Last year, I was in conversation with a couple of members of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party. One was talking about an imminent defection. On that occasion it turned out to be Lee Canning, a former Conservative Party Officer. Not a big coup in terms of the name, but Canning will have seen the inner workings of the Tory campaign machine and no doubt took useful knowledge with him. I acknowledged though that I’d thought the defection might have been Gareth Bennett MS (then AM). I was told that while there was common ground on the issue of the Welsh devolution that there was a reluctance due to other controversies in which Bennett had not only been involved but, judging by the press clippings on his website, of which he was proud. I could understand this hesitancy, but it did not quite ring true. Even if ATWAP did not think Bennett was their ideal advocate, they were hardly in a position to turn down the opportunity to have a representative among Wales’ 60 legislators.
During this Senedd term we have become rather used to defections of regional members, but this one is significant because it is the first representative in the chamber, virtual as it is at present, from a party with the singular aim of abolishing the institution. The closest comparison and one I’ll return to later in this article is with Douglas Carswell’s decision to leave the Conservatives and become UKIP’s first MP. Critics will fairly note that Bennett was not elected on this platform, indeed in 2016 UKIP were supportive of Welsh devolution having previously opposed it. I don’t think it is a secret that this owed more to the party’s potential to win seats than a trip down the constitutional road to Damascus. However, there has been consistent polling which has demonstrated that opposition to the very existence of the Welsh Parliament is a view shared by a significant minority of the electorate.
My own view is that if there is consistently double-digit polling demonstrating support for that position it is reasonable that such a perspective should be heard in the Senedd. The Parliament should be for all of Wales and not just those from or who support the political class. I also think this healthy for our democracy. It is better that the view of ATWAP is heard inside the Senedd where it can be challenged and robustly debated, than for it to be left intellectually unchallenged and able to foment populist anger and resentment against the institution. At the same time, it challenges those in the devo-comfort-zone to confront the fact that not all of Wales thinks like they do and that if they truly want public ‘buy in’ to devolution they still have a task to make their work clearly relevant to the people of Wales.
What then of the next Senedd election? Polling in Wales has been unusually erratic in recent times. On balance it looks unlikely ATWAP would win seats, but neither will they be too far away from the last spot on the regional list in some parts of Wales. In 2016, the new party surprised many with their performance defeating the Lib Dems in some regions and the Greens across the board despite the latter being featured on television debates.
On the one hand a party which since that time has gained the defection of an MS, a senior Conservative Officer, a Tory Councillor and two Brexit Party parliamentary candidates should be in an even stronger position. That might not be the case though, in 2016 with next to no campaign they rode to their respectable result on the simple basis of their brand name. That allowed anyone who wasn’t keen on the Assembly to overlay all their other views onto the blank canvass of a single-issue party. Now, ATWAP will have to have other policies because Gareth Bennett will be taking positions on issues in the Senedd for the next year. Even if the party sought to distinguish the practical need for Bennett to vote on the matters of the day, from ATWAP’s sole purpose it is unlikely that voters will see the distinction.
It is unwise to draw too many parallels in politics. The contextual environment is never quite the same and while history certainly has a tendency to repeat, that does not make it a good guide with which to make predictions. However, I’m going to return to that reference of Carswell’s defection to UKIP because I do see one aspect which has a similar dynamic. A ramshackle party, almost proud of its amateurism, is not about to upturn the political status quo. UKIP didn’t, and I do not think ATWAP will either. What UKIP did achieve was giving the Conservatives a real scare that led to rash decision-making based on polling data and the 2014 European Election result. Despite Nigel Farage’s claim to the contrary, UKIP never could deliver Brexit, but they could influence the Conservatives enough to do so.
I think we are starting to see similar rumblings within the Welsh Tories. Emboldened by Brexit, Conservative members who used to grumble to one another about “the Assembly”, there was rarely a distinction made between the parliament and the government, are now speaking out more openly on the issue. The influential website Conservative Home has a staunch opponent of national devolution as its sole correspondent on matters affecting Wales. Within the last week, I have seen an experienced Conservative councillor promoting the membership drive of ATWAP on social media. Things are changing. At the last Welsh Conservative leadership election, it was unthinkable that either candidate would advocate abolishing the Assembly. By the time of the next leadership contest one wonders whether an anti-devolution candidate could well win a poll of party members.
This is not to say that what happens next is foretold. If the parallel with Brexit does hold water then we are not on the eve of 23rd June 2016, rather we are back in 2014 where the pressure was turned on by UKIP and the Conservatives reacted. Even if the Conservatives reacted as they did to the rise of UKIP, it would not be mirrored exactly because they are not in power in Wales. If the Conservatives are to lead in Wales then they must hold together a fragile voter coalition. This includes those who support devolution but want to see a different government and those who are opposed to devolution in principle. To date, they have achieved this very effectively. Now though they are being outflanked on devo-scepticism and are uncomfortably having to take sides when out-spoken colleagues enter the fray. This experience does have similarities with the build up to Brexit.
It is noticeable in recent Conservative statements that the language has become more robust. Jonathan Morgan lambasted what he called the “sanctimonious, judgemental and illiberal elite” and Paul Davies MS stridently accused “the preachy, sanctimonious politburo that runs Wales” of enjoying “locking down people’s lives”. Whether one agrees with the points being made or not, there is a deliberate choice being made to ratchet up the combative language used, in this instance by two typically mild-mannered and moderate politicians. Is this a reflection of pressure being felt by the growth of an anti-Senedd movement both within and beyond their own party or is it simply stepping up the rhetoric ahead of an election? It is difficult to say.
If the potential risk of losing voters is starkest for the Conservatives, the other parties should not be complacent. The more they throw lazy slurs at Bennett and his new ATWAP colleagues the more they reinforce the narrative of a political elite looking down their noses at ‘us ordinary folk’. Too often labels have been applied to political opponents as if that alone settles the argument. The only thing that settles an argument is winning that debate with facts, reason and explanation. As much as ATWAP, or UKIP before them, might like to bemoan the political class, it suits them to have the ‘us versus them’ narrative entrenched.
The presence of a Member of the Senedd representing a party dedicated to the institution’s abolition is a noteworthy moment. Have ATWAP played a trump card? In part, the answer to that question will depend on how the other parties react.
Written by Nicolas Webb. Nicolas is a Policy and Public Affairs Officer in the health sector who recently graduated with an MSc Econ in International Relations from Cardiff University. He serves on the PAC Committee.