The votes for independence are on the left

I was interested in a recent post by Alwyn ap Huw on Miserable Old Fart in which he said that only about a sixth of those who want independence vote for Plaid Cymru. The implication was that Plaid should do more to attract the other five-sixths.

So I looked at the figures in more detail, in particular because the full figures included cross-breaks for voting intention in both Westminster and Assembly elections. The BBC poll published today doesn't do that, I think because the BBC has a policy of not doing party political polls.

In overall terms about 10% of the Welsh adult population want independence. That was the YouGov/ITV figure last month, and the ICM/BBC figures are 7% and 12%, depending on whether Scotland becomes independent. But that 10% or so is made up of supporters from the four main parties as follows:

Westminster voting intentions

Plaid ... 45% of 11% = 4.95%
Labour ... 7% of 50% = 3.50%
Tory ... 6% of 25% = 1.50%
LibDem ... 10% of 6% = 0.60%

Assembly constituency voting intentions

Plaid ... 33% of 17% = 5.61%
Labour ... 6% of 49% = 2.76%
Tory ... 6% of 20% = 1.20%
LibDem ... 10% of 7% = 0.70%

So it's wrong to say that only a sixth of those who want independence vote for Plaid Cymru. In Assembly election terms the figure is about 55%, in Westminster terms about 47%.

It is particularly interesting that, after Plaid supporters, the next biggest group of those who want independence for Wales votes Labour. In each case the combined Plaid Cymru/Labour percentage representing the left-of-centre on the political spectrum is about 8.4%, compared with more like 2% on the right-of-centre (that's if we consider the LibDems to be centre-right, which they certainly are in Westminster terms).

This shows that by a factor of more than four to one (and if the LibDems want to claim that they are not a right-of-centre party in Wales, the figure only increases) those who support independence are on the left of the political spectrum.


This has fairly profound implications. In terms of the Plaid Cymru leadership election, it shows that a party that is unambiguously seen as being on the left of the political spectrum will be very much more likely to pick up support from those that want Wales to be independent but don't currently vote for Plaid Cymru than we would be if we elected a leader that was more ambiguous about being left-of-centre.

But secondly, these figures indicate that if another of the main parties in Wales is going to move towards independence, it will be Labour. But it will not be for particularly "nationalist" reasons. I predict that Labour voters in Wales will simply not want to remain a part of a UK that has moved so far to the right in the past thirty years under both Tory and Labour governments in Westminster, and that is continuing to move inexorably to the right now. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that social democratic model welfare state is being systematically dismantled; and that even though Labour are protesting about it now, it was in fact Labour itself that introduced things like the internal market in the health service. Remember that immediately after devolution, Labour did the same in Wales and only made a U-turn away from it (reinstating, more or less, the health boards we had before) as a result of the One Wales Agreement in 2007. Today's ICM/BBC poll shows that Wales is against the competitive, increasingly privatized health service model being implemented in England by a huge 77% to 18%.

In short, independence for Wales will be the only way of creating a fairer, more socially just and equal society. Independence will in fact be driven every bit as much by left wing values as it has been by traditional nationalist values. A Plaid Cymru that is clear and unambiguous about both its left wing and its nationalist credentials is much more likely to make the electoral breakthrough we are looking for in the areas outside our traditional heartlands.

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Unknown said...

Interesting analysis MH. And that is why it is wrong to treat Labour and the Tories as equal unionist parties. They might be "equally bad" in their own ways but their respective unionism is based on different factors.

Anonymous said...

I braodly agree with you and will make two broad responses.

1. I think you're probably right to say that a left wing narrative will help deliver independence. That seems to correlate with what's happening in Scotland with the SNP, the Basque Country with Sortu/Bildu and maybe Sinn Fein in RoI. How then would you explain the failure of ERC (left wing nationalist Catalan party) in the Spanish state elections last year? Is there a lesson there for Plaid.

2. You say that Labour and Tories are braodly dismantling the Welfare State in London. But is it also the case that which ever party is in government will have to dismantle, or rather, significantly curtail the welfare state because the burden of an aging population, lack of savings (private and state), lack of economic innovation, less young people, such a large part of the population economically innactive (retired, ill, in education) makes it impossible for us to have the same welfare system as we've enjoyed since WW2. Simply all Western states will have to cut back, adapt, work more and retire less. I just can't see any party not implementing a large part of these changes sooner or later.


Plaid Panteg said...


Mixed views on this. Will centre left values be the driving force behind the politics needed to continue devolution's journey? Yes, I am sure of that.

But your analysis goes a bit awry when you assume that people vote for any party purely on ideological grounds. There are many reasons people vote for a party; none more than local factors, chances of winning, a general feeling, family ties, misunderstanding what other parties stand for etc.

