Opinion

Labour’s main anti-indy argument is that they’ll soon be back in power – but what if they aren’t?

30 Nov 2020 5 minutes Read
Keir Starmer (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

A short exchange on Twitter the other day caught my attention. Intensive care consultant Dr Dave Jones posted this message:

“I am in favour of Welsh Independence for the times that there is a Conservative majority in Westminster. Can that be an option?”

To which Labour Senedd Member Dawn Bowden replied:

“It’s what I often say to my pro-independence friends. I understand how you feel, but let’s not crash the bus, let’s change the driver.”

This is an interesting exchange because it is an example of the main counter-argument used by Welsh Labour in their response to the independence movement, an argument which essentially boils down to:

‘We know the present Conservative government is awful, and are doing a bad job of running Wales. They’re trying to roll back Welsh autonomy and they don’t care what Wales thinks. But it’s not forever – soon we’ll be back in power at the UK level and will set everything right.’

And there is a palpable sense that it may well be Labour’s ‘turn’ before long. The Conservatives have already been in power for over a decade – almost as long as the 13 years of New Labour.

Surely by 2024, the ‘pendulum’ of two-party governance will swing back towards the left?

And for those of us who have lived the majority of our formative years under New Labour, a Labour governments feels like a ‘norm’ we will return to someday soon.

But if you look at the evidence, this expectation does not stand up to scrutiny.

 

Difficult

To begin with, if there is such a thing as an electoral pendulum then it seems to be heavily weighted towards the Conservatives. They have been in power for 67 of the last 100 years.

And it doesn’t tick back and forth at regular intervals. Since WW2 we’ve had four year Labour governments and 18 year Conservative ones.

And despite the Conservatives already having been in power for a decade, Labour’s trouncing this time last year doesn’t suggest much evidence that power is about to change hands, either.

The closest equivalent to the 2019 election was the election of 1983, when Labour were reduced to 209 seats (seven more than they currently have) under a committed socialist leader.

That was the last time the Conservatives swept across the north of Wales and made significant inroads along what we now call the M4 corridor.

It was another 14 years from that point until Labour took back power. If we stuck to a similar timeline, that would place the next UK Labour government in the year 2033.

And in fact, Labour’s reconstruction job will be much more difficult than it was in 1983, not just because they start from a lower number of seats but because they’ve also lost their former electoral fortress in Scotland.

Either Scotland becomes independent within the next few years, as looks likely, or the constitutional question looks set to dominate there for years and years all but ensuring SNP majorities in perpetuity against a divided unionist field.

Bounce

Furthermore, even looking at the present polling evidence there’s very little there to suggest that Labour are on course to overturn a 163 seat deficit at the next election.

The present Conservative Government are weighed down by problems of a historical magnitude – some, indeed, of their own making – that would have electorally crippled many of their predecessors.

Voters are dubious of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and attitudes towards Brexit are quickly souring as the transition deal deadline approaches.

Yet despite all of this and the government quickly approaching an expected ‘mid-term polling sag’, the Conservatives still maintain polling leads over Labour with many companies.

At this point, Labour really need to be asking, ‘well, if people don’t prefer us now, after all of this, when will they do so?’

And the honest answer to that may be, ‘well, maybe they won’t’.

Add to this upcoming boundary changes and the uphill struggle facing Keir Starmer suddenly looks like Everest.

The next decade or more of UK politics could well be characterised by rolling Conservative governments as continued Labour electoral failure spurs years of internal warfare between the left and centre-left.

Future

This article isn’t an argument for independence. It is simply pointing out that Labour’s assertion that they will be in power soon isn’t a good argument against independence.

If the Labour party argue that it is best for Wales to stay in the union, they need to be honest that what they are arguing is that a Wales run by a Conservative UK Government is preferable to one elected by an independent Wales.

Furthermore, any constitutional tinkering offered by Labour as a panacea, such as federalism or devo-max, should also be taken with a pinch of salt.

Because there is no evidence that they will, within the near future, be in a position to deliver it.

Ultimately, it someone asserts that they are “in favour of Welsh Independence for the times that there is a Conservative majority in Westminster” then as things stand, and for the foreseeable future, they should just be in favour of independence.

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