Last year I wrote about how under Mark Drakeford’s leadership the concept of clear red water was getting somewhat murkier. The line of a speech he wrote some 18 years prior had come to mean much more than a distinction of economic policy from the more centrist UK Labour Party. It became a call to arms for many socialists of a Welsh stripe, stating that you could be both a proud socialist, proudly Welsh and still vote Labour.
Since that last article much has changed, not least the complete upheaval of modern life caused by the health and economic crises of the Coronavirus pandemic. The response of the Welsh Government to COVID 19 whilst far from perfect has brought with it a monumental growth in confidence in the concept of Welsh self-governance.
The pro-independence campaign Yes Cymru has grown from a membership of 2,000 to one of over 17,000. What hasn’t grown quite as significantly is support for Plaid Cymru in opinion polls. So where has the growth in support come from? Well one place is from people who are not particularly party political. Yes Cymru’s major strength is that it is a non-party political group. It has membership from across the political divide as well as members who don’t much enjoy party politics. Many people who do not usually obsess over politics have compared and contrasted the actions of the Welsh and UK governments in the past year and decided that Wales can go it alone, and not only can go it alone but would be better off doing so.
Another area of growth has been the Wales Green Party, who this year adopted the position of campaigning for independence in the event of a referendum. Further conversations show that many of its members far from waiting for that potential referendum are actively campaigning for one to occur. The fact that the Green Party recently re-enforced this policy at an England and Wales level may also bring further support.
The third and last area of growth I will mention (You are probably overjoyed that I am to stop listing things by this point) is supporters of Welsh Labour. In my article last year, I highlighted that polling showed that up-to 40% of Welsh Labour voters would vote yes in an independence referendum. This year that figure has been as high as 51%, with latest polling putting it at 49%. Whether these voters have been spurred on by UK Government incompetence, Welsh Government successes or a general change in the mood music of the nation, this increase in support cannot be ignored.
The Welsh Labour Party once described as “the UK’s most invincible electoral machine” has in their wisdom not ignored this growing sentiment. There has been constant engagement from MSs and government ministers with those in the party who desire greater self-governance. The recent report “Radical Federalism” represented a good start. It recognised that for the UK to survive we needed to end Westminster sovereignty and codify the status of the UK as a voluntary association of nations. It was an attempt to bring support behind what a clear majority of Welsh Labour supporters wanted which is greater self-governance and more powers for the Senedd.
While “Radical Federalism” is a good start it must not bring the discussion to a complete stop. Many members of the ever-growing group “Labour for an Independent Wales” complain that the report, endorsed by numerous members of the Welsh Government, feels like a done deal. A back room attempt to quell a growing desire for secession within the Labour ranks. Many claim that it fails to address what a federal Britain could look like, the powers each sovereign nation and region would have as well as what powers would be held at the centre and most importantly that it fails to grasp the difficulties that will be faced in its implementation. Much hangs on the election of a UK Labour government. A prospect that seems very difficult without a significant number of Scottish Labour MPs, a notion that seems impossible without a significantly better answer to the constitutional question than the one with which we have been presented. The newly released report “Remaking the British State” which proposes much the same as the “Radical Federalism” report is a significantly more comprehensive document, but questions remain whether it will receive significant buy-in from UK Labour.
This week has seen the selection of two openly pro-independence Welsh Labour candidates. Cian Ireland in Dwyfor Meirionydd and Dylan Lewis-Rowlands in Ceredigion, who join Ben Gwalchmai, a candidate for the Mid and West list, in openly supporting independence. A number of other candidates have expressed Indy curiosity. If my formulation of clear red water proves anything it’s that it should be possible to be both a socialist and proudly Welsh. Whether it logically follows that you can be both a socialist and a supporter of Welsh independence has been discussed by people far smarter than me and you should probably listen to them on the matter. However, it is unclear whether Labour can stop many of its members and even its candidates from becoming open supporters of independence without a clear plan for genuine constitutional reform and most importantly an honest route map for socialism. That is what most of these supporters and candidates want. They want better lives for them, their loved ones, and their communities. They are not nationalists in the way that many would label them. They see independence as the clearest way to achieve their goals. Freedom from a British state they see as corrupt and a Union for which political leaders continually fail to paint a positive case. Keir Starmer standing in front of the Union flag won’t cut it for them. The leaked report that UK Labour should rely more heavily on union flag waving will firstly appear to many as Clive Lewis MP states “moving down the track of the nativist right” as well as Britishness not being an identity to which many Indy Curious Labour supporters ascribe.
In Scotland when the question of independence became salient it deeply damaged the Labour party, tied so closely to the Conservative party it haemorrhaged votes to the SNP and now lies in third place in the Scottish Parliament. While I do not think that a SNPification is likely in Wales, Welsh Labour are far too good and far too engaged in the germane questions for that, they must remain cautious and remain engaged with its membership. If they don’t and think that back room done deals will dissuade its voters from the cause of independence, then they should not be surprised to find the clear red water running dry.
Matthew Hexter is one of the hosts of the Hiraeth Blog Podcast.