A political storm is brewing in Wales – and it’s coming for Welsh Labour

In spite of a global pandemic, some things never change. For example, a week is certainly still a long time in politics – as Paul Davies found out in January – and twenty-two years is still too long for one party to be in government. Welsh Labour nevertheless find themselves as the dominant party ahead of May’s election, even after successive government terms have brought little transformative results to show the electorate.

Mark Drakeford will almost certainly return as first minister, before handing over to one of his deputies after a few years in post. The opposition only have themselves to blame for the one-party nation that we have become.

Welsh Conservatives are more concerned fighting a culture war than vying for government, as demonstrated by their embrace of abolitionist sentiment in their ranks. Plaid Cymru look nothing like a government-in-waiting either. Meanwhile the Welsh Liberal Democrats are soon to be an extinct political species. Unlike the trends in other parties, the death of Liberalism is a sad moment in Welsh history.

Surely Welsh Labour are not as invincible as they once were? Probably not. Although the first minister enjoys a profile like no other Welsh politician, the political challenges of leading a government during national emergencies have their downfalls. They include consistent and hard-hitting attacks from opposition parties; on top that, there is that mediocre record over two decades to champion.

Thus the approach from Wales’ natural party of government will be defensive and uninspiring, but one which will bring them the most seats to form a government likely with the ad-hoc support of Plaid Cymru. Yet, there is something that is bubbling under the surface across Wales and indeed among Welsh Labour members.

Whisper it quietly: Yes Cymru.

Nationalism has captivated Welsh Labour party members more than those even in the traditional wings of Plaid Cymru. As the non-partisan YesCymru has flourished, ironically buoyed by the ‘assertive devolution’ approach of a unionist first minister, Labour’s grassroots members and some elected politicians are now demanding a radical new model for governing the UK.

As is covered in these pages today, the group Labour for an Independent Wales has launched an official membership group. The formal organisation of independence supporters in what was once a bastion of traditional Welsh unionism is a remarkable testament to how fragmented the U.K. has become throughout the pandemic. Some polling even shows that most people who voted for the party in 2019 would vote for an independent Wales.

The National Wales: Labour have controlled the Senedd since its inceptionLabour have controlled the Senedd since its inception

Even for pragmatic Labour unionists, It is becoming increasingly difficult to articulate Wales’ future in a union if Scotland and Northern Ireland depart. And the ‘United Kingdom of England and Wales’ certainly wasn’t a settlement which the likes of Jim Griffiths passionately advocated for.

The first minister has already called for a reform of the UK. Even he admits he cannot enact change, however. Mark Drakeford also has no control over events in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP are likely to cruise to victory and, if the attitude of the prime minister and his ailing ‘union unit’ is anything to by, cause constitutional chaos.

So perhaps it will be after the election and in Scotland that will start the firing gun on the most consequential moment in Welsh history – whether Labour decides to chart a different course to the blind, undefined and union jack waving unionism espoused by Keir Starmer, opting instead to be independent in both political organisation and outlook to its UK parent. That is the clear red water that many of its members want, and would change the political landscape of Wales forever.

To come back to the man of the moment, it’s worth remembering that Dewi Sant was born on a cliff-edge in Pembrokeshire, as thunder and lightning came crashing down from the heavens. A terrific storm that ushered in the Age of the Welsh Saints. But now another storm is brewing – a consequence of political tectonic plates shifting rather than the power of mother nature.

It is an unpredictable event, both in its timing and impact, yet it is a storm that could well be as consequential for our nation as the one that occurred fifteen hundred years ago. The question is whether Wales, and Welsh Labour in particular, is ready for it.

Theo Davies-Lewis is a political commentator on Welsh affairs