How the Welsh Remain Campaign Threw the Referendum

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By David Taylor | 3:44 am, July 29, 2016

Many who were unaware of the growing political alienation in Wales were stunned on 24th June to discover that, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales voted decisively for Brexit.

Of the 22 Welsh local authorities, 17 voted to leave the EU. Yet, only a few months earlier, the Welsh Government imagined itself so secure of a Remain vote that it seethed premature anger at England for dragging Wales out against its will. So what went wrong?

It’s been widely reported that the ultimately doomed UK-wide In campaign had a considerable impact on the outcome in Wales.

But, despite on-the-ground efforts of the formidable Welsh Labour election machine under Peter Hain, two factors guaranteed its failure there as well.

The first was complacent, narrow political thinking within Welsh Government; the second was a campaign dominated by a self-serving, ineffective “Taffia” of old Welsh establishment figures. It was a toxic mix.

Members of the Welsh Remain campaign pose at a press event // Photo by Natasha Hirst
Members of the Welsh Remain campaign pose at a press event // Photo by Natasha Hirst

To close observers of Welsh politics, the big Leave vote came as little surprise. The warning signs were there. The sustained approval ratings for UKIP – even with the party in turmoil and manned by former Tories – materialised into 7 seats in the Welsh Assembly on the 5th May.

From the outset, Remain in Wales had no narrative and no obvious strategy.

The only consistent message from the Welsh Government undermined the arguments being made nationwide: it reflected a determination, no matter how irrational, to present the EU referendum through the prism of UK constitutional arguments and creating false divisions between England and Wales voters.

This off-beam stance was crystallised in the maxim “Wales is a progressive nation”, a soundbite repeated ad nauseam to the detriment of any rational debate.

The Welsh Government consistently failed to spend valuable pre-purdah time developing a strong, positive, comprehensive case for remaining in the EU. Instead it joined Scotland’s nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon in calling for a personal veto on the outcome, fiddling while Rome burned.

The Welsh Government appeared to be in denial as polls continued to show that the Welsh were just as Eurosceptic as the English. Nothing exemplifies the sense of complacency and warped priorities more than the Government’s decision, out of the blue, in the week of the referendum, to table a motion in the National Assembly to rebrand the institution “Welsh Parliament”.

It was impossible to interpret the way Plaid Cymru talked up the prospect of Brexit as anything other than willing England to drag Wales out, hoping this would lead to a surge in support for independence.

It’s not surprising that undermining the UK is a higher priority to Welsh Nationalists than the future of Europe. It became a problem, however, when senior Welsh Labour figures inexplicably indulged in the same argument.

The idea of firing a warning shot to “Eurosceptic England” that “progressive Wales” would be forced to choose between two unions was deluded and ultimately counterproductive. It presented a false choice and predictably backfired.

The Welsh Government’s proclamation on the eve of the referendum that it would negotiate directly with Brussels was a cringeworthy intervention.

This approach encouraged the ludicrous spectacle of “Welsh Labour for Independence”, launched on social media during the EU referendum campaign. Aside from being a total distraction, it further alienated the party from its base.

But it’s unfair to lay all the blame at the door of the politicians. The “Wales Stronger In” campaign was insufferably smug and controlled by lobbyists rather than professional political campaigners.

The political parties were distracted to some extent by the Assembly election campaign until May, which resulted in a power-grab of the Remain campaign by vested interests to promote themselves and their clients. The result was a vanity-laden sham in the absence of any proper campaign.

Wales Stronger In’s leading spokesmen (and they were all men) were creatures of the old Welsh establishment, the worst possible faces for such a campaign, with all the baggage of career politicians, but none of the their skill.

It should have been obvious, given the challenging environment, that this was a huge mistake. Political leaders needed to make hard arguments. The faces should have been those of real people who understood economic uncertainty, not the privileged visages of a self-righteous Taffia.

This referendum was winnable for Remain in Wales, but it was lost.

The first lesson is the most obvious one, from the late Philip Gould: respect the voters – they are never wrong.

They have voted for Brexit in Wales. Politicians need to recognise that, understand it and work within the new context. The consequences of continued denial and delusion in Cardiff Bay are grave.

It is blindingly clear that a new attitude is required: if political leaders in Wales fail to grasp this fact, Welsh devolution will face a very real existential threat.


David Taylor is a former Labour special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales. He tweets from @David_Taylor

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