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Labour, Wales and Devolution

Fergus Turtle
Fergus Turtle

While Conservatives at a Wales and UK level are largely clear that they don’t want any more devolution of powers to Wales any time soon, a less obvious picture is coming from Labour as a whole. The Welsh Labour Party, which forms the Welsh Government, are advocating for more powers over such areas as justice, policing, taxation, borrowing, transport, and the economy. UK Labour on the other hand is much less clear about where they stand. While their 2017 manifesto committed to devolving justice and policing, no such undertaking was present in the 2019 manifesto.


The Gordon Brown report released late last year only recommended limited extra powers for Wales on youth justice and probation, while not laying down any opposition to further devolution in theory. So, what is going on here and how much could we realistically expect a UK Labour Government to devolve should they win power at the next general election?


The Labour Party has long had diverging views on the position of Wales within the UK. A common stance within the party has been that working-class solidarity should transcend nationalities. Another wing of Labour in Wales has viewed the country as to the left of the rest of the UK with its own distinct culture, requiring more autonomy. Initially, there was not necessarily a left-right divide between these two groups. Both on Labour's left, Nye Bevan and Jim Griffiths passionately disagreed on the “national question”. As devolution became an issue in the 1970s, ardent unionists, led by Neil Kinnock, watered down proposals and successfully campaigned to defeat devolution in the 1979 referendum.


Devolution eventually won through in the Labour Party (and the country) in the 1990s but there remained a divide between those who saw it as a chance to fundamentally change how Wales was governed and those who thought devolution should be clearly subordinate to Westminster. The devolution settlement Wales received was notable for how weak it was. Partly this was due to a perception of weak public support for devolution but also a desire on the part of some Labour MPs not to give up too much power.


Alun Michael’s election as Welsh Labour leader and ultimately First Secretary (First Minister) was viewed by many as an imposition from Westminster. This resulted in Michael’s resignation, after a disappointing first Assembly election, and his replacement by Rhodri Morgan. Morgan was in favour of bolder autonomy for Wales and was also to the left of the New Labour leadership. His approach of rejecting market-based reforms adopted by Labour in England was summated in the infamous phrase “clear red water”, giving the devolution debate a stronger left-right dimension.


Coalition negotiations with Plaid Cymru in 2007 caused further upheaval within Labour in Wales, largely along the lines of MPs being broadly against and Assembly Members being broadly in favour. A special Welsh Labour conference approved the deal despite opposition from leading Westminster figures such as Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, which signalled a shift in influence in favour of the Welsh Labour leadership. Despite scepticism, the Assembly’s powers increased under New Labour and the One Wales coalition led to the successful 2011 referendum on primary legislative powers. In 2016 Welsh Labour gained some formal autonomy for the first time, cementing the shift towards Cardiff.


Different levels of influence from both sides have been wielded over the UK Labour leadership with Welsh Labour MPs wishing to slow the rate of devolution and the Cardiff leadership and AMs/MSs generally pushing for further expansion of devolution. Developments in strategy towards Scotland, and a reluctance to allow devolved institutions to become a serious challenge to a UK Labour Government, though, have also been significant factors. This explains the fluctuation in UK Labour policy regarding Welsh devolution. Carwyn Jones gained influence with the Corbyn leadership, securing a generous devolution offer in Labour’s 2017 manifest. More recently, Welsh Labour MPs have expanded their influence under Kier Starmer’s premiership, with figures like Nick Thomas-Simmons and Carolyn Harris close to the leadership. 


Finally, the current UK Parliament boundary review means that the proportion of Welsh constituencies is likely to be reduced. The probable expansion of the Senedd has probably exacerbated this as it undermines the argument that Wales needs more representation at Westminster to improve accountability. Welsh Labour MPs have therefore reacted negatively to Welsh Government’s Senedd reform proposals as this is likely to ensure their numbers are diminished. Combined with a likely expansion of the Welsh Labour Senedd caucus, MPs fear this could lessen their influence and shift power in the party even further to the Senedd leadership. This had led to even greater resistance to more devolution from Welsh Labour MPs who fear becoming irrelevant.


With this considered, it currently seems that a future UK Labour government would likely not devolve very much to Wales immediately after coming to power. Politics, however, can change quickly and it’s unlikely UK Labour leadership will want to have a drawn-out public dispute with a Welsh Government run by their own party. The influence of Welsh Labour MPs and the developments of devolution in Scotland and England will also be crucial.

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