Following the tradition invented on this blog over the last four years, I’m going to use this period – as summer holidays end and we begin a new political year – to reflect on the electoral standing and performance of the main political parties in Wales. As always in Wales, we begin with Labour.
The long-standing dominance of the Labour party in elections in Wales has been well-rehearsed, here and elsewhere. December next year will mark a century since the last general election where Labour did not come first, in both votes and seats, in Wales. And in all that time, there has only been one Wales-wide electoral contest – the 2009 European Parliament election – that Labour didn’t win.
For a time this year, though, it looked as if things might change. The first two Welsh Political Barometer polls of the general election campaign put the Conservatives on historic highs in terms of support, and gave them clear leads over Labour. Though some were sceptical about these polls, the swings since 2015 that they portrayed were very much in line with those in the Britain-wide polling. Moreover, there were plenty of apparent reasons for Labour to be doing badly, and perhaps particularly in Wales. Some of these reasons related to long-term factors, such as the erosion of Labour’s traditional support base. But the short-term context of the 2017 election seemed, back in April and early May, to be leading Labour to an historic defeat. Among the relevant factors were:
- The ground chosen by Theresa May on which to fight the general election was Brexit: for a while, at least, her call for a mandate to deliver on this appeared to have considerable resonance in Wales which had, after all, voted for Brexit.
- The other main pillar of the Conservative election campaign was leadership: contrasting the supposedly ‘strong and stable’ Theresa May with Jeremy Corbyn. This contrast did not, at least early in the campaign, offer to do Labour anything other than harm.
- It has been axiomatic among election analysts for decades that divided parties do not prosper electorally. Yet Labour’s divisions had been publicly advertised for months: most of the party’s parliamentarians had openly spurned the Corbyn leadership, and there had been multiple resignations from the shadow ministerial team.
With the Conservatives starting the election almost twenty-five points ahead in the Britain-wide polls, and leading by ten points in the first Welsh poll, the only question seemed the scale of the forthcoming Labour losses.
There were reasons for some optimism. In a difficult context Welsh Labour had emerged from last year’s National Assembly election with a loss of only one seat. The resilience shown then was on display again in early May at the local elections: the party retained majority control of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, and its overall losses in Wales (unlike in England or Scotland) were very much at the lower end of expectations. Still, they were losses, and the general election would surely produce more of the same.
Then something strange started to happen. Theresa May proved hopelessly ill-at-ease on the campaign trail, and her meltdown undermined one of the two pillars of the Tory own campaign. But far stranger was that Jeremy Corbyn began to change some people’s minds. His comfort in interacting with people on the campaign trail contrasted starkly with the Prime Minister. And the Labour campaign he led began to generate substantial interest and support from, in particular, younger voters – seen most extraordinarily, perhaps in the phenomenon of #grime4Corbyn. The opposition leader’s ratings rose substantially as those of Prime Minister May collapsed.
Welsh voters experienced a rather different campaign from their fellow electors to the east of Offa’s Dyke. Recent experience had suggested that, even in difficult times, Labour in Wales could still win if fighting as Welsh Labour. And with the UK party and leader seen as liabilities at the start of the election, Labour in Wales set out to fight a more distinct and independent campaign than ever before. Two years ago, the Welsh Labour manifesto was a moderately Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document; this time around it was a wholly separate document. And the role of Carwyn Jones was wholly different from in 2015. Then, Labour’s case in the Welsh leaders’ debates was made by Owen Smith, the Shadow Secretary of State; now it was the First Minister who spoke for Labour. In Welsh Labour’s Election Broadcasts, there was plenty of Carwyn, and nothing of Jeremy.
On the surface, the Welsh Labour strategy was a great success. The general election saw not an historic defeat for Labour in Wales, but instead their twenty-sixth successive general election victory. The party won its best vote share in Wales since the first Blair landslide of 1997, and regained three seats from the Conservatives rather than losing the swathe that had appeared possible, or even likely, early in the campaign. Yet the overall swing from Conservative to Labour since 2015 was almost identical in Wales to that in England. It is not self-evident that the distinctive Welsh Labour approach produced any particular electoral benefit.
Since the election Labour have averaged a narrow lead in the Britain-wide polls. And just as Prime Minister May was diminished by the election, so Jeremy Corbyn has emerged strengthened. Almost for the first time since he became leader, since June his job has not been under threat. In Wales, Carwyn Jones has been similarly strengthened. How important the First Minister actually was in shifting additional votes Labour’s way is almost irrelevant: with Labour under pressure before the election, he put everything on the line in placing himself front and centre of the campaign. A successful outcome was therefore a huge personal triumph for him.
Labour’s current electoral state looks strong. Two party politics has apparently re-emerged across England and Wales, and Labour retains its electoral dominance in Wales. But things may be less secure than they appear. Yes, the two largest parties won a larger combined vote share in June than at any election since 1970. But the Conservatives and Labour have the secure, long-term support of far fewer voters than they did forty-seven years ago. Meanwhile, many of the reasons why Labour began the 2017 election with such low expectations have not gone away. Jeremy Corbyn still has very considerable weaknesses as a party leader and potential prime minister, and many Labour MPs still lack faith in his leadership and policy agenda.
Labour are in a much stronger place electorally than seemed plausible a year ago, or even six months ago. If another general election were to happen soon, they would have a realistic chance of winning. But though the last year should surely have taught us to never under-estimate the resilience of the Welsh Labour party, it should also caution us against any over-confident predictions. At least some of the foundations for Labour’s current resurgence may well prove to be shallow.