The election was a seal of public approval for Welsh autonomy from Westminster
Ifan Morgan Jones
There is no doubt that it was the Labour party that were the big winners of yesterday’s election, gaining a seat on their 2016 tally.
But the other big winner was Welsh political autonomy. Because this was the first election fought in Wales than felt as though the nation was being treated by voters as an entirely separate political unit to the rest of the UK.
Back at the start of 2020 I wrote an article entitled ‘What will decide the 2021 Senedd election? Probably not what happens at the Senedd.’
And in pre-pandemic times that would have been entirely true. Senedd elections are usually fought in the shadow of Westminster and decided primarily by how people consider the parties to be doing at a UK level.
But this time – due no doubt to the Covid-19 pandemic and the focus it has put on devolution in Wales – things were entirely different.
The real question of this election was who would get the public’s praise for handling the Covid-19 pandemic – the Welsh Government or the UK Government?
That question was answered decisively. As Labour held seat after seat – and even won more in Rhondda and on the North Wales regional list – it became clear that voters were giving their seal of approval to the Welsh Government acting differently to the UK Government.
Wales has over the last 12 months acted with a level of independence that no one thought previously possible. And voters liked it, and wanted more.
The juxtaposition between Labour’s results in Wales and in England and Scotland couldn’t have been more stark.
They went backwards in England and Scotland but in Wales had arguably their best result to date.
There was indeed a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, but people in different parts of the UK rallied around three completely different flags.
It’s worth remembering that this was an election in which devolution had felt in genuine danger. YouGov showed Abolish polling at 8% and Conservatives candidates were openly professing their desire to do away with the institution altogether just as their party pulled neck and neck in the polls.
And in their opposition to any suggestion that the Welsh Government deviate from the UK Government on their reaction to the pandemic, the Conservatives made the terms of the election debate entirely clear.
Ultimately, Abolish got a lower share of the regional vote than in 2016 and apart from a narrow win in their second top target seat the Conservatives failed to make any headway at all.
This election was not a direct referendum on devolution but served to completely rebuff to any argument that the people of Wales want to do away with the Senedd.
Instead, in its seal of approval on the Welsh Government acting independently on the UK Government, it was a renewed mandate for the idea of Welsh autonomy from Westminster.
Two national parties?
The election was a tough one for Plaid Cymru. They performed very strongly in Y Fro Gymraeg, piling up record mandates, but were rebuffed once again in the ‘Welsh Wales’ of the post-industrial south.
However, this wasn’t so much because a desire for further Welsh autonomy was rejected by voters but because Labour took Plaid’s cause and wore it like one of Mark Drakeford’s cosy red jumpers.
It may sound like an overstatement, but Labour have almost become a Welsh nationalist party by default.
This isn’t so much of their choosing but because they are extremely successful in Wales but simply can’t win anywhere else.
It is unavoidable therefore that they will continue to emphasise and deepen Welsh autonomy from the rest of the UK simply because of that unbridgeable political cleavage between themselves and the Conservatives who govern Westminster.
It is this political divide that the Covid pandemic threw into stark relief and the fact that they have now been rewarded for taking a different tack to Westminster will simply embolden Welsh Labour to act even more autonomously of the UK Government.
Arguments about whether Welsh Labour should declare independence from Labour kind of miss the point, in that it has already happened, not by design but by political expediency.
It was telling that the Welsh Government’s own stats showed that Mark Drakeford had only spoken a handful of times with Labour leader Keir Starmer during the pandemic.
In 2016 I wrote an article called ‘Why Corbyn’s troubles could boost Welsh nationalism’ arguing that due to being locked out of power at Westminster, Welsh Labour would react by emphasising its own autonomy and small ‘n’ Welsh nationalism.
This has proven to be exactly the case – and the Covid-19 pandemic supercharged the process.
What I did not foresee back then was that Labour’s struggles at Westminster would get worse, not better. They now face being locked out of power there for at least another decade, if not indefinitely.
The result is that Wales now essentially has two national parties – Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour. Between them they won 60% of the vote in Thursday’s election and 2/3rd of the seats in the Senedd.
Welsh autonomy may well be weakened from Westminster by stealth. But the people of Wales have made their feelings clear and given further Welsh autonomy a big mandate.