There is no region of the UK where Labour has dominated more – both politically and culturally – than Wales. Since 1922, the party has consistently won general elections there, and has ruled Cardiff’s devolved government relatively unchallenged since it was established in 1999. But Keir Starmer would be wise to keep his eye on events in Wales as he seeks to outflank the Prime Minister.
The surprising impact of this Covid crisis has been a surge in Welsh nationalism, which until now was a slumberous movement reserved for the radicals of Plaid Cymru and Welsh football fans. The flames of nationalism have been fanned by Cardiff’s break with Downing Street policies on coronavirus restrictions, and Welsh Labour have become increasingly affected by this nationalist surge. A recent YouGov survey of Labour’s Welsh voters captured the change: 51 per cent of respondents now said they would vote for independence, a staggering figure for a party that has historically championed the social and economic partnership of the Union.
As well as the shift to nationalism in his Welsh ranks, Sir Keir must have looked on in despair as Wales’ Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford, said last week that no Prime Minister should stand in the way of an independence referendum in either Scotland or Wales. Not only does this differ from the view of the party’s Scottish head, Richard Leonard – who is facing a coup over fears he is making Labour’s chances even worse north of the border – but it also poses a considerable conundrum for the Labour leader, should he become Prime Minister.
The Welsh Labour movement has always prided itself on its distinct identity within Britain. James Griffiths, the brilliant former miner who was the first Secretary of State for Wales, fronted the campaign for increased Welsh devolution before it was mainstream. Ron Davies, whose tenure as Secretary of State was largely overshadowed by scandal, led the charge for a devolved parliament. More recently, the late First Minister Rhodri Morgan called for ‘clear red water’ between the Labour party in Cardiff and London, intensifying the already-tense relations between him and Tony Blair.
Perhaps the greatest concern for Sir Keir is this red water. Jeremy Miles, Wales’ Brexit Minister, has become increasingly outspoken on the proposed UK internal market; this week he said that the government’s planned bill signalled the ‘roll-back of devolution’ and would very likely ‘accelerate the break-up of the UK’. Sir Keir, whose popularity as leader in both Wales and Britain has surged despite his reticence on the European question, has been forced to look on as a federal branch of his own party has been more effective at voicing serious concerns over the Brexit deal than his own front bench.
While it’s traditional for Labour leaders to take Wales for granted, this increased shift to a totally autonomous Welsh Labour should worry apparatchiks in Millbank. Of course, Labour’s chances still look very strong ahead of next year’s Senedd elections. But coronavirus has signalled the end of the status quo. The Welsh Labour party – more than ever before – is now looking increasingly different to its UK parent; some of its leading figures, such as the former First Minister Carwyn Jones, believe that the UK as it currently works is not sustainable and believe in what is essentially a federal Britain. These are not the unionists that Welsh Labour of old produced.
Welsh Labour, meanwhile, is simply doing what it does best to remain in power: adapting. Just as it attempted to arrest the rise of a purely Welsh identity at the start of devolution, it is now starting to move towards embracing the debate over Welsh independence. A bold next step, which is most likely necessary if current political trends continue, is to become a party that is committed at the very least to a constitutional convention on the future of the union.
All hope is not completely lost for Sir Keir. He still enjoys his place as the most popular politician in Wales. His party in Wales also doesn’t face any credible threat from the political opposition in the Senedd. In addition to the deeply out-of-touch Welsh Conservatives, Adam Price’s Plaid Cymru has struggled during the pandemic to find a voice while Mark Drakeford has been given a platform like no other Welsh leader in modern history. The challenge the nationalists face, as Price recently said, is that the idea of independence is more popular than the party that champions it.
Finally, we mustn’t also forget the Labour leader’s own distant connection to the future of the union. He is named after the great Scotsman who went on to become a socialist Welsh MP, Keir Hardie. He made the Labour party a voice for the voiceless, championing the issue of the age for the political left: socialism and its spread across the nation. Over a hundred years after his death, another Keir faces another defining matter for Britain: the onset of nationalism in his own party, and across the country.