What impact will Labour’s revived hopes at Westminster have on their small ‘n’ nationalism in Wales?
Ifan Morgan Jones
With the implosion in the Conservatives’ polling lead and a 16 point Labour advantage it suddenly looks possible, for the first time in a long time, that Labour could win the next General Election.
It’s quite obvious, I think, what has gone wrong for the Conservatives. In choosing the pro-Brexit Boris Johnson as Prime Minister they sought to portray themselves as the anti-establishment, populist party.
But the twin scandals of the Owen Paterson lobbying affair and the Christmas Party has revealed that rather than ‘draining the swamp’ at Westminster to use the populist terminology they are now considered by the public to be neck-deep in it.
All is not lost for the Conservatives. Polling leads that collapse for such easily identifiable reasons could also be revived with a few ruthless changes. On the one hand, all they need to do is either rehabilitate Boris Johnson populist persona (expect more anti-EU sabre ratling) or find someone who fits the same mould but doesn’t have quite the same self-destructive instinct.
But there is a danger for the Conservatives that a Labour government could become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The public like backing winners too and in a post-pandemic world might be itching for a change of political scenery.
And despite claiming that it is them ‘wot won it’ the media don’t like being on the losing side either. If it looks like Labour is on a winning trajectory, they will start hedging their bets in order to retain influence with any incoming administration.
But what impact could this have on politics in Wales? Obviously, if Labour actually won the next General Election the impact would be quite huge, but I think that even a sniff of power could change the dynamic quite significantly.
Back in 2016 I predicted that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would boost Welsh Labour’s small ‘n’ nationalist instincts simply because if there was no route to power at Westminster they would turn to shoring up the defences at the one parliament they did run, in Wales.
I wrote at the time:
“What possible motive could Labour have for attempting to accentuate nationalism at this time?
“This isn’t an attempt to spike Plaid Cymru’s Nationalist guns, as it was following the 1999 Assembly Election. It is, rather, a response to continued Conservative dominance at Westminster.
“Locked out of power at Westminster by their own members, Labour is unlikely to be satisfied with the range of powers on offer in the one national institution it does control.
“In order to ‘Stand Wales’ Corner, more devolution will be required, and that will require the public’s support.”
In short, when you have a hostile government across the Severn it makes sense to ensure that that ‘clear red water’ is as deep a moat as possible.
And that means shouting from the rooftops that Wales is its own political entity that needs to be run differently.
However, when your party is in charge at Westminster, or looks very likely to be in charge, then you start to drop the drawbridge.
A Labour government at Westminster – or the immediate prospect of one – would also change the power dynamic within Welsh Labour from Senedd Members to the more Unionist MPs.
Out of power at Westminster, MPs had little to offer the Welsh Government. But in power, the Senedd’s fate is largely in their hands.
Under these circumstances, suddenly the emphasis on Welsh Labour’s Welshness becomes rather less useful as a political tool.
This doesn’t mean that Labour’s Welsh brand would disappear completely – it was useful for Rhodri Morgan in establishing devolution under Tony Blair’s government and strengthening devolution would also be a hedge against future Conservative governments.
But the party would not need to emphasise the national juxtaposition with Westminster to the same extent when there is less of a political juxtaposition.
I think that one of the main beneficiaries of a Labour government at Westminster would be, perhaps counterintuitively, be Plaid Cymru.
On the one hand, you would think that a Conservative government at Westminster would have been great for Plaid Cymru as it would allow the party to emphasise its pro-independence message.
But that hasn’t been the case. Plaid Cymru did better at Senedd elections when Labour was in power, and has had a string of disappointing elections since the Conservative government took office in 2010.
This is because a Conservative government at Westminster largely allowed Welsh Labour to play up its own small ‘n’ Welsh nationalism and in doing so steal Plaid Cymru’s USP.
It’s worth remembering that for all of the SNP’s success they originally came to power under a Labour government and not a Conservative one.
Had the SNP not won that marginal victory in 2007 I think that history could have been quite different as a Scottish Labour Government could have played up their own ability to ‘stand Scotland’s corner’ against the Tories at Westminster, as the SNP ended up doing and as Welsh Labour did here.
Conversely, I think that a Labour government at Westminster would be bad for the movements for independence – in both Wales and Scotland.
But if a Labour government did win at Westminster, or looked like doing so, Welsh Labour would inevitably tone down its own Welsh nationalism.
That might not be enough for Plaid Cymru to emulate the SNP and win. But it would mean that they had something more different and distinctive to offer the Welsh electorate as an anti-Unionist party.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.