Rudy Harries is a disabled queer trans man from the Valleys, a writer, and an academic specialising in class and poverty in Victorian literature. He started public speaking while experiencing homelessness, advocating for better provisions for LGBTQ people fleeing domestic violence. When the pandemic hit, Rudy turned his attention to co-founding an organisation called Trans Aid Cymru, hoping to ensure that the material needs of trans people in Wales were being met through the principles of mutual aid. What started out as a redistribution of funds through Paypal turned into a thriving network of volunteers and struggling trans people working together to make sure that trans people are informed, fed and financially able to access transition.
When I first heard of the opportunity to write this piece, my first reaction was that no-one wanted to hear my thoughts on this upcoming Senedd election. I follow politics, and I know a fair amount about how they work. I’ve worked with several current Members of the Senedd. In recent years, however, I’ve become more and more disillusioned with electoral politics.
I have several political vulnerabilities in my identity; I’m queer, I’m trans, I’m poor, and I’m disabled. I do the kind of grassroots political organising that could become illegal if Westminster has its way. If I had just one of these vulnerabilities, I may feel differently, but the multiplicity of my political vulnerability leaves me feeling like there is no place for me in Welsh politics.
The culture in Welsh politics has rebuffed and alienated me and people like me at every turn.
The hostility I and others like me have faced from parties and their supporters across the political spectrum has been overwhelming. I have no doubt that this article has the potential to lead to more hostility. So before I continue, I would like to ask those who are keen to defend ‘their’ party to sit with their discomfort at what I am about to say. I ask you to recognise that no matter how comfortable you feel in supporting ‘your’ party, ‘your’ party’s actions have shaped the way that I and others like me feel. My beliefs and feelings about Welsh politics did not come from nowhere. Each of them has been molded by the actions of the Welsh political sphere. That is not something that I can control. If discomfort flares from my words, direct the frustration to the system that created this situation.
The basic truth is that for me, the parties all feel the same.
That is not to say that I believe that they all stand for the same things. But every single one feels overwhelmingly white, middle-class, male, abled, cisgender and heterosexual. I am not talking about the ‘representation’ in the Senedd, and I am not talking about manifestos. I’m talking about the actions, the behaviour, and the culture. The grandstanding, the petty arguments between parties on who is to blame and who is best to fix issues, the saviour complexes, the refusal to take accountability for harm, the free labour that marginalised people are expected to do, the endless forgiveness we have to roll out in order to avoid harassment and gaslighting. What use is reading a manifesto when each party and their supporters have consistently ignored my voice and the issues I care about? Will this election change that pattern of behaviour? Of course not.
I have been engaged with electoral politics since my mid teens. My first election was the UK general election of 2015. Idealistic and young, I excitedly voted for the party I felt most accurately reflected my own values, as did many students in my university constituency. Our idealism in voting for the Greens split the left vote, and the seat went to the Tories. It was the same story across the country. Voting for the people we actually wanted to represent us ended up landing us David Cameron and the Tories, and the beginning of a slow slide into fascism.
That experience taught me that democracy does not work in Westminster.
Upon moving back to Wales in 2018, I turned my attention and my dwindling hope to the Senedd. Westminster was a lost cause, but the Senedd was smaller, its representatives closer to the people, and the Welsh Independence movement was starting to rumble. It felt as though change would be much easier to come by here. Unfortunately, I slowly lost that optimism, and now I find myself wondering if I will vote at all.
It seems to be the same story here as it is in Westminster. Representatives more concerned with political point scoring and meaningless grand gestures than with the suffering of the people who elected them. Back door deals and dodging of responsibility. Scores of broken promises in forgotten manifestos. Party representatives openly bigoted, party supporters endlessly harassing and intimidating those who speak out against such bigotry. Countless meetings that come to nothing. U-turns and finger pointing across the aisle. Constant noise and no movement whatsoever.
While there have been some small symbolic victories here in Wales, like Welsh Government’s statement in support of trans and nonbinary people in the wake of Westminster’s decision to drop GRA reform, ultimately electoral politics still fails to deliver any real hope to marginalised communities living in Wales. The last few years has seen huge swathes of marginalised people mobilise to fight for genuine justice and liberation. More and more people are recognising that in order to build a just society, we must tear apart the structures of power that create systemic inequalities.
Despite this, all of the political parties continue to doggedly ignore radical politics, instead doubling down on erasure, neo-liberalism and appeasement to the far right. The support of marginalised groups is taken for granted by the so-called ‘left wing’ parties, from Labour to Plaid Cymru to Greens. We are expected to be grateful that they are not fascists, and to expend endless amounts of free labour during election season to “mobilise” the marginalised groups we belong to, only for the very person we helped to elect to turn on us and vote against our interests. When we bring attention to this behaviour, we are branded aggressive, trouble makers, even accused of being right-wing plants. Whatever say to stand up for ourselves, it is never “kind” enough, because to them kindness means avoiding conversations that make them uncomfortable. Welsh of people of colour, in particular, are facing more and more abuse online for talking about what they need from ‘left wing’ political parties.
For these parties, it is enough to simply not be the Tories. Our electoral system allows them to use this as an election strategy. They know, as we know, that if we do not vote for Labour or Plaid Cymru, we end up with a Tory majority. In the UK we have become used to what is widely called ‘harm reduction voting’.
But where does this end?
