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Is Labour doomed in England, and if so, where does that leave Wales?

07 May 2021 4 minute read
The flags of Wales and England

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?

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Mr Williams
Mr Williams
2 years ago

To me it seems obvious that a large part of the problem is that the progressive vote is split between Labour, Lib-Dems and Greens. The three parties, and possibly Plaid too, could form a temporary ‘progressive alliance’ and agree not to compete against each other in certain seats (as they did in Brecon and Radnor a couple of years ago – it worked!) next general election to take seats from the Tories and save the union. They could agree to a coalition government for the next term with certain guaranteed policies (e.g. STV elections, further devolution to Wales, reform of… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
2 years ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

That’s all very well if you want to save the Union where increasingly in Cymru people don’t want to save that archaic institution. Dreams of federalism, of any kind, are just that.

Even with the Blue Tories gone, we’d still have the Red ones to contend with. Blair 2.0 is no better than Blair 1.0.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

I agree with what you are saying Mr Phillips and I don’t particularly care for the union either. However, I think though that, thinking ahead to the next UK election, it will be very difficult to get the Tories out unless the progressive parties form an alliance. Otherwise we will be stuck with a Tory government rolling back devolution and tying Wales’ hands. Remember that the Tories are altering the election constituency boundaries, which will benefit themselves, and that Scotland will possibly have left the UK so Wales will be left alone and with only 32 MPs vs a large… Read more »

Ernest (Ernie The Smallholder)
Ernest (Ernie The Smallholder)
2 years ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

Possibly now it seems that our only option is Welsh independence. It is said that more than half of Labour’s supporters in Wales are in favour of (or considering it) independence as it takes all sides to make a union and that England has just opted out of treating Wales as its equals. Welsh Labour party members should lead the advance towards independence (if they believe in the principles of Anti-imperialism). Whether LP members come over to Plaid Cymru or not, LP supporters need to consider independence whatever party you choose because it is you that will make the numbers… Read more »

2 years ago

It’s too soon, but, yes, it’ll come to that eventually if Johnson keeps this up. The next five years are going to be crucial for the constitutional future of Wales, and the WG will be obliged to stand up for devolution. Drakeford’s eventual successor will find him/herself in the role of reluctant indy-supporter, but when push comes to shove will they have the guts to hold an “illegal” referendum?

Last edited 2 years ago by Wrexhamian
Steve Coles #FBPE.
Steve Coles #FBPE.
2 years ago

Personally i think welsh labour needs to severe ties with the labour party and they need to offer an indy vote because you can guarantee that westminister will take powers away from the senedd over the next few years.

Andy Williams
2 years ago

First and foremost, Welsh Labour needs to win back the Tory seats lost in the UK GE.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
2 years ago

Labour has retained power, as expected, the covid/vaccination bounce. However, Drakeford must now realise that if Labour is to continue to hold power in the future – the party must change. We are on the cusp of major change within the UK, especially if the SNP gain a majority. The Union is dying if not dead, in four years time the independence movement in Wales will be massive as the majority of our youth want. Brexit and its eventual failures (far more than what is being swept under the carpet now) will make them rebel too.

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