Labour selecting pro-independence candidates might just be a genuinely historic moment for Wales
Three weeks after I wrote a blog post questioning the effectiveness of independence supporters organising within Labour, it seems I’ve changed my tune. Or perhaps Labour for an Independent Wales have taken my criticism on board. Either way, it’s hard to ignore the news that Labour are continuing to select pro-independence candidates for this year’s Senedd elections.
Dylan Lewis-Rowlands’s selection as the Labour candidate for Ceredigion gives Labour for Independence their first constituency candidate, supplementing Ben Gwalchmai’s selection on the Mid and West Wales list and giving pro-independence candidates an added prominence that even I – a rare defender of our mixed-member electoral system – have to acknowledge.
And perhaps more importantly, it shows that Ben Gwalchmai’s selection was not a one-off: this is the first sign that the support for independence among Labour’s voters is starting to gain representation among Labour’s members, and subsequently among Labour’s candidates. Neither Lewis-Rowlands nor Gwalchmai has any real chance of getting elected this year, but – for perhaps the first time – it’s not completely unthinkable that there might be an independence supporter among Labour’s elected representatives in the future.
Without trying to be needlessly melodramatic, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to place Ceredigion 2021 alongside moments like Carmarthen 1966 – the by-election which saw Gwynfor Evans elected as the first Plaid Cymru MP. Back then, the historic moment was the people of Wales electing a first MP from a party which supported, or would at least countenance, an independent Wales. Now, we have a party which has historically been – a majority of it still is – a unionist party, unfazed by selecting candidates who support independence.
Let’s be clear: this was the party of George Thomas. It still is the party of the likes of Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown. For about a century it has been Wales’s leading pro-UK party, yet a section of its membership in Wales has been quite happy to select candidates who actively support breaking the UK up. That’s not to say that a majority of Labour’s membership necessarily back independence, or that issue decided the selection – I wasn’t there and I don’t know – but evidently opposing the UK is no longer a deal-breaker.
It’s worth reflecting on how Wales compares to Scotland in that regard. Imagine if Scottish Labour selected a pro-independence candidate for this year, even in an unwinnable seat. It would be practically unimaginable, even scandalous! Welsh Labour is simply in a different place to Scottish Labour on this issue, a position borne of twenty years of Clear Red Water and an ability to continually shift on matters constitutional as Welsh voters’ views change and develop.
It also raises questions for Plaid Cymru and the way they might bring about independence. The party effectively advocates taking the Scottish route to independence, with a single pro-independence party – Plaid Cymru itself – displacing unionist MSes, predominantly Labour ones, winning a majority and delivering an independence referendum. Yet, to date, there is no evidence that Plaid is able to displace Labour wholesale from the areas that it would need to win to form anything close to a majority government.
In light of today’s news, you could suggest a different role for Plaid Cymru – to do to Labour something like what UKIP did to the Conservatives to deliver Brexit. In doing so they would accept that, just as UKIP were never going to win a Commons majority, Plaid couldn’t win the Senedd majority needed for them to call a referendum, so would instead aim to win enough of the Labour vote in places where it counts to spook Labour into a more accommodating position on independence. This would be much easier to attempt if there were a few Douglas Carswells or John Redwoods – long-standing campaigners for a referendum – elected to the Welsh Labour backbenches.
But Plaid Cymru is a very different rival to Labour than UKIP was to the Tories. Labour are surely too used to fighting elections against, and beating, Plaid to fear a sudden Plaid insurgency and shift their policy enough. Despite the jibes, Plaid are also not enough of a single-issue party to prioritise independence over power – quite understandably, like most parties, their main aim is to win as many seats as they can.
It may also be that I am getting carried away here. Perhaps this is only a flash in the pan, a false start. It may be that pro-independence Labour candidates remain a feature of the odd unwinnable seat or the bottom of regional lists. Who knows what the media’s reaction might be to pro-independence Labour candidates if independence were as big an issue as it is in Scotland? A pro-independence Labour minister seems quite a way off yet.
The real test remains whether we see a first pro-independence Labour MS take their seat in the Siambr – not this year, but maybe in five years’ time.
That would truly transform the nature of the campaign for independence, and signal a huge break with the path Scotland looks to be taking. But when historians look for the moment where Labour openly acknowledged that it was not as unanimous in its loyal defence of the UK union as it had previously let on, 2021 would have to be a very strong candidate.