Labour may never win England again: Where does that leave the party’s unionist vision?
Ifan Morgan Jones
Labour’s narrow win in the Batley and Spen by-election, a seat they were deeply worried they may lose and threw the kitchen sink at keeping, will give the party some cheer this morning.
However, what it should not do is give the party any false encouragement that they are on their way back as an electoral force in English politics.
Batley and Spen was a seat they held on to with a reduced majority on 2019, which was itself a historically disastrous election for them overall.
It suggests that if a General Election were to be held now their position would be even worse, with even more northern seats falling to the Conservatives. At the very least, there was no suggestion here that the situation for the Labour party had improved.
There is an expectation in UK politics that after a certain period of one party dominating the pendulum will naturally ‘swing back’ towards the other.
But what if the pendulum does not swing back? The Conservatives have now been in power for over ten years and, rather then weakening, their grip on power is becoming ever firmer.
Just to give you some idea of the scale of the challenge facing Labour, the seat they need to take from the Conservatives to win power is North East Somerset, the seat of Jacob Rees-Mogg.
This is a party that can’t hold on to Hartlepool and barely scrapes a result in Batley and Spen, a seat at the centre of the West Yorkshire greater urban area. Winning North East Somerset verges on the fantastical.
And this is all before national boundary changes that are expected to favour the Conservatives even more.
The pendulum might well be stuck. England is a Conservative country and is going to vote Conservative for the foreseeable future.
That national party politics could seize up like this should come as no surprise to Welsh Labour, who have won every election in Wales for 100 years.
In Scotland too, the SNP seem to be firmly lodged into power until something major – like independence – comes along to dislodge them.
The question is where this leaves Labour’s brand of unionism. Labour are the only party left in power in the UK that properly believes in the UK as a voluntary union of four nations.
The ‘muscular unionism’ of the Conservatives at Westminster is essentially not unionism at all: it sees the UK as one entity, controlled from the centre, rather than a team effort.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford however continues to see the union through a ‘contributionist’ mindset, with Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on an equal footing.
But with Labour seemingly locked out of power in England for another decade at least – perhaps, indeed, forever – how does this mindset survive if it has no relevance to the real world?
If ‘muscular unionism’ is the only kind of unionism on offer, a vision based on willing cooperation between four nations may come to be seen as rather naive when the Welsh Government is, by their own admission, consistently undermined by the UK Government.
The only question might be, if England really is beyond Labour as it seems, how long will it take for the part in Wales to come to terms with the implications of that. Would losing another General Election do the trick? Another change of leader with no change in fortunes, perhaps?
Or will the attitude always be, we’ll get there next time? One more heave?
The growing support for Welsh independence in the Labour party – particularly among the young – suggests that opinion is beginning to shift, at least at a grassroots level.
The danger is that by waiting for the impossible to happen in England, by then it may be too late for Labour in Wales.