After polls that suggested a radical shake-up at Cardiff Bay, in the end it turned out to be a strong result for the status quo in Wales. The Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford enjoyed a vaccine bounce — thanks to procurement decisions in Whitehall — and can now govern on his own should he wish to.
But the fact that Labour won’t need a formal arrangement with Plaid Cymru to govern (as it did between 2007 and 2011) should not blind people to the fact that the Welsh leader already leads an increasingly nationalist party.
Drakeford himself has said that the UK ‘is over’. Meanwhile, nobody has repudiated the Welsh minister who accused Michael Gove of harbouring ‘colonial attitudes’ towards Wales for daring to contrast educational outcomes on either side of Offa’s Dyke. Most damning of all, Welsh Labour actually ran pro-independence candidates in these elections. And rather than kicking them out, all Sir Keir Starmer offered when challenged on this point was a lame plea that they focus on the recovery from Covid-19.
His failure to insist that Labour is a pro-UK party puts the Labour leader’s calls for ‘radical federalism’ into grim perspective, especially in light of nonsense in Drakeford’s manifesto such as this: ‘We believe the UK is a voluntary association of four nations with sovereignty shared among its four democratic legislatures in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.’
This is straightforwardly wrong. Not only does this framing erase the British nation, but it denies the much more basic fact that the United Kingdom is a sovereign state, and that sovereignty resides indivisibly at Westminster.
Critics of the government sometimes claim that those in power do not understand how the UK works, but Westminster has produced no howler to compare to Drakeford’s constitutional musings. Was Welsh Labour choosing to mislead voters about the British state? Or does the party genuinely not understand it? Either way, any suggestions from this quarter about ‘saving the United Kingdom’ need a serious health warning.
As for Wales, Labour’s strong performance at this election doesn’t change the fact that the undercurrents of Welsh politics will likely push them ever closer to the nationalists. In the Senedd’s emerging three-party system, the only viable coalition partner for a weaker Labour party is Plaid, at least so long as a quasi-nationalist such as Drakeford leads them.
With the Conservatives trying to mobilise Cardiff-sceptic non-voters and wary of any growth in support for Abolish the Welsh Assembly party (a single-issue remnant of Ukip) the prospect of a Senedd increasingly polarised around the constitutional question is a serious one. Given that Labour already employs nationalist rhetoric to deter scrutiny of their performance — a trait they share with the SNP — this augers poorly for the prospects of good governance in Wales.
The slow transmogrification of Labour into a nationalist party poses a broader danger too: that Drakeford’s ill-judged vision for the United Kingdom is smuggled into the growing debate about the future of the Union.
Already he is out demanding that the government double down on the mistakes of the past two decades by giving him even more powers. It didn’t work the last half-dozen times we tried it. Why would it work now?
Unionists should not be lulled into a false sense of security by Plaid's failure last week, which saw their former leader Leanne Wood lose her Senedd seat. Drakeford's Labour party could yet be Welsh nationalism's Trojan dragon.