Where did this new combative Welsh Labour come from – and is it going to stick around?
Ifan Morgan Jones
During the last Ice Age, Wales was covered by a glacier half a mile thick.
But when these ice sheets finally thawed, it did not re-reveal the Welsh landscape as it had been in the past. The glaciers had carved out entire mountains and valleys that weren’t there before.
The last two years of Covid lockdown, even while putting large parts of our lives on hold, seems to have had a similarly transformative effect on Wales’ politics as those glaciers.
Even as the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, and the restrictions on all our lives thaw away, it has left Wales’ political terrain completely changed from what was there before.
The biggest change in dynamic seems to have been in the attitude of Welsh Labour. For the first 20 years of devolution, the Welsh Government was for the most part quite conservative and risk-averse.
Wales’ commercial media declined throughout this period but this didn’t seem to be something that particularly worried the Welsh Government, which had little need to draw any attention to itself.
Its political fortunes were largely decided by what went on at Westminster, anyway, and while Wales continued to consistently vote Labour there was no real reason to change its approach.
When first elected First Minister in late 2018, Mark Drakeford almost seemed to embody Welsh Labour’s steady as she goes character. A man who had been at the centre of government since the days of Rhodri Morgan, he even seemed to lack the charisma of his predecessors.
Welsh Labour’s cautious political approach seemed to extend at first into the start of the pandemic itself when the Welsh Government seemed quite slow to react to bring in restrictions even for large scale events such as the Wales v Scotland Six Nations match, as if they couldn’t countenance taking such life-altering decisions independently of Westminster.
The contrast between those days and the almost openly adversarial relationship between the Welsh and UK governments today has been quite a turnaround.
And it shows no sign of abating even as the Covid pandemic begins to fade as a live political issue. In the past, the Welsh Government hardly held any press conferences at all. These days hardly a week goes by without one, and the minister in charge almost always uses the opportunity to give the UK Government at least one poke in the eye about the relevant issue of the day.
An example of this has been the Welsh Government’s combative approach over the cost of living crisis. This is an issue largely unrelated to Covid but the Welsh Government’s adversarial approach to Westminster has been a continuation of that during the pandemic.
How did this happen? I think that historians will look back and see it as a gradual change of attitude that developed throughout the pandemic.
A turning point, I think, came quite early on – in May 2020, when Boris Johnson eased stay at home restrictions and the Welsh Government decided to stick firmly with them.
At the time I expected the Welsh Government’s contrary message to simply get drowned out by Boris Johnson’s press conferences. But it didn’t. Partly perhaps because of a much better Welsh Government communication campaign, driven by necessity. Partly because the Welsh public started to tune into the Welsh media in much greater numbers than previously (Nation.Cymru’s readership quadrupled between February and April). Partly because differences between Wales and England were a subject of UK media scrutiny, as well.
But whatever the reason, the message that Wales and England did things differently and had different rules cut through, and the Welsh Government took confidence from that and were soon taking it a step further again with their own lockdowns and ‘stay local’ rules.
The moment of ultimate validation for this approach came at last May’s Senedd election. Many saw a backlash coming – that devosceptic parties and even the likes of Abolish the Assembly would make big gains on the back of the public’s unhappiness at the Welsh Government’s desire to be different.
But it didn’t happen. After all the dire predictions that Welsh Labour faced their worst result in the devolution era, they won half the seats, their joint-best result, and could govern alone.
Since then Labour have embraced this desire to diverge, signing a radical cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru that includes free school meals for all, strengthening the Welsh media, plans for a north-south railway, the teaching of Welsh history, second homes, a larger Senedd and much more.
Welsh Labour didn’t really need to sign up to such a radical agreement. They could easily have got a limited agenda through on the back of vote by vote deals with Plaid Cymru, the sole Liberal Democrat and others. They wanted to be radical.
What happened to the old, cautious, steady as she goes Welsh Labour? Is she gone for good?
I think it’s too early to tell. I think there are two forthcoming hazards that could cause Welsh Labour to regress to its old, cautious ways.
The first I think, and there are some signs of this already, is that public and therefore media interest in what they’re doing begins to wane.
The problems that existed before the pandemic of the weakness of Wales’ commercial media still exist, and may well be exacerbated by the UK Government’s stated intention to scrap the BBC license fee.
There’s no point picking a political fight with the UK Government if there’s no public support to be rallied to your cause – you will simply get steamrolled.
Also, there’s little political reward in expending a large amount of energy driving forward radical change if no one notices that you’re doing it.
The commitment in the Plaid Cymru cooperation agreement to bolster the Welsh media will probably be an important one in order to ensure that the public remain at least somewhat aware of what the Welsh Government is doing.
The other danger is one that Welsh Labour may not consider a threat at all at first sight, which is that Labour are successful in winning power at Westminster.
Such a political earthquake would inevitably change the relationship between Wales and Westminster from a politically adversarial to a subordinate one, with Wales largely expected not to deviate too far from a Labour UK Government’s plans.
In such circumstances, the gumption shown by Welsh Labour in the face of the threat of a ‘muscular unionist’ UK Government may disappear and be replaced by a sense that they could now rest on their oars a little bit.
So will historians look back at the Covid pandemic as the time Welsh devolution came of age, or as something of a blip that quickly passed?
Who knows – after the last few years we’ve had, in which Wales stood still but Wales’ politics developed a new vibrancy, it may be wise not to try and predict anything.
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