UK Labour, especially, has in the last few years slipped and simpered closer and closer to Tory policy, and Welsh Labour shows little sign of rejecting Starmer’s approach. What is the use of harm reduction voting if the lesser evil is only incrementally lesser than the other? If we continue legitimising this ‘harm reduction’ style of voting, parties will continue to take the marginalised vote for granted. They believe that we have no choice but to vote for them, so they can continue to alienate and abuse us as much as they like, so long as they stop just short of the alienation and abuse rolled out by the Tories. In the meantime, they seek to appeal to the so-called moderate; the racist, the transphobe, the imperialist, the eugenicist, the Brexiteer. They slide further and further centre and then further and further right, and we stand by, forced to vote for them again and again, because They Are Not The Tories.
Of course, not voting for these parties is almost unthinkable, because then we would be left with a very real danger of a Tory majority in the Senedd, which may lead to the Senedd being abolished altogether.
We are already suffering because of the power England wields over us. England controls our racist, violent, bloodthirsty police force and prison system. England controls who gets money from the state and how. England sabotages any step towards self sufficiency we try to take. England’s media pulls the strings every electoral season, telling us that we are small and useless, and that we cannot do better than kneel in servitude to Westminster. If we lost the small buffer of the Senedd, Wales would become nothing more than a starved, hollowed out county in West England. And yet, devolution is not enough.
So what do we do?
I honestly have no idea. We’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. We do have limited proportional representation, but that is not enough to offset the fact that every Senedd election is a three horse race, and we must choose one of these three rotten institutions to lead us.
Many will be reading this and say, ‘join [insert Welsh Independence organisation here]! They aren’t caught up in political theatre and actually care about marginalised groups!’ Except, no matter what they say, YesCymru and others still have serious issues with using marginalised people for free labour and discarding us in favour of winning over ‘moderates’. They harbour bigots in their upper ranks and allow outright fascists to retain membership. Despite not being a political party as such they, in my view, are no different than any of the parties of the Senedd in mindset or culture. They rake in huge amounts of money that no-one seems to know how to spend while thousands of people across Wales suffer in poverty. They profess to want a better life for people in Wales, but what are they actually doing to make sure that everyone in Wales makes it to Independence Day?
If the political sphere had its way, life on the ground would not be not changing, no matter who is in charge. None of the parties or organisations are offering real, transformative, structural change. None of them are willing to alienate bigots. None of them are willing to fight for the marginalised vote. We are simply expected to be happy to receive scraps of validation and the ‘opportunity’ to ‘educate’ them for free when their bigotry generates a level of attention that becomes embarrassing.
None of them plans to burn down the benefits system, or dismantle the police and prison system, or end the abuse of asylum seekers, or ensure that every person unconditionally has enough to eat and a roof over their head.
There is real support for radical change in the voting public. I recently attended the wonderful Privilege Cafe for the first time and saw first hand the strength of feeling around these issues. There are really wonderful thinkers here in Wales in communities that the Senedd thinks are “hard to reach”, using that age-old excuse not to listen. The political class acts as if radicals exist only on the very fringes, that their ideas are unpopular, because they benefit from the power that the system affords them and they know that radicals care enough about others that they will turn out and vote to keep the Tories out. Is it time for us to call their bluff and stop voting? Or perhaps try to kickstart a campaign for radicals to come out and spoil their ballots, en masse?
I’m reluctant to say one way or another. After all, the fact still remains that we cannot risk a Tory majority in the Senedd. And around and around and around we go. Year after year. Election after election.
Is this really democracy? Being held hostage, voting for parties you know do not represent you in order to ensure that less people die, impoverished and miserable, in overcrowded hospitals? Is that good enough? Does democracy truly live in the UK? Does it truly live in Wales? Will I ever, will we ever, cross a ballot for someone or something we truly believe in? Or are we doomed to repeat this cycle until we slide so far right that elections never take place again?
I don’t know what I will do when election day comes around. I feel uncomfortable encouraging others to vote for this party or that party, and I also feel uncomfortable urging people not to vote at all. There is a huge push to get the newly enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds registered to vote, but I do not relish the knowledge that so many of them will enter the polling booth full of hope for the future, only to have their idealism crushed slowly under the bitter disappointment of the sluggish neo-liberalism of electoral politics.
The only thing that keeps me from falling into despair at the state of our political sphere is the solidarity that I feel in community with other marginalised people. While we have been mocked, alienated, villainised, by the political sphere, we have drawn together. We may not have the support of politicians but we have the support of each other. Mutual aid, protests, marches, online spaces, resource sharing, empathy and courage have brought us together. Being among other marginalised people, others who know how difficult it is to keep the faith when the political sphere regards you as a thorn in their side, is transformative. And those in power are scared of it. They are scared of us.
Something as simple as delivering free groceries to someone experiencing poverty can be so powerful. It tells that person that they will not be left behind. That is the difference between us, the marginalised, and those who live and die by electoral politics. We are considered acceptable collateral by the Senedd, by party members and supporters, by Indy Wales leaders. We are not. We refuse to allow the state to separate us in order to quieten and mollify us. We draw together and we do not leave anyone behind.
Whatever happens in the Senedd elections, the marginalised will fight not for ‘our’ party to win, but for each others’ survival. It is what we have always done. We cannot count on party politics to save us. We count on our community and our community counts on us. That cannot be taken away by cowardly politicians and rotten party loyalists. Voting will not save us, but drawing together to extend practical, loving, intentional support to fellow marginalised people just might.
So I don’t know who I’m going to vote for, or if I’m going to vote at all. Rest assured, though, that my work in the community, and the work of others like me, will extend way beyond May 6th. We will be a thorn in your side for a long, long time to come.