GE2019: An advance for Labour in Wales?

Peter Rowlands sees improved prospects for Welsh Labour, with a new leader who could complement a Corbyn government

Wales is closer politically to England than Scotland or Northern Ireland, but is significantly different in that it has a nationalist party that is absent in England, except marginally in Cornwall.

Wales has been predominantly Labour since it displaced the Liberals in the 1920s, and that is likely to continue. Polls for ITV conducted in early and late November show a huge improvement for Labour from a very poor start, although they would still lose some seats to the Tories, and this is consistent with other UK-wide polls.

The ‘Remain Alliance’ (RA) in Wales is three-way, between the Lib Dems (LD), Plaid Cymru (PC) and the Greens (GN), and developed from an agreement whereby PC and GN stood aside in the Brecon by-election last year to enable LD to recapture the seat. The RA covers ten seats – out of 40 – in seven of which PC is the only party standing. It could help LD and PC in some of these seats, but its effect is unlikely to be that significant.

The Brexit issue has, as in Scotland, undoubtedly galvanised support for an independent Wales, with a number of marches having been held this year, although these have seemingly been organised independently of PC which does not appear to have benefited in the polls, at least so far. PC chose a new leader, Adam Price, last year, after the failure by the resolutely left wing Leanne Wood, leader since 2012, to make a breakthrough for PC, despite her own success in winning an Assembly seat in the Labour bastion of Rhondda in 2016. The situation should provide an opportunity for PC, but the limited scope of nationalist appeal in Wales – largely confined to the rural West and Northwest, with more limited support of the ‘Rugby patriotism’ kind in the South, and little in the East – will make it difficult to emulate the success of the SNP in Scotland.

Until 2015 LD had been doing quite well as in the rest of the UK, but by 2017 had, for the first time ever, lost all their MPs (although the RA enabled them to win back the Brecon and Radnor seat earlier this year) and all but one of their AMs, and many councillors. There is nothing distinctive now about them in Wales, and at best their fortunes in Wales are only likely to reflect those of the wider UK party.

The Greens had high hopes in Wales in 2015, but these did not materialise, and in general they have not done as well as in the rest of the UK, despite the presence of many eco activists in rural Wales.

The Tories in Wales are to say the least not a happy ship. Having ditched their previous autocratic leader last year, the deputy leader has recently resigned and left the party, there is division over the candidacy in Wrexham, the Gower candidate has insulted those on benefits, and most seriously the Minister for Wales has resigned over a scandal involving an Assembly candidate. All of this is bound to affect their morale in fighting to win the seats in Wales that they need to take, and likewise boosts that of Labour in defending them and of perhaps taking some of the seven seats they now hold.

For those on the Labour left in Wales, which includes me, 2018 proved to be very satisfactory. Earlier that year the leader, Carwyn Jones, announced that he was standing down, and a wrangle developed over how his successor, and a new post of Deputy Leader, should be elected. The Welsh Executive ruled that the electoral college system should still be used, despite this having been changed to OMOV for UK party elections, and the Deputy Leader post was elected under the old system. However, pressure from the left, very effectively organised under the banner of Welsh Labour Grassroots, resulted in a special conference which decided that elections would now be carried out by OMOV, and this duly saw the election of Mark Drakeford as leader – the overwhelming choice of the left, but who may well have lost under the previous system, which is clearly why the right wanted to retain it. However, the domination of Brexit as an issue has since made it difficult to focus on policy perspectives for Wales.

Following the EU elections Welsh Labour, like Scottish Labour, announced that they would support Remain in any future referendum – a rather odd position to take in Wales given that it voted Leave, unlike Scotland. Support for Remain in Wales has now been confined to the Welsh Government, who have stressed how damaging Brexit would be for Wales.

With the most senior level of control by Labour in government in the UK and an immensely able and dedicated leader, the Welsh Government could be an important complement to a Corbyn government at Westminster, but without that the future for Wales is likely to be bleak.

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