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Opinion

Welsh Labour’s existential crisis

14 Jul 2023 5 minute read
Keir Hardie

Gwern Gwynfil – CEO of Yes Cymru

Wales has a decent claim to being the crucible in which UK Labour was formed.

Today, almost 125 years after Merthyr Tydfil elected the Scotsman, Keir Hardie, to be the first Labour MP, Labour in Wales finds itself somewhat adrift from the Englishman, Keir Starmer’s, Labour Party.

We can be sympathetic to ‘real’ Welsh Labour – it is evident that it is English Labour that has left them rather than they who have left their own Labour tradition – but the hard reality of separation is inescapable.

Starmer’s Labour have fashioned themselves as the true inheritors of the Thatcherite tradition, far closer to John Major than John Smith, rapidly scurrying rightwards into the space left behind as the old Conservatives lurch ever rightward to inhabit the populist and insubstantial edges of politics.

In political terms this can be seen as the real victory of the UKIP, Brexit and Reform party extremes, stirring up venomous culture wars, railing against the world and offering nothing but soundbites and pipe dreams in a quest for little more than self promotion and the opportunity for some economic pillaging.

Add the twin exigencies of UK media collusion and the frenzied, fetid and frequently false, forums provided by the social media revolution and, bingo, the decline and the fall of the UK is now catalysed, accelerated and imminent. Whatever your view of the politics, Corbyn’s Labour briefly and unexpectedly pushed back with a radical and different platform.

Bereft

The lesson the Labour Party seems to have learned from the relatively near miss of the 2017 General Election is to do nothing bold or brave – to parrot the Tories and be bereft of original thought.

A somewhat curious conclusion when Labour actually won 40% of the popular vote.

Whether you agree or disagree with the politics of either side of that 2016 election in the UK, to conclude that not having ideas and not showing leadership is the way to make an impact seems perverse. To then conclude that the two-party, first past the post system in the UK, is still fit for purpose is even more dissonant.

But UK Labour, in utter defiance of its own membership, stays resolutely against proportional representation and any meaningful constitutional reform.

If I were a supporter of Labour in Wales I would wonder how, in not much more than a century, this political movement inspired by the people and ‘of the people’ had become so utterly co-opted by establishment norms and so utterly devoid of ideas, innovation and boldness.

Given the divergent paths of the Labour movement in Wales relative to their comrades in Scotland and England it is little wonder that there is some considerable tension between them.

Told off

The Welsh apparatchiks are frequently told off by their London masters. Mark Drakeford, always careful in his choice of words, repeatedly inspiring the ire of Starmer’s inner circle.

Scottish Labour add their weight to the dressing down of their Welsh brethren at every opportunity. Anas Sarwar relishing any opportunity to strut his stuff, pretend to have authority and lick the boots of London now that Scottish Labour have marginalised themselves in the homeland of Keir Hardie.

What does this mean for Labour in Wales? Unlike Scotland, Welsh Labour supporters are as likely to be pro-Indy as Unionist – a tension which has allowed the party to stay entrenched as the party of power in Wales by defusing the immediate political threat of Indy with the ‘Home Rule’ compromise.

This balancing act can’t continue indefinitely and becomes ever more challenging as Independence becomes a more prominent aspect of people’s political consideration.

For those making the connection between the poor management of the UK by Westminster, growing poverty and the threat these pose to much loved institutions like the NHS, independence becomes a viable solution to the renewal and restoration Wales needs so that it can stop being the sick person of the UK when the UK is already the sick person of Europe.

When that penny drops the apathy and lack of agency of vast swathes of the Welsh population could be transformed – Welsh Labour will want to be ready to capitalise on this and ride that wave to continued electoral success. They don’t look ready.

Unionist

The Labour ‘old guard’ in Wales remains trenchantly Unionist, married to a nostalgic view of Britain that is long dead.

To date, no champions have emerged to represent those who want to forge a new path for Wales, outside the old Union.

