Welsh Labour MPs must re-think their attitude towards devolution

The Senedd. Picture by the National Assembly

Keith Darlington

In this article, I argue that Labour, despite setting up the assembly, has an ambivalent attitude and half-hearted commitment to Welsh devolution and this has not helped guard against attacks from the small minority on the right who call for abolition of the Senedd.

Last month Mark Reckless, leader of the Brexit Party in Wales, announced they would be campaigning for scrapping the Welsh Parliament at next year’s elections, as will the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, who now have former UKIP group leader Gareth Bennett MS in their ranks after he joined the party in June.

Why is it that this abolish movement exists here in Wales, but would be unthinkable in other countries of the UK? More importantly, why, apart from Carwyn Jones’s response, is there such little reaction to this from the Welsh Labour party MPs who still dominate Welsh politics? Even Mark Drakeford has had nothing to say about the abolitionists.

Reasons for Labours ambivalence to the Senedd

To their credit, Labour did set up the Welsh Assembly in 1998. But many believed that it was only intended to offer crumbs of comfort to Wales to ensure that Scottish devolution was established.  In their 1997 New Labour manifesto, they pledged to implement John Smith’s “settled will” commitment to a Scottish Parliament. However, Welsh Labour have largely resisted increased powers to the Senedd ever since, for example resisting giving Wales tax-raising powers.

Before setting up the Welsh Assembly, Welsh Labour MPs had for many years been indifferent to devolution. A significant minority of influential Welsh Labour MPs in the 1970s, including George Thomas, Leo Abse and Neil Kinnock, were very hostile to any form of devolution in Wales. These helped influence many voters in decisively rejecting Welsh devolution in the 1979 referendum.

The roots of their antipathy to any form of self-determination was largely because they claimed that Welsh culture was nationalistic, and that socialism was international, and therefore incompatible with self-determination.

This unease with self-determination remains evident in Welsh Labour today. For example, Mark Drakeford recently said in an BBC Radio 4 interview that nationalism is an “inherently right wing creed” refusing to say whether Wales would be better off as an independent nation rather than ruled by the Tories

Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP representing a Welsh seat since 2015, also seems to articulate Welsh Labour thinking. He has written several articles since taking his seat about what he sees as the threat of Welsh nationalism – yet, he has had nothing whatsoever to say about Welsh culture or the Welsh Parliament.

Both Kinnock and Drakeford seem to want to convince the electorate that self-determination, as espoused by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, represents a right-wing creed.

Does anyone really believe that Adam Price, and Nicola Sturgeon, represent a right-wing creed? The truth is that Kinnock, a self-declared centrist politician, is himself some way to the right of them on almost all issues.

Labour’s unease with Welsh culture is evident in other ways too. Some Welsh Labour MPs seem to want to dismiss Welsh cultural attachments. Some months ago, the Rhondda Labour MP, Chris Bryant, condemned the BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards because Edwards expressed concern about the demise of Welsh heritage and called for the preservation of historical Welsh place names, for example.

Welsh Labour MPs may also be uneasy with being too positive towards the Sennedd, fearing that Welsh politics may be destined to follow the same path as Scotland.

Scottish Labour was, for over half a century, the dominant party but is now reduced to a handful of seats there – both in Holyrood and Westminster.

Is this why Labour seemed to be more concerned with trying to unseat the Plaid Cymru MP in Arfon, rather than preventing the loss of their Wrexham seat to the Tories in the 2019 General Election?

Whatever the case, it didn’t work because Labour lost Wrexham but failed to win Arfon.

Another important factor affecting the attitude of Welsh Labour MPs is that following boundary commission changes, the number of UK Parliamentary seats in Scotland fell from 72 to 59. This happened after the referendum because of Holyrood gaining increased powers, unlike Wales, where the number of seats remains the same at 40. However, the boundary commission recommended a reduction of the number of seats in the UK Parliament in Wales from 40 to 30 following increased powers. This was fiercely resisted by Labour who, being the dominant party, would probably lose out if the number of seats were reduced.

Time to come off the fence

Labour’s long-time ambivalence towards the devolution project is not helping the long-term security of the Welsh Parliament because with exceptions, such as Carwyn Jones, there are very few Labour politicians who sing the praises of the project. This is surprising because Wales is the only country in the UK in which Labour now has any power and south Wales is the only remaining stronghold region for Labour in the UK.

Individual Welsh Labour MPs and AMs need to show more support for devolution and start selling the accomplishments of the Senedd otherwise, there is the danger that the abolition campaign could go the same way as Brexit.

I have followed devolution in Wales for many years, and in that time, with a few rare exceptions, I can hardly remember Welsh Labour MPs praising devolution or even expressing an opinion on the matter. This is disappointing because it has meant that the small minority of voices on the right are going unchallenged by the main party of government here.

Although some opinion polls show the abolition vote is small, less than 12%, it could gain momentum if left unchallenged by negative campaigning from the Brexit party amongst others.

Many Labour, MPs were surprised by the Brexit vote in 2016 – which largely resulted in losing their “Red Wall” and enduring their worst general election result since 1935. They may be in for another outcome having unexpected consequences for their party unless they come off the fence and give more vocal support to the devolution project.

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