Clear red waters in the land of our fathers

by Dave Collins

As Welsh Labour’s faithful departed Llandudno’s conference centre on Sunday, there seemed to be a new spring in their steps. An air of optimism, expectation that the worst is over and that Labour is back on the path to restoring its status as the true party of Wales.

Ed Miliband delivered a competent enough address imploring delegates to “send a message” to the rest of Britain. With a referendum on extending primary law-making powers barely a fortnight away and assembly elections due in 10 weeks time, this was more pre-election rally than sober post mortem.

And, to be fair, last May Welsh Labour limited its losses to just four seats (Aberconwy, Cardiff North, Carmarthen West and Vale of Glamorgan, all won by the Tories), and won back Blaenau Gwent. 26 seats out of forty was a long way from the rout predicted by pundits, despite Labour’s share of the vote in Wales being its lowest since 1918 – 1.3% worse than in 1983. As in the rest of the UK, Welsh Labour escaped meltdown on May 6th, but it was a tad more touch and go than the simple seat tally might suggest.

Last weekend was no time for navel gazing, but Welsh Labour stands at an important crossroads. Since the acceptance of devolution, by the slimmest of margins in 1997, through the difficult gestation and messy start, and then throughout the decade long rein of Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Labour’s political mission was to deliver devolution and make it work.

Morgan’s ministers approached policy with a view to positioning themselves as subtly different from the Blair/Brown Westminster prospectus. Universalism was the theme of the small number of eye-catching social policy initiatives. In some cases (for example, free bus travel for pensioners), Wales pioneered a policy ultimately copied by Whitehall. On hospital waiting times, however, Welsh ministers’ reluctance to mirror the obsessive drive from their English counterparts meant that by 2004 the gap in performance became politically toxic.

Relations between the two Labour governments at either end of the M4 mainly avoided open conflict. Rhodri gradually opened up his “clear red water”, and after failing to win a majority in 2007 was still able to strike an historic deal to bring the nationalist Party of Wales into a grand coalition. Thus also putting post-devolution Welsh politics on a radically different trajectory to the furious enmity that exists between Scottish Labour and the SNP.

By 2009, no amount of triangulation by Welsh ministers could protect Welsh Labour from the humiliation of being beaten by the Tories in the popular vote for the first time in over 90 years. A few months later, Rhodri retired, with all sections of the party plumping for the stability candidate Carwyn Jones, a middle aged ex-barrister, as his successor.

Unlike the rest of the movement, Welsh Labour does not enjoy the dubious luxury of being able to rebuild from opposition. Carwyn Jones is today the most senior elected representative our party now has, and he has to work within the most severe spending squeeze seen in a generation.

One undercurrent at the conference concerned the circumstances under which Labour might prolong its coalition with the nationalists even if it wins an outright majority on May 5. Ministers were traumatised by the experience of 2003-07, where Labour won 30 seats out of the assembly’s 60 overall, but found itself governing without a majority following the defection of Blaenau Gwent’s Peter Law. This is why the preoccupation for many at the top is not what was actually under debate, but what the delegates could be expected to decide if recalled in late June.

Although Rhodri got his way in 2007, the accommodation with the nationalists was bitterly opposed in many sections of the party, most notably the Valleys, but with the Rubicon now crossed and no obvious alternative partner available (Nick Clegg having effectively ruled the Lib Dems out), many hope it will be simpler the second time around.

Such reliable polling as there is in Wales tends to come from You Gov. Their January survey suggests that on a uniform swing Labour could expect to win 31 seats.  December’s suggested 30. The assembly’s “additional member” system means that – unless turnout surges toward the 70% mark raising the possibility of winning list seats in the Valleys – Labour’s ceiling is probably 32 (the 24 constituencies held already, plus Aberconwy, Arfon, Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff Central, Cardiff North, Carms West & Sth Pembs, Clwyd West, Llanelli, Preseli,  Anglesey/Ynys Mon and minus the two “top-up” seats currently held in the mid & west region). Several of these are big asks and it seems unlikely that Welsh Labour will succeed in all of them. Realistically, an overall assembly majority, if achievable at all, would once again be razor thin.

Since AMS makes it all but impossible for Labour to win “top-up” seats (anywhere save the mid & west region in a poor year), it’s a bit strange that nigh on a quarter of a million Labour voters in the other four regions persist in effectively wasting their second vote. Four years ago, the BNP came within a whisker (2,500 votes) of snatching the fourth regional list seat in North Wales. In 2009, UKIP won one of Wales four Euro seats. This year, particularly if the Lib Dems get eviscerated, the extremists might break through.

Although Welsh Labour strategists are loathe to risk confusing their core support by asking them to do anything other than “vote Labour”, it is clear that if as few as one in ten were to vote Green instead, this would be enough to see off the extreme right. And potentially provide Carwyn Jones with an alternative junior coalition partner not committed to smashing up the United Kingdom.

These are tough times to be leading a Labour government. As Ed made clear, Wales has the potential to become a beacon for our English brothers and sisters. Wales could be a policy laboratory to which English activists point as evidence of alternatives to the Con Dem approach.

Welsh Labour could well win on the backs of Con Dem unpopularity this May. But without discipline and a clever political strategy, Carwyn’s new government could find itself in little better position than Labour local authorities: forced to implement Mr Osborne’s cuts, unable to scrape together sufficient resources to put their radical ideas into practice.

Dave Collins lives in Cardiff. He has worked for the Party and in the Welsh Assembly.

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One Response to “Clear red waters in the land of our fathers”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Sadly, regardless of the resulkts in May, I fear Cameron will rule Wales with a rod of iron. He canmnot afford to allow any dissent from his overall plan to subjugate the working classes even more than Maggie and he has already started.

    It will take more than a big swing to Labour next May. It will need socialists standing up and saying to Cameron – no, we will not accept your cuts.

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