To merely say "These parties are leftist, their vote is leftist" seems a bit simplistic to me, despite me agreeing with the conclusions.

MH said...

Then perhaps it would be a good idea for me to define what is essentially "left". It is the idea that people should be taxed progressively according to how wealthy they are, and that tax money should be used to provide everybody in society with broadly equal life chances and broadly equal services irrespective of how wealthy they are. Its aim is to narrow the gap between rich and poor and engender social cohesion.

If that is an "ideology" then I do believe that people vote on ideological grounds. Some people believe in it and vote for left of centre parties to deliver it. Some people don't believe in it, thinking instead that there should only be a basic safety net for those in exceptional need, but that a large gap between the richest and poorest in society is not a particular problem. Of course there are lots of variations on the theme, but in essence that is the difference between left and right.

On that basis, Wales is a much more left-leaning country than England. Not that there aren't people in England who share that view, but that there are proportionately fewer of them in England than there are in Wales. Put another way, the political "centre" in England is steadily moving more to the right than it is in Wales.


As for specifics. I think the ERC's coalition with the socialists to keep out CiU was the main reason for their poor showing recently. But perhaps it's worth noting that what "drives" the desire for independence is in one major sense very different in a country like Wales from countries like Catalunya, Euskadi and Flanders. The "nationalist" dimension is probably the same, embracing things like national identity, culture and language. But those three countries are the richest parts of their respective states, so another "driver" for independence is discontent that they are paying too much to the state they are currently part of, and that they would be better off if they didn't. For that reason, these countries have right-of-centre pro-independence parties, though sometimes with left-of-centre pro-independence parties as well, Flanders being the exception.

Fairly obviously the opposite is true in Wales, as we are one of the poorer parts of the UK. This probably explains why there is much less support for independence from the right of the political spectrum. So the narrative is different for us. Taking the theme from The Spirit Level, it is not the absolute level of wealth compared with other countries that matters, but the inequalities within a country. More successful societies are ones which are more equal. I think that this is a "rich coal seam" into which those of us who want to see an independent Wales should start making inroads. There are rich electoral pickings to be won in terms of votes.

The other strand of our particular narrative is that small countries have tended to be more economically successful than large ones, the main theme of the Flotilla Effect. Becoming richer as a small independent country than we would be by remaining part of a large one will of course be a good thing, but becoming richer does not mean we have to abandon the social democratic welfare model, as we can see in the Scandinavian countries.

To answer M's point, of course the demographic profile will change, but if the bottom line is that we are more healthy and living longer than we did in the decades after the Second World War, I don't have a problem with retiring later to pay for it. Nor do I have a problem with higher personal taxes ... provided that we get value for what our tax money pays for.

MH said...

Just as a post-script to M's point about having to significantly curtail the welfare state, it might be worth noting that the basic rate of income tax in 1975 was 35% ... but since then it has only ever gone down and is now 20%. There seems to be an unspoken rule that no UK government will increase the basic rate of income tax, and this is probably the most significant indicator of the general political drift towards the right under both Labour and the Tories over the last few decades.

For me, that's the big reason why there is such pressure to cut back on public services. The demographic changes of the past few decades are minor compared with this reduction.

Cibwr said...

I remember in the 1970s there was a measure used by politicians to indicate what we got from the state, the Social Wage, it was used to show that our taxes were not wasted but went to pay for the welfare state and that we all benefited from the great social cohesion of a state that reduced want and inequalities.

Anonymous said...

MH - interesting to remember that income tax was 35% in 1975. Though, the 1970s is hardly a barometer of a successful economic decade. I guess too that there are now more hidden taxes, so, although the income tax is lower, there is more taxation on fuel, duty etc.

The other point is that an independent Wales would not be able to have taxation policies too different to England. People will simply live in England and work in Wales. So, I think the idea of a higher rate of taxation in Wales is a non starter. I also notice that Plaid-run Caerffili Council are making a virtue of their low council tax rate. They could of course, say we'll raise taxes to pay for better services, but they're not. Plaid is in power and sees how the political wind blows. So, sorry MH, I don't see us ever getting back to 1970s level of taxation.

These are huge challenges to a left wing party. The article in the current issue of Prospect also suggest that while people wish to retain the welfare state there is less consensus on what that welfarism should include.

In the case of Wales being more 'left wing' a cynic could also say that Welsh electorate want other (richer) people living in another place (SE England) to pay more taxes so that they (the Welsh) can have more 'hand outs'. It's less to do with egalitarianism or socialism and more to do with simple looking after one's self (but called 'socialism' or being 'progressive'). After all, it's easy enough being progressive and socialist with other people's money.