Many are waiting for Scotland to leave before finding the bravery to come out for Independence themselves – a curious position, if you’re in favour of Indy in Scotland then you’re in favour of Indy.

Why wait?

Just because we elected a Scotsman for Merthyr in 1900 doesn’t mean we have to wait for Scottish permission today.

Such low self esteem speaks to the absence of hope and confidence in our communities. If Labour in Wales want to restore that hope and confidence, strong, brave and ambitious support for independence is one way to do so.

Substantial and ambitious ideas, sold with vision and bravery, are powerful and transformative. The Labour Party in Wales has already left UK Labour.

There is no going back.

Is anyone bold enough to recognise that the clear red water is now a sea of difference?

Is anyone brave enough to take up the mantle and renew, revitalise and resurrect the movement in Wales?


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Erisian
Erisian
8 months ago

Much as I personaly eschew any form of gambling, I feel this piece is being very unfair to Bingo!

(So much better with an exclamation mark, isn’t it?

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
8 months ago

I agree, though I am no Labour voter and never have been, Welsh Labour is now distinct from UK Labour – as the article suggests UK Labour is now just a watered down version of the Tories. If Cymru is to gain independence quicker Welsh Labour has to be onboard and the signs are many in the party already are. The people of Cymru have always shown themselves to be innovative, ahead of the curve, particularly in social aspects, even though we’ve been too sucked up to our neighbour. As an independent country we can very easily leave England and… Read more »

Mawkernewek
Mawkernewek
8 months ago

I suspect the current UK Labour leadership wouldn’t take John Major as a member because of him being too left wing, with his quote “The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”.

Geoffrey Harris
Geoffrey Harris
8 months ago

If the English labour movement continues to purge itself of left wing activist’s then the Welsh labour movement will have to declare independence or disappear.
Perhaps English labour is becoming confident enough to perceive a future where it will not need the support of Welsh labour as in the past. It has always appeared to me to be resentful of its dependency on Cymru.

Kieran Thomas
Kieran Thomas
8 months ago

Good article. I think the growing chasm between ‘Welsh’ Labour and Labour elsewhere in the UK will, in time, inevitably lead to independence. I’m actually more certain of Welsh independence happening than I am of Scottish independence, though the time scale if the former happens will likely be longer. I believe this because the independence debate in Scotland seems like it will be continue to be fought as an event, a one-side-against-the other, winner-takes-all, divisive campaign. However, in Wales, I believe we will slowly edge our way there – Welsh Labour will continue to, slowly, desire more power from Westminster,… Read more »

David Pearn
David Pearn
8 months ago
Reply to  Kieran Thomas

God willing 🙏

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 months ago

Spot on.
For the Welsh Labour Party to survive it will have to become an independent policy making party separate from the UK or any other non-Wales party.

It can elect to express solidarity with other progressive movements in England, Scotland and elsewhere by joining an European group such as the European Socialist and Social democratic group.

The Welsh Labour Party must be sovereign to the peoples of Wales.

UK Labour does not even have a proper federal structure unlike the UK Liberal Democrats.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
8 months ago

Good article. Clearly there is a chasm between Labour in England and Wales. However unfortunately I don’t see the current Welsh branch of the Labour Party as being up to the job of creating a new 21st Century Wales.
A renewed Plaid Cymru or a new Welsh socialist party with a new breed of creative, dynamic politicians seems to be needed. I don’t see any dynamism or futuristic ideas in the current Labour reps at the Senedd.

Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
8 months ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

I agree Linda, the local Labour politicians I meet are very old fashion dye in the wool labour. They are happy with the status quo, happy the people exist in the valleys in a form of Labour led managed decline in services and local facilities. There is little or no vision and aspiration for the future of the Labour controlled South Wales valleys. We need Plaid Cymru to take the lead and get Wales up of its knees.

Last edited 8 months ago by Cwm Rhondda

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