Tectonic plates shifting on Wales’ political landscape

Analysis: An extraordinary surge in support for independence is rocking another Labour stronghold

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 03 May 2021 01:19
<p>The 6 May elections could reflect a growing independence movement in Wales</p>

The 6 May elections could reflect a growing independence movement in Wales

Wales is as Labour as it comes, but we said that about the ‘red wall’ demolished in the North of England of course – so what are the prospects for a similar political earthquake at the Senedd?

On the face of it, the tectonic plates are also shifting across Offa’s Dyke with an extraordinary surge in support for independence that has astonished this exiled Welshman.

A break-up used to be backed by just 3 per cent of the population – reflecting deep suspicion of the Welsh language for the English-speaking majority – but support hit 39 per cent in one recent poll.

And, while Plaid Cymru is not about to romp to an SNP-style triumph on 6 May, it could yet be in a position to put the independence argument up in lights.

Unsurprisingly, the elections for the 60-seat Senedd – the Welsh Parliament, not merely the Assembly, these days – are being seen as a test of first minister Mark Drakeford’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Labour leader is generally seen as having performed well, his cautious approach – epitomised by last October’s “circuit-breaker” – contrasting well with the chaos in Downing Street.

The cerebral Mr Drakeford is also preferred to the maverick Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies and Plaid’s Adam Price, a former MP.

Despite the independence buzz, it appears the best the nationalist party can hope for is a small bump to its current tally of 12 MSs (Members of the Senedd).

However, the rise of the Welsh Tories – the party gained six seats at the 2019 general election – means a far less predictable three-way contest.

If Labour again wins 29 of the 60 seats, as one poll suggested, it may try to run a minority government, but what if it wins as few as 26, as other surveys pointed to?

It could then be forced into a formal coalition with Plaid, which has promised an independence referendum if it is in power.

That is where the dramatic collapse of Scottish Labour will be focusing minds, as the independence cause appears to be cutting through culturally in the same way – and with half of Welsh Labour voters sympathetic.

Well-known sports stars and performers have joined the growing movement – singer Charlotte Church urging people to forget the fear that “we’ll be made to speak Welsh”.

Furthermore, support among the 18-24s has approached 60 per cent, with more than 80 per cent backing far greater devolution to the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

It is a shift that Mr Drakeford has already recognised. Remarkably, he told a Commons committee last month the United Kingdom “as it is, is over”.

He called for a new constitutional set-up, a “voluntary association of four nations” as he called it.

The election results will determine just how much further the Labour first minister must shift – if only Boris Johnson would accept his calls.

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