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6 July 2016

Football aside, Wales is quietly panicking over Europe

The devolved administration has for too long blamed Wales' woes on Westminster-imposed austerity.

By Ross Davies

 As the Welsh football team gears up for the biggest game in its history this Wednesday, back in Cardiff the political climate feels markedly less festive.

While Chris Coleman’s squad’s triumphant performances in France have been underscored by a genuine team spirit and fellowship – encapsulated in the ubiquitous hashtag #TogetherStronger – a sociopolitical schism is emerging on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

Voting to leave the European Union by a majority of just over per cent, Wales has well and truly hurled the baby out with the Westminster bathwater. Questions abound. Why would a land dependent on the EU as a source of funding – the Welsh government received £500m from Brussels per year – vote against such a key benefactor? 

From Abertillery to Brynmawr and Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent – where 62 per cent of people voted to exit the EU – unemployment remains high and wages well below the national average. The death of heavy industry is still mourned. 

Again, why has a region – which has also received funding to the tune of £350m to regenerate the old steel works in Ebbw Vale – seemingly shot itself in the foot?

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There is no doubt that Wales will suffer from the UK’s exit from the single market. Panic has already set in as to the whether big businesses such as Ford – which has a plant in Carwyn Jones’ local constituency, Bridgend – will continue to see the benefit in basing themselves here. 

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The same goes for Toyota and Deeside-based Airbus, which both urged workers to vote to remain in the single market in the referendum run-up.

Meanwhile the National Farmers’ Union Cymru is desperately looking at the agricultural models of Norway, and other non-member states, in a bid to get a clearer picture over how the farming industry will be able to support itself in the future unaided.

The central gripe among those who voted to leave, particularly in the valleys, is along the lines of “What has the EU ever done for us?” In a region such as Blaenau Gwent, where unemployment is almost double the UK average of 5.1 per cent, it’s not an unreasonable question. It is true that the trickledown of benefits of EU regional funding is not always manifest.

Amid the shower, First Minister Carwyn Jones has called for Wales to unite. This is a case of much too little, too late; a rallying cry on deaf ears. If the latest referendum has truly exposed anything, it is not so much Wales’ indifference towards Europe, or disdain for Westminster, but the vulnerabilities of Welsh Labour.

Some may shake their heads at such a statement. How can a party that has won 37 of the last 38 national elections be deemed as anything other than dominant? 

A one-party hegemony, you could argue, but no longer with a resonant message.

A shameful day for Welsh Labour

Despite falling short of a majority, Labour managed to retain its status as the largest party in Wales, winning 29 of the 60 seats in Cardiff Bay – although the election might best be remembered for the loss of Leighton Andrews to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in traditional Labour heartland Rhondda.

That those who voted for Labour in May went against the party line just over a month later to opt for leaving Europe would suggest they had no clear understanding of Labour’s official EU policy to begin with.

This is shameful. The majority of Remain supporters have laid the blame squarely at the feet of Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted campaign. Last week Nia Griffifths, shadow Welsh secretary, resigned in protest of Corbyn’s leadership, while Caerphilly MP Wayne David has warned the Labour party could “cease to exist’ if it continues down its current path. 

Corbyn did indeed lead a toothless crusade, but can Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour claim, hand on heart, that a coordinated campaign took place in the valleys and beyond? 

One would have thought the rise of Ukip – which won an unprecedented seven seats in May – would have been enough to stir the party into action ahead of the EU referendum; more so as much of Ukip’s support in Wales derives from disaffected former Labour supporters. 

Maybe it can be put down to post-assembly election fatigue, but this didn’t happen. Accusations of an emerging “Cardiff bubble” – home to the Senedd – have also been levelled at the Welsh Government and its inability to influence core voters.

If there have been murmurings in the past of Welsh Labour taking the support of its electorate for granted, they are a few decibels louder now. 

Votes no longer guaranteed

Carwyn Jones is undeniably a charismatic leader, but it is common knowledge that a common tactic for too long has been to blame Wales’ woes – whether they be economic, social or regarding healthcare – on Westminster-imposed austerity.

Naturally, he is right to do so – Wales’ budget has been cut 10 per cent by the Tories – but indignation cannot be his sum mandate as leader. 

According to a 2015 report conducted by the Welsh Assembly’s communities, equality and local government committee, 23% of people Wales live in poverty. Welsh education still languishes behind levels found in England and Scotland. Public sentiment over the performance of the Welsh NHS is also mixed.

There are clearly factors beyond Welsh Labour’s control, such as the waning of the public sector workforce – traditionally comprised of unions, Wales’ main vote after Thatcher shut down the pits. 

That once-guaranteed swathe of votes, however, is no longer a given for the Labour party in Wales. It needs to work harder to engage its supporters and members with a clear message of what it can do, and not what it cannot.

Even without such direction, Labour may well remain the largest party in Wales. But to suggest it is the most influential is no longer a certainty. Last month’s referendum result should be looked upon as a testament to this.