New Poll of Cardiff Central

 

Regular readers of the Blog – and anyone not a regular reader should ask themself some searching questions – will recall discussion in May of a constituency poll in Cardiff North by Lord Ashcroft. This was one of a series of detailed polls of marginal Labour-Conservative constituencies conducted by every psephologist’s favourite former non-dom.

Now, Lord Ashcroft has released findings from a series of polls conducted in a different set of constituencies – the Liberal Democrat marginals. And one of those is also a Cardiff seat – Cardiff Central. This is a seat that was captured from Labour by the Liberal Democrats for the National Assembly in 1999, and for Westminster in 2005. However, in 2011, it was narrowly re-taken by Labour for the Assembly.

The poll was conducted (by telephone) between 3-14 September, so the fieldwork is relatively recent. A full sample of 1000 voters was obtained. (This is unlike many individual constituency polls in the past, where inadequate samples have been obtained).

As with Lord Ashcroft’s previous constituency polls, a number of different figures are reported for voting intention. Probably the most important is that which asks respondents “Thinking specifically about your own parliamentary constituency at the next General Election and the candidates who are likely to stand for election to Westminster there, which party’s candidate do you think you will vote for in your own constituency?”. This question makes every effort – as much as can be made at this stage, when we don’t have final confirmation of who all the candidates will be for all the parties – to tap into constituency-specific factors. This question can certainly produce different results from that obtained by a ‘standard’ voting intention question, which simply asks “If there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”

Lord Ashcroft’s poll gets the following figures for the main parties (weighted for likelihood to vote):

 

Standard Question

Labour: 37%

Conservative: 22%

Lib-Dems: 16%

UKIP: 10%

Greens: 7%

Plaid Cymru: 6%

Others: 1%

 

Constituency-Specific Question

Labour: 36%

LibDems: 24%

Conservative: 17%

UKIP: 9%

Plaid Cymru: 9%

Greens: 5%

There was also an interesting question about levels of local contact – asking people whether any of the parties had “contacted you over the last few weeks” by various means (including leafletting and canvassing); here, the Liberal Democrats had a clear edge, with 28% of respondents reporting having been contacted by them, compared to 18% contacted by Labour, and with all the other parties unsurprisingly well behind in what looks like a clear two-horse race.

The standard voting intention question would suggest that the Liberal Democrats are completely out of contention in Cardiff Central. The more constituency-specific question gives Jenny Willott a much better chance of holding on to the seat. Nonetheless, it still puts her some way behind Labour, who must currently be considered to be the favourites to win.

One of the problems facing the Lib-Dems is captured in a further question in the poll. This asks respondents whether there are any parties that they would definitely not vote for in the general election. Among those who report voting for the Lib-Dems in 2010, fully 36% say that they definitely would not vote for them now – almost as many as say they would not vote Labour (42%). By contrast, only 11% of those who supported Labour in 2010 indicate that they would not vote for the party now. While they continue to drain away so much of their past support, the Liberal Democrats will find it hard to hold on to many of their current seats.

Who Will Vote?

 

One of the features of the Scottish referendum that has elicited considerable comment was the level of turnout. At 84.6%, the turnout figure was 20.8% higher than in the 2010 general election, and a full 34.6% above that recorded in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. While this was, in the end, no great shock – reflecting the extraordinary levels of public engagement and participation generated by the referendum campaign – it was still something that in a broader context should be seen as quite remarkable. On no previous occasion in the democratic era had such a high percentage of the Scottish electorate participated in a ballot.

As the attention of the psephological community returns to the rather more mundane matters of mere general elections and the like, the issue of voter turnout will remain important. This is not because anyone – at least, certainly no-one with whom I am familiar – is expecting voter turnout at the next general election to reach 85%. I would be fairly confident that participation levels will be substantially lower, probably somewhere in the 60s%. But lower (and even low) turnout can be every bit as important and interesting as high turnout. Most obviously, it opens up substantial scope for differential turnout among the potential supporters of the various parties. As both scholars and most party activists have long understood, success in elections is not just about persuading people to support your party. At least as important is mobilising your existing support – making sure that those sympathetic to you actually do go out and vote.

