationalisation of the railways (in the case of UKIP) or Donald Trump’s anti-globalisation agenda. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, for example, is a populist left-wing party and all of them might have more in common with each other than they would like to admit.

Take Brexit. It was never just about populist right-wing anti-immigration sentiment as there was a populist left-wing argument against EU membership because of its technocratic approach to trade and economics, which prevents states from pursuing popular, but anti-competitive, measures like nationalisation of key public services.

Where are the five Senedd parties?

Welsh Labour Highly technocratic, moderately authoritarian – Labour in Wales won’t do anything without it going through an extensive consultation process and fine micro-management. Perhaps, on occasion, they’ve cherry-picked evidence to match policy (like their attempts to ban vaping indoors). Nonetheless, wanting to be proven to be “right” based on expert opinion is more preferable to them than rushing things, but their first instinct is to ban or regulate in a slightly paternalistic manner in order to maintain stability and control. They haven’t always been like this as under Rhodri Morgan they had a far more populist bent, but the current and next generation of Welsh Labour leaders are pure technocrats.

Plaid Cymru Mildly technocratic, mildly authoritarian – Plaid are a few steps down from Labour in that they’re more open to radical ideas and faster action on issues of national importance. They’re a bit more libertarian when it comes to banning things and on civil liberties; they don’t come across as “nanny state” as Labour, but this is offset somewhat by a greater enthusiasm for state planning, affirmative action, identity politics and state involvement in the economy.

Welsh Conservatives Mildly populist, mildly libertarian – The Tories in Wales are often quick to get outraged on behalf of the public without offering concrete solutions (clear populism). They are, by instinct, less inclined to support over-regulation or state planning in the economy. To date, they’ve only really supported bans and regulations when it’s clear their core vote wants it. They will, however, still listen to evidence and experts when it suits them and often call for such approaches from the Welsh Government and other parties, so they’re not outright populists and are perhaps closer to the centre than any other party.

Liberal DemocratsHighly technocratic, moderately libertarian – Not unlike Labour, the Lib Dems defer to expert opinion and evidence; very rarely do they jump on a bandwagon without it having some sort of academic justification beforehand. However, they tend to only support extra regulations and bans when there’s a proven need for them as a last resort; they don’t seem inclined to pursue that path straight away and they’re also keen to cut back on bureaucracy and uphold civil liberties.

UKIP in Wales Highly populist, moderately libertarian – UKIP is a tricky one to place, but what you can say with certainty is that they’re a populist party. They won’t listen to expert opinion on anything and their instinct since the start has been to bow “to common sense”. On the other scale they’re far more authoritarian on issues like crime, identity politics (see the recent outburst in the Senedd against transgenders) and immigration, whilst being more libertarian on some aspects of social policy and economic planning (opposition to new taxes for example); the latter probably winning out all in all, particularly at a Welsh level where UKIP AMs have spoken out against new taxes and regulations.

Where does Welsh independence fit?

The scale only matters in the context of independence by how it’s campaigned for and what people would want to see happen to Wales after independence.

The campaign needs a bit of everything. There needs to be a technocratic side to answer people’s questions and provide an evidence base (like this site to an extent). There also needs to be a populist side to get people on board and actively interested in the idea.

After independence, some people might favour a small state that’s anti-immigration (which is in line with the Conservatives and UKIP), some might want a socialist state (which is both highly technocratic and authoritarian), some might want a Nordic-style socially libertarian, economically technocratic state.

You can probably see for yourselves that Welsh independence is neither left nor right, authoritarian nor libertarian, technocratic nor populist. It’s a principle about the future of our nation, not a party political matter. The challenge is making sure it appeals to everyone, not no one.

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