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Labour in Wales: A success that dare not speak it’s name

Posted by Nick Davies

Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones
From Bridgend to Wrexham, it seemed that no pub, club, café or shopping centre was without a journalist looking for a Labour voter intending to turn Tory. Anyone muttering about ‘voting for Theresa May’ could be sure of an attentive ear. It was, after all, the official line put out by Tory Central Office that the Tories were going to end Labour’s century-long domination of Wales. The strategy was simple: Wales had voted Brexit, in previous elections many voters in Labour seats in the industrial south and north-east had turned to UKIP and now their vote was in freefall, the Tories were delivering Hard Brexit, ergo those Leave and UKIP supporters would turn to the Tories. To ease their passage over to the dark side Theresa May made three visits during the campaign.
What actually happened was that although there was a modest overall swing of 2.9% swing to the Tories in Wales, it did not translate into seats. Labour lost no seats to the Tories and regained the three lost last time: Vale of Clwyd, Cardiff North and Gower, taking them to twenty-eight seats, pushing the Tories back to the coasts and borders with eight, the only other change being Plaid’s victory over the Liberal Democrats in Ceredigion, taking them to four.
Labour’s success was tarnished, however, by the way in which candidates in these constituencies were imposed without any regard to the members there. In particular, the very popular socialist Liz Evans, who lost Gower by only 27 votes last time, was rejected.
Why did the Tory dog not bark? The Tories’ basic error was assuming that Labour Leave voters would vote Tory. As in parts of England, while Theresa May wanted this to be the Brexit Election, the voters decided that it would be the austerity election and voted accordingly. Where the UKIP vote collapsed, both Labour and the Tories fell on the carcass but Labour had more of the spoils.
Some examples should suffice: in Caerphilly, the UKIP vote went down by 16.3%. The Tories’ vote went up by 8.6% but that of Labour went up by 10.1%. In Torfaen, the respective figures were 15.1%, 7.8% and 12.9%. In Alyn and Deeside they were 15.1%, 8.5% and 12.1%.
Of course, Labour’s relative success was not just as a result of a transfer of votes from UKIP, or possibly more accurately, back from UKIP. Labour’s support was also galvanized by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and, in some areas, the involvement of Momentum. This is where things get a little murky.
In the UK campaign, Jeremy’s Corbyn was the story. However, in the country of the UK where Labour actually won proportionally the most seats and votes he won’t even be invited to the victory party. Labour in Wales fought the election under the banner of ‘Welsh Labour’. This is an entity which exists only in a context of the autonomy deriving from the ability of the Welsh Assembly government (which has always been Labour or Labour-led) to implement its own policy in those policy areas where the power has been devolved by Westminster; otherwise it is merely an equivalent of an English Labour region, with its staff all appointed centrally (which is why Jeremy Corbyn inherited an essentially Blairite staff in Wales).
The election was a UK election to the Westminster parliament. However Welsh Labour’s campaign studiously avoided any mention of Jeremy Corbyn, no doubt hoping that the absent minded Welsh voter might assume that the Labour leader was Owen Smith, or possibly Neil Kinnock. The emphasis was on First Minister Carwyn Jones and Wales’ Labour MPs and was thus consistent only in its apparent aversion to Corbyn and Corbynism. Labour’s manifesto, both in its leaked and official forms created a huge amount of interest and proved to be extremely popular with voters. However, the First Minister and Welsh Labour all but disowned it as nothing to do with them. Welsh Labour launched its own manifesto containing, confusingly, pledges relating to devolved matters over which Wales, not Westminster, has control. At its launch Carwyn Jones did not mention Jeremy Corbyn at all.
In one respect this might seem surprising. Under former First minister Rhodri Morgan, ‘Clear Red Water’ represented a clear break from the market-based policies of New Labour in relation to public services. In important respects this has been retained (no academy schools in Wales and no NHS internal market). In other ways, however, it was less surprising. ‘Clear Red Water’ has lost its radical cutting edge. Carwyn Jones has always sought to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership. Welsh MPs tend to be on the right of the PLP. Stephen Doughty, outrageously, conspired with Laura Kuenssberg to resign from Jeremy Corbyn’s team live on TV and it was of course Owen Smith who launched the hugely damaging, self-indulgent leadership challenge of 2016.
The ascent of Corbyn means that the Labour leadership has outflanked the Welsh Labour leadership to the left, exposing a fundamental business-as-usual Old Labour conservatism and an aversion to any suggestion that the boat might be rocked. Indeed, even when ‘Clear Red Water’ was at its zenith, in the early 2000s, Welsh Labour maintained a diplomatic distance from engaging with UK New Labour, summed up as ‘you do your thing and we’ll do ours’ as if the marketisation of public services was not a bad thing for England as well as Wales. It is therefore significant that when UK Labour is mounting a real alternative from which austerity Wales is suffering more than most, this aloofness is maintained. Welsh Labour’s election material focused on the damage another five years of Tory rule could do to Wales and how Wales has suffered under Tory rule in the past, which is of course, in itself, quite right, but in the context of what was occurring with Labour’s campaign in the UK as a whole, and the closing of the gap in the polls, it smacked less of a proud independence and more of an evasive parochialism.
The cause and effect arguments regarding Labour’s result will continue: was it Corbyn or Carwyn what did it? However, the energy and dynamism shown in some constituencies by young, Corbyn-inspired newly recruited activists doesn’t sit well with the decades-long inertia of many moribund Welsh parties with an ageing and passive membership, dominated by a conservative, bureaucratic leadership and presiding over the years over a slow but inexorable decline in their majorities. It appears therefore that part of Welsh Labour’s problem is that it is in denial about the nature of Labour’s most energetic, exciting and politically significant election campaign of modern times.
Nick Davies is a Labour councillor and member of Swansea West CLP.

This article first appeared on the Left Future’s Page

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