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Opinion

If Starmer doesn’t change his tune on Europe, he’ll facilitate the rise to power of the far right

07 Jul 2024 7 minute read
Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer speaks during a press conference after his first Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photo Claudia Greco/PA Wire

Martin Shipton

The seeds of complacency about the general election result are already being sown within Welsh Labour.

It’s a highly dangerous path to take.

Cardiff council leader Huw Thomas posted a message on social media that encapsulated the problem. Addressing Stewart Owadally, Welsh Labour’s general election campaign manager, he wrote: “Congratulations Stewart, and the whole @WelshLabour staff team for all your incredible hard work behind the scenes, helping to secure the most dominant Labour victory in Wales for a generation.”

Cllr Thomas’ triumphalism was typical of what’s been on display from Welsh Labour activists on the right of the party.

Yet while Labour won 27 of the 32 seats in Wales, their vote here was actually down to 37.0%, 3.9 percentage points lower than at the last election in 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn was the party leader.

Disastrous

Paradoxically, that election performance has often been described as Labour’s most disastrous since 1935.

To make a more local point, the number of votes cast for Labour last Thursday in Cllr Thomas’ home city of Cardiff was down from 107,016 in 2019 to 70,602 in 2024.

Former Bridgend Labour council leader Jeff Jones, who did the calculations, said: “And what about Caerfyrddin [a Labour target seat that was won comfortably by Plaid Cymru]? Labour held an eve-of-poll rally attended by Starmer. A seat the party clearly wanted and expected to win. In 2019 Labour got 13,380 votes and in 2024, 10,985.

“There is a clear pattern in Wales of thousands who voted Labour in 2019, when the party was led by the devil incarnate Jeremy Corbyn, not voting Labour in 2024 when it was led by ‘Mr Sensible’ Keir Starmer.

“How about Newport, where Labour wards were added to the city’s constituencies so it could keep two seats? 2019: 42,324 votes; 2024: 33,779 votes.”

Worrying

One part of the explanation relates to the worrying fall in turnout across Wales. At the general elections in 2017 and 2019, the voter turnout was roughly equivalent in Wales to that of the UK as a whole (69% in 2017 and 67% in 2019).

But last Thursday turnout slumped to 56% in Wales, four percentage points behind the UK as a whole.

That only three of Labour’s 27 successful candidates in Wales got more than 20,000 votes – Tonia Antoniazzi in Gower, Catherine Fookes in Monmouthshire and Anna McMorrin in Cardiff North – should also be taken as a warning, especially when compared to the mammoth vote totals achieved by Labour in Valleys seats in years gone by.

Even the voting figures in Keir Starmer’s own London seat of Holborn and St Pancras tell a story.

In 2015, when he was first elected and Ed Miliband was the Labour leader, 29,062 people voted for him. In 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, his vote rocketed to 41,343.

In 2019, Sir Keir’s vote dropped back to 36,641. But last Thursday, when Starmer won his landslide victory, his vote collapsed to 18,884.

Another factor that should worry Cllr Thomas is that across Wales, Reform UK was second in 13 seats, coming closest in Llanelli, where Labour’s Dame Nia Griffith was just 1,504 ahead of the Reform candidate.

Far right

To understand why Reform came so close in Llanelli, I spoke to local Labour councillor Shaun Greaney, who told me: “It’s worrying to see the creeping rise of the far right in working class areas, where diatribes about refugees and small boats have gained traction. They have latched onto local issues like the now abandoned plan to turn the four-star Stradey Park Hotel into a hostel for asylum seekers.

Protesters’ banners outside Stradey Park Hotel in Furnace, Llanelli to oppose the housing of asylum seekers in the venue. Photo Bronwen Weatherby/PA Wire

Despite the best efforts of the Labour Party locally, misinformation has been spread that Nia Griffith was supportive of the Home Office’s plan to turn the hotel into a dumping ground for refugees. The truth is that Nia, who has been the MP for Llanelli since 2005, went to the Home Office to oppose the plan and urge a rethink, which was exactly what happened.”

