100 years of Welsh Labour – A cause for celebration or concern?
Rhys ab Owen MS
I doubt that there is a living soul that remembers a time when Welsh politics was not dominated by the Labour party. In the 1922 general election, the Labour Party made massive gains across the United Kingdom, mainly at the expense of Lloyd George’s National Liberal party.
In Wales, after only winning its first seat 22 years earlier, the Labour party won half of the Welsh constituencies.
This signalled the beginning of the dominance of the Labour party in Wales, which will be discussed at the National Eisteddfod by Mark Drakeford and Richard Wyn Jones at a speech on the 5 August.
It will also be celebrated that week at the gathering of Cymdeithas Cledwyn, the Welsh language society within the Labour party, named after the great Welsh patriot and Labour Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes.
The dominance of the Labour Party in Welsh politics is not unknown to the public, but should we really be celebrating living under a one-party system?
The only time when they’ve really felt under pressure at the ballot box was after three by-election results in the late 1960s, during the first elections held in 1999 for the then National Assembly for Wales and local government contests held on the same day, and when Plaid Cymru ran them close in the European Parliament elections.
Indeed, the only time Labour haven’t come first in elections in Wales are during European Parliament elections in 2009 and 2019.
However, when it comes to Senedd and Westminster elections they have won every election since 1922.
Troubling for democracy?
The United Kingdom as a whole is behind the times in terms of electoral politics. Westminster elections use the first-past-the-post system to dictate who should win a seat, under the simple rules of “most votes wins”.
This causes issues with proportionality, as you don’t need even close to a majority of the votes to win.
The Senedd elections in the past have made certain steps to avoid this, by switching to a closed-list system of proportional representation for the regional seats.
However, the constituency Members of the Senedd continue to be elected through this broken system of voting.
An example of this issue of proportionality can be seen in the recent Senedd election, whereby Labour won around 38% of the votes, but won 50% of the seats.
The issue can also be seen on the opposite end, where the Greens won around 4% of the vote, but none of the seats. Surely in a true democracy we should be more proportional than this?
I’ll make it clear; this is not a case of disapproving of these 100 years of Labour rule because it is the Labour Party in charge. I think that 100 years of any party’s rule is bad for democracy, even it was my own party, Plaid Cymru.
Compare the situation in Wales to many European. In the 2019 Danish general election, which uses proportional representation, the Social Democrats won 25% of the vote, and 27% of the seats.
The conservative party in Denmark, “Venstre”, won 23% of the vote and 24% of the seats. However, unlike in Wales, the smaller parties did not suffer, with The Alternative, a green party, getting almost 3% in both seats and vote.
It’s not just our European neighbours that have progressed with electoral reform, Commonwealth countries have as well. Australia has a system of “instant run-off” elections, whereby votes are reallocated based on preference of candidates.
For this reason, the Australian Labour Party won 52% of the vote, and was allocated 51% of the seats, which should really put into perspective how broken is the Welsh first-past-the-post system.
In the past Plaid Cymru politicians and thinkers have felt that our time would come. That we would emulate the Labour party in 1922 when they broke the Liberal dominance in Wales.
This view was further bolstered by the SNP wipe out of the Scottish Labour party following the failed independence referendum in 2014. However, is it time to put to bed the ‘one more heave’ mentality?
Across the globe, a new model of governance is emerging, not one of adversarial politics, but of co-operation. Governments which are voted for under proportional representation are more open to co-operation, as it’s harder to gain a majority.
If we were to make cross-party politics the new norm in Wales, it would help to remove the toxic role which party politics can play.
It would allow us to negotiate with other progressive parties on how best to improve the lives of the people of Wales.
Surely, that should be the aim of all of us that have the interests of Wales at heart.
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