While the media were busy reporting on the imminent car crash of a Labour campaign in the Hartlepool by-election, Welsh Labour was achieving its most successful results ever in the Senedd elections.
When they did come to report the results, it was the usual Anglocentric, London view of events in Wales: how Welsh Labour had hung on, how the Tory onslaught failed to make a dent, how Welsh Labour failed to secure an overall majority. Even at UK Labour level there was barely a congratulatory remark to recognise what is the best result Welsh Labour has ever achieved in 22 years of devolution.
Like the Scottish Parliament, the electoral system in Wales makes it virtually impossible for any one party to achieve a majority. For Welsh Labour to increase the number of seats from 29 to 30 might not seem much, but in electoral terms in Wales, in the current post-Brexit political climate, it was spectacular: a resounding victory for First Minister Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour.
This election result marks a watershed for a Welsh Labour Party that is now a senior player in UK Labour politics. Our results are, of course, linked to the successful way in which Mark Drakeford and his government have handled the Covid pandemic and the way he has stood up to the more bizarre and reckless decisions of Boris Johnson, always putting the safety of the Welsh people and Welsh interests first.
But it is so much more than this. There are tectonic changes underway and important lessons to be learned across the UK as we are also seeing from results in Manchester, London, Liverpool, and other regions of England.
Welsh socialist Raymond Williams rather presciently predicted the emergence of these changes in his writings many decades ago:
‘In Scotland and Wales we are beginning to find ways of expressing two kinds of impulse that are in fact very widely experienced throughout British society. First, we are trying to declare an identity, to discover in fact what we really have in common… And second, but related to this, we are trying to discover political processes by which people really can govern themselves – that is, to determine the use of their own energies and resources – as distinct from being governed by an increasingly centralised, increasingly remote and also increasingly penetrating system: the system that those who run it, for their own interests, have decided to call “Unity.”’
Regional, community, and cultural identity is increasingly part and parcel of working-class politics. The Labour Party was founded to be a political voice for the working class and our politics must change to reflect that changing identity. It was always there, but in a world of de-industrialisation and global capitalism, has become more pronounced.
Welsh Labour has recognised this for years. In the early days of the Blair government, when the party moved increasingly towards the right, it was Mark Drakeford, then an advisor to First Minister Rhodri Morgan, who constructed the ‘clear red water’ strategy, distinguishing Welsh Labour from parts of the New Labour agenda.
As New Labour in England continued to shred the links between the party and working-class communities, Welsh Labour actively sought not only to retain them, but to re-define them with a new Welsh socio-economic and cultural identity.
The failure of successive UK Labour leaders to properly understand and embrace the undercurrent of change has led to results such as the one we have just witnessed in Hartlepool. For a while, there was hope that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and policy agenda would begin to reverse this drift. And for a time, it did, achieving the best electoral results in the 2017 general election for years. However, due to internal divisions and a variety of other reasons, that success could not be consolidated and repeated.
In Wales we have nurtured a clear Welsh Labour identity. I don’t like the term ‘brand’, because it is more than that – more an expression of community, identity, and affinity. Mark has built on the successes of his predecessors in creating for Welsh Labour a clear Welsh economic, social, and cultural vision that incorporates all this: one that is based on a tradition of Welsh radicalism but modernised with what he describes as twenty-first century socialism.
So, in Wales, there were no qualms when the decision was taken to take the international airport into public ownership and save thousands of jobs, or to legislate to protect agricultural workers or trade union rights in the public sector – and taking Welsh trains and railways into public ownership was just sensible.
Trade union and workers’ rights feature strongly in the Welsh government’s policy of social partnership and fair work, and the radical Social Partnership Bill will put this on a statutory footing. The Welsh Labour identity is one that has increasing resonance, and this was reflected on the doorstep and in the election results.
The Welsh Labour manifesto was also clear to voters. It set out what had been promised and achieved. It then set out what the next government would do. Voters not only understood the manifesto but were confident that it would deliver what was promised, and they liked what they were promised.
It is now evident from election results around the country that where Labour has a regional identity attuned to the local communities and speaks on their behalf, we have been successful. This is a lesson that must be learned if we are to successfully counter Tory centralism.
Although independence barely emerged as an issue on the doorstep in the Welsh elections, it would be a catastrophic mistake to disregard its importance as an issue. It represents a number of political undercurrents: a recognition that the current constitutional arrangements are not fit for purpose and need changing, and the reaction of many, particularly among the young, to an increasingly right-wing, undemocratic, and corrupt centralist Tory government.
People can see for themselves through the Internal Market and the EU Future Relations Acts the actions of a Tory government determined to overturn devolution. This was a plot to secure devolved powers they cannot achieve in Wales or Scotland through the ballot box.
Radical change is needed. The Welsh party now has a mandate for a radical federalist reform of the UK constitution—in effect, Home Rule—and the starting point is likely to be the establishment of a Welsh constitutional convention to identify and build a consensus for change. Events in Scotland will almost certainly catalyse this process.
The UK Labour Party itself needs to decentralise and restructure. Its post-1945 centralist model is no longer fit for purpose and needs radical reform. We cannot on the one hand argue for a radical reform of the UK constitution without also reforming ourselves to reflect those changes that have already taken place and those which we would like to see implemented.
We now have political opportunities to build alliances across the party where there is common interest and, in particular, across the regions of England, with local and regional government and with the regional mayors. Welsh Labour is in a unique position to take a lead in this process.
Whatever happens over the coming months and years, one thing is now clear: Welsh Labour is no longer a junior partner to UK Labour. We have come of age. We have a radical agenda to implement and battles to fight, and we will need to identify and build consensus and unity if we are to win.