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Opinion

Where did this new combative Welsh Labour come from – and is it going to stick around?

21 Feb 2022 6 minutes Read
The First Minister, Mark Drakeford. Picture by the Welsh Government

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.

Radical

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.

Earthquake

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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Grayham Jones
2 months ago

Kick all English party’s out of wales that’s the Tories Labour and all Brexit party’s it’s time for a new wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

Ced
Ced
2 months ago

Events, dear boy, events.

defaid
defaid
2 months ago

It may be too early to predict but I can wish.

If only Llafur would acknowledge publicly and loudly — and before the next general election — that Welsh Labour is no longer Westminster Labour…

Erisian
Erisian
2 months ago

Sound like it really is time for Welsh Labour to separate from English Labour – who care no more for us th an the Conservative and Unionist party.
They’ll need us in coalition to make up the numbers.

Paul
Paul
2 months ago

The next couple of years will be telling. Highly likely that Scotland will have left the union before the next Westminster election is due. How Welsh labour respond to that will tell us a great deal. Will they continue with their ‘Wales is a part of England’ line or step up?

Welsh_Siôn
Welsh_Siôn
2 months ago

Not meant as a curse (nor indeed as a blessing) – as, unlike Madame Zaza we can not see the future. (Mind you, I thought clairvoyancy was a load of crystal balls – even if most of you saw that one coming …)

We are living in interesting times.

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
2 months ago

When the pandemic hit it would have been natural for the Wales government to presume that Westminster would lead. Nobody could possibly have foreseen the total abdication of responsibility by Westminster. Nobody cpould have forecast a wholesale robbery of Bilklions by a Health Secretary more interested in sex with his staff or ensuring his pub landlord made millions. Nature abhors a vacuum and at Westminster there was a huge one in every department from Johnson’s number 10 to the NHS to the Treasury to education to social care and, whether they wanted to or not, Drakeford, Gething, Atherton and the… Read more »

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
2 months ago

Ottawa puts us in wholly new territory. Politician orders police to do what it takes to make people obey – kicking on the ground being fine, ditto taking donations. Apparently so as to keep control, and not to “stop the spread”. Listening to the Nurse Ratcheds running Canada now is chilling. Welsh Labour is cut from the same cloth, is on the same slippery slope. We need to unite around genuine rights and freedoms, a new and desperate struggle, sadly.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
2 months ago

Astonishing and worrying in equal measure.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
2 months ago

Plaid Cymru now need to take the bull by the horns and steer it towards independence. The Senedd has shown it can do better than stale old Westminster – it’s done well enough to scare the corridors of power, evident by all the attacks recently. We know we can do far better as an independent country, let’s build on recent sucess and create a far better future for ourselves.

hdavies15
hdavies15
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

..”Plaid Cymru now need to take the bull by the horns”… That’s the bit Plaid don’t like. It threatens their comfy existence, it could lead to all sorts of unforeseen changes that could rock their boat. Under its present leadership Plaid is a part of the Unionist picture. Indeed there are many times where the Plaid people at Westminster are more in touch with our needs than the Bay set.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
2 months ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Actually, they are a class above.

Quornby
Quornby
2 months ago

Welsh until they win in England then back to normal.

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