Welsh Labour’s new plan to reform Westminster is either cynical or naive
Ifan Morgan Jones
Mark Drakeford’s speech last night to launch the party’s ‘Reforming the Union’ document has already attracted plenty of comment.
This was mainly because of Drakeford’s unfortunate claim that Plaid Cymru “blame the English for all our present discontents”, which Plaid’s Westminster leader Liz Saville-Roberts (born and bred in England) has called a “baseless smear”.
Drakeford’s verbal hand grenade (remember to throw it after you take the pin out, Mark) was all the more unfortunate because the resulting blast obscured a more in-depth discussion to be had about the thinking behind the document.
It’s often difficult to get a handle on where Welsh Labour stand on constitutional issues related to Wales because very often there’s a broad spectrum of opinion from the small ‘n’ nationalists in Cardiff Bay to the naturally more unionist Westminster.
There are clearly a few (mostly Assembly Members) who are quite open to exploring the idea of Welsh independence, even if they have questions about the practicalities, while others (mostly MPs) are deeply ideologically opposed.
This official Welsh Government document, and Mark Drakeford’s speech, is somewhat closer to consensus response to what seems like a huge upswing in support for independence since the beginning of the year.
Unfortunately, and while I have a lot of respect for individuals within Welsh Labour, my reaction on reading the document was that they are either rather rather naïve or rather cynical.
What makes Drakeford’s claim that Plaid Cymru is ‘anti-English’ so strange is that they essentially admit here that Plaid Cymru, and the wider independence movement, have a point.
Even after 20 years of devolution, they concede, political, culture and economic power in the UK is over-centralised at Westminster and that stops us solving our own problems.
This is a criticism of the structure of the state, and that structure is just as harmful to English people who live on the periphery (including in Wales) as it is to Welsh people.
Conceding that this structural problem exists and then claiming that Plaid Cymru, who have repeatedly made this point, are instead motivated instead by racism is, well, weird.
But that aside it’s clear that, at a fundamental level, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru agree on the problem. Where they differ is on the solution.
Plaid Cymru’s solution is to campaign for independence, while Welsh Labour’s solution is to reform Westminster.
But the latter solution, as set out in this document, is in my opinion very naive as Wales has no political leverage to demand such reform.
For instance, one of the more eye-catching demands in the document is that Westminster scrap the House of Lords and replace it with an upper chamber in which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have equal representation with England.
That is never going to happen. And why on earth would it? Why should England agree to such a thing? It would make even the USA’s much maligned electoral college look like a fair and democratic system.
It’s worth remembering as we browse the list of demands in the document that Welsh Labour barely has any leverage within their own party, let alone Westminster as a whole.
Last month, UK Labour’s National Executive Council refused to give Welsh Labour the power to reselect their own MPs, a decision Mark Drakeford described as “deeply disappointing”.
If Mark Drakeford can’t even get his way within the UK Labour party, how on earth is he going to reform Westminster as a whole? Why would anyone listen to him?
What surprised me when writing my doctoral thesis on 19th century Wales was how so many demands to reform Westminster – including scrapping the House of Lords – were being made by Welsh writers even back then.
The catch-22 is that Westminster is fundamentally unreformable because the periphery lacks any political or economic power with which to demand it do so, because Westminster has taken it all.
All the periphery can do – the only tool in its arsenal – is to threaten to leave the United Kingdom. As Scotland has shown us, that is the only thing that makes Westminster sit up and take notice. And then, only barely.
This is why the independence movement is needed. It will either be a tool to break away and form our own state (if Westminster is unreformable) or to give Wales the leverage to demand that Westminster cedes more power to the periphery.
Rather than resist the independence movement, Welsh Labour should, therefore, be on board with it. It would be a way of achieving their own stated objectives of reforming Westminster.
But it’s possible of course that I’m giving Mark Drakeford too much credit here and that he understands all of this all too well.
Perhaps Welsh Labour know, in their heart of hearts, that Westminster is unreformable, but if they make enough of the right noises it will stop Plaid Cymru running off with their support.
The ‘Plaid blame the English’ comment might well have been made for calculated electoral reasons rather than anything spoken from any deep conviction.
The other possibility is that there is a fundamental tension between Welsh Labour and the Westminster party. The former see the need for urgent change but the latter have either no interest or no intention in allowing them to proceed with it.
The former know what they want but the latter won’t let them take the steps they need to get it.
If so, then Welsh Labour may have found itself in a similar bind to Labour in Scotland – simply unable to respond effectively to a growing sense of injustice, and impotent as the nationalist party grabs that baton and run with it.
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