As Disraeli’s famous maxim goes: England does not love coalitions. In Wales, by contrast, we can’t get enough of them. Throughout the devolved era deal-making has created and sustained governments, including the current Labour-led administration – backed by the sole remaining Senedd member for the Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, and the independent statesman Lord Elis-Thomas.
After the votes are counted in next month’s Welsh election, history looks likely to repeat itself. A slurry of recent opinion polls project various outcomes on May 7 but none suggest an outright majority for any party. The latest Welsh Political Barometer, the most tested poll for identifying long-term trends in Wales, now suggests that compromise and pragmatism will be necessary to form the next administration.
Its findings show an improvement in Welsh Labour’s fortunes, with First Minister Mark Drakeford’s party set to claim 26 seats. Although initially riding the wave of the vaccine rollout, the Welsh Conservative Senedd group are predicted to boast a modest 14 members as Plaid Cymru overtake them to become the official opposition party with 17 nationalists in Cardiff Bay. All polls have a degree of uncertainty but it is hard to ignore the direction of travel: we are heading toward another hung parliament.
Speculation naturally continues to swirl around the only coalition between the main parties that remains possible, one between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru (neither of them will work with the Welsh Conservatives).
Mark Drakeford and Adam Price know there is precedent for brokering a landmark coalition deal, if one becomes necessary. The One Wales Government from 2007 to 2011 was led by the late Rhodri Morgan, the current First Minister’s friend and political mentor. Meanwhile it was Adam Price who was Plaid Cymru’s negotiator during cross-party talks. And as analysis published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs explains, at its core such a coalition from next month may not look a lot different to the one formed close to 15 years ago either; in essence, it would be a ‘platform of centre-left economic thought with a nation-building bent.’
The latter trend is what should worry Downing Street. One nationalist supermajority in Britain is one thing, but a second? In Wales? Well, not immediately, at least. Mark Drakeford has already ruled out granting a Welsh independence referendum – Plaid Cymru’s leader has also indicated that a plebiscite would not be his price for a place in government. But a coalition is an opportunity for Welsh nationalists to have one hand on the tiller of Wales, to steer the ship into further unchartered constitutional waters.
Mark Drakeford is his own man, believe it or not, and he’s a committed (albeit pragmatically-driven) unionist too. Even so, the First Minister’s comments to a House of Commons committee earlier this year that the UK is ‘over’, raised eyebrows. With engagement between Cardiff and London at its lowest ebb, and continued anger from Welsh Government ministers over the impact of Brexit legislation on areas of devolved competence, a progressive coalition may shift the dial of our leaders – and quicker than most would expect.
Let us not forget that the First Minister himself has to contend with a membership that is increasingly hellbent on secession, or that support for independence continues to grow at unprecedented levels across Wales (some surveys say up to 40 per cent). These trends are only set to accelerate. By all accounts, momentum still seems to be with those in the UK who wish to see the union disbanded, a force that will become even more apparent following what is almost certain to be an SNP majority or nationalist supermajority in Holyrood.
A new coalition in the Welsh Government – made up of the soft nationalists already in Labour and those true members of the national movement in Plaid Cymru – would give Downing Street another front to defend in its war to save the Union. If current support for the Welsh Government more broadly is anything to go by, this type-of administration is likely to be a popular government too: cautious but firm on Covid-19, in tune with the public mood on devolution, and committed to delivering an economic recovery. Any Boris bounce will be difficult to overturn that.
The next step? It may very well be a progressive, soft-nationalist coalition, which avertedly or inadvertently inspires the Cymry to take their belief in self-government to yet another level – to awake Y Ddraig Goch after 800 years. Such sentiment is appealing, and is spreading like wildfire. That’s why Wales is likely to more than just a headache for Downing Street in the months ahead.