Friday, 28 July 2017

Where does Wales go from here?

In the weeks leading up to the General Election in June 2017, there continued to be endless opinion polls indicating that Theresa May was going to have a landslide majority and, even in Wales, projecting the Conservatives to gain up to ten seats from Labour.
At that time, in early-May 2017, another opinion poll was conducted by YouGov for Yes Cymru on the question of independence for Wales. It came out with a staggering result and one that was totally unexpected, and most likely unwelcome in some political circles.
The findings received little publicity at the time and were buried in the ‘hurly burly’ of the General Election campaign.
It gave a result that went against all opinion polls and public attitude surveys in Wales since establishment of the Senedd in 1999. Over the last twenty years, support for independence has registered between 3% and 6% on average, but this poll was very different.
In fact, the annual BBC Wales poll conducted in March 2017 by ICM revealed the following levels of support for various scenarios of Welsh governance— independence 6%; increased Senedd powers 44%; same powers 29%; fewer powers 3%; and abolishing the Senedd 13%.
Then, from that period to May, it was expected that the Tories would have a 100-seat plus majority in Westminster after the election, with the Labour party annihilated. Also, around this time, a Welsh Barometer Poll indicated the Tories winning 20 seats in Wales, Labour 16, Plaid Cymru 3 and Liberal Democrats 1. After a century of Labour hegemony in Wales we were heading towards a political earthquake of serious magnitude and a massive culture shock to the body politic.
The survey of 1000 respondents (the usual sample size for opinion polling) conducted by YouGov on behalf of Yes Cymru revealed that 26% of the Welsh public favoured independence, increasing to 33% if the predicted Conservative majority materialised!
In fact, Labour voters turned out to be relatively supportive of independence. Plaid Cymru voters, as expected, were too. But importantly, the 18 - 49 age group were also sympathetic which raised real questions for the future.
After taking the people who registered as being undecided out of the equation, the poll stated 47% of Labour voters favouring independence (of which 23% were strongly in favour); 64% Plaid Cymru; 33% Lib Dems;  15% Conservatives; and 18% UKIP.
There were two other interesting findings. The first was that 28% of Plaid Cymru voters were against independence. Then there was that middle band of voters for all parties that probably would be ‘up for grabs’ in any referendum campaign. They ranged from 8% of Labour and Plaid Cymru voters to 18% Lib Dem. 
However, the election campaign turned out quite differently to the expectations. Theresa May’s performance was the poorest, if not the most disastrous, by any Tory leader in my memory other than Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1963 and William Hague in 2001. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand was a revelation, a man inspired, totally different to the inept and ineffective performer he had been at Prime Minister’s questions time. He was in his element as a superb campaigner, attracting unprecedented crowds across the country. Events such as the Tory manifesto debacle and the terrorist attacks also played their part.
The outcome was effectively a hung Parliament until Theresa May was saved by the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party. The political earthquake never happened in Wales, so Labour breathed safely again.
So, as I asked in the previous post, what happens next over ‘the matter of Wales’ and the future of the UK?  Is it going to be a case of back to the ‘same old same old?’ Or will the progressive forces campaign and unite to move the agenda forward? 
Iestyn ap Rhobert of YesCymru, which commissioned the poll from YouGov, has said: 
‘We will make the case that Wales, like other small nations, are better off running their own affairs as part of a wider European and international family – without the backing of the political establishment. After all, it is only sensible that decisions about Wales should be made in Wales. We have the right to be an independent country and Westminster has no divine right to reign over us.’
On the question of size, eleven of the countries of the twenty seven in the European Union have a population of around 5 million or less. Seven of the eleven have a population less than Wales. In the modern financial, service and technological age, as opposed to the era of heavy industries and large scale manufacturing, the question of a country’s size is no longer a deciding factor.
But at the heart of this debate is what will Labour do? Any major constitutional reform cannot happen without its serious involvement and active participation in the discussions. This is a subject I will return to soon in other posts…Already I have highlighted the importance of the forthcoming party conference season in relation to advancing the debate on the future of the UK Union.
Furthermore Brexit and the consequent Repeal Bill (i.e. withdrawal from the European Union), unless radically amended, could have significant implications for the devolution settlement that currently exists. The Bill does three main things:

  • Repeals the European Communities Act 1972. This legislation provides legal authority for EU law to have effect as national law in the UK. This will no longer be the case after Brexit.
  • Brings all EU laws onto the UK books. This means that the laws and regulations made over the past forty years whilst the UK was a member of the EU will continue to apply after Brexit.
  • Gives ministers power to make secondary legislation. Technical problems will arise as EU laws are put on the statute book. For instance, many EU laws reference EU institutions in which the UK will no longer participate after Brexit, or mention ‘EU law’ itself, which will not be part of the UK legal system after Brexit. There will not be time for Parliament to scrutinise every change, so the Bill will give ministers some powers to make these changes through secondary legislation, which is subject to less scrutiny by MPs. There is a danger that those powers and responsibilities now delegated from Brussels, through Westminster, to the Senedd on matters such as agriculture and rural affairs would be taken back up the chain to London thus undermining devolution.

Here in Wales we have an added matter to contend with, and that is the manner in which Wales is perceived and reported through the media—not only in the UK but especially here in our own back yard. I posted a blog on this in April 2016, the Institute of Welsh Affairs also posted an article on the policy challenges facing the media in Wales and held a seminar on the issues. A number of other commentators such as Dan Evans and Craig Johnson have written about the implications of the ‘information deficit’ that exists in relation to insufficient coverage of Welsh issues by our media and the challenges ahead. 

It is why the powers over broadcasting in Wales must be transferred to the Senedd because as Dan Evans says: ‘lack of information directly contributes to political disengagement and the uniquely low election turnout in Wales, as well as undermining the Assembly and devolution itself—devolution hasn’t really embedded in the public imagination because of a lack of awareness of the role it plays in everyday life.’

‘… the lack of media coverage means a lack of scrutiny which reinforces the awful state of Welsh politics. Welsh politics continues to be so partisan and the Welsh government continues to underperform and contradict itself because they simply get an easy ride, as their failures either go unreported or unseen.’

So I ask again, where does Wales go from here?