Tuesday 5 January 2016

Differences are eroding

There was an interesting article last week by a Cardiff academic arguing that, in political terms, Wales is becoming more similar to the ‘British mainstream’.  The piece by Daniel Evans of Cardiff University was followed the following day by a rebuttal from Martin Shipton in the Western Mail.  All my innate prejudices and history mean that I’d prefer to agree with Martin Shipton on this occasion, but having read both, I sadly concluded that I felt that Daniel Evans made the better case.
It is, of course, true, as Martin Shipton says, that referring to the ‘British mainstream’ is meaningless in a context where Scotland and Northern Ireland are clearly so very different, politically, from the rest of the UK.  It would be much more correct to refer to the ‘English mainstream’ in this context, but after making that change to the wording, I cannot but agree that Wales and England are becoming more, not less, similar in voting patterns.
This is about more than the rise in support for UKIP, which has supplanted Plaid as the third party in terms of votes, despite winning no seats in Wales yet.  It is also evidenced by polling on the question of membership of the EU, where Welsh opinion seems increasingly similar to English opinion; the contrast with the situation in Scotland is stark.
It is still true, of course, that comparing Wales as a whole with England as a whole, there remains a clear difference in overall voting habits; Wales has a clear Labour majority whilst England has a clear Tory majority.  But there is a danger that using overall averages in this way means that other significant similarities are lost.  If we treat Wales, for analysis purposes, as a region of EnglandandWales, and compare it with other regions of the same entity, that particular difference looks more like part of a natural geographical variation within the overall pattern than a stark difference between two different entities.
It’s also true that England doesn’t have a Plaid vote of around 10-15%.  I’m not convinced though that that is enough to declare that Welsh politics is significantly different from English politics as a whole.  Some regions of EnglandandWales have much higher support for the Lib Dems than other regions – looked at from an overall perspective, having a party in one region of EnglandandWales which polls strongly there but not in some other regions isn’t a sufficient unique defining characteristic either.
Martin Shipton argues that the devolution of income tax powers will be a game-changer, since it allows parties to put forward “rival, and potentially radically different, tax and spending plans”.  I’m not at all convinced about that one either.  If a whole range of taxes were to be devolved, allowing the Welsh Government to ‘mix and match’ as it wished, I can see the possibility of alternative proposals being put forward.  As it is, all we are likely to see is a party which knows it has no chance of having to deliver on its promises (the Tories) putting forward wild promises to cut taxes with no indication of how they will make up the deficit.  There is a good reason why the income tax powers already devolved to Scotland have never been used, and I see the same happening in Wales.
I really want to believe that politics in Wales is, and should be, different; but we need to make it different.  Trying to see differences where there are none, or trying to exaggerate the importance of such differences as do exist looks like clinging to a romantic notion of yesteryear.  If we want Welsh politics to be different, we have to make it so; and above all, that means that politics in Wales has to be focussed on a debate about what the future direction of Wales should be, not merely on which bunch of politicians should be steering that future.  As long as all we’re offered is bland managerialism – “we can run things better than any of the others” – such differences as do exist between Wales and England will continue to erode.


Anonymous said...

Another good blog and Happy New Year.

Dr Dan Evans deserves a medal for stating the obvious that in political terms Wales follows England and has done for longer than many involved in welsh politics want to admit despite devolution. And as if to reinforce the point the article was published on the London School of Economics blog, not in any welsh publication, although Dan did make similar points on the IWA’s Click on Wales a few weeks back.

As for the reply, it’s telling there’s been one, normally the Labour Welsh establishment ignore siren voices and alternative views, but Martin Shipton’s reply suggests Labour are more worried about the Tories and UKIP in May’s election than they have been since the dawn of devolution in 1999, although they’ll still be the largest party and in government even if they lose 4 or 5 seats, so its difficult to feel sorry for them.

I also don’t believe Martin’s rebuttals his article was full of tired cliché’s and lazy assumptions in reply to well argued, factual and frankly depressing piece from Dan.

The article's got people talking, but we need action or the old saying of for Wales, see England will be the truth not fiction sooner than we think.

Anonymous said...

