A TALE OF TWO PARTIES | POLITICS FEATURE
Labour is the most successful political party in modern Welsh politics, winning the largest share of the vote at every General Election since 1922. However, after Wales voted for Brexit, it was expected that the Conservatives would make great gains during this year’s snap election. Contrary to predictions, Labour achieved a stellar result – they took back Gower, Cardiff North and Vale of Clwyd from the Tories, and fought off battles for Bridgend and Wrexham, winning 28 seats, three more than in 2015.
But former Welsh Government minister Leighton Andrews has commented that the Welsh arm of the party should consider a divorce if differences grow with Labour in Westminster over the direction of Brexit.
Hints at a split aren’t new – back in 2002 former First Minister Rhodri Morgan detailed the different paths of UK Labour and Welsh Labour in his ‘clear red water’ speech, and after the 2015 election result Carwyn Jones tweeted that it was ‘time to change the structure’ of the Labour party. But with Brexit looming and uncertainty growing, could a split really be on the cards?
NOTHING TO DO WITH US, BUTTY
Ah, May 2017. The sun was out, home-grown terrorism was dominating the news cycle, an election loomed and the gentle perfume of passive-aggressive political strife filled the air. When Welsh Labour launched its General Election campaign with a forty-five-minute rally headed by First Minister Carwyn Jones, Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have been airbrushed out of existence. His name wasn’t mentioned once. Jones said he understood that Corbyn was the man who would ultimately be walking into Number 10 if Labour scored a miraculous win, but he defiantly stated ‘this is Welsh Labour’s campaign launch.’ Then, when the hugely popular Labour manifesto was leaked to select parts of the media including the BBC, Welsh Labour seemed to distance itself yet again, stating “It is not Welsh Labour’s manifesto and it contains many England-only proposals. Welsh Labour will be publishing its own distinct manifesto, building on the success of our five pledges for Wales.”
As strange as it seems today, six months ago Jeremy Corbyn may as well have been a man sculpted from toxic waste; he was the dog turd on the doorstep, the terrorist loving, bonk-eyed loser that no-one could realistically picture anywhere near Downing Street. Carwyn’s decision to try and re-create the cult of personality that worked for him at last year’s Assembly election was actually a rather understandable one.
But the success for Welsh Labour in the General Election raised serious questions about the future for the Welsh arm of the party. Was it Corbyn’s ‘cult of personality’ that delivered? Or Carwyn’s? The distance that Welsh Labour put between itself and UK Labour, which was dismissed by journalists as mere ‘posturing and branding’, got some voters wondering ‘could this be the beginning of a new, more independent Welsh Labour movement?’
The call for a split from UK Labour became louder at the end of last month when Barry Gardiner, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, said that the UK must leave the single market and the customs union when we leave the EU, basically endorsing a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
Former Minister Leighton Andrews responded by floating the idea of ‘divorce’ between Welsh and UK Labour. He said ‘The reality, I think, is that there is a difference we’re now seeing by those parts of the Labour Party who have experience of government and experience of running things, and that’s clearly the case with the Welsh Labour Government, and those in opposition who have not only no experience of government but also little experience in practice of shadow ministry.’
Carwyn Jones has also called for the UK to seek a ‘soft Brexit’, angling for an arrangement similar to Norway’s, who participates in the single market. The former UK Labour Leader Neil Kinnock has chimed in too, warning ‘the only way to mitigate the dreadful instability that will be costly for communities and industry is to ensure that, at least for a transitional period, we retain participation in the single market or the customs union, or both.’
It’s not sensationalist to worry about the problems a hard Brexit will cause for Wales. Voting to leave the EU has been an egregious act of self-harm since 60% of our exports go to the EU and we receive the most amount of funding. But Labour’s plans for Brexit seem to be constantly changing, and it seems premature to justify divorce. In July, Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show “The single market is dependent on membership of the EU. What we have said all along is that we want a tariff-free trade access to the European market and a partnership Europe in the future. The two things are inextricably linked so the question then is the kind of trade relationship of the future and we have made it very clear we want a tariff-free trade access with the European market.”
But on August 2nd Sir Kier Starmer the shadow Brexit Secretary said that Labour would try to keep the UK in the single market and the customs union. This statement comes the day after The Guardian reported that Labour’s success was down to its perception as the ‘Soft Brexit’ party, compared to Theresa May’s hard-as-nails ‘No Deal is better than a Bad Deal’ party.
Leighton Andrews said ‘I honestly think that if the UK Labour Party cannot get itself together on this most fundamental of all issues, then I think Labour at a UK level will be in a very dire position. In that case, given the success of Welsh Labour, particularly at the most recent general election, in Assembly elections and the fact that Welsh Labour remains in Government, I think there is a very strong case…for taking steps to protect Welsh Labour, its identity and its role.’
The difficulty in pinning down UK Labour’s stance is no doubt a cause concern for Wales, but without knowing for certain what Labour actually wants to do regarding Brexit, is it helpful to be talking about a split? Corbyn may well have been the reason for Labour’s success in Wales during the General Election; would a divorce be yet another act of self-harm?
Would Welsh Labour even be able to compete against British Labour? David Taylor, a former Labour special advisor tweeted ‘it pains me to disagree with my old boss (Leighton Andrews) but his Welsh Labour ‘divorce’ proposal is flawed. For it to be a genuine divorce/split, two parties (UK Labour and Welsh Labour) would have to contest elections against each other. As soon as that happens we can probably wave goodbye to Welsh Labour.’ He went on to warn that in the event of a split, the two parties would probably end up polling ‘well below 20%’, and that the ‘continual, hollow threats of divorce or constitutional crises fall on deaf ears in London’.
Two Labour Assembly members told BBC Wales that it would be ‘political suicide’ for Welsh Labour to strike out on their own. Jenny Rathbone, Labour AM for Cardiff Central commented ‘to even consider breaking away from the UK Labour party would be suicide because not many people would follow him (Leighton Andrews) and then we’d have two different parties competing for election. The membership at large would completely disagree.’ On the subject of Jeremy Corbyn, she said ‘He is our leader. We need to unite behind him and this sort of conversation about having a separatist party is extremely unhelpful.’
Welsh Labour’s decision to distance itself from Jeremy Corbyn was an understandable one – before the election he was the political suicide. To strike out at the idea of a Hard Brexit, which will damage this country immensely, is also understandable. But Labour is flying high right now with a leader who can command enormous crowds and a manifesto that won votes on its progressive, idealistic policies. Would Welsh Labour ever be able to compete? And would we really want it to?
words VICTORIA O’HAGAN