(Title Image: Shropshire Star)
We’re all familiar with how party politics works in Wales at present.
It could be described as a one-and-a-half party/one party dominant system in which one party (Labour) is in a seemingly unassailable position and only two other parties could be described as serious players in terms of political representation, members, vote share etc. (Conservatives and Plaid Cymru).
As a thought experiment, how might Welsh independence change this? Would it change?
Does independence result in an increase in viable political parties?
In terms of the methodology, I looked at a good range of nation-states in Europe, counting the number of political parties that successfully won seats at each national election since they achieved independence (discounting Independents and constitutionally-mandated national minority seats).
All of them use a proportional voting system:
- Republic of Ireland – Single transferable vote (STV)
- Latvia – Sainte-Laguë method
- Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Montenegro, Slovenia – D’Hondt method
The broad trend is for the number of viable/electable political parties to increase after independence, though the process is usually slow and takes several electoral cycles to see a full diversification.
The figures might also be an under-estimate of the number of active parties in some of the nations; formal electoral pacts and political alliances are popular in some parts of Europe. For example, Croatia’s ruling centre-right HDZ is made up of three separate parties and the centre-left opposition has four separate parties – which is why the figures for Croatia look wild.
Factors to consider
How Wales might achieve independence – It’s not necessarily the case that Wales would achieve independence through a popular referendum. It could just as easily happen “by accident” (i.e. England secedes before Wales as part of rising post-Brexit English nationalism), as part of a gradual process which eventually ends in independence (similarly to Australia, Canada and New Zealand) or, much less likely, some form of unilateral declaration. Each one of those scenarios would affect each of the current parties and Welsh civic society in different ways as I come back to later.
The electoral system and size of the Senedd – In general, smaller parties tend to benefit from a more proportional electoral system. The more proportional (and larger) the Senedd is after independence, you would assume the more likely it would be that smaller parties would see greater representation at a national level. In turn, they would become more viable due to access to finance and publicity (though this may also result in more parties with extreme views getting elected too).
Likewise, Wales could retain the current mixed member system or even switch entirely to something like first-past-the-post which would entrench the position of a few dominant parties and suppress the emergence of new and smaller parties after independence. The voting method might also have an impact – electronic voting might make smaller parties with a strong internet presence and carefully targeted campaigns more attractive.
Post-politics – Wales is a post-political society. Apathy and managerialism are the name of the game. However if, as in Scotland, an independence campaign led to a national political reawakening of sorts then it could lead to increased party membership, increased political engagement and a much stronger focus on Welsh politics as opposed to the pantomime in London. An energised electorate handed back power to shape its own future would no doubt have a positive impact on political party finances, the number of parties and the pool of potential candidates. It would potentially throw everything we currently think of about Welsh politics up in the air. The negative side of that (though it might be a positive) is the current political stability we’ve “enjoyed” would be threatened.
Media reporting on Welsh politics prior to and just after independence – In a post-independent Wales, you would expect the Senedd to be the only game in town in terms of political reporting and broadcasting. There would be no more Westminster to focus on and (cross-border issues aside) English political news becomes completely irrelevant as every decision affecting Wales would be made in Wales. Would the print media (if they still exist) change to reflect this? Some Fleet Street titles might – as they do in the Republic of Ireland – print Wales-only editions, but equally likely is they just don’t bother or withdraw from Wales completely leaving nothing to take their place. That would be potentially dangerous. More on this in the summer.
How might independence affect the current parties?
It probably depends on how Wales achieves independence more than anything else.
If it’s “by accident” (i.e. Wales becomes independent by default, such as by England seceding from the Union, by some sort of Dominion status/or a gradual fragmentation of the UK over decades), then you would expect Labour to survive relatively intact and at the same relative strength they enjoy now. By not taking sides one way or another and being “victims of circumstance” they would carry no negative political baggage. For example, if events overtake Labour they could campaign for people to unite behind them in order to ensure “stability in difficult times” due to their experience in government. Under these circumstances, they would develop into something akin to Ireland’s Fianna Fail prior to the Great Recession – a perennially successful soft-nationalist broad church that was only brought down by its own hubris.
