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23 January 2020

Welsh Labour has an identity crisis – and an existential threat

The party needs to recover its sense of what it is to win again.

By Martha Oneil

As a teenager, I attended Constituency Labour Party meetings in the local miners social club. You’d have to walk through the bar pinching your nose (the smell of cigarettes had settled long ago), tip-toe your way through sticky carpets, then up the stairs to a little square room along the corridor. An old colliery banner would be draped across the wall – red and gold and glorious, still sitting in its dust. I’d find a chair, and most likely sit with a friend of my grandmother’s, surrounded by familiar faces from my time at Sunday School. We’d all crowd around a wooden table, and when the meetings finally began, it was not uncommon that they would start in Welsh.

No, this was not 1935. Nor was it 1985. This was 2015. 

Over one hundred years ago, Keir Hardie claimed that socialism was as integral to “the Welsh race” as the Welsh language. This was a “natural” affiliation, a vote upon which Labour could rely, a calling card that rallied the Welsh people to protect the so-called “Red Wall” – of which they were the keepers, the defenders; its very own Night’s Watch. Wales stood strong, a bastion of socialism even when other parts of the country turned blue or yellow. Or so it seemed.

Wales has a long tradition of returning Labour MPs, but Hardie was wrong to call this integral or natural to Welsh people. The country’s Labour identity was carefully crafted, cultivated, over many years – working its way up from the Welsh-speaking chapels of the west and the industrial smoke of the east, until communities would vote for any candidate as long as they wore a red rosette. Like any relationship, this required trust, faith, and proof of commitment. But to call this “natural” is a disservice to the work of Labour politicians and activists. Heartlands do not simply exist, they are made – and crucially, nurtured.

Hardie’s words did, however, set the tone of the Labour Party in Wales. The nation went on to produce some of the most notable Labour politicians of the twentieth century. Aneurin Bevan may well be the first name that springs to mind, but the party in Wales also produced the formidable (though frustratingly lesser-known) Jim Griffiths, the first secretary of state for Wales. These men have come to epitomise the two distinct traditions within Welsh Labour – that of the “Red Flag” of the eastern industrial towns and the “Red Dragon” of the Welsh-speaking west. Fast forward to 2019, and these identities are still points of tension for the party.

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Mark Drakeford, leader of Welsh Labour and the First Minister of Wales, does not fall easily into either the Red Flag or Red Dragon category. Brought up in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales and a dispassionate supporter of the union, Drakeford’s Red Dragon credentials are strong. After all, it was he, as Rhodri Morgan’s right-hand man, that penned the now-infamous “Clear Red Waters” speech which distanced Welsh Labour from Tony Blair’s iron grip. But add to this his (initial) support of Jeremy Corbyn, and the party’s inability to untangle itself from the Corbyn project during the 2019 general election, and his approach seems to be neither one thing or the other.

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So far, his premiership has been less of a dragon’s roar, and more of an owl’s hoot. Drakeford is a thinking man, an academic, and is well aware of Welsh Labour’s unique heritage and traditions. In the introduction to Rhodri Morgan’s autobiography, he writes that Morgan had been able to prevent a space from opening up between being Welsh and being Labour. There is no doubt that Drakeford, too, sees himself as responsible for preventing this. The general election result, however, means that how to go about doing that is unclear.

After all, one glance at the electoral map in Wales is enough to make a member, like me, shudder. What was once considered a creeping Conservative vote has culminated in a blue wall along the border, with Labour seats compressed into one corner of the south. The Welsh-speaking corridor, from my own constituency of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr to Arfon, continues to be resolutely Plaid. Yet, Plaid’s vote share in Wales is down for the second general election in a row (and miles from its 2001 high of 14.3 per cent). What the people of Wales want, seems unclear – but if Welsh Labour stands any chance of preventing catastrophe at the next Assembly election, the party (or perhaps more specifically, Drakeford) must decide exactly what it stands for.

Red Dragons such as Jim Griffiths, Rhodri Morgan, and Carwyn Jones were proudly patriotic, but also championed Wales’s place within the Union. It was and is possible to do both. Drakeford, on the other hand, has expressed the fragile nature of the Union, reminding us that Wales’s membership is voluntary and thus conditional, and claiming that he supports membership purely from an economic perspective.

This dispassionate case for Wales’s place in the UK leaves Labour in a difficult position. To the right, along the eastern border, it may well fuel suspicion of Welsh Labour as “Plaid-lite”. To the left, along the Welsh-speaking corridor, it may embolden advocates of independence. Clowns to the left, jokers to the right, it would seem.

The Red Dragon approach of yesteryear served the party well – but did so precisely because of the skilful balancing of Welsh and British identities. On the night of the December election, Carwyn Jones admitted that reproducing the “Welshification” approach of 2017 would have proved difficult in the last election. This may well be true, but Welsh Labour must use the next year to think carefully about how to make the case for an empowered and confident Wales within the United Kingdom. It is only then that the Red Flag, as well as the Red Dragon, will, like the old colliery banner in the social club, fly again.