Who are the Welsh progressives?
Wales has long been dominated by parties of the left, yet the nation overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. How can Welsh progressives best work to achieve change for the better?
This short essay discusses progressive politics in Wales, understanding the term ‘progressive’ in its broad application to a centre-left party politics that promotes ‘social and economic liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and a ‘professional’ approach to party management’ (Robinson, 2017: 242). This essay will therefore discuss the main parties that might fit this definition in Wales, namely: Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and their contributions to progressive politics in Wales.
Welsh politics is often an afterthought in the broader context of UK politics. Certainly, Wales does not receive the same coverage in the UK media as England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and this is damaging to any understanding of its democratic norms and institutions (Johnson, 2017). The extent to which electoral behaviour in Wales mirrors the UK is interesting. An excellent study by Jeffery and Schakel (2013) suggests that regions and nations which have a more distinctive history and greater governmental and parliamentary autonomy are more likely to have different electoral patterns from the larger state. As such, Wales might be a bit less ‘Welsh’ in its electoral distinctiveness than Scotland is ‘Scottish’ (Scully, 2013).
Nonetheless, there are a great number of differences between the politics of Westminster and the politics of Wales. Several policy areas are devolved to the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government, with recognisable differences from . For example, the Welsh Government pursues different policy objectives in health from the UK Government, making much less use of the private sector. It also focuses more on preventative approaches, the banner of Prudent Healthcare (Bevan Commission, 2015). There are more noticeable differences in education, where Welsh-medium education is a key consideration, and academies are not a feature of the Welsh education system. Welsh Government has also set out a markedly different approach to Brexit to the UK Government. For example, First Minister Carwyn Jones has repeatedly set out his opposition to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. In short, politics in Wales is both interconnected and distinct from politics in Westminster, and understanding this can help us to better understand progressive politics as well.
Other papers in this fascinating Open Left series may suggest that the Labour Party is the dominant force in progressive politics to an extent not seen for years. However, Labour has long been the dominant force in progressive politics in Wales. If socialism is no longer best understood as whatever the Labour Party is doing at any given moment in time, it may still be a helpful means of understanding progressive politics in Wales. Labour has been in government in Wales since the introduction of Welsh devolution in 1999. Sometimes, it has officially governed (largely) alone (1999-2000, 2003-2007 and 2011-present) and on other occasions in full coalition with the Liberal Democrats (2000-2003) or Plaid Cymru (2007-2011). But it has always governed, and always as the largest party. Labour in Wales has won every single Westminster election since 1922 (Awan-Scully, 2018). Despite polls briefly suggesting to the contrary, June 2017 was no exception, and Welsh Labour won nearly half of the vote and over two thirds of the seats.
Nonetheless, Labour’s dominance has not been absolute. Even in the periods where it has governed alone it has tended to rely on the support of other parties. For example, the Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams AM (Assembly Member) is currently the Education Minister in the Welsh Government, but both Labour and the Liberal Democrats insist that it is not a coalition. If we accept Muller et al.’s (2008: 6) definition that ‘a government coalition refers to the sharing of executive office by different parties’, then it is certainly open to question. The technicality is that Williams is the only Liberal Democrat in the Assembly, meaning that they have no official party status in the chamber. This sheer weakness of the Liberal Democrats will be returned to later in this essay. Whether or not it is a coalition, Labour has 29 of the 60 seats in the current Welsh Assembly and runs a minority government, and alongside relying on the support of the sole Liberal Democrat AM, they also rely on the occasional support of Plaid Cymru to pass legislation.
Welsh Labour has thus tended to be more open to co-operation with other parties than its counterparts in Westminster are, and somewhat more so than in Holyrood. The UK Labour Party remains openly hostile to the idea of working with parties such as the Liberal Democrats, but Welsh Labour has gotten used to the idea. Open co-operation between Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) seems an unlikely prospect (at least currently), and the Conservatives have long argued that the SNP would undermine a Westminster Labour government by only representing Scottish interests and promoting independence. However, Labour and Plaid Cymru have co-operated in Wales, and while they have significant political differences, relations are generally respectful and cordial (as an example, see Morris, 2016).
A great deal has changed for Welsh Labour in light of Carl Sargeant’s death in 2017. It severely challenged Carywn Jones’s legitimacy as First Minister, and he has since announced his intention to step down later in 2018. I will happily avoid speculating here as to who might replace him, but there is much less ideological division within the Welsh Assembly Labour Party than in the Parliamentary Labour Party in Westminster. Any leadership election is unlikely to witness a battle across an ideological spectrum ranging from Jeremy Corbyn to Liz Kendall as was seen in 2015. Much of the debate will focus more on their qualities as a potential leader, both of Welsh Labour and of Wales itself.
Whomever is elected will likely have important implications for progressive politics in Wales. Welsh Labour leaders have had significant impacts upon their country. Rhodri Morgan was often referred to as a father figure for the nation, and Carwyn Jones has been similarly seen as a giant of Welsh politics since becoming First Minister in 2009. He has overseen an increase in the devolution of powers to Wales, as well as a decline, and then the advance in Labour’s electoral position. No other figure in Welsh Labour is as well known, and it is not inevitable that a new leader could assume a similarly strong position over time.
Another consideration for Welsh Labour and its contribution to progressive politics in Wales is its length of time in office. At the time of writing it is 19 years and counting since the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government was brought into existence. When the Conservatives lost power in Westminster in 1997, they were labelled as tired, and the nation was ready for a change. Similar arguments were put forward when Labour lost the UK general election in 2010. Labour’s electoral dominance in Wales has been impressive and may continue, but with longevity comes a struggle to generate ideas and fresh faces, and innovative solutions. This will be a challenge for whomever replaces Carwyn Jones.