However, the more “likely” scenario is that Labour would take an anti-independence stance in any theoretical future independence campaign. If, as in Scotland in 2014, it produces a closer than expected result they pay an electoral penalty for it for having being seen to be “anti-Welsh” or in cahoots with the Conservatives. In this scenario, you would expect a weaker Labour party, but one that still retains significant influence and could gradually rebuild.
Either way, independence would present challenges to Labour in terms of its internal politics as well as its position as the establishment party. Without a Westminister narrative anymore, the lack of a “cause and effect” in Welsh politics might end – the public will have absolutely no choice but to pay attention to what’s happening in Cardiff. At the moment, there’s apathy and ambivalence due to the protective bubble provided by Westminister incompetence and a weak media; post-independence it could turn into hostility and threaten Labour’s position as they come under much closer scrutiny as hot button issues like criminal justice, social security, foreign policy and defence are decided and debated in the Senedd.
In terms of finances, Labour’s close ties with the trade unions would provide them with a firm footing, but it’ll be nothing compared to the financial support they currently receive. They would have to have a membership drive to increase the amount of money they raise within Wales and would probably have to spend more fighting elections. “Taking ownership” of independence and appealing to stability in uncertain times would be one way to do that.
Somewhat ironically, you would expect independence to be fatal to Plaid Cymru in the same way Brexit is proving to UKIP. As they will have achieved their main political goal (presumably as a government, or as the lead party in a coalition with an agreement to hold an independence referendum – which was subsequently successful), they would, logically, have no reason to exist. But there are a number of ways it could go:
- Plaid Cymru displaces Labour as the main social democratic party in Wales (as the SNP have in Scotland) and carries on in a similar manner as outlined for Labour above.
- Plaid Cymru and Labour effectively merge as a big tent centre-left party which would become the new dominant force in Welsh politics.
- Plaid Cymru willingly disbands itself within a term or two of independence due to competing visions over what a post-independence Wales should look like; members either join parties closest to their political ideologies or establish new ones.
If Plaid Cymru did split after independence, that would throw up some potentially interesting scenarios (which I return to later).
It’s safe to assume the Tories would oppose independence and take leadership of any anti-independence campaign in a referendum (as in Scotland in 2014). In a scenario where Wales might be set to become “independent by accident”, you could easily see a fair chunk of their membership in “British Wales” preferring full annexation into England. According to recent polls, support for abolishing the Assembly stands at around 37% amongst Tory voters in Wales. Support for abolishing the Assembly could easily transfer (if independence was seen as an existential threat to “British Wales”) into support for abolishing Wales.
If, however, Wales became independent and there was nothing the Tories could do about it then they’ll have to adapt. The Tories eventually and reluctantly adapted well to devolution (having opposed it until the mid-00s) and there’s no reason to assume they would be unable to do the same in a post-independent Wales; they could even become more successful if a few things play out the right way.
For example, they could embrace cultural nationalism and take votes from Welsh-speaking Wales if Plaid Cymru disbanded and left a gap. They might even change their name to adapt to the new circumstances and discard any baggage from the past (in most Anglophone countries the “National Party” or “Liberal Party” is usually centre to centre-right). They might even merge with what’s left of the Liberal Democrats to become a softer, mainland European style Christian Democratic/”compassionate conservative” party that could appeal to the small-c conservative Welsh electorate whilst discarding the rabid Social Darwinism of the UK Tories.
If they adapted as well to independence as they have to devolution and fully embraced it, you could potentially see them winning seats at national and local level in places that currently seem improbable, becoming a Welsh equivalent of Ireland’s Fine Gael – a “we lost the argument on independence/what independence should look like, but let’s make the most of it” party.
What new political parties and movements could emerge in a post-independence Wales?
The names are for illustrative purposes only and based on similar parties in Europe and elsewhere.
“The Republican Party” – If Wales didn’t become a republic upon independence – retaining the monarchy as a Commonwealth realm – then republicans in Labour and Plaid Cymru might splinter to form a more radical left eco-socialist party more firmly committed both to Wales becoming a republic and action on social justice. They would likely occupy ground the Green Party have failed to take up in Wales and would, in the longer-term, be seen as a spiritual successor to Plaid Cymru – a Welsh equivalent of the Greens, Die Linke and Sinn Fein combined, probably becoming the third/fourth party in a post-independent Wales. If Wales did become a republic then you would expect such a party to form anyway as an out-and-out socialist party or collective of parties.
