In the 2016 EU referendum, unlike our Celtic cousins in Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales voted to leave. There were significant regional variations in the vote. Welsh speaking rural areas of Gwynedd and Ceredigion voted to remain, alongside Cardiff and its hinterland, the Vale of Glamorgan. All of the former industrial areas of south and west Wales voted to leave, as well as the ‘British Wales’ areas of Pembrokeshire, Powys and the north east Wales border counties. Only 5 out of 22 local authorities voted to remain, and of those, Monmouth and the Vale of Glamorgan were remain by an incredibly narrow margin.
Turnout in the EU referendum was higher in Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, at 71%, dwarfing the usually tiny turnout in the Welsh Assembly elections, which has not passed 45% since the first ones were held in 1999.
In Merthyr, one of the Welsh towns that has since become synonymous with Brexit, turnout was 67%, compared to 60% in the 2017 General Election, 53% in 2015, and 58% in 2010. In Blaenau Gwent, turnout for the referendum was 68%, higher than any general election since 1997. In Bridgend, where I’m from, and in many other parts of Wales, this surge was repeated.
This wasn’t meant to happen. In the popular imagination, Wales was a social democratic (and by extension, pro EU) country. What’s more, Wales had received over 4 billion pounds worth of EU ‘Objective One’ funding since 2001- surely it wasn’t going to bite the hand that feeds?
But, it did. Wales has since become a worldwide case study for short sightedness, for people allegedly voting against their material self-interest, in a way reminiscent of Thomas Frank’s case study of Kansas.
Since the result, journalists have descended on the Welsh valleys in their droves, measuring people’s heads like colonial anthropologists as they attempt to get to the bottom of it all. With honourable exceptions, these John Harris- inspired walking tours of the valleys have been patronising and simplistic, reliant on clichés and stock imagery.
The stories blend into one: This area depends on EU money but voted to leave! How could they do this! They hate immigrants but there ARE no immigrants!
Articles bemoaning the leave vote when Wales is ‘entirely dependent on EU objective one funds’ were (and continue to be) written without a hit of irony, as if being entirely dependent on the whims of footloose foreign capital or surviving on handouts is a good thing, or that shiny new buildings or roads could genuinely compensate for the lack of jobs and sense of deep despair in leave voting areas.
Of course, there were myriad reasons as to why Wales voted to leave. Wales is not just ‘the valleys’ but is a remarkably diverse place which contains middle class areas, migrants from all over the world, as well as huge amounts of English born people. In some ways, the leave vote usefully exploded annoying, entrenched narratives weaponised by Labourists over the years in Wales- that Welsh speaking areas were parochial and racist, that the valleys were beacons of socialism and progressive politics(nowhere is innately anything).
Yet this cardboard cut-out caricature has been replaced with a new one: that ‘the valleys’ are full of racist, ungrateful morons, whilst Welsh speaking areas are all full of cosmopolitan Europhiles, (something undermined by the fact that the Welsh speaking anthracite coalfields of West Wales also voted leave).
In Wales, some academic analyses (or more accurately, polling) have also strongly intimated that Wales’ leave vote was down to the English population, something which cannot explain the fact that the highest leave voting areas in Wales- the valleys- are also those with the highest % of Welsh born and Welsh identifying people.
The English population in Wales is extremely diverse and in all likelihood the ‘English’ also contributed significantly to the remain vote in Ceredigion, Monmouth and the Vale of Glamorgan, as well as contributing to the leave vote in places like Conwy.
It has also been rightly pointed out that, unlike Scotland, Wales has no national media to counter the xenophobic British press, nor a popular leading party that could offer a relatively coherent case for remain as the SNP did in Scotland.
Whilst there is some truth to all these analyses- and indeed they are often combined together as people try to make sense of it all- focusing on them can obfuscate the most glaringly obvious reasons as to why people voted to leave: capitalism has destroyed Wales, ‘politics’ has failed Wales, devolution has failed to do what it promised to do, and that most people (whether Welsh or English) were upset about being ignored and exploited. Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the right one: the leave vote in Wales was a vote for political change rooted in material conditions and exposure to austerity.
Brexit is the logical outcome of alienation from the political and economic system. Whilst the Welsh ‘devolution industry’ ignores established academic norms that decreasing turnout in elections represent symptoms of distrust and a rejection of politics, there are other, ‘non-political’ indicators that we live in a deeply broken country. How about the rapidly increasing suicide rate?; or our mass dependence on painkillers?.
It would of course be dangerously complacent to deny that there wasn’t an anti-immigration element to the leave vote in Wales, but like in other cases, this is not articulated as blind xenophobia, but is instead a proxy for economic precarity and decreasing wages. It is vital that socialists stand in solidarity with migrants and those groups who may be feeling vulnerable during the present moment and begin a campaign of political education to eradicate national chauvinism.
As the LefT campaign has made clear, the leave vote in Wales was not about Europe per se, but about alienation born of poverty and a hollowing out of democracy. It is important to realise that the conditions that led to Wales’ alienation are of course not unique, although they are exceptionally sharp here and have longer roots.
These symptoms, whilst glaring to those of us who live and work in working class communities, were ignored by Wales’ political and media establishment prior to Brexit, and three years hence, continue to be ignored by the same people- those who have made their careers off the back of our communities, who have profited from devolution and who have remained insulated from austerity.
