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100 years of Welsh Labour – A cause for celebration or concern?

30 Jul 2022 4 minute read
A Welsh Labour image from last year’s election

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.

Global comparisons

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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Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 year ago

I totally agree. Democracy is broken with FPTP. But while it still benefits certain parties they will be reluctant to remove it. Cooperative is the way forward and ultimately is the future no matter how much these parties try and prevent it.

1 year ago

PR is a necessity in any reasonable thinking democracy. The problem we face is that governing parties need to action the change but why change something that works for them?

1 year ago

An interesting and thoughtful piece which reflects largely the Labour Party’s journey ….but lf course it was the Labour Party in Wales ( north Wales and Merseyside plus South Wales and Monmouthshire ) rather the Wales Section of Labour UK Ltd. Over the years up until the 90s their attitude to all things ‘ Welsh ‘ varied from hostile through to tepid….and this reflected at Westminster plus the local suthority levels. Yes Tom Jones ( Shotton ) helped create TUC Cymru and Huw T Edwards bringing together a Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 level ‘ Welsh Council of Labour ‘..and of course Jim… Read more »

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
1 year ago

What I fret about, is the Quality of these “leaders”, even with PR.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 year ago

Regarding the political pecking order of these islands I am reminded of the old J. Swift verse as rewritten by De Morgan…Great Fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite them…and the great fleas have greater fleas until one arrives at the greatest flea of all…soon to be Truss and her Majesty’s Armed Forces whom she will control, Wallace and Gromit PM and Ms Patel will represent the nastiest fleas we have yet encountered for a very long time…

Last edited 1 year ago by Mab Meirion
Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
1 year ago

Power is often said to corrupt, the article doesn’t mention the Labour party’s long legacy of corruption (especially in the South Wales valleys). I believe that history will reveal the Labour Party in Wales as being involved in cultural re-engineering on a mass scale. Their desire to stay in power nationally and locally has meant the Welsh language and Welsh history have for the last 100 years not been given enough coverage by schools and examination boards alike. The Labour Party’s fear that a Welsh language and Welsh history education would be a production line for Plaid supporters is shameful… Read more »

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