In a place like Llanelli, which has seen a reduction in well-paid job opportunities, a significant decline in the vibrancy of the town centre thanks to foolish planning decisions that have allowed the construction of out-of-town shopping centres, and a noticeable rise in visible drug taking, fresh initiatives are needed to chart a new course. In that respect Llanelli is a microcosm of many similar communities across Wales and the UK as a whole.

We have a right to expect that after years of dysfunctional Tory government, Starmer’s administration will take decisions that will improve people’s lives. Like every newly elected Prime Minister in recent decades, Starmer made a speech in Downing Street in which he sought to start his premiership on a high-minded note. Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi saying, “Where there is despair, may we bring hope”. Many, not least in Wales, would argue that she did exactly the opposite.

Starmer struck the right note by stating that his government would rebuild hope and opportunity in the UK “brick-by-brick” and show people that “politics can be a force for good”.

Nigel Farage

We must hope that he fulfils his promise without delay. The alternative would, without doubt, see Britain vulnerable to a takeover at the next election in 2029 by the populist far right. Nigel Farage has made it clear that the important general election from his point of view is not the one we’ve just had, but the one due in five years’ time.

He’s succeeded in the first part of his plan by maximising the Tories’ seat losses through standing candidates in virtually every British constituency and splitting the right-wing vote.

For the next five years he will behave as if he is the official Leader of the Opposition, constantly harrying Starmer and his ministers about everything that goes wrong and hoping to sweep to an unlikely victory in 2029.

Several reports from respected think tanks including Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre have been written analysing the new Labour government’s spending plans. All of them reached the conclusion that, despite assertions to the contrary from new Chancellor Rachel Reeves, the kind of austerity policies we have depressingly got used to under the Tories are likely to continue.

A day or two before the election Starmer himself gave an interview in which he made it clear that he didn’t expect the UK to return to membership of the EU in his lifetime. Nor does he expect us to rejoin the European single market or the customs union.

It’s a shame he didn’t make that clear earlier in the election campaign or we could have had a debate about Brexit, which both Labour and the Tories were desperate to avoid. Instead, Starmer has doubled down on the foolish decision to support a Brexit which he and every other sensible politician knows is disastrous for Britain and makes it immensely more difficult to achieve the growth we need to raise prosperity levels for ordinary people.

That’s despite consistent polling evidence that a clear majority of voters now accept that leaving the EU was a mistake and is doing economic harm.

There’s a huge irony in Starmer’s position. By kowtowing to Farage and refusing to contemplate the reversal of Brexit, he’s making it more likely that the populist far right will come to power.


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John Powers
John Powers
7 days ago

There’s an interesting dilemma brewing with Reform, aka the Brexit party, demanding a fairer voting system, which was unfortunately rejected in a 2011 referendum. To change the voting system Reform would have to accept that the 2011 result can be revisited which opens the door to revisiting the 2016 result.

John Ellis
John Ellis
7 days ago
Reply to  John Powers

Worth remembering that the choice back in 2011 wasn’t between ‘first past the post’ and PR, because Cameron’s Conservatives refused to agree to that. It was between FPTP and the ‘alternative vote’, which very few advocates of a change to our voting system supported.

And, foolishly, Clegg’s Lib Dems in coalition accepted that Tory demand. They should have rejected it outright.

John Powers
John Powers
7 days ago
Reply to  John Ellis
John Ellis
John Ellis
7 days ago
Reply to  John Powers

True, in that it comes in various shapes and forms. But nonetheless they share a ‘family likeness’ which is recognizable.

John Powers
John Powers
7 days ago
Reply to  John Ellis

The only system offering proper PR is the party list system which people hate because it feels like like an anti-Democratic stitchup. Look at the response to Welsh Labour choosing this system for 2026. So when people demand PR as a cure all they need to be clear what they’re asking for. The most proportional system that still feels democratic is STV. And back to the point. Was 2011 a rejection of change or a rejection of AV. We simply don’t know because the question didn’t ask. Just as 2016 didn’t ask if we should cut all ties with the… Read more »

John Ellis
John Ellis
6 days ago
Reply to  John Powers

Personally I prefer STV. It normally involves larger constituencies than those to which we’ve been accustomed; but the effect of that is ameliorated if there are two elected members per constituency, who of course might not, if voters so choose, be from the same political party. That maintains the personal link between elected members and constituents which sadly looks set to be lost under the closed list system under which the next Senedd election will be contested. As to the referendum in 2011, there’s no real way of knowing whether it failed to achieve change because most participants wanted to… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
5 days ago
Reply to  John Ellis

Clegg should have demanded ‘The Single Transferable Vote’.
If the Tories refused – Then the Lib Dems should .have left the coalition as a breach of trust and tabled a No Confidence Vote’ and forced the Tories out of office.

