If Welsh Labour is serious about reforming the UK, we must begin with our own party
Robert Lloyd, Labour for an Independent Wales
Not many could have predicted the result of the sixth Senedd election. Even the buoyant First Minister admitted he thought a seat tally in the high twenties was “at the top end” of Welsh Labour’s prospects.
Welsh Labour, though, has won and will be able to govern relatively independently in the Senedd.
As the dust settles on the election, attention now turns, seemingly counter-intuitively, to the party’s manifesto.
The Welsh Labour platform was built with enough breadth to build consensus in the likelihood negotiations would now be underway to weld a new government together.
More than a showcase for policy (such as a ‘Young Persons Guarantee’, the creation of a new national park in the north east, the creation of a National Music Service, etc.), the manifesto was an opportunity taken to reiterate Welsh Labour’s values: social solidarity, public and private partnership, and a championing of explicitly Welsh solutions to global problems.
Perhaps reflecting the growing fervour of the issue outside the election campaign, nowhere did Welsh Labour twirl its rhetorical baton with greater flourish than in the section concerning the constitution.
Accusing the UK Government of undermining devolution and threatening its very existence, the manifesto makes no bones about Mark Drakeford’s view that the UK Government has “betrayed Wales”.
The remedy for this betrayal is to ask the principal threat to devolution’s existence, the Conservative UK Government (with a projected national vote share (almost) as high as Welsh Labour’s in Wales), to recognise the concept of sovereignty supported in Cathays Park.
The manifesto makes it clear that the next Welsh Government considers the union a “voluntary association of four nations”, despite the state’s outright rejection of the Scottish mandate to reconsider that association.
It’s highly unlikely, too, that the UK Government will recognise the +65% vote share in favour of further devolution as a favourable request to legislate away its power, so it seems that on the island Welsh Labour is unique in believing this state is such an association.
Nevertheless, all things constitutional are beyond the new Welsh Government’s powers.
What is in Welsh Labour’s power, though, is its approach to nation-building as a party.
If we are to build a state based on the principles of ‘radical federalism’ and the voluntary association of four nations, it’s necessary to build a party based on those principles too.
A federation of different nations requires a federation of different parties.
It requires a Welsh Labour Party, associating voluntarily with sister-parties in Scottish Labour and however the party in England organises, fighting reactionary politics in solidarity in Westminster.
A party, though, independent in Wales, free to diverge without fear of contradiction or embarrassment, free to continue championing a distinctly Welsh identity, co-operating with our partners where we can, taking different decisions where we must.
The campaigns and results in the different elections on the island draw into sharp relief the fact that Wales, England, and Scotland are distinct and separate polities. The reaction and fallout from UK Labour’s loss in England demonstrates that Welsh Labour, too, is a different animal from its state-wide counterpart.
As Andy Burnham identified, Labour in England has lost its “emotional connection” with people across their country. This is not the case in Wales. Yes, Welsh Labour has a credible record of achievement in government to fall back on, but it wouldn’t have been achieved had the party itself not been seared into Welsh identity.
To be Welsh, for some, is to support the Labour Party. This is not by accident.
But who speaks for England? If the Labour Party cannot speak for the places left behind by austerity and the pandemic, the door is wide open for the far-right to exploit those insecurities. So far, for England, Labour has been silent.
An independent Welsh Labour Party, associated with but independent from English Labour Parties, would allow our comrades in England to embrace their own national identity – as Welsh Labour has done in Wales – and put to an end the constant reluctance for Labour leaders in England to even acknowledge their own country.
By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive proposal for establishing a federation of Labour Parties, and the biggest factor in realising this reform is the organisation and support of the trade unions.
My intention though is to begin, much as Mick Antoniw’s series of ‘Radical Federalism’ reports do, a necessary conversation in Welsh Labour about who we are and how we best organise ourselves to ensure we can bring about democratic socialism not just here in Wales, but across the island. Indeed, Mick Antoniw himself agrees in principle.
The conversation to follow will be difficult, the detail – particularly surrounding funding – complicated, but it is necessary.
If Welsh Labour is serious about its approach to constitutional reform, we must begin by reforming ourselves.