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.
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The piece assumes that elected Labour members have Welsh interests at heart. But do they? the jury is still out and as the writer Implies the real test will come when they win at Westminster. Call me a cynic but Labour have a long road to travel before I’m convinced.
It’s good to see someone at least bothering to mention the third largest party in Westminster in relation to Labour’s current poll lead over the tories. However you’re still not talking about them in the context where it really matters, which is exactly how Labour are supposed to win an election without working with the SNP. The same polls that show Labour in the lead also show the SNP in SIXTH place, behind the Lib Dems, Greens and the Reform Party. That’s a party who hold 45 Westminster seats and are expected to win even more, polling behind a party… Read more »
Judging by what happened under the blair and brown govt’s – and starmer is cut from the same political cloth – it’s reasonable to expect that the calls we’ve seen from within welsh labour for more powers for the Senedd will be ignored by a uk labour govt. (just as uk labour govts ignored the recommendations of the Richard Commission). In such circumstances hopefully a couple of things will happen : Firstly Plaid’s support will increase as more and more people in Wales see that voting labour doesnt bring more powers for Wales (which is the arguement for staying in… Read more »
I think Labour Senedd members are broadly in favour of more powers, Labour MPs however not so much. They opposed it in the late 2000s for selfish reasons. They didn’t want to see a reduction of Welsh MPs, or potentially have their voting rights restricted. It was only when the Tories returned to power in 2010 that they got behind it. A reduction of Welsh MPs is already happening regardless & will be in place by the next election, plus the Tories have abolished the ‘English votes for English laws’ mechanism. So more powers may not necessarily get in the… Read more »
The question that moves me is – what happens if Labour looses the next election? It is probable with the SNP achieving self government, of some sort, that Labour will be unelectable and we have a permanent Tory government.
It’s reasonable to think there will be some differences under any future Labour UK government but I think those differences will be minor. There is a culture in Westminster that endues whichever party is in power, a culture born from empire and colonialism. It’s always there. Those of us in the independence movement need to stoke the fires of belief in our own culture and self reliance and move away from constantly worrying about what’s happening over the border.
Welsh people that one meets in Europe or elsewhere have the fire you mention, or perhaps it is confidence? Johnson a mouse-size Trump, Mogg from a pre war movie!
If voters in Wales think English Labour will have Welsh interests at heart once in power are deluding themselves. Blairite & Unionist Keir Starmer purged the socialist left-leaning arm of Labour and is luke warm to devolution at best, so any Welsh Government wish of getting the devolution Policing & Criminal & Youth Justice systems or any other powers stole by the Tories from Wales can dream on. English Labour along with their treacherous Unionist Wales MPs like Neil Kinnock, Llew Smith, Paul Murphy and others were responsible for out initial watered down Welsh Assembly talking shop in 1997, and… Read more »
I would have been equally sceptical that we would have gotten anything out of a Corbyn led government as well. Socialists tend to favour more centralisation.
fearing a ‘a race to the bottom’.
Although I agree with you that Corbyn was a devosceptic as much as Starmer is. In fact, like hypocrite Neil Kinnock in the 70s who was also a critic and Anti-EU supporter , Corbyn had similar tendencies but never boarded the EU gravy train as Kinnock & family did. . And it wasn’t a coincidence why Corbyn remained largely anonymous during the Brexit campaign until it was too late. But I don’t think Corbyn would have interfered with devolution like the Tories have by hijacking Senedd EU powers and questioned Senedd competency to legislate or doubted Wales sovereignty.. And with… Read more »
Some interesting observations in this thread. However, we should not get too enthusiastic just because Labour has a poll lead that it ought to have with such an incompetent Tory Government. We should not forget that the Tories work closely with the Republicans in the US who are big on voter supression. Thus we can expect all sort of tricks to be played to prevent voters expressing their digust with their regime. For Labour to win a majority seems to me as high unlikely. One interesting element of the current political scene that strikes me is the ‘Wrong Leader Syndrome’.… Read more »
We in wales have got to stop being little Englanders and and be proud to be welsh it’s time for a new wales 🏴 kick all English party’s out of wales that’s the Tories Labour and all Brexit party’s start fighting for your children and grandchildren future in wales 🏴 get the people in your town’s out voting for new wales 🏴
So, to quote Uncle Monty, we’re sh@t on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour.
Our only real choice is Plaid Cymru.
Well, any young Labour looking in should seriously think about challenging
unionists within your constituency. People in the past voted for the Party
and not paying much attention to the candidate. This should change!