The Blog

The Valleys After The Brexit Vote

The UK has the widest and worst level of regional inequality. This inequality places Wales in a conundrum. We are "too poor" to be able to afford to be independent of either EU or UK subsidies. Yet the Assembly has gained neither the powers nor the economic levers to change that fact from within the British state.

Where do we stand in the valleys following the EU referendum result?

It looks like the Leave vote was driven by people in those places which had been "left behind" in Wales. If that is the case, we need to understand why.

Most valleys politicians, myself included, backed the Remain side, while most people in valleys communities voted to Leave.

The result was not a shock. It was clear some time before the result that there were many unmovable leave voters where I live in the Rhondda. Leave won here, but the vote was not unanimous. It was relatively close. People on the losing Remain side cannot be written off.

On both sides, there are still many diverse views as to what Brexit should now mean. Matters like whether or not we should pursue EEA membership, whether free movement of people will continue, and what we will do as Wales in terms of our constitutional position are yet to be decided.

The voices of both sides in the referendum deserve to be heard in the debate on such questions. We need to move on from the divisiveness of this binary choice referendum and all pull together now to work out how we can make the best of this new situation for the valleys. Yes, there will be challenges and we will need to be honest about what they are. But there will be opportunities too, and we can't afford not to grab every one of them.

Since the referendum, I've hosted a series of public meetings in the valleys as part of a Wales-wide tour. I've also spent some time going around the doorsteps in the Rhondda with local Plaid Cymru councillors. The conversations I have had since June 23rd tell me that contrary to popular belief, people in valleys communities have not suddenly all turned stupid and racist. Yes there is fear of immigration, despite the fact that immigration levels are amongst the lowest anywhere in the UK.

For too many people in valleys communities, there is a tangible absence of hope. Combine this with an embedded sense of frustration and gloom and it's no wonder people are desperate for things to change.

June's referendum result was a vote against the establishment or government parties in both London and Cardiff as much as it was a vote against those politicians and so called bureaucrats of the EU. It was also a cry out against the effects of austerity. In May's elections to the National Assembly for Wales, that desire for change translated into a swing to Plaid Cymru in many valleys constituencies, and both results point to a continuing weaknesses within the Labour party infrastructure in much of the valleys.

There are plenty of examples from media clips following the referendum result which show disillusioned leave voters pointing to a lack of decent jobs and mourning the decline of the traditional heavy industries. The problems in the steel industry have undoubtedly exacerbated this feeling.

Fear of immigration is linked to this. The shortage of job and opportunities in the valleys means immigration numbers are comparatively low. People from overseas tend to be drawn to where the job opportunities are. Immigration therefore is a sign of a success rather than failure.

British nationalism combined with the rhetoric of "taking back control" seemed to be attractive to people for whom prosperity has not been seen for a long, long time. In better off areas, the appeals to Britishness did not work as effectively. The Leave campaign didn't start with a blank canvas and could channel this sense of grievance, disillusionment and frustration into the desire to take back control from market forces and establishment politics.

Leaving the European Union will not solve the problems facing the valleys. We are now forced to find other solutions. And find them we will.

The starting point is to recognise, acknowledge and accept what has been done to the valleys by successive Westminster governments, as well as the impact of a lack of intervention. What has been tried to date has failed. We must now be prepared to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The key lesson we need to learn is that for valleys decline, see Westminster rule. Not Brussels rule. It is successive governments in Westminster, not Brussels, that de-industrialised our communities and made insufficient effort to replace the declining heavy industries.

The gap between Welsh GVA (gross value added) and that of the UK was evident before we had the National Assembly and devolution. Since then, while our devolved Assembly has had few powers and tools to impact prosperity levels, GVA has further declined compared to the UK. In 1999, the first year of devolved government, it was 72% compared to the UK. There have been a handful of years since then where Welsh GVA has nudged above the UK level, but in the latest ONS figures, it is at 71.4%.

Most EU member-states have lower inequality levels between their poorest and wealthiest regions. The UK has the widest and worst level of regional inequality.

This inequality places Wales in a conundrum. We are "too poor" to be able to afford to be independent of either EU or UK subsidies. Yet the Assembly has gained neither the powers nor the economic levers to change that fact from within the British state.

Those who support Westminster rule in Wales should do more to explain how the Assembly can be given the economic powers or responsibilities needed to turn the economy around. Nothing they have presented to date has worked.

We therefore need a valleys response to Brexit at the local and national levels.

Locally in the valleys, we need to do more for ourselves. It is now up to us to discover the strength we have within to revive our communities. Plaid Cymru will start this work ahead of next May's local council elections, where we will prove that the EU referendum is not a lasting verdict on the future of the valleys.

Just as some people in the valleys voted to reject the establishment in both London and Brussels, it is time now to consider the record of the Labour party, which has run most valleys local authorities for decades. It has become complacent.

At a national level, we need to demonstrate to people how Westminster rule has impoverished and de-industrialised our communities Wales, and how this has had a specific effect on the valleys, which was the birthplace of world industry.

People in the valleys in Wales can no longer be ignored. The process of rebuilding our once proud valleys communities will be a two way street - where people are for once listened to and then involved in politics and in designing the solutions. For our part in the Party of Wales, we can and must agree with our communities that the lack of decent job prospects and the stifling austerity, are issues which have to be tackled head-on.

Now, post-Brexit is a good time to reassert Wales as a nation by gaining more power to provide our solutions for ourselves.