Why the Welsh Labour government faces the most challenging year in its history
What better way to look ahead to an election year than by reminding ourselves of the old phrase, ‘you could put up a donkey in so or so constituency with a Labour rosette it would get elected’. The famous saying reflects how the party’s monopoly over Welsh national life has been unbreakable from 1922, when they unseated Liberals as the true party of Wales, going on to dominate the ballot box in the twenty-six general elections and five polls for the Senedd that have been held since.
At first glance, not much looks set to change in May. Even with the recent advance of the Tory ‘Red Wall’, and a number of marginal seats that the devolved elections throw up in the air, no political force has credibly threatened Welsh Labour power in the Senedd or Westminster.
The party is riding high on the Mark Drakeford-mania experienced in 2020 too; the unknown and reluctant political leader transformed into everyone’s favourite professor at the heart of the Welsh government. People have ‘woken up’ to the devolved system of government – and, on the whole, they like who is in charge. It gives Welsh Labour and indeed nationalists some hope that more people will turn out to cast their vote for them, perhaps for the first time in a Welsh election.
Coupled with the first minister’s approval ratings, the fact that opposition politics in Wales is almost irrelevant is a cause for Welsh Labour optimism. Plaid Cymru continue to be an uninspiring choice for the majority of the public, hanging desperately on to the coattails of YesCymru. The Welsh Conservatives are now no more than a glorified ideological think-tank.
To Adam Price’s credit, at least we all know he wants to be FM. He really does. The Tories, by contrast, have no interest in gaining power, but appealing to their core vote: saving the ‘precious’ union, fanning the flames of Abolish and being engrossed in ideological spats over Brexit. So be it. The kind-of pragmatic conservatism which gives that enduring stability to constitutional democracy. Disraeli would be proud.
Despite this, one Welsh Labour insider told the BBC this month that their strategy for May would be a defensive one, targeting marginal seats such as the Rhondda. And who’s to blame them? Although nothing is by any means certain in Welsh elections – as many writers have shown through sharing their hypothesis on tactical voting with regional lists – any complacency in the next five months has the potential to cost political parties dearly.
And Welsh Labour have the most to lose, that is no question. The natural party of government for the Welsh since 1999, there are now several crises – some long-term and possibly existential – that threaten their gip over Wales.
Covid is probably the most unpredictable matter. And the most dangerous for Welsh Labour ahead of May. While in 2020 the pandemic gave a new lease of life to the devolved structures that govern our nation, public opinion sways constantly in different directions and the confidence in a government can be lost within a few days.
The Welsh public by-and-large support the first minister’s approach and take a dim view of the performance of the prime minister; which, in turn, hurts a Welsh Tory opposition party that continuously champions English policies. Yet in spite of months of riding the popular wave of support, YouGov polling shows that confidence in the Welsh government’s handling of the crisis dropped sharply in December. With restrictions likely to continue up until polling day, Mark Drakeford can expect sustained political attacks and indeed scrutiny over the vaccine roll-out across Wales. Hence the defensive strategy.
One can sympathise with politicians dealing with an issue not of their doing. For the Welsh government, Brexit primarily wasn’t either. The harsh consequences of our new arrangements are likely to be borne out in the first months of this year, when the EU and Britain struggle to implement its trade deal.
Welsh Labour government ministers are likely to spend precious time managing new economic and trade arrangements, most specifically avoiding chaos at ports such as Holyhead. The party has the difficult balancing act of doing so while ensuring that the UK government doesn’t undermine them on policy and that the two sets of opposition parties criticise them for failing to deliver the Brexit mandate in the right way.
These are new political issues since 2016. I am sure the party would crave an election pandemic-free like back then. A mainstay of Welsh elections is the scrutiny over the governing party, but Welsh Labour always seem to win the argument. Even when the record of Labour in Wales – on child poverty, education and economic development – is underwhelming across successive governments.
It is a sad indictment for the party that even after twenty years of power, the latest Welsh Political Barometer poll suggests that Abolish the Welsh Assembly is currently on course to win four of the 60 seats in May. It’s clear that thousands of the electorate have lost patience with our system of government. In the context of current political events, that means Welsh Labour not only faces scrutiny over what it has achieved, but what devolution has done for Wales too.
But the most unexpected and potentially catastrophic political matter for Welsh Labour this year is undoubtedly the rise of Welsh nationalism. Plaid Cymru want to harness the spirit of ’99 as support for independence enters the mainstream. But what of the Welsh Labour voters, over half of which would want Cymru Rydd now?
The first minister has already signalled a shift in the party’s constitutional thinking, calling for a radical reform of the UK, but the pressure on the party to embrace the indy question is only likely to increase after May. When Scotland votes for the SNP and with it an independence referendum, what next for the last bastion of credible Welsh unionism? Without a good answer, nationalism has the potential to end Welsh Labour’s long reign over Wales.
Polls suggest that the public want to stick with Mark Drakeford this year, of course. But the road before then is by no means clear, and the fate of the UK by 7 May looks even more uncertain. The threats to the party and its long-term place in government are very real. Covid is a continuously unpredictable situation with daily political consequences for the government in charge. Brexit is not going away anytime soon and will certainly take up the precious time of Welsh Labour ministers over the next few months. Independence is, and will continue to be, the growing national issue in Welsh politics. Scotland will then most likely change the whole political debate in the UK after Nicola Sturgeon almost certainly storms to victory at Holyrood.
Where does this leave Welsh Labour in the run up to, during and after 6 May 2021? Quite frankly, I’m not so sure. And I suspect neither do they.