We in Wales understandably feel annoyed when people lump us in together with England. We have come a long way since the days when an entries in the encyclopaedias read ‘for Wales, see England,’ particularly now that our Labour government in Wales is pursuing very distinct policies from the Conservatives at Westminster.
But when it comes to the EU referendum, we can broadly say that there is very little difference in how Welsh people view the EU when compared to our neighbours in England. There is a myth that Wales is somehow more supportive of EU membership and at risk of being pulled out of the EU by English voters. In reality the differences are not geographic but demographic. Views in a cosmopolitan university city like Cardiff reflect those in similar cities in England, likewise views in post-industrial valleys towns will reflect those in similar communities across the border.
There is no evidence that Wales is more pro-EU than England, in fact, if anything, Welsh voters may be slightly more Eurosceptic, with the latest Wales-specific poll on the referendum showing Leave on 39 per cent and Remain on 38 per cent, whereas Remain has a consistent lead across the UK as a whole. This again reflects the particular demographics of Wales, with a population that is slightly older and more likely to be living in post-industrial areas where people are more inclined to vote for Brexit.
It is useful to reflect on what happened in the recent elections to the Welsh assembly. Whilst Labour remained the largest party, much was made of the election of a ragbag grouping of seven UKIP members, including disgraced former Tory MP Neil Hamilton. However, it is important to note that this does not represent a UKIP surge, despite the election taking place while the airwaves were dominated by the EU debate. In fact the UKIP vote remained fairly constant when compared with last year’s general election at around 12 to 13 per cent of the vote, but they were able to gain their seats via the assembly’s electoral system which allocates 20 top-up list seats to parties who fail to win constituencies.
More important than the UKIP showing was what we saw in many so-called safe Labour seats where another party achieved a very strong second place.
Everyone knows that Leanne Wood won the Rhondda from Labour, but it is perhaps less well known that Plaid came within 650 votes of taking Blaenau Gwent and they substantially cut our majorities in other areas too.
Again it is not the case that there is some huge swell in nationalist feeling in Wales. All the polls show that support for independence remains in single digits as people in Wales feel proudly patriotic without wanting to separate from our neighbours across the UK, so it would be wrong to draw lazy parallels with what has happened in Scotland.
What we are seeing is something much broader than that – a willingness on the part of voters to challenge the establishment and to coalesce around the most realistic challenger to the status quo.
Labour is very much seen as part of the establishment in Wales, having been in power in many local councils for decades and in the Welsh assembly since it was set up in 1999, so it was we who faced a challenge from UKIP, Plaid, and in some places even the Liberal Democrats.
This trend is something that we must be mindful of, not just in Wales but across the UK. If people feel that Labour isn’t listening and has taken their support for granted then they will be quick to take their votes elsewhere.
What does this mean for the referendum? It means a tough fight convincing people who wanted to kick the establishment just a few weeks ago to back remain on June 23rd.
As we know, in the EU referendum, the Remain campaign is very much seen as part of the establishment, no matter how bizarre it feels to be labelled as such by a succession of eurosceptic Conservative MPs and peers.
Our task during this referendum campaign must therefore not only be to convince people to vote to remain, but also to listen carefully to the concerns that have caused some voters to desert the Labour party in favour of anti-establishment challengers.
Because while we are not seeing a horizontal fragmentation where Wales splits away from England in terms of attitudes and opinions, we are seeing a fragmentation between different sectors of society that is altogether more alarming. The splintering of voters to anti-establishment parties is a slippery electoral slope and we won’t win back an ever dwindling electoral base by running divisive campaigns or looking like we only care about a small part of the electorate.
Perhaps the best model to follow is Sadiq Khan’s positive, inclusive win in London. When he faced a divisive and ugly Conservative challenge, his response was not to run a campaign based on grievance, but to say that he would be the mayor for all Londoners. It was this message that resonated with voters and ultimately led to his success.