The Slow Demise of Labour Britain: New Evidence From Wales
Open Democracy, September 17th 2009
Another indication of the unravelling of the British political system as we have known it is the crisis Welsh Labour has found itself in – along with Scottish Labour. Both of these were two of the main pillars of the British Labour Party and hence the Labour story of Britain, and with it of course, ‘the British dimension’ of Labour.
The crisis of Welsh Labour is the subject of a short, revealing piece by Martin Kettle in Wednesday’s ‘Guardian’ (1). He explores the declining politics of Welsh Labour hegemony – which saw the party win a majority of votes in more than half post-war contests in Wales, and as recently as 1997 55%.
Welsh Labour used to know how to construct a pan-Welsh coalition, admittedly concentrated in the urban South, but speaking for all Wales. The party did have numerous limitations in its politics: the dominance of the Taffy Tammany Hall tendency, a problem with pluralism which saw it resist PR for the Welsh Assembly, and a nervousness and resistance to many aspects of ‘Welshness’. Yet for the most part, the party managed to straddle these problems, and speak for ‘the three Wales’, of the South, North and West.
The crisis of Welsh Labour has thrown an opening to the Cameron Conservatives who after finishing narrowly ahead of Labour in the Euro poll by 21% to 20% now find themselves in a YouGov regional opinion poll calculus by Electoral Calculus ahead by 30% to 26% for Westminster voting intentions (2). As Kettle writes:
If those figures were approximately right Wales would experience a political and existential earthquake. (3)
Even assuming that there is a swing back to Labour by polling day and that it finishes ahead in Wales, two points are evident here: one is that the crisis of Welsh Labour is not an instant creation, but has been bubbling since the first Assembly elections in 1999, and second, we now have conclusive prove of a Cameron effect in Wales.
This is on one level very different from Scotland, where the Nationalists have caught the wave of the crisis of Labour and its slow decline, and where there has been no discernable ‘Cameron bounce’. The same Electoral Calculus survey has the Tories on 17%, Labour on 28% and the SNP on 31% for Westminster.
The Welsh and Scottish Labour Parties once provided key bridge-building institutions in the body politic of Britishness; they acted as transmission belts of Britishness to their respective nations, selling and promoting the values of the union; at the same time they advocated, haggled and projected a Welsh and Scottish ‘voice’ at Westminster. Pre-devolution this was a careful balancing act which became more and more precarious with the arrival of Plaid Cymru and the SNP from the 1960s onward.
Post-devolution politics was always going to produce strains and tensions which further undermined this bridge-building politics both in Wales and Scotland as distinct political systems evolved and as the importance of a Westminster ‘voice’ became less crucial.
Wales and Scotland can now no longer be seen as ‘Labour nations’ and this is important both for what it does to the respective politics of each nation, and the part it plays in the bigger story of the slow demise of Labour Britain.
1. Martin Kettle, ‘Wales: A Land Lost to Labour’, The Guardian, September 16th 2009,
3. Kettle, op. cit.