People who claim with a straight face that a 35% turnout in the 2011 referendum on further powers to the Welsh Assembly was resounding and evidence that devolution is the ‘settled will’ of the Welsh people; who wouldn’t have dreamed of re-running the 1997 devolution referendum despite it being far narrower than the 2016 referendum, have done all they possibly can to overturn the result and pour scorn on the communities who voted to leave.
For these people the idea of people losing faith in the political system, of being angry, of being hurt, is clearly inconceivable.
Most of Wales’ Blairite Labour MPs- who are largely responsible for the sharp decline of the Labour vote in Wales since 1992 — are heavily involved in the Progress/ultra remainer bloc in the PLP, and have been at the forefront of the campaign to depose Jeremy Corbyn. Naturally, they blamed Jeremy Corbyn for the 2016 referendum result rather than face up to their own culpability of meekly accepting and administering the economic paradigm which has created the conditions which drove the leave vote in Wales.
Welsh Labour in the Senedd, despite the election of the deeply underwhelming ‘Corbyn supporter’ Mark Drakeford, remains similarly dominated by pro-EU ultras. Whilst Drakeford feebly tried to hold Labour’s original, principled line of respecting the referendum result, he has gradually been bullied into going hard remain and supporting a second referendum, a position which is sure to cost Labour votes in Wales.
In 1975, Plaid Cymru campaigned against the EC, arguing that an overreliance on EU aid simply confirmed Wales’ position as a dependent periphery, and that regional aid policies were simply designed to reconcile places like Wales to their subordinate position and to open up Wales to foreign capital.
In 2016, many nationalists interpreted the leave vote as representing an existential threat to Wales itself, similar to the trauma of the failed 1979 referendum vote. In response, Plaid have now transformed into an ultra remainer party, even calling for article 50 to be revoked. Indeed, their old socialist leader, Leanne Wood, was deposed last year, allegedly for her principled stance that Plaid Cymru in Westminster should not collaborate with pro remain Tories.
Plaid’s strategy is somewhat bizarre given that poll after poll suggests that significant numbers of Plaid Cymru voters voted to leave. Plaid’s cognitive dissonance over the EU’s silence in the face of Spanish repression of their Catalan allies is a sight to behold, and they similarly stubbornly refuse to engage with those who point to the treatment of the peripheral states by the EU- clear evidence that the same fate would undoubtedly await an independent Wales within the EU.
The arrogance of this response by Wales’ two tokenly left parties is typical of the Welsh political class, unused as they are to any scrutiny or accountability or to having to answer to their constituents. This is a group of people who have been perfectly happy to accept the steady decline in democracy in Wales as long as they keep getting returned by default.
What is to be done?
Earlier this year, the Brexit Party predictably won the EU elections in Wales, simply because they were given an open goal: they could legitimately claim that a democratic vote is being ignored by a political elite. This came as no shock to anyone other than Wales’ political establishment, which even now, refuses to acknowledge the resilience of the leave vote; the reasons why people voted to leave; or the sheer gravity of how what they are doing- overruling a democratic vote– is perceived by working class people.
They are not interested in solving the issues that drove Brexit, only in returning to ‘stability’ (i.e., the old status quo) as soon as possible .
Whilst we of course need to offer radical redistributive policies to people, democracy is ultimately the most powerful tool we have as socialists. Democracy and socialism should always be intertwined- you cannot have one without the other. To win, socialists have to harness people’s anger at the status quo. If we don’t, then the right will. We must ultimately prioritise and empower the people we profess to speak for, the working class, rather than keep them at arms- length from the decision making process (this undemocratic paternalism is, after all, what killed the welfare state).
The transformative power of democracy has been completely forgotten by many on the left in Wales. This is not surprising. Politics here is something which happens to people, not something we have an effect on ourselves. The idea that we could ever have a say over the issues that impact our lives seems fantastical, because for most of us, our votes have never counted: Labour will win no matter who you vote for on the national level, and we will be governed by who the English vote for regardless.
Over time, the idea of democracy itself has faded from view in Wales, reduced to a banal, unthinking ritual for those people who still bother to vote. Certainly, the enthusiastic defence of ‘EU Democracy’ by many Welsh left remainers- the EU parliament cannot pass legislation- suggests that many people have just accepted that democracy is not that important to a socialist programme, that EU handouts are more important than having a say in the decisions that affect your lives.
Yet the democratic deficit- your voice not mattering- is what drove campaigns for Welsh home rule in the early twentieth century, and later, devolution. It is what is driving the growing, vibrant Welsh independence campaign, and a lack of democracy is why socialists like myself who support Welsh independence are similarly against the EU.
In 2016, people who had stayed away from politics for years exercised their right to vote and influenced the result for the first time in generations. Any left project simply cannot be seen to be overruling this vote, cannot be seen to be on the side of establishment politics.
It is the responsibility of leftists in Wales and beyond to re-emphasize the power of democracy, to make it something that is tangible and possible again to all the communities in Wales. This takes on new urgency and relevance given the democratic crisis that is currently unfolding in Westminster.
Dan Evans is Welsh sociologist and founding signatory of the LeFT Campaign, this article was first published here.