John Ellis
John Ellis
4 days ago

I certainly think that the Lib Dems should never have acquiesced to a referendum choice wholly confined to choosing between FPTP and AV. But the hard fact back then was that the Conservatives, as the leading partner in the coalition, were in a position to dictate terms, and they would simply have refused to accept putting PR using STV to a popular vote. I’d been living in England for quite a long time by 2011, and the effectiveness and responsiveness of local Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’ had led me to join the party and, increasingly over time, to become an… Read more »

SundanceKid
SundanceKid
7 days ago

The writing is on the wall. If the current trajectory continues, Labour will start haemorraghing votes from the right of their party to Reform. In one respect, they are the authors of their own demise, in refusing to see what is staring back at them and in taking the electorate for granted, as they most certainly have done in Wales. It could be due to fatigue too. They have presided over a failing, economy, health and education service in Wales after 25 years in government. And when one of their own faces a vote of no confidence, they rally behind… Read more »

Last edited 7 days ago by SundanceKid
Jones
Jones
7 days ago
Reply to  SundanceKid

Plaid need to appeal to those who voted reform. Ignore them at your peril. They are the people who need courting as they are Lab voters. With an ever increasing younger cohort supporting them. they are the real danger. ‘We want our country back ‘ turned on its head but with a positive spin not the nastiness of the nazty party

John Powers
John Powers
7 days ago
Reply to  Jones

Reform is a protest party. You can’t govern as a protest party. But you’re right not to ignore the protest, which boils down to a lack of hope in the future and a fear it’s getting worse. The root cause is economic. Improve everyone’s wealth and opportunity and they don’t look for people to blame for a lack of wealth and opportunity.

Alan Jones
Alan Jones
7 days ago
Reply to  SundanceKid

Absolutely agree Sundancekid, if Starmer & his party do turn round & surprise us all by turning things around by making lives better/easier for all those who have suffered the most over the last 14 years, then the natives who are restless for change might, just might settle back into getting on with their lives without the constant nagging worries that plague them & turn back from the likes of farage & his myopic lying grab at the power he craves & give Labour a second term to hopefully improve things further. I live more in hope rather than expectation… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 days ago

Interesting that Martin Shipton brings up Llanelli. I compared the 2019 and latest results. The combined Tory and Brexit Party result then is pretty much the same as the combined Reform/Tory vote of a few days ago. Labour’s vote in Llanelli for the most part was lost to Plaid, the Lib Dems and Greens, all of whom posted increased tallies. Indeed, Plaid were a very close third. Llanelli is now very much a marginal seat and very winnable for Plaid Cymru.

Morfudd ap Haul
Morfudd ap Haul
7 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

In 2019 Con/Brx vote was 40% in 2024 Con/Ref was 38%. The Labour majority in 2017 was similar to the number of people who voted Labour in 2024. In all this chaos the Plaid vote was up 2.2%. Plaid gained very little. It needs to do something radically different even in a constituency like Llanelli.

j91968
j91968
6 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Winnable when? In five years minus three days? I admire your comfortable assumption that Plaid is certain to grow and also learns how to capture the imaginations of the young, possibly adding two more seats every five years, and that you will still be alive to see it. The future that far ahead is unknowable, but if you insist on living in it, you’ll miss your one an only terrestrial existence now. I do hope you have a few other outlets, interests and hobbies apart from typing on here to sustain you while you wait.

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
6 days ago
Reply to  j91968

Do you have any outlets, interests and hobbies besides typing on here?