With that in mind, the Welsh Political Barometer polls have begun including a ‘likelihood to vote’ question relating to general election turnout. We will, I very much hope, include this question in all our polls up to next May’s general election. Before discussing the detailed figures, though, a cautionary note is in order. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog [http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/2014/05/29/so-how-did-we-do/], all polls that attempt to estimate voter turnout seem to over-estimate it. This is true not only of those conducted before elections, but even of those done afterwards, and it appears to be particularly the case for on-line polls. There are various reasons for this. One is that some people do seem to lie – giving what they may perceive as a more ‘socially acceptable’ answer to the pollsters by saying that they voted even when they didn’t. A bigger problem, though, seems to be that the sorts of people who don’t vote are, disproportionately, the sorts of people who also don’t answer opinion polls!

 

How do we address this problem? One method, often used these days in post-election surveys, is to offer respondents a question phrased in such a way as to make non-voting seem a wholly respectable behaviour. Thus, in the post-election wave of the 2011 Welsh Election Study, we asked the following to respondents: “Many people have told us that they didn’t manage to vote in the election for the National Assembly for Wales. How about you – did you manage to vote in the election?” This may address at least some of the ‘social acceptability’ issue.

For pre-election surveys, a method now used by several pollsters is to offer respondents a 0-10 scale (where 0 means ‘not vote’ and 10 means ‘definitely would vote), asking them how likely they are to vote in the election. Such scales are not flawless – our final Barometer poll before the European Parliament election in May saw 55% of respondents say that they were 10/10 certain to vote. What may be most useful are not the absolute levels of turnout that such questions ‘predict’, but the relative positions of supporters of the different parties. That is, the polls probably can’t tell us to the second decimal place what the overall percentage turnout will be next May. But they plausibly can give us a good indication of which party’s supporters are currently most motivated to go out and vote in the general election.

Our latest Barometer poll used the 0-10 scale question, linking it specifically to “the UK General Election next May”. So what did we find? In the table below, I offer two summary measures for each of the five main parties. This shows the percentage choosing the 10/10 ‘definitely will vote’ option, and the average score out of 10, for those who indicated that they would vote for this party in the next general election.

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

74

9.28

Conservative

77

9.52

LibDems

59

8.84

Plaid

78

9.26

UKIP

83

9.47

So what do these figures tell us? Perhaps the clearest message relates to the Liberal Democrats. Not only was their level of support in this poll low – only 6% of respondents offering a voting intention indicated that they would support the party in the general election. But even among those few supporters the party has retained levels of certainty to vote are relatively low: their voters are the least certain to vote of all the main parties. This is truly a grim position for the Lib-Dems to find themselves in.

Among the other parties there are relatively minor differences. On one measure – the percentage of 10/10 responses – UKIP seems to have the strongest degree of support; on the other, the Conservatives are slightly ahead. Labour and Plaid are slightly behind, but not by much. Still, these figures may be a bit concerning for Labour: in a potentially very close election where every vote could count, even modest differences in likelihood to vote could really matter. But maybe the most important thing that these results point to is that much of UKIP support looks pretty motivated! This does not look just like a spasm of protest that is destined to melt away, or armchair grumbling that won’t manifest itself on polling day. For UKIP this is clearly good news; for the opponents not so much.

 

ADDITION: I had just finished drafting this post when I was sent the details of the BBC Wales-ICM poll. Interestingly, that too includes a 0-10 certainty to vote question. Even more interestingly, it offers a rather different picture to that presented by YouGov in the Barometer poll. Here are ICM’s figures:

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

71

9.03

Conservative

72

9.06

LibDems

56

8.73

Plaid

59

8.32

UKIP

63%

8.74

The news here continues to be grim for the Liberal Democrats, with relatively low levels of certainty to vote even among their much-reduced support base. The main difference between the two polls is that Plaid Cymru’s position on certainty to vote looks much weaker with ICM than it does with YouGov. Given that ICM seem to show higher levels of voting support for Plaid, perhaps these two factors balance out. But UKIP’s position also looks rather weaker with ICM, who at the same time are showing them on a slightly lower level of voting support than are YouGov.

