Ahead of the 1959 General Election, two of the most significant figures in Welsh history were arguing over devolution. The subject? Whether creating a Secretary of State for Wales at the helm of a Welsh Office should be Labour party policy. Although the NEC sub-committee meeting had finished, in typical Welsh fashion the argument continued into the corridor.

“How much do you really want this thing?”, Aneurin Bevan asked the MP for Llanelli, Jim Griffiths. The latter, arguably the more able but unjustly forgotten of the two former miners, stopped dead and turned to Nye: “With all my heart and soul”. The response came: “Oh alright then, have it”. Elements of devo-scepticism were to remain in Welsh Labour for decades, but 1997 was one step closer.

By the early 1960s Labour embraced the distinctiveness of Wales by recognising it with a Cabinet Minister, and throughout the second half of the twentieth century, a baton was melded and then passed on: progressive albeit partial self-government for Wales would be an essential element of Welsh Labour’s DNA, alongside cultural policies and an economic agenda which respected the industrial and rural communities of the nation.

Commentators for English outlets have in recent months discovered this  unique Welsh party, whose ever-evolving centre-left programme of nation building continues to perplex. It is speculated that they harbour closeted Welsh nationalism which threatens to derail the UK. (Ironically it is them, usually English nationalists draped in a Union Jack as cover for ‘Britishness’, who have put the idea of the Union in most jeopardy).

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Welsh Labour, with its affirmation from multi-faceted audiences confirmed at the recent election, has in reality offered a home both for those ‘Welsh’ and ‘British’ in society. It's hard to separate the two, of course, as for centuries the Welsh political tradition – from Nationalists to Liberals – envisaged Wales as a sovereign nation in a wider British Isles.

That tradition is most effectively channelled through Welsh Labour. Led by Rhodri Morgan, the generation that followed the likes of Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes went further, advocating that the Welsh Labour movement although already distinct in their own eyes should be recognised as such within the British party. To borrow a phrase from Drakeford, the scriptwriter: clear red water.

Such a message was not dishonourable then and isn’t now. It was totally consistent with the party’s unique position to ‘stand up for Wales’ within the wider Labour movement. And if Welsh Labour’s performance over the following five Senedd elections are anything to go by, such a message resonated with the electorate too. Pandering to the nationalists? Please. There is no party more in control of its destiny than Welsh Labour. 

Take last week. While Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour continues to self-implode over its purpose and who it represents, Mark Drakeford’s Labour remains comfortable with being flexible and open to interpretation – appealing to young and old, nationalists and unionists, the working and professional classes.

The disorganised opposition has little hope of fighting back. Welsh Labour’s senior figures know as much, possessing an aura of self-confidence not seen in Wales since the Welsh Liberals dominated our country.

Inavertedly this is leading growing members of the party to only one conclusion: the formation of an independent Welsh Labour. Buoyed by their own parliamentarians’ growing calls for a ‘radical federal’ UK settlement, Labour for an Independent Wales – an influential group which has the ear of several key members of the Senedd – will over the coming days discuss how to apply such a nation-building approach to its own party’s organisation. 

We have seen such attempts before. Welsh Liberals at the end of the nineteenth century, led by the likes of Lloyd George, hoped for a national organisation for the whole of Wales. The dream of Cymru Fydd collapsed. And Welsh Labour is certainly more independent and sovereign than those Liberal dreamers ever were. So why now?

Because Labour and Britain is a changed beast, of course. There are three distinct nations – Wales, Scotland and England – and UK Labour should reflect as much. Over the course of this Senedd term such trends are not likely to disappear but only be exacerbated by our divisions. To survive, and to avoid being dented by Starmer’s collapse in connection with English voters, Welsh Labour must go in a different direction.

There are indeed questions of how an independent Welsh Labour party would be organised and funded. Such a divergence would however be a necessary vehicle to survive the current constitutional debates. For example, ‘independence’ would give the Welsh Labour leader the freedom to chart whatever course is necessary on Wales’s constitutional future with no fear of rapprochement.

It would ensure no wave of nationalist sentiment could overturn the party’s fortunes either. In some ways it would also be the perfect finality of the party mission to deliver devolution to Wales: Welsh Labour standing on its own two feet at long arm’s length – in terms of policy, finance and structure – from its former parent in London but maintaining the movement’s key traditions on economic and social policy.

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More fundamentally, a federal Labour would help Sir Keir Starmer too: enabling his party, the English Labour Party, to confront who it represents and what it stands for. Welsh Labour will never be able to answer for Sir Keir but it can give him and his team the space to be able to decide.

It is striking how many members and elected officials now refer to their comrades across Offa’s Dyke as if they were members of an altogether different movement. Welsh Labour, in their eyes, is inherently different to English Labour and so is the nation they represent. Change in Wales is becoming inevitable but by no means will be swift.

It will be a process rather than an event. Perhaps one that will not really get started until developments in Scotland are clearer. But be in no doubt that change is coming. A growing wing of the party feel that Welsh Labour must own its distinctiveness entirely. The leadership should get ahead and embrace such change with all its heart and soul, as Jim Griffiths would say, if they wish to remain in power after 2026.

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