So, after a year of chaos and misery for workers in Gwent, there is some suggestion that perhaps removing the tolls from the Severn Bridges was a terrible idea after all. All of the fears of commuters have come to pass: traffic has increased dramatically, pollution is reaching ever-more toxic levels, communities have been turned upside down, everybody is immiserated. No workers on the frontline of this crisis ever wanted this: it was a pet project of the Wales Office, cheered on by the CBI and that amorphous entity known as ‘local business owners’. A familiar story of capital ruining the lives of helpless workers.
The response to this potential climbdown from the liberal technocrats running Wales has been entirely predictable. Social media is awash with commentators and politicians — including Labour AMs — rolling their eyes over how inept the authorities have been over the issue, as if this situation is simply a traffic management problem that has gone awry at the hands of bumbling incapables.
Don’t get me wrong, they are bumbling incapables, and there is a grim humour in the increasingly absurd hoops capitalists are willing to jump through to convince us that actually everything is fine. It’s also amusing how easily duped centrists are by the latest shiny solution to all our transport woes: we are surely just months away from a charismatic conman flogging the Western Powerhouse a monorail at this point.
However, aloof responses such as these gloss over the reality that this is not simply a technical problem, but a political one. The traffic crisis, and the resultant environmental catastrophe, are mere symptoms of a much larger social crisis that’s forcing people to dramatically change the way they live in order to obtain something as basic as keeping a roof over their heads.
There are scores of measures the Welsh Labour Government could have implemented to mitigate this inevitable situation. They could have regulated the housing market to a greater degree, to ensure homes are affordable for the residents who already live here, rather than let private property developers throw up scores of new estates on the shores of the Severn not as an act of public good, but to cash in on the rising cost of living over the bridge. They could have done more to ensure residents of Wales aren’t captives of a failing, dwindling employment market, rather than relying on low-quality, precarious work supplied at the whim of international corporations, which consequently means Welsh wages can’t compete with the earning-and-buying power of lower-middle class families from Bristol. If they’d as much as gestured towards these causes and effects, they’d perhaps feel more empowered to do more than post early-morning eyeroll emojis on Twitter.
There is also apparent anxiety from Welsh residents regarding ‘incomers’ flooding Gwent from the foreign fields of South Gloucestershire, though in my observation this comes from onlookers in other parts of Wales (and perhaps only from the more shadowy corners of ‘Welsh Twitter’), rather than those actually experiencing this apparent demographic shift first-hand. This is also a giant, inflammatory red herring. As I’ve written before on this very subject, this crisis is not a problem of existential nationalism, but of gentrification and untenable working conditions. Bristolians are our allies in this. They hate this situation too. They too are priced out of their homes. They too are trapped in traffic, forced to travel further and further for work due to increasing employment insecurity. It is their children too who are dying with exhaust fumes in their lungs.
Ultimately, everywhere in Welsh political life we are plagued by so-called alternatives that don’t actually propose anything new. This cannot go on. We cannot keep proposing obsolete solutions to ubiquitous challenges, piling problems upon problems until they become insurmountable, the sublime crisis of ecological collapse paralysing our ability to theorise a resistance. Our bodies will not hold out long enough to witness an alternative if we cannot articulate a position beyond ‘Welsh pollution for Welsh lungs!’. 1 in 22 deaths in Newport are now attributable to air pollution, with comparable figures elsewhere in Wales. The urgency of this situation is clear: one way or another, the way we are forced to live is killing us.
Thus we need something truly new: not an alternative, but an opposition. We need to change our thinking, change our political culture, so we can look at what superficially appears to be a problem of transport infrastructure and solve it with a right to adequate housing. So we can combat deindustrialisation with a reconstitution of how communities function beyond outdated models of employment, and a redistribution of the fruits of our collective labour. So we can see people coming from ‘over the bridge’ and propose a more meaningful response than waving the Welsh flag a little more vigorously in their perplexed faces.
We need to establish what our demands are, and identify unequivocally who our actual antagonists are (hint: they are not our Bristolian comrades, but theirs and our paymasters). We need to decide what people in Wales actually want from life, beyond fatally coating our lungs with carbon in the pursuit of selling our labour to cling on to our alienated and fractured communities.
Our ideas will seem impertinent and bizarre to our current technocratic overlords, and so they should. It is they who have brought us to this brink, it is they who profit from this crisis, and it is they who will prevent and ridicule solutions that will benefit us rather than them. Their paucity of imagination cannot match our righteous desperation for a better world. We need to build a political consensus that demands more from Welsh life, and never stop fighting for it.