Is Labour doomed in England, and if so, where does that leave Wales?
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
The byelection in Hartlepool was a massacre.
The Tory candidate, Jill Mortimer, crushed her Labour opponent, Paul Williams by a stonking 6,940 votes, and on an astonishing 16% swing.
That part of Labour’s so called ‘Red Wall’ didn’t just fall – it was blown to smithereens.
The win won’t alter much with regards to who governs the UK because of the parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons. The Conservatives already enjoy an 80-seat majority.
But it is significant nonetheless because of what it tells us about a wider trend.
Around a decade ago we saw Labour lose its traditional heartlands in Scotland to the SNP.
Now we’re seeing something similar happen in its former citadels in England.
They are turning from red to blue, and this is in the context of the Conservatives of having been in power for over a decade. One might expect the Tories’ electoral fortunes to begin to decline in such circumstances. Yet they are ascendant.
This is partially the result of Brexit. Despite it not being the rip-roaring success that was promised, the Conservatives are still able to claim credit for ‘getting it done’.
UKIP, which used to take large chunks out of the Tory vote, is irrelevant now that its raison d’etre is no more. The same goes for Reform, the successor of the Brexit Party. Much of the working class brexity vote has consolidated behind the Tories.
The left, as is often the case, is split. This is deadly under an unfair electoral system like First Past the Post.
However, the travails of the Labour Party cannot be explained by Brexit alone. Nor can it only be explained by a Covid bounce for the UK Government for a successful vaccine rollout.
The defeat in Hartlepool wasn’t only down the Tories consolidating the brexity vote. Labour’s share of the vote fell by 9 points to 29%.
The trend goes back a long way and extends further than the confines of these isles. Social democratic parties have been in decline across Europe for a good while.
The split in the country is no longer based on class to the degree that it was. It is now largely based on outlook towards social issues. It is split between social liberals, and social conservatives, and at the moment, the conservatives have the upper hand.
Labour has been losing socially conservative working-class support to the Conservatives for at least 15 years.
While it is attracting younger urban support, as well as much of the educated middle class, its coalition of voters is not large enough or piled in the right places to enable it to win a General Election.
Its old coalition is on different sides of the culture war. They are shouting at each other. The alliance is broken, and it looks like a tough ask to put it back together.
So where does this leave Wales?
This trend has impacted Welsh Labour. It lost seats to the Tories at the General Election of 2019 in areas that voted leave. It has lost some working-class support. Some of those seats could well be lost to the Tories at the Senedd election – the result of which we will know before long.
But Labour has still managed to insulate itself to a larger degree than its counterparts in England. If the polls are to be believed, it will has also so far managed to fend off a challenge from Plaid Cymru on the nationalist left, despite the surge of support for independence.
This is partially because it has embraced Welsh identity, which although not currently as powerful a force as Scottish identity, it is still consequential.
Labour can still win in Wales, but is that enough?
Mark Drakeford is an advocate of what is called radical federalism where far more power is devolved to Wales and locked in so it can’t be taken away. The idea has many merits and is certainly an improvement on the current constitutional arrangement.
But it doesn’t look like the Conservative government in Westminster, which is intent on taking away the powers the Senedd currently has instead of devolving more, is going to accede to his request.
Therefore, he needs Labour to win back England, and to win back Scotland to make it happen. Not a particularly easy ask. He would also need them to keep their promises.
He is currently relying on forces that lie beyond the bounds of his control.
If he remains First Minister, which on current projections looks likely, he will be faced with a dilemma.
Does he wait for his Westminster colleagues to get their act together, or does he decide that he has it within him to act himself?