Welsh Labour isn’t working
February is a big month in Welsh politics. Following the resignation of First Minister Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles will fight to be leader of Welsh Labour and First Minister of Wales. Notwithstanding differences between the candidates – Gething emphasizes the environment, whilst Miles is strong on the NHS – these obscure an important truth; Welsh Labour have been in power too long and this is hindering the progress of devolution.
The facts are stark. Since the launch of devolution in 1999, Welsh Labour has always been the largest party in the Senedd (the Welsh parliament) and led the government. In this time, there have been real achievements – Labour has developed devolution and created a system which is more egalitarian than England - yet its incumbency is too lengthy. In the West, there is no longer serving incumbent at national level and few exist at regional level.
This reflects systemic issues. Though the Senedd aspires to be a national parliament, most Welsh elections have received second-order attention; voters have had less knowledge of relevant issues and, primarily, have reacted to developments in Westminster. This is changing – during the pandemic, the powers of the Welsh government meant that voters paid unprecedented attention – yet it is difficult to argue that Welsh politics enjoys a first-order profile. Policy and name recognition remain modest and cleavages reflect UK politics and society. Were these conditions different, Labour would have faced greater challenge.
The actions of Welsh Labour compound such issues. Recently, the party has proposed an electoral reform which uses the closed list proportional representation (PR) system, denying voters the right to choose between individual candidates on party lists and handing greater power to parties. This was against the advice of an expert panel which recommended the more open single transferable vote (STV) system. Last week, Nation Cymru reported that sitting Labour Members of the Senedd (MSs) would be placed at the top of the closed lists.
Such lack of pluralism entails problems. There are close relationships between the government and public sector, lack of a developed civil society and press exacerbating this. These are not optimal conditions for policy development; good governance requires transparency and competition. Poor Welsh socioeconomic outcomes are longstanding and have multiple causes, yet such issues scarcely help. More broadly, critics have underlined the Welsh government’s mismanagement of funds.
There is a problem with attitudes towards dissent. On issues which enjoy establishment consensus – examples include the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) Code, 20mph regulation and Coronavirus restrictions (I supported the last two) – opposition invites subtle forms of shunning. This reflects the small size of Wales – Irish writer Conor Fitzgerald notes that opposing consensuses is more socially costly in small countries – yet also the hegemony of Labour. If one party dominates public life, people are more reluctant to criticize it.
Are there viable alternatives? Whilst a Plaid Cymru government would be a welcome change, the party has participated in coalitions and is part of the Welsh establishment. Under a Plaid government, disruption to the status quo might be limited.
The Welsh Conservatives are in a poor state. Recently, leader Andrew RT Davies has moved the party to the right and, if the UK Conservatives lose this year’s general election, such a shift could be more pronounced. Few will cry for the UK party. Beyond concerning radicalism in Conservative ranks, the party have been in office for 14 years. As with Welsh Labour, this is too long.
But the Welsh context is different, the Conservative Party never having been in office. Change for the sake of it is undesirable when an opposition is too irresponsible, yet one can argue whether the Welsh Conservatives meet this criterion. The party offers a different approach and, in the context of single-party domination and a civil society which suffers from lack of pluralism, a shake-up might allow devolution to progress further.
Currently, such speculation is academic, Welsh Labour dominating the polls. Yet things can change quickly. Should UK Labour assume office and become unpopular quickly, possible in an age of difficult economic conditions and low party loyalty, Welsh Labour might suffer.
By the Senedd elections of 2026, the Welsh electorate may be in the mood for change.
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