Anyone listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning would have heard John McDonnell denying vigorously that yesterday’s local election results were a disaster. His argument: Labour had held Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Neath and Port Talbot. They had stemmed the tide in Wales. Diane Abbott was saying much the same thing this afternoon.
All of which is undoubtedly true. However, it’s important to understand the reasons why, notwithstanding disappointing results in places like Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, Labour did significantly better in Wales than in England. Without that understanding, Labour’s claims in London are bound to be seen as complacent and ill-founded.
Many people outside Wales take the view that it votes tribally. But those days are gone – the days when you could stick a red rosette on a pot-plant and get it elected have completely passed. Labour, often seen as the political establishment in Wales, has had to learn to fight hard for every vote; each successive election has been trailed by opposition parties and some media commentators as the one that would end Labour’s dominance. But Labour has clung on – and the reasons why are instructive and important.
The key lies in Labour’s record in government in Wales, and on the way that, as it matures as a devolved nation, its political identity develops. Labour has been in government, alone or in coalition, ever since the Welsh Government was established in 1999; the current leader of Welsh Labour, Carwyn Jones, has won two national elections, the second in 2016 in what were assumed to be very different circumstances. In office between 2011 and 2016, Welsh Labour delivered every single promise in its manifesto. It remains committed to policies that remain considerably more radical than anything currently on the agenda in England; free prescriptions, the retention of Education Maintenance Allowance, Flying Start to complement Sure Start, no market or privatisation in the NHS, no grammar schools.
And this sits alongside a distinctive economic position. It’s difficult to imagine a Carwyn Jones speech that doesn’t include a reference to investment, and jobs – a commitment to creating high-quality secure jobs for people in their communities. At a time when England appears to be retreating into a fictional theme-park past, Welsh Labour remains internationalist and outward-looking, understanding the importance of immigration to a strong modern economy; it campaigned uninhibitedly and enthusiastically to remain in the EU and understands – in a way that Westminster often appears not to – the potentially catastrophic effects of a hard Brexit for jobs and living standards.
In other words, it sets out a distinctive economic and social vision, in which a high-investment and high-wage economy produces the wealth that allows social progress to be made. One could argue that this is no different from the vision set out by John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn – but Labour is in office in Wales, and is making real progress in actually delivering change.
And as the political institutions in Wales develop, so does a distinctly Welsh political culture; a process that is likely to continue as the Wales Act, flawed as it is, grants further powers to the Senedd. Slowly, surely, the political system in Wales is becoming more autonomous and distinctive, and people recognise this. None of this means that Wales is ready for independence; for all the progress I mentioned earlier it remains relatively poor, and there remains a long way to go to develop a truly resilient economy.
And, finally, it remains the case that the Labour Party in Wales – Welsh Labour – is very different from the party in England (as well as having avoided the complacency and introspection that has destroyed Labour in Scotland). Welsh Labour has its own leader, its own structures, its own policy-making functions, its own identity, and its own branding. And it is a united party, with a clear strategic vision that unites grassroots, elected politicians and leadership. And as politics and the economy in Wales diverge from England, that distinctiveness becomes more, not less, significant.
Welsh Labour is not immune to the problems the Westminster Party faces – but it’s just not possible to understand the difference between the outcomes in yesterday’s elections between England and Wales without understanding that the Welsh results were made in Wales, and the product of a political system and discourse that has increasingly differs from that of England. and it’s simply not possible for English politicians to draw conclusions about England from them (and least of all to claim the credit for them). And while Labour in England could do well to learn from the successes of Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, it’s arrogant and complacent to use Wales to claim that things are not as bad as they might seem.
And, perhaps, they could have the humility to give credit to where it’s due.