1960s >> 1965 >> no-731-july-1965

Abertillery

Abertillery is said to be the constituency with the largest percentage of Socialist voters in the country. If only it were! Certainly the Labour Party has dominated the area for over 30 years but that’s a different matter altogether.

 

Labourism came to the mining valleys of Wales, in one of which is Abertillery, through the activities of the Independent Labour Party before the first world war. In South Wales, with over one hundred branches, the ILP was the leading light of the popular Social Reform movement which arose from the miseries and indignities the miners had to suffer. After a period of pre-war “Lib-Labism” all the mining constituencies fell to the Labour Party, which by 1922 had become the largest party in Wales.

 

The local councils too came under Labour control in this period. The Labour and ILP pioneers were at least sincere —although confused—men and women. Some had a very adequate knowledge of capitalist society and were well-versed in the theories of Marx. Today’s Labour people are of a different calibre.

 

For over thirty years the Labour Party has controlled the local councils of the area; only in the last ten years have they been opposed at election time. Many Labour candidates are still returned unopposed. The fact that the South Wales coalfield is a one-party area has had its inevitable effects on the Labour Party. Today in this area it has ceased to be even a sincere, if confused, popular movement for Social Reform and has become an organization for running the local government machine—right from the selection of councillors to administering the Water Boards.

 

The old pioneers with their idealism have disappeared and a new generation has taken over. The new men—the councillors, the county councillors, the aldermen, the JP’s—who include the Labour MP, Alderman Clifford Williams JP, still speak the language of the pioneers. In the past by-election they have freely talked of Socialism and said they were Socialists. They have described their party as that of the people against the property-owners. They have declared that the forces of wealth are trying to smash the Labour Movement (if that’s not pure rhetoric what is?). Financiers have been called mad dogs. It’s the sort of language that would make the slick efficiency boys who are remodelling the Labour Party’s image throw up their hands in despair. But they needn’t worry; it goes down well. It’s doubtful if these people really know what the words they uttered originally meant. In any case it is an open question who are more despicable: the arrogant councillors mouthing the phrases of the Labour pioneers or those who don’t attempt to disguise the fact that they have capitulated to capitalism completely.

 

It is often said that the working class have a short memory. Certainly there are many grounds for such a conclusion but the working class of the mining valleys of Wales remember alright. They remember what the Labour candidate described as “the dark, desperate years” of 1920-1939 which were years of “misery, want and privation During this period the mining communities did suffer—from the attacks on their living standards by the coal-owners and from the unemployment and destitution of the years of the great depression.

 

At one end of the valley, where the Abertillery constituency is, lies the mining village of Nantyglo which in English means “coal valley”; today there are some eight pits in the constituency. Indeed Abertillery may well be the constituency with the highest percentage of miners on the register in South Wales, perhaps even higher than in the more famous Rhondda valley further west. The proportion is not what it used to be and an increasing number of workers are employed in nearby steelworks and factories. Nevertheless the mining tradition is dominant.

 

Unfortunately, Abertillery’s remembering of the past has taken the form of an unshakeable faith that the Labour Party is their Party and has their interests at heart. Nothing the Labour Party has done, or is doing, seems to shake this faith. Questioned over Vietnam, Alderman Williams said that as the Labour Party was “dedicated to peace” it must be right in what ever it was doing over the matter — and the audience cheered! On another occasion he declared that the Labour government had reduced the arms bill by £50m—and nobody questioned him.

 

The Conservative Party in an area such as this is in a hopeless position. The few thousand professional and tradespeople who make up its support are not organised to present a challenge to the Labour Party save at national elections—and then their election machine is manned mainly by outsiders. In between such elections the Conservative Party ceases to exist, though in recent years those who vote Conservative have been organising themselves into so-called “Independents’ Associations” to contest local elections.

 

Nowadays the real political opposition to the Labour Party locally comes from Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. Surprisingly, Plaid Cymru has been making headway in the mining valleys of Wales—they have councillors in Merthyr (which was Keir Hardie’s seat) and in the Rhondda, once the home of Noah Abblett and the syndicalists who wrote The Miners’ Next Step. This may be a sign that a political change is coming to these valleys after decades of one-party Labour domination.

 

The fourth political party operating in the area, the Communist Party, did not contest the by-election. The South Wales coalfield is one of the few areas where the so-called Communist Party has acquired a few seats on the local councils. However most of their councillors have been elected by Labour voters for multi-member wards. In the by-election campaign, an attempt was made to smear the Labour candidate by claiming that he was a Communist Party member or supporter in the 1930’s.

 

Whoever started this rumour was obviously unaware of political conditions in the mining valleys of South Wales; even if it had been true it would have helped rather than hindered the Labour candidate. For the Communist Party, by being militant trade unionists in the NUM, have earned the respect of many miners—the nickname “commo” has exactly the opposite connotation to the American one “commie”. What support the Communist party has won has not been so much on its “principles” as on its trade unionism. Thus it is more a trade union pressure group than a gang of Russian nationalists like the CP in the industrial towns.

 

Adam Buick