Peter Rowlands says Welsh Labour face a tough contest in forthcoming elections
The elections due on May 6th in most of the UK will all be significant, but particularly those in Scotland, where an expected SNP win is certain to trigger a renewed call for an independence referendum. The issue has however loomed much larger in Wales than in any recent election, and could be a key factor in determining the outcome.
There are currently 60 Members of the Senedd (MS) – previously Assembly – who, like the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, are elected by a proportional ‘additional member’ system, which includes 20 out of the Senedd’s 60 seats.
Labour has controlled the Welsh Government since the 2007-2011 coalition with Plaid Cymru (PC), albeit technically in a coalition since 2016 with the one Lib Dem MS. Poll ratings were dire for much of 2020, but picked up in the autumn, partly perhaps reflecting Labour’s generally well perceived handling of Covid-19 in Wales, although this has been less so in the last two months. However, a recent (January) poll showed Labour down by four points, with PC up two and the Welsh Greens up by three – a doubling of their previous support.
How can this be explained? Labour’s poor showing could reflect concerns about their recent handling of Covid, and in part probably does. But the reason for the shift to PC and the Greens is likely to lie elsewhere.
In 2020 there was a significant increase in support for Welsh independence. However, this didn’t manifest itself as an increase in support for PC, but in a huge increase in membership of Yes Cymru (YC), an organisation committed to Welsh independence but not a political party as such. In September 2020 a poll for them showed 32% support for independence – 51% among Labour voters. An average of polls now indicates about 23% support for independence – slightly down from the summer of 2020, but well up on the 12% of 2014. Support grew in 2019, with a number of well attended marches. YC have not (yet) urged support for PC, but unless Labour switches to a policy of independence, which is out of the question, it is difficult to see that they won’t. (There are two small nationalist parties who are unlikely to achieve more than a small vote.)
The reason for the recent increase in support for PC and the Greens is likely to reflect, in part at least, this rise in support for independence. The Greens only resolved to support independence last October, and the increase in their vote is likely to reflect a shift by previous Labour supporters, who would probably find the Greens more politically amenable than PC. This was after its move to a more centrist position under Adam Price following the more left-wing leadership of Leanne Wood, who was voted out in 2018.
However, Green votes at constituency level, which accounts for two thirds of the seats, are likely to go to PC, as Green candidates are mainly standing at regional level.
If such an increase happens it will mainly be at Labour’s expense, as the Lib Dem vote is small. The Labour left is broadly split between those who favour enhanced devolution, as advocated in the Radical Federalism document, and those who support the Labour for an Independent Wales organisation. Neither of these policies stands any hope of being adopted, as despite leader Mark Drakeford’s stance on the left, the right are broadly dominant in Welsh Labour. Opposition to a referendum, as in Scotland, would be likely to further increase support for PC.
The Tories are in disarray following a change of leader. Moreover, there is deep division between a pro-devolution group and those who effectively want to end devolution, with one MS having been effectively deselected. It should be possible to exploit these divisions, but ‘Red Wall’ factors and the vaccine may help to sustain the Tory vote. Meanwhile, the seven Tories originally elected for UKIP have all made bewildering and, for some, multiple changes in party allegiance – except for the egregious Hamilton, who remains a member of UKIP. They are all likely to lose their seats except, perhaps, for two, standing as Abolish the Assembly candidates.
The substance of what is proposed for independence varies, with a somewhat confusing range of alternatives from PC, including a confederal arrangement with the rest of the UK. However, the key problems would appear similar to those long aired with regard to Scotland: EU membership, trade, currency, constitution, monarchy etc…
Even if PC do much better than polls now indicate, it is highly unlikely that they will gain, or even approach, a majority; while Labour’s chances of achieving that look slim, although they could be boosted by the extension for the first time of the vote to those over 16. The likely outcome is a fractious and unhappy coalition between Labour and PC, given that a coalition between PC and the Tories would almost certainly be politically impossible, even if, as could well be the case, their combined seat total was a majority.
Whatever happens in May, support for independence in Wales, boosted by likely events in Scotland, is almost certain to grow in the coming period.