 

Why should these two, highly-esteemed, survey agencies come to rather different pictures on certainty to vote? To be frank, I’m unsure. I suspect that it may well be related to the very different methodologies used by the two companies (YouGov use internet polling, ICM’s poll used telephone sampling). But I’m not clear as to why these two methods should produce results that differ in this way. I’m also unsure as to which set of results I find the most believable. What I think these two sets of figures do reinforce is the importance of continuing to keep an eye, over the next few months, on likelihood to vote. In a general election that nearly everyone expects to be very close, voter turnout could make all the difference.

 

New BBC/ICM Poll!

 

BBC Wales are publishing today some findings from a new opinion poll. [Edit, 25/09/14: the first part of the detailed results have now been released, and can be found here]. Conducted by ICM, by telephone, it was run shortly after the confirmation of the result of the Scottish independence referendum. [Disclosure: I was consulted by the BBC about the content of the poll, and made some suggestions on question wording].

The poll mainly covered attitudes to the result of the Scottish independence referendum, and public views on what should happen now – both regarding potential further devolution for Scotland, and how Wales should now be governed. There were lots of interesting results in the poll; some are discussed here, while I will review and comment on others in a future blog post.

In addition to all these questions about the future governance of the UK, however, the poll also asked about voting intentions for the general election. This is useful not merely because it provides another measure of such intentions, but because it offers one not coming from a poll conducted by YouGov. That comment is in no way a slight on YouGov (who have been, and continue to be, a pleasure to work with); it is simply an observation that it is valuable to have different polling companies measuring voting support. This was the second BBC-ICM poll in 2014 to ask about general election voting intention. The figures (with changes from the previous BBC-ICM poll, conducted in February, in brackets) are:

 

Party

Vote Intention

Labour

38% (-4)

Conservative

23% (-1)

Liberal Democrats

7% (-2)

Plaid Cymru

13% (-1)

UKIP

14% (+7)

Others

4% (no change)

Projecting ICM’s figures to a general election – using the standard uniform national swing approach – produces the following outcome:

Labour: 28 MPs. (Holding all 26 seats won in 2010, and also winning Cardiff North from the Conservatives and Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats).

Conservatives: 8 MPs. (Losing Cardiff North to Labour, but winning – very narrowly – Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats).

LibDems: 1 MP. (Losing Brecon & Radnor and Cardiff Central, but holding Ceredigion).

Plaid Cymru: 3 MPs (Holding their current 3 seats).

Although the poll has UKIP in third place in popular support on 14%, on uniform swing assumptions they do not actually come even close to winning a seat anywhere. Nonetheless, UKIP support clearly is reaching the sort of levels where they might plausibly make a difference to who does win some seats.

In general, this poll is very much in line with the current trends that other polls have been showing. Here is the full list of polls on UK general election voting intention conducted and reported this year so far:

Poll

Lab

Con

Lib-Dem

Plaid

ukip

others*

Lord Aschroft, Jan 2014 (published March)

40

24

6

15

13

3

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 2014

47

22

7

11

9

4

BBC Wales/ICM, Feb 2014

42

24

9

14

7

4

FoES/YouGov, April 2014

45

24

7

11

10

3

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 2014

43

22

7

11

13

5

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 2014

41

25

5

11

14

5

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 2014

38

23

6

11

17

6

BBC-Wales/ICM, September 2014

38

23

7

13

14

4

 

Taken together, these numbers give the following averages for 2014 as a whole:

Labour: 41.8%

Conservatives: 23.4%

LibDems: 6.8%

Plaid: 12.1%

UKIP: 12.1%

 

It is encouraging that ICM’s figures are so close to those produced by the recent Welsh Political Barometer poll conducted by YouGov – that two such highly-respected companies, using wholly different polling methods, are producing identical figures for the two largest parties, and have all five main parties within the ‘margin of error’, rather increases our confidence in the findings.