When Carwyn Jones announced his forthcoming resignation, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood argued that ‘Wales needs more than a change of leader… [it needs] a new government with the ideas, the values and the drive to build… [Wales] into the successful country we know it could be’. Her intention of course is that this new government will be a Plaid Cymru-led one. However, this is an unlikely prospect at present.
Plaid are not in a hopeless position, however. The party gained a seat in the 2017 general election and remain the second largest party in local government following the 2017 local elections, winning 208 seats, up 38 from the previous elections in 2012, compared to Labour’s 468, which was a drop of 112. But neither set of results were impressive. They are the third largest party in the Assembly (behind Labour and the Conservatives), and when they make the headlines it is often as likely to be due to internal divisions as it is to be about policy announcements. At present, they are not a government in waiting.
Nonetheless, their contribution to progressive politics in Wales remains noteworthy. The Welsh Government (2017) White Paper on securing a new relationship with the European Union was developed both by the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. have influence over the Welsh Government budget, and have strongly pushed the Welsh Government on issues such as the relationship between the UK and Wales post-Brexit (Williams, 2018), and the role of the state in the banking sector (Senedd, 2017).
Their manifestos in recent years have also been widely for taking a thoughtful approach to long-term policy problems, and proposing longer-term and well-researched responses to them. Leanne Wood is relatively popular in contrast to other leaders in Wales (Awan-Scully, 2017), and figures like Adam Price AM, who has been a Fellow at Harvard University, bring intellectual rigour to their policy development and to debates in the Senedd (the National Assembly building).
The long-term electoral dominance of Labour in Wales has meant that Plaid Cymru has at least contemplated co-operation with most other parties in Wales. As well as co-operating with Labour both in government and in the legislature, they have discussed electoral pacts with the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Wales Green Party, and they even voted with the Welsh Conservatives and UKIP to contest the election of Carwyn Jones as First Minister in 2016.
More broadly, Plaid represent a political, societal and linguistic tradition that contributes to a genuinely different political culture than in England. While Labour is dominant, and also dominant in some of the political space that Plaid Cymru might wish to occupy, they have played their part in creating a more open and social democratic political context that is somewhat lacking in England at present.
Welsh Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats’ recent electoral experience in Wales somewhat mirrors that of their experience across England and Scotland – except that it is even worse. Since joining the Conservatives in coalition in Westminster in 2010, the party’s results at the general elections, local elections, European Parliament elections and Welsh Assembly elections have all been awful. They no longer have any Welsh MPs, and they have only one Assembly Member. Politics is generally fluid and no more so than in Britain and Wales, so there is a chance that the Liberal Democrats may recover in Wales, but, at present, there is nothing to suggest that this will happen soon, and the party are not currently a meaningful electoral force in Wales.
Nonetheless, as above, the party’s single AM Kirsty Williams has a significant brief in the Welsh Government. As the Cabinet Secretary for Education, she is in charge of one of the largest spending departments and is generally well respected across the Welsh political spectrum. But the contribution of the broader party to progressive politics is much diminished. Any future success looks likely to depend on a slump in other parties’ fortunes, or upon grasping opportunities for cross-party co-operation in the future.
What lies ahead?
The current Welsh Assembly will sit until 2021, by which time there may be an expanded Assembly. There are currently 60 AMs, but an expert panel chaired by Professor Laura McAllister (2017) of Cardiff University has recommended an increase to at least 80 AMs at the next election, so that the parliament has sufficient capacity to fulfil its democratic responsibilities. This may happen. There may also be a new voting system and a lowering of the voting age.
By that time, Labour will have been in power in Wales for 22 years. However, should the Conservatives remain in power in Westminster, particularly with the complications of delivering on the UK’s exit from the European Union, there is every prospect of another Labour government in Wales. The nature of the voting system means that it is difficult for any one party to form a majority government, but it is not inconceivable that Labour could win a majority of seats at the next Welsh Assembly elections. However, the nature of electoral politics in recent years leaves this author happy to avoid any firm predictions.
More broadly, a continuing priority for these parties in Wales is the maintenance and strengthening of Wales as a democracy in its own autonomous right. The original National Assembly for Wales did not have a huge base of support, and has been constantly fought for and defended by the main political parties in Wales. Even so, support remains low and conditional. Particularly for Labour and Plaid Cymru but also for the Liberal Democrats, defending these still new institutions and democratic norms is as much their priority as it is contemplating progressive co-operation or tribal competition.
Awan-Scully, R. (2017), The party leaders in Wales, Elections in Wales
Awan-Scully, R. (2018), The electoral review of the year, 2017, Elections in Wales
Bevan Commission (2015), Prudent Health principles
Johnson, C. (2017), How Wales is understood in the UK is a problem, LSE Politics and Policy
McAllister, L. (2017), A parliament that works for Wales, National Assembly for Wales
Morris, S. (2016), Plaid Cymru and Labour reach Welsh Assembly deal, The Guardian
Muller, W. C., Bergamn, T. and Strøm (2008). Coalition theory and cabinet governance: an introduction. In Strøm, K., Muller, W. C. and Bergman, T. eds. Cabinets and coalition bargaining: the democratic life cycle in Western Europe, New York: Oxford University Press
Robinson, E. (2017), The language of progressive politics. London: Palgrave
Schakel, A. H. and Jeffrey, C. (2012), Are regional elections really ‘second order’ elections? Regional Studies 47(3): 323-341
Scully, R. (2013), More Scottish than Welsh? Understanding the 2011 devolved elections in Scotland and Wales. Regional & Federal Studies 23(5): 591-612
Senedd (2017), Plaid Cymru debate: banking services
Welsh Government (2017), Securing Wales’ Future
Williams, J. (2018), Welsh and UK Governments agree Brexit bill deal, BBC News