The most important factor is simple demographic change viz the massive movement of English people into Wales. As no one is willing to do anything about this, sadly Wales is destined to be finally absorbed into England.

Anonymous said...

Having read both articles, I am not sure I am convinced by either. Shipton ignores the evidence of convergence between voting trends in Wales and England and is surely overstating the likely impact of tax varying powers on Welsh politics, for the reasons you have set out. Evans on the other hand ignores the obvious differences that still remain, relies on some pretty dubious stats (if a million English people have moved to Wales in the last decade, how come only 20% of the population was born in England?) and references an one-sided article in the Daily Mail to support his position (never a good idea!). The truth is, Wales and England have moved closer together in electoral terms but remain some distance apart. You could argue that Wales is no more different from the English norm than some regions within England itself but that was always the case, wasn't it?

John Dixon said...

Anon 18:36 and Anon 23:25:

Both your comments refer to migration of English people into Wales as a factor leading to increased similarity in voting behaviour. I can understand why you might consider that migration to be a likely cause of the effect, but if it were as simple as that, then the greatest levels of similarity between Wales and England would be seen in those constituencies with the highest level of English-born voters; conversely, the grestest differences would be seen in those constituencies with the lowest numbers of English-born voters. The electoral statistics don't seem to support such a black-and-white conclusion. Look at the scale of the UKIP vote last May in some of the south Wales valleys, for instance. That cannot be attributed to in-migration in those seats; it has to be down to Welsh-born voters supporting UKIP.

We haven't (yet) reached the point where Welsh voting patterns are identical with those of England, but that is the direction of travel. Identifying in-migration as the cause of that would be closing our eyes to what is really happening. Not liking what we see is no excuse for not seeing it.

Anonymous said...

HiJohn. Anon 23:25 here. I think you have misread or misunderstood my original post. I passed no comment on the effect of in-migration into Wales. Dan Evans does in his article though. I was simply pointing out that his estimate of one million English people moving to Wales in the last decade doesn't seem to tally with the census figure for English born residents that he quotes. One million would represent one third of the entire Welsh population - and that is before you take into account those English born people who have lived here for more than a decade. This inaccuracy supports my overall point that his article isn't as well evidenced as it first appears.

John Dixon said...

Apologies; I did indeed misread it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 19:50,

We mustn't forget that so many of those born in England were actually born to either one or two Welsh parents or grandparents. And these numbers grow year on year on year.

Do we have any right to class these people as 'in-commers'? And, in truth, aren't we all 'incomers' of one sort or another no matter what spurious nonsense our parents might have spouted!

Anonymous said...

Anon 16:05

Anon 19:50 here, again. Without wishing to sound rude, why are you addressing those comments to me? They are irrelevant to the point that I originally made and which I then explained in greater detail in my subsequent post.

Anonymous said...

I don't particularly like being forced to come down on one side or the other. Dr Evans' article exaggerates what is happening, while Shipton's denies it.

I'm also wary of John's point when he says that "We haven't (yet) reached the point where Welsh voting patterns are identical with those of England, but that is the direction of travel." We are still very far from identical voting patterns and for all the talk of direction of travel, the Tories would have to increase by roughly 10-20 percentage points to make us identical or similar to England. I don't actually think it'll ever happen. Or if it will, it's a very strange conversation to be having right now because it's quite a long way off.

Of course the main factor in difference is Plaid Cymru. I don't buy John's idea that the Plaid presence is comparable to having an equivalent Lib Dem presence in an English region. Wales has a similar Lib Dem presence to some English regions AND a Plaid Cymru presence as well. If an English region had a political party on 12% (for a UKGE) which wished that region to either become autonomous or independent from the UK, then that would be comparable.

I also agree with John's point that income tax powers won't really make a difference. They will create some interesting distinctions but that's about it.

So what is the actual truth? Wales is a distinct nation compared to England, but not as distinct as it used to be?

The issue for Welsh nationalists is that to try and claim Wales is distinct to England or English regions relies on pointing to the continued strength of Labour vs the Tories, and then pointing out that Plaid Cymru exists. One of the two factors on their own doesn't seem sufficient.