ICM’s findings reinforce the point, made previously on this blog, that Labour support in Wales has slipped considerably over the past 18-24 months. In the four polls conducted in 2012, Labour’s general election vote share was always at or above 50%. Both the last two have had it below 40%. Indeed, it is notable that while Labour across Britain as a whole is running generally well ahead of the 29.0% vote share it won at the 2010 general election (as of this morning, Labour was on 35% in the UK Polling Report running average), in Wales Labour’s support level is now only 2% points above that gained in 2010.

Two years ago, Ed Miliband could have confidently looked forward to Wales delivering him several seat gains at the general election; now, Welsh Labour’s seat harvest looks likely to be much smaller. That is probably the most important single message to come out of the recent polls on general election voting intention here in Wales.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 5: UKIP

 

This time last year I didn’t write about UKIP. It seemed justifiable at the time. The party had few councillors in Wales (to be precise, a total of two on Wales’ twenty-two local authorities), having made conspicuously little impact in the May 2012 local elections. UKIP also had no MPs or AMs, and while they had won a Welsh seat in the European Parliament in 2009, by August 2013 their MEP was increasingly semi-detached from his own party. UKIP also appeared to be making more limited ground in the opinion polls in Wales than in England; it was not clear from the polls that the party was on course to win many, if any, seats in the National Assembly in 2016. In the YouGov poll published on this site in July 2013, for instance, UKIP support in Wales was still firmly in single figure percentages for both Westminster and the National Assembly constituency vote.

It is a measure of the extent to which things have changed in the last twelve months that it longer feels remotely credible to exclude UKIP from my review of the electoral state of the main parties in Wales. The most obvious reason for that is this year’s European election. Prior to 2014, UKIP’s performance in these elections had always been notably poorer in Wales than in England: in 1999, 2004 and 2009, Wales was either UKIP’s second or third weakest ‘region’ in Britain in vote share (with Scotland always being the weakest, and London twice narrowly beating Wales for second place). The Celts, it seemed, were generally averse to a party that, some research had suggested, drew its support in England heavily from those who identified themselves primarily as English rather than British.

Even as the European election approached, and the polls showed UKIP support rising in Wales, it still seemed likely that they would do notably less well here than in England. In the event that did not happen: UKIP came within 0.6% of topping the poll in Wales, scored a percentage vote in Wales that was only 1.5% behind the 29.1% secured in England, and its 14.8% rise in vote share since 2009 was its third highest of any region in Britain (behind only the East Midlands and the East of England). Moreover, UKIP did not merely do well in the more ‘anglicised’ parts of Wales (although these were where it topped the poll). Its performance was strong everywhere: UKIP came first or second in every single local authority across Wales, the only party to achieve this.

How did UKIP do so well? Its success was not built upon an obviously thriving party machinery across Wales. In other respects, though, we can at least in retrospect see a basis for significant UKP support in Wales. First and perhaps foremost, Wales has a great many of the economically ‘left behinds’, those whom Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have identified as a key support base for UKIP. Second, there is considerable support in Wales for UKIP’s stance on immigration: as some forthcoming research will show, attitudes here are every bit as hard-line as in England (and rather more so than in Scotland). Third, it may also be the case that the long-standing antipathy to the Conservatives in much of Wales also played to UKIP’s advantage: socially conservative working-class voters, who have often become ‘working class Tories’ in much of England, in Wales in 2014 may have jumped straight from Labour to UKIP. They would hardly have been discouraged from doing so by the hapless Euro-election campaigning efforts of Ed Miliband.

Of course, European elections are very far from an infallible guide to the outcomes of other electoral contests. UKIP did quite well in the 2009 European election across Britain, before performing miserably in the 2010 general election. However, even polling on voting intentions for the general election and Assembly election has shown UKIP making some ground in Wales in recent times: in polls thus far this year UKIP has averaged 12.2% for Westminster voting intention, 10.3% for the Assembly constituency vote, and 13.4% for the Assembly regional list vote.

