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Pandora’s box: the right-wing threat to Welsh devolution

Welsh Labour failures are increasingly viewed as failures of the whole devolved government – so what does this mean for the future of the Assembly? asks JOE WILLIAMS

HIDDEN in the shadow of the recent poll showing significant support for Scottish independence, another poll was released. 

This one, focusing on Scotland’s Celtic cousin, Wales, provided a much more troubling view of self-government. 

In Wales, often ignored unless politically convenient, a recent YouGov poll laid bare the radical dissatisfaction with Welsh devolved politics as they stand. 

While predicting 27 per cent of Welsh voters would support independence, in a coup to rising Welsh-nationalist support almost 33 per cent of Welsh voters would rather support the complete abolition of the Welsh Assembly, and devolution itself. 

This attitude against devolution isn’t new, and has long, painful roots. Whereas the left has treated the issue with complacency, much like Brexit, it has the risk of being adopted and galvanised by the right, arguably to the same levels of success.

When Welsh voters narrowly supported a devolved National Assembly in 1997 — just 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent — a dramatic, progressive change to Welsh society was promised. 

With the heady aspirations of a new Labour government, and the bitter experiences of Thatcher’s de-industrialisation still relatively fresh, there was a genuine sense of optimism for a future that devolution could bring.
 
Devolution was painted by many on the left as the means to achieve a “genuinely representative and accountable” parliament — not just a “miniature version” of the archaic, out-of-date Westminster system. 

However, over 20 years now of an overwhelmingly Blairite Welsh Labour government, a “genuinely representative parliament” quickly gave way to a neoliberal state of managed decline. 

Whether it’s voting in favour of zero-hours contracts seven times, increasing the privatisation of Welsh companies such as rail (to widespread failure), campaigning against its own government decisions — such as hospital closures, or even the dumping of nuclear mud just off Cardiff Bay, Welsh Labour has taken advantage of its traditional Welsh heartlands to implement policies it would bitterly attack the Conservatives for doing. 

While attacking the SNP for its record on drug addiction and education in Scotland, Labour in Wales has presided over the highest child-poverty rate in the UK, a rapidly failing NHS — with worse A&E waiting times than England — and the highest levels of poverty in the UK. Indeed, the highest levels in most of western Europe.

In all of these areas, the Welsh Labour government has fully devolved powers — it isn’t just the fault of the nasty Conservatives in Westminster. 

After 20 years of this it’s no wonder there’s widespread political malaise in Wales. 

It was Welsh sociologist Dan Evans who best described the apathy for politics in Wales, stating that Wales had rapidly declined from being at one stage “the most politically engaged country in the UK” to instead being the nation where “people are most likely to find involvement in politics to be futile.” 

This feeling of futility in Welsh devolution has been dramatically fuelled by Brexit, no doubt helped by the Welsh political Establishment’s reactions to the referendum result. 

With a turnout of 71 per cent (20 per cent higher than the 1997 Welsh devolution referendum, and a massive 35 per cent higher than the most recent 2011 Welsh devolution referendum), Wales  voted Leave. 

With a larger voter turnout than the last four general elections, the Welsh vote for Brexit was the culmination of a variety of factors — be it the legacy of poverty fuelled by de-industrialisation, a growing alienation from politics, a misplaced fear of immigration undercutting wages and jobs in an already impoverished area, or a history of Euro-scepticism in the labour movement (with both Labour and Plaid rallying against the EU in the late 1970s). 

With the same politicians who’ve presided over increasing decline in Wales passionately arguing for remaining in the EU — a project that, whether rightly or wrongly has become the poster-child of a faceless bureaucracy damaging small communities in favour of big business, it’s obvious there would be a political blowback. 

And in the aftermath of the vote, what these already apathetic voters saw was a co-ordinated attempt to smear their choice, and “overturn” their vote. 

In the Senedd in particular, with the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour standing “unashamedly behind a second referendum,” the sense that Welsh politicians were extremely willing to overturn the vote of Welsh people, whatever the reason, was demonstratively a hard pill to swallow. 

There was also of course the constant demonisation on social media of Welsh Leave voters as “thick,” “work-shy” and “uneducated,” often coming from the so-called Welsh progressives on the left. 

As was shown in the recent electoral collapse of Labour’s “red wall,” the party’s choice to support a second referendum over a progressive exit deal proved fatal to its former industrial heartlands. Heartlands such as the ones they’ve had in Wales for over 100 years. 

But in Wales, though, this realisation hasn’t reached the governing Welsh Labour yet. 

While still the largest party here, in both Westminster and the Assembly, that wasn’t without losing votes in every single Welsh constituency — not least the six seats it lost to Boris Johnson’s almost single-issue “Get Brexit Done” party.

In response, there is no soul-searching, only attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for not agreeing to a referendum sooner, and demands for a more centrist Labour. 

Brexit has opened up a Pandora’s box in terms of Welsh devolution, and the same sentiments that propelled the Leave vote in Wales could easily and successfully be used to target devolution.

For Labour, 20 years of rule have now for a growing number of people associated devolution itself with the party’s failures. 

In the words of Gareth Leaman, writing for the New Socialist: “Devolved government has not brought ‘politics’ closer to the Welsh people, but has simply obscured how the state works and where power currently lies.”

For the Assembly, this means Welsh Labour failures are increasingly viewed as failures of the whole devolved government. 

With a lack of devolved media, who can tell the difference? And without any large-scale press scrutiny, people will continue voting Labour while lamenting “Assembly” policies. 

Similarly, the Senedd consistently voting against various damaging Brexit Bills has unfortunately played into the narrative of the right. 

Whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland have leverage in terms of their vote for Remain, hence rejection of the deals, the Welsh Leave vote means the narrative of the people versus parliament is a much more effective rallying-cry to disengaged voters in Wales. 

As such, and as has been proven by the rise of the “Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party,” and even Ukip supporting devolution’s abolition, this burying the head in the sand on the part of the left will only play into the hands of the reactionary right. 

Whereas the left should be fighting for a progressive, effective devolved government, with the powers to affect real change to daily lives, instead the self-described “vanguard” of socialism in Wales are content with presiding over the status quo — blind to the pillars of their support crumbling around them. 

Using the same arguments as the EU referendum, the right can just as easily paint the same narrative about the Senedd — it being a needless bureaucracy, not engaged with the struggles of working people, absorbing taxpayers’ money and with little mandate from “the people.” 

For the main centre-left parties in Wales, their support for a second referendum will inevitably come back to haunt them. 

Years of political disengagement, record levels of poverty across Wales, a stagnant political system with blurred lines of power, and a primarily English-focused right-wing press have led to where we are now. 

With a triumphant right basking in the wake of remarkable electoral success — even in traditionally Labour Wales, everything is at stake for the left. 

The blatant attempts to overturn the Welsh people’s largest exercise in political engagement in decades has served to amplify anti-devolutionist attitudes, though they have been lying dormant far longer than Brexit. 

Devolution is not a given, and the sooner we learn that, the sooner us on the left can start the fightback. 

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