Why Scotland needs a party like Welsh Labour
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
It seems that, even though Scotland has a parliament of 5 political parties, there are only two constitutional positions: legitimate independence or kamikaze unionism. The two pro-independence parties (the SNP and the Greens), broadly speaking agree on how to achieve independence, even if they disagree on what to do with independence when they get there. The three unionist parties (Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats) all bring out the same constitutional lines with varying degrees of repetition – ‘No to indyref2’ has been a central tenet of all three parties’ election campaigns since the EU referendum.
However, unionism is not hegemonic, and not all No voters wholeheartedly support the constitutional status quo. Furthermore, there is precedent for a party that defends devolution and its structures to the death, that actively strives to increase the power of its national parliament while maintaining the union. That party is Scottish Labour’s Welsh relative.
The path to devolution in Wales was a lot rockier than the one in Scotland. The vote to establish the Welsh Assembly was a lot tighter than the one for the Scottish Parliament. As a result, what is now called the Senedd Cymru (or Welsh Parliament) has only 60 MSs, compared to 129 MSPs (despite the fact Welsh voters have consistently voted since 1999 to increase the size and power of the Senedd).
Opposition to devolution as a whole has also been stronger in Wales. The 2016 Assembly elections saw the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party nearly gain representation. The Brexit Party (which has MSs) is running in the 2021 Senedd elections on an Abolish platform, and the Welsh Conservatives on a platform of reducing the number of ministers inside the Welsh Government. This has created a nice constitutional niche for Welsh Labour (in government since the Senedd’s inception – either as a minority or in coalition with Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats).
Welsh Labour have been far more vocal than their counterparts in Scotland in their defence of devolution, and their resolve to increase the size and scope of the Senedd. A good example of the difference between Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour’s position on devolution is their response to the UK Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill, which has been accused of running roughshod over devolution structures, among other things.
Bar one or two MSPs, Scottish Labour’s focus in its opposition to the Internal Market Bill is the most famous bit: the one that overrides the EU Withdrawal Agreement clauses on Northern Ireland and potentially compromises the Good Friday Agreement. This is mainly because it breaks International Law (Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said it “breaks international law in a specific and limited way”). However, there are also significant concerns about what it does to the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru.
From Scottish Labour, radio silence except for a minority (such as Glasgow MSP Pauline McNeill). We’ve even seen support for what the Internal Market Bill does to devolution from inside Scottish Labour, most notably from the moderate-wing stalwart Duncan Hothersall (who runs the Labour Hame website). Because the main Scottish opposition to the Internal Market Bill comes from pro-independence parties, the UK Government can dismiss valid concerns as Nationalist scheming.
The Welsh Labour line is that the Internal Market Bill is an assault on devolution, and an attempt to take powers away from Cardiff without asking the Welsh people for their consent in doing so. The difference is clear. Welsh Labour, while supporting continued Welsh membership of the United Kingdom, staunchly support and defend the devolved structures that have seen more decisions about Wales taken in Cardiff rather than London.
Do all Scottish unionists support the constitutional status quo? Probably not. The 2014 referendum brought up promises of federalism from some in the No camp, and certainly there remains support among some politicians in Scotland for taking more power from London to Edinburgh, while keeping Scotland inside the United Kingdom. These include former Labour MP Paul Sweeney and current Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain. However, all the unionist parties sing from the same constitutional hymn sheet when people go to the ballot box – stop the SNP, and stop indyref2.
The Tories have the “get back yer box and eat yer cereal” vote cornered. Any unapologetic unionist with unwavering support for the status quo, or active opposition to the current level of power the Scottish Parliament has, will probably cast their 2021 vote for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. It’s up to either Labour, or the Lib Dems, to show the mettle to offer something different- a third way if you will. A Scotland inside the United Kingdom but with significantly enhanced powers is what voters were promised in 2014 if they rejected independence, but no party puts that enthusiastically to voters today.
Welsh Labour might just save themselves by offering this to the Welsh people. Maybe, just maybe, Richard Leonard or Willie Rennie might choose to speak to a type of unionist that to date has been uncatered for, and improve the discourse on the constitution while they’re at it.
Image: National Assembly for Wales via Flickr