‘England does not love coalitions’, as Benjamin Disraeli’s famous comment goes. If Dizzy was wrong about anything, it was this: since the 1852 Aberdeen Government, of which the former prime minister made his remark, Britain has lived through twelve coalitions.
They have come in the form of War Cabinets, National Governments, and most recently the Clegg-Cameron years. We may not have voted for them, but coalitions have caused major realignments of British politics.
For coalitions to work, you need leaders who can reach across political tribes and have a cross-party appeal. A rare breed. The late Rhodri Morgan was that progressive pluralist of the first decade of Welsh devolution; in large part it was his personal authority that made the Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru administration work in 2007.
The One Wales Government seems like a distant memory now – after further devolved powers, Brexit and COVID – but its relevance is becoming more obvious ahead of next year’s Senedd elections.
Take this week’s Welsh Political Barometer poll findings. With Mark Drakeford’s newfound status and popularity ratings, Welsh Labour have retained strong support across the constituency and regional lists, albeit short of a majority in the Senedd with 28 seats. Paul Davies’ Welsh Conservatives are a solid second to Plaid Cymru’s disappointing third place.
Despite momentum for YesCymru, voters are not showing any indication yet of turning out in droves for Wales’ only major nationalist party, who are projected to win 11 seats. This explains Adam Price’s growing anxiety that surging support for independence has not been felt by his party. In short, independence is more popular than Plaid. That isn’t likely to change.
With Welsh Labour short of a majority, alongside the departure of Kirsty Williams and Dafydd Elis-Thomas from the Senedd, it appears that a Lab-Lib-Independent coalition is off the cards. Meanwhile, the continuing implosion of Welsh Conservativism means that a Rainbow Coalition previously dreamt up by Nick Bourne, Mike German and even Adam Price is an ideological impossibility.
Even after a global pandemic has emphasised the significance of devolution, the people of Wales have not been won over by a single party to lead in Cardiff.
So, where does this leave us? With just under six months to the Senedd elections, a lot can change. We are still waiting for the full implications of Brexit to hit us towards the end of the year. There’s also the prospect of further COVID restrictions that may drive a wedge between Wales and Westminster once more.
And then there’s the campaign itself: will it focus on the economy post-COVID, Welsh Labour’s record, or the broader question of Welsh sovereignty? Adam Price will hope it is the latter. But May 2021 is not an election focused on independence. The polls tell us so too.
A minority Welsh Labour administration is a likely possibility, relying on the support of Plaid Cymru and possibly the Liberal Democrats (if they aren’t wiped out completely). A more formal confidence-and-supply deal between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru might also work. But in today’s turbulent political reality – with Westminster scrambling to discredit the devolved nations and take powers away on a whim – this provides little credibility or stability to any Welsh government.
This is why Wales may indeed be heading for a coalition government in May, despite the party-political complications. Adam Price, for example, has ruled out being a junior partner to Welsh Labour in such a scenario. A gallant but short-sighted political statement. The first minister has, however, made his own feelings about nationalism known in recent months and is unlikely to be as pragmatic as his old mentor Rhodri Morgan.
Yet both leaders have found common opposition during the pandemic: Westminster, and more specifically the Conservative party in Cardiff and London. Especially in recent months, this has been a powerful unifying force to bring Welsh politicians and the public together. After all, recent polling from Beaufort Research for the Western Mail suggests that a Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru deal is what the Welsh public want if no majority is secured next year. Wales is perhaps different to England when it comes to coalitions, after all.
Adam Price is savvy enough to recognise he has little chance to become first minister next May. He simply does not have the votes. Yet Drakeford surely recognises himself that he needs a majority government to sustain an effective relationship with or against Downing Street, who he has said are set to “clip the wings” of devolution post-COVID. It is also an opportunity for Plaid and Labour to build a genuine centre-left coalition to influence Wales’ future this decade.
This idea of the future of Wales is, of course, the biggest stumbling block to any agreement. Will the UK survive the current crisis and the growing nationalism in Scotland, where the future of the Union (and Wales) will be decided? Adam Price would almost certainly demand a referendum on Welsh independence as a condition of entering any coalition. Like his old mentor Rhodri Morgan – a ‘socialist of the Welsh stripe’ – Mark Drakeford would find it near impossible to accept such a compromise, despite his own Welsh Labour members backing independence. And even if that means a stable administration that is strong enough to pass legislation and is able to stand up to Whitehall.
As another one-term U.S. President, Gerald Ford, once said: “Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.” Any coalition relies totally upon this principle. With growing concerns over the future of devolution and the polls showing no outright winner, both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru may need to re-evaluate their strategy next year. Like before, different sides would describe it as a sell-out or a ‘business as usual’ deal. ‘A vote for Plaid is a vote for Labour’, and vice-versa, the Tory election poster will read.
In reality, a new National Government may be exactly what Wales needs: one that represents less division and more bipartisanship, working to protect the integrity of the Senedd post-2021. And polling shows that the Welsh public would support it.
So, it’s over to Labour and Plaid Cymru; despite their differences, they may need to dust off their negotiating textbooks. One Wales may be the unexpected outcome next year, and our nation might be better off for it.