I think strategically pushing the Barnett Formula argument was a mistake for Plaid. It was a British argument (please make Britain work better for us) and confirmed in people's view that little Wales was poor. Whilst it may have embarrassed Labour in Wales in the short run it only strengthened their narrative that Wales was too poor to be independent and that Wales had to negotiate within the UK to get a better deal. It wasn't a nationalist strategy it was a regionalist strategy of the type you'd expect from the Ulster Unionists.


Anonymous said...

Plaid's future is as a centrist, pro-business party. People don't want Old Labour.

Anonymous said...

No it isn't. The party review says plaid remains a left of centre party, this includes support for business in order to
redistribute wealth and seek equality and social justice. It does the debate no favours to constantly play out this identity crisis about whether Plaid is left or not. This has been settled and what was determined through talking to members fits with what Michael Haggett has analysed here.

Anonymous said...

Im not one who says copy everything the SNP does but they package the various benefits and "freebies" they provide as a social wage in their speeches etc. this maintains a link between wealth generation and the provision of services. This link has been undermined and worn down over the years by successive Labour and Tory governments who have tried to individualise society but the SNP has restored many services, mostly through being well funded by Barnett (though they could afford the same services with their oil wealth).

Anonymous said...

But Plaid national policy is against freezing council tax, Caerffili took their own decision which is what decentralism is all about. Gwynedd on the other hand needs quite high council tax to maintain services.

The issue of Barnett was correct to raise and wasn't a new obsession, it built on the work of
Phil Williams. If Wales isn't funded according to need it simply won't be possible to build a stronger economy (except through deregulation which doesn't work and would be illegal under devolution). We could invest the fair funding in
skills or infrastructure for example. That money isn't coming from anywhere else. Certainly not from Welsh revenues.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, but a lot of Plaid wont. There may have to be another nationalist party started for the centre ground!!!

Anonymous said...

Why? When has this ever been raised at conference or in motions? Apart from in anonymous blog comments there are never calls for a 'centrist' party. Isn't it just a re-run of Labour's line that we're 'closet Tories'? Don't do their job for them (if you're a Plaid supporter at all, that is).

Anonymous said...

I agree with the basic 'left' philosophy of social democracy, fairness for all, support for the disadvantaged in society, etc, and in that respect I agree with Plaid's 'left-wing' credentials.

Where I diverge is in the idea that this can only be provided by a high-tax, high-spend statist model.


MH said...

I don't want us to go back to 70s levels of income tax either, M. But I am saying that successive UK governments have made lowering the basic rate of income tax some sort of fetish. As one example of this, I think that raising the threshold at which income tax is payable is a good thing, but that it should have been balanced by an increase in the basic rate of tax so that the overall tax take from basic rate taxpayers was the same. In the current economic crisis those who are in work should pay more but, as implemented, all basic rate taxpayers were made a few hundred pounds better off ... not just those on the low pay.

The downward trend in income tax is a symptom of the shift in balance from direct taxation towards indirect taxation. We might be paying less in income tax, but we are paying correspondingly more in other, generally indirect, taxation. This shift has done more than anything else to increase the gap between rich and poor. A greater emphasis on progressive direct taxation (but with lower indirect taxation) would make for a more equal society.


This is why having control to vary a wide range of taxes slightly is much better than having more complete control over one big tax. (I'm talking now in terms of devolution, for with independence we will have full control of all taxation.) I think that was the big flaw in Holtham, but I also think the Holtham Commission had more than one eye on Calman and what the UK Treasury would be likely to go along with, and therefore came up with proposals limited by what they thought would stand a chance of being implemented.

But things have changed very rapidly in the last year or so because Calman is now coming to be seen by all parties as inadequate, and the Treasury is now likely to consider anything in order to keep Scotland within the UK. More importantly than that, the ICM/BBC poll this week showed that there is considerable public support in Wales for powers to vary all taxes.

Anonymous said...

In the ICM poll - 19% of 18-34yr olds wanted independence - this is quite a large sum bearing in mind that we've had no debate on this issue.

Anonymous said...

The rating amongst young voters is promising. They don't vote right now, but these are people growing up in a different Wales where the idea of a political nation is normal.

As for votes from the left or centre what we need now is confidence in the party's aims and its long held position as a left-of-centre party. Why this always has to be spoken of in relation to where we stand with the Labour party beggars belief. We should be ourselves. We do not need this constant hectoring online about being a centrist party or not being sure of ourselves. There has to be confidence and unity as in Sinn Fein for exampel who are obviously left of centre and obviously set on achieving their goals. The excuses have to stop and a strong and unambiguous left of centre agenda has to be pursued.

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