YesCymru isn’t winning over Brexit voters – here’s how they can make a start
Ifan Morgan Jones
One of the most eye-catching but as yet uncommented upon features of the new polling published this week on Welsh independence is the huge gap between Remain and Leave Brexit supporters.
Among Remain supporters in Wales, Welsh independence isn’t actually that far away from a majority already. With the undecided removed, 44% of those who voted Remain would vote for Welsh independence.
That’s quite an amazing figure. 44% is exactly the number that voted for independence in the referendum in Scotland in 2014, a vote that although lost was a near-death experience for the UK and changed Scottish politics forever.
It suggests that if Wales had seen a big pro-Remain vote as in Scotland, independence would already be on the cards.
However, as we must always remind ourselves, Wales is not Scotland and what worked there won’t work here. Kiltstreaming will only take you so far. In Wales, a majority voted to leave.
And support for Welsh independence among Leave voters in 2016 is extremely poor. Only 20% would vote for Welsh independence, according to the latest poll.
Like almost everything else in our politics, it seems that Brexit is a huge dividing line.
At first glance, of course, the split makes complete sense. Previous research has shown that Brexit voters tend to feel more British and less Welsh, are older and are more likely to be Conservatives.
According to this week’s poll, only 18% of 65+-year-olds support Welsh independence, and only 9% of Conservative voters do so. This is very barren ground on which to sow the seeds of independence.
However, the YesCymru campaign is serious about winning, so it is going to have to find a way of making inroads into this exact same demographic.
To break beyond the 25-35% of the vote, let alone reach 50%, it’s going to have to appeal to Brexit voters – particularly Labour Brexit voters. Because to be frank there just isn’t half as much capacity for growth elsewhere.
This seems like an extremely tall order at first. Brexit largely stands for exactly the sort of things that Welsh nationalism – particularly the Europhile Plaid Cymru – have been firmly against since at least the 80s.
But if you look at the message of Brexit – the grounds on which it appealed to people – you see that it has much in common with the appeal of Welsh independence.
The Brexit vote was above all a kick at the establishment – and although that kick hit the EU it was very much aimed at the Westminster establishment as well.
There was also a desire for economic fairness. Those that voted Leave, despite being warned of dire financial consequences, felt they either had too little to lose or were secure enough to go ahead with it anyway.
There is a parallel here with the 2014 Scottish independence campaign. It was the deprived areas of Glasgow that voted ‘yes’ and the middle-class areas of Edinburgh that voted ‘no’.
The Brexit campaign also relentlessly pushed the idea that being in the EU was wasting money that could be spent on essential services. We all remember the famous red bus: ‘We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.’
A vote for Brexit was also cleverly presented as a vote for the status quo. Further integration into the EU was something that was being done to the UK, against its wishes. A vote to Remain wasn’t a vote to keep things as they were but rather to join a European super-state.
Above all, part of the Brexit campaign was also the desire for the return of power back closer to the people. Let’s take back control.
Of course, you could argue that Brexit actually did nothing to fix any of the problems it promised to fix – the Westminster elite is still in control and is consolidating power rather than handing it back to ‘the people’.
But people voted Brexit in the British interest because the arguments were not presented to them in a Welsh context.
The same arguments, presented in a Welsh context, are also good arguments for Welsh independence if YesCymru are able to articulate them effectively.
Westminster is arguably even less democratic than the EU – just look at the House of Lords, which is currently being packed with over 30 of Boris Johnson’s mates (including his brother!), and the upcoming cut to Wales’ constituency sizes. There is a big case to be made for taking back control.
A vote for Welsh independence can also be portrayed as one for the status quo in the face of Westminster plans, post-Brexit, to essentially roll back aspects of devolution.
Economically, it can be argued that, as one of the poorest parts of western Europe sharing a nation-state with one of the world’s financial capitals, only an independent Wales could deliver the kind of realignment of economic priorities that will focus on lifting people out of poverty rather than further lining the pockets of millionaires.
A strong argument could also be made for spending money on essential services rather than projects that do not benefit Wales. Wales is funding projects such as HS2 and Crossrail to the tune of billions while Wales’ rail network has been underfunded by £3Bn in the period 2001-2029.
What makes YesCymru’s job easier is that they are essentially asking people to accept propositions with which they already agree.
Polling already shows that people don’t think Wales gets its fair share of spending on infrastructure projects. People already trust the Welsh Parliament to make decisions for them more than the EU.
The challenge for YesCymru is now to present Welsh independence as the solution to those problems in a way that appeals to Brexit supporters.
Dominic Cummings is considered a political genius but his one trick in essentially all campaigns is to demand that money is spent on essential services rather than on whatever institution he’s campaigning against.
If he was in charge of the Welsh independence campaign he would have flooded Facebook with ads asking ‘Why is Wales spending x billion on HS2 when we could give the money to the NHS instead?’
Wales’ Conservative leader Paul Davies has already called for ‘a dose of Dom’ in Wales, and although ‘dom’ is considered something rather unpleasant in the Welsh language, perhaps it’s time for YesCymru to reach for the shovel.
Another feature of the Brexit vote was how much money was spent on digital advertising. Specifically, on targetting specific important demographic groups.
YesCymru, who now have over 6,000 members paying in a few pounds a month, should have the funds to begin a rolling digital campaign emphasising many of these themes.
Supporters of YesCymru may feel queasy at the thought of lowering themselves to the tactics of the Brexit campaign.
But the campaign’s strong appeal to Remain voters is no doubt partly because those involved with the campaign are the kind of people who voted Remain. They instinctually know what arguments will win them over.
There are also, of course, things that YesCymru and supporters should avoid doing, such as the occasional and perhaps unintentionally revealing attacks on Britishness rather than Westminster. To win over those who feel at least somewhat British (the vast majority in Wales) they need to emphasise that Britain will outlast Westminster, and in fact that a Britain of independent states could be stronger than an over-centralised one ruled by a Westminster elite. ‘Good neighbours, not surely lodgers’ as Scotland’s Yes campaign has it.
Reaching across the political chasm to Brexit voters is going to be difficult, and means that the campaign will have to move out of its comfort zone. But if YesCymru wants to succeed, it has to be done.
And you can be sure that if YesCymru does not use these arguments and tactics, and attempt to appeal to the Brexit-voting demographic, then the enemies of devolution will have no qualms about doing so.