“The Liberal/National Democrats” – A technocratic centrist party, which would likely be the continuity of the Lib Dems joined by technocrats in Plaid Cymru and maybe some Tories. Should Wales remain outside the EU after independence, they would likely campaign strongly for Wales to re-join, acting as power brokers following close election results due to an ability to work with both the left and right (similarly to the Free Democrats in Germany or VVD in the Netherlands).
“The Federalist Party” – A continuity Unionist party that would campaign for the UK to be reassembled, probably as a federation outside the EU. You could see such a party form as a splinter from the Tories (if the Tories fully embraced independence) and maybe UKIP. If such a party formed quickly after independence off the back of a close referendum you would expect them to perform well in “British Wales” and maybe win seats elsewhere as a protest vote. The longer independence lasts, the more marginalised they would become, eventually turning into a Welsh equivalent of Northern Ireland’s UUP, or an English interest party similar to how the Swedish People’s Party operates in Finland or the Russophone parties in the Baltic states.
“Plaid yr Cymuned” – Could the likes of Cymdeithas yr Iaith form a political wing post-independence? If Plaid Cymru disbanded, then it might give room for a minority party expressly committed to Welsh-speakers rights, cultural nationalism and protecting a rural Welsh way of life (if these sorts of views couldn’t be accommodated in a more urban-focused “Republican Party”).
“The People’s Party” – Most European countries have a nativist populist party that’s either anti-immigration, anti-political correctness/culturally conservative, eurosceptic, small state or a combination of them all – though a step down from outright far-right white nationalism. I suppose it depends on how long the populist trend in European politics lasts, but in Wales, you would expect such a party to make a lot of noise but get crowded out until some sort of crisis results in a breakthrough (like the Five Star Movement, Finns Party, Danish People’s Party etc.).
Others – You would expect the likes of the Communist Party and the various socialist splinter groups to still be there. You would probably expect far-right boneheads (NF etc.) to still be there as well – racism isn’t going to magically disappear overnight.
The interesting ones would be The Greens and whether they would emerge as a stand-alone Welsh party or, as Plaid Cymru have already done to them, be crowded out by another party (such as a broad-left umbrella like “The Republicans”). In a similar vein, the Pirate Party – which is relatively successful in a number of European countries, particularly Iceland and the Czech Republic – might stand a better chance with a bigger Senedd and as people become more clued up on how technology and information affects our daily lives.
How Independents would fare depends largely on the electoral system – under STV they might stand a chance, under a list-based system like D’Hondt they would stand less of a chance.
Depending on the electoral system and the esteem in which politics and independence are held, we would likely see an increase in the number of political parties standing and getting elected.
All in all, you would expect Wales – based on examples around Europe – to be able to sustain at least 7-8 political parties capable of winning national level representation. At the moment we have three (Labour, Plaid and the Tories) and two that are nothing more than sizable minor parties (Lib Dems and UKIP).
At the moment the electorate in Wales face two choices in the Senedd – Labour governing alone or Labour governing as the lead party in a coalition. Post-independence that might change into something more like:
- A minority government led by Labour and/or a successor to Labour.
- A left-of-centre coalition made up of two or three parties (depending on the number of seat won). This may lead to eventual referendums on rejoining the EU and becoming a republic (if neither happens before independence).
- Centrist and centre-right coalitions formed by horse-trading between populist and minor parties and occasional formal electoral pacts between leaders who are on the same wavelength – though such parties would likely have more success at a local level if they would be able to tap into newly-amplified resentment against a “distant Cardiff Bay”.
- Occasional disruptive success by Unionist-leaning populist and “None of the Above” parties due to protest voting, which could lead to early elections if no stable coalition could be formed.
As happens in the Republic of Ireland, we may see more confidence motions, coalitions formed at short notice and shorter government terms – the idea of someone serving as First/Prime Minister for 9 or 10 years without any challenge would be chucked out the window.
The level of scrutiny, press coverage and interest in Welsh politics might increase, but whether governance will improve would ultimately still be down to the same old problem of how we choose and who we choose at the ballot box.