Jeff
Jeff
7 days ago

farages handlers smell blood, it wont be Labour’s problem only and Europe wont assuage that professional muck spreader, Farage. Don’t vote for them but don’t vote for them either seemed to work but not in the way the far right think tanks thought. Seeing as we drew a lot of votes for brexit in Wales (not overly fond of that thinking) but it seems the underlying trope can be worked by this grifter friend of Trump. Seems people will peg their noses to the overt nature of reform and be like the people reading “gentlemen’s” publications in the 70’s, “I… Read more »

S Duggan
S Duggan
7 days ago

Plaid has to spread it’s appeal from its heartlands otherwise Reform will take disgruntled Labour voters in 2026. We can fear the decline in Labour’s vote percentage but really it’s an opportunity for Plaid and possibly the first stage towards an independent Cymru.

Adrian Bamford
Adrian Bamford
7 days ago

Classic misuse of the term ‘far right’. Presumably not everyone’s heard of Hitler.

Morfudd ap Haul
Morfudd ap Haul
7 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Bamford

Everyone agrees anything which is not left is far right.

j91968
j91968
6 days ago

At last, a witticism.

Morfudd ap Haul
Morfudd ap Haul
6 days ago
Reply to  j91968

Some people believe that

Adrian
Adrian
6 days ago

No – only the left think that.

Jeff
Jeff
7 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Bamford

H provides a handy if disgusting measuring stick.

The shoe fits.

Neilyn
Neilyn
7 days ago

A ‘points-based system’ for Welsh residency (never mind citizenship at this stage) based upon the actual NEEDS of our country and her communities seems to me to be a sensible, pragmatic way for the future. That includes movement from within the existing UK state as well as without, so can apply across the board in all four nations. A hard sell I know, but what other way is there to chop the hard right off at the neck? The arrival of more and more retirees or unskilled migrants (not all are, of course) to Wales is of no use to… Read more »

j91968
j91968
6 days ago
Reply to  Neilyn

Perhaps you could just invite back all your Welsh-born graduates who have had to move away somewhere else in the UK to have a decent career.

Last edited 6 days ago by j91968
Neilyn
Neilyn
6 days ago
Reply to  j91968

Excellent idea!

j91968
j91968
6 days ago
Reply to  Neilyn

They might have got used to other ways, made lots of friends, fallen in love, had children. You know, settled elsewhere. Your would need to offer two jobs/careers for the adults, education for the kids, maybe they’ll bring a dreaded “retiree” or two with them who help mind the grandchildren while the parents work. Healthcare and housing for three generations, and a warm welcome to them all. You think your narrow-minded xenophobic little immigration scheme is up to that?

Morfudd ap Haul
Morfudd ap Haul
6 days ago
Reply to  j91968

Wales would be overcrowded then

j91968
j91968
6 days ago

Precisely. I think Neilyn’s immigration policy for a fully independent Wales needs a bit more work. Can’t tell people born here or with parents born here they can’t come back even if they are yet more “retirees or unskilled migrants” and therefore unwanted.

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
6 days ago
Reply to  Neilyn

At last someone has chosen to mention inward migration from the other side of Clawdd Offa.You only have to look and see what the social, economical and cultural impact has been on over tourism for rural Cymru.
Whenever anyone wants to debate this they are as good as silenced.
Far smaller places than Cymru can impose immigration controls e.g
The Channel Islands and The Falkland Islands.
As you quite rightly said inward migration should be based on locality and community needs and certainty not the relocation of anti social individuals from other parts of the UK.

Neilyn
Neilyn
6 days ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

Let’s not be silent, or be silenced. If the Great Nation of England / GB / UK can debate and voice it’s concerns regarding unrestricted migration, legal and illegal, then the Great Nation of Wales can do likewise. We’d be foolish in the extreme not to do so.

j91968
j91968
6 days ago
Reply to  Neilyn

Take more water with it, or a little more tobacco maybe…nobody ever silences anybody these days in the UK. How ever much we wish we could. The amount of blether is growing exponentially. And the quality of public discourse dwindles away to dribble as a result.

Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas
2 days ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

The Channel Islands don’t impose immigration controls, they merely restrict who can buy housing (except for Alderney and Sark which have open markets).
Anyone can move to Jersey or Guernsey and rent a home, only people meeting the criteria can buy one. The astronomically high rents then limit who wants to live there.

Richard
Richard
3 days ago

What’s all this far right nonsense?

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