What does this suggest for UKIP’s electoral prospects in Wales? Despite these improved poll ratings, there still appears little chance of the party winning a Westminster seat next May. (UKIP’s best performance in the 201 general election in Wales was their 3.5% in Ynys Môn: not only 29.9% behind Labour’s winning candidate, Albert Owen, but also behind several other parties). What UKIP might well be able to do, though, is affect who does win some seats. If their vote share in Wales remains at roughly the levels currently indicated in the polls, they will be attracting sufficient numbers of votes that this could conceivably make a difference to who wins in some, more marginal seats.

It is in the 2016 National Assembly election that UKIP’s prospects of electing representatives would seem to be brighter. The semi-proportional voting system allows UKIP the possibility of gaining some regional list seats. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, which put UKIP on 17% for the regional list vote, would on uniform swings from 2011 put UKIP on course to win eight Assembly list seats.  But of course the next Assembly election is almost two years away; success there will require UKIP to sustain its current momentum for a considerable period of time. And we might want to remember that in both the last two NAW elections UKIP talked up their chances of winning list seats but ultimately failed to deliver. Their recent success may also be something of a double-edged sword. The party will have to be ready to cope with the increased level of scrutiny and criticism it will receive. As their newly-elected MEP Nathan Gill has already discovered, this is not always very comfortable. UKIP’s opponents and the media will also surely not continue to allow them to spend so much time talking about Europe and immigration in the future. The party will have to have credible things also to say on issues like tax, health and education.

UKIP have clearly arrived as a serious force in party politics in Wales. But arriving is one thing, staying is another, as the history of radical right and protest parties in Europe has shown. Some, like the Austrian Freedom Party, the Danish Progress Party and the French Front National, become significant long-term forces. Others rise only to fade away. One of the big questions in party politics over the next few years concerns which of these categories UKIP will end up being placed into. It’s going to be interesting to watch.

New Welsh Political Barometer Poll

 

This week sees publication of the latest poll conducted by the Welsh Political Barometer – a unique collaboration between ITV Cymru Wales, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, and the leading polling agency YouGov.

The poll provides us with a valuable opportunity to assess the state of the parties: as the political season resumes after the summer break, the main parties all approach their autumn conferences, and we look forward to a general election next May.

The poll asked our usual questions about voting intentions for next May’s general election, as well for both votes in the National Assembly election. So, what were the findings for Westminster? We got the following results for general election vote intention (with changes from the July Barometer poll in brackets):

  • Labour 38% (-3)
  • Conservative 23% (-2)
  • Plaid Cymru 11% (no change)
  • UKIP 17% (+3)
  • Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
  • Others 6% (+1)

Although Labour remains some way in the lead, this is yet another poll that shows its support continuing to ebb. This 38% score is Labour’s lowest in any published Welsh poll since the 2010 general election.

The Conservatives’ modest decline sees them revert to the level of support they have typically enjoyed in Welsh polls over the last few years, after an unusually high score in July’s Barometer. They remain only a few percentage points short of their performance in the 2010 general election. The contrast with their coalition partners continues to be stark: although they have actually improved a notch since last time, at 6%, Lib-Dem support is more than 14 points below their vote share in 2010. Plaid Cymru continue to hold steady, at a support level pretty much identical with how they did in 2010: although not terrible news, they will probably be disappointed with a lack of progress here. Meanwhile – perhaps boosted by the news of Douglas Carswell’s defection, which came shortly before the fieldwork for this poll was conducted – UKIP continue to advance in their support levels for Westminster.

If the changes since the 2010 general election implied by these figures were repeated uniformly across Wales, this would produce the following outcome in terms of seats (with changes from the 2010 election outcome indicated in brackets):

  • Labour: 28 seats (+2)
  • Conservatives: 8 seats (no change)
  • Plaid Cymru: 3 seats (no change)
  • Liberal Democrats: 1 seat (-2)

Only three seats are projected by this poll to change hands: Labour would capture Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats and Cardiff North from the Conservatives, while the Conservatives would take Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats.

What about the National Assembly? For the constituency vote, the results of our new poll were (with changes from May’s Barometer poll in brackets):

  • Labour 36% (-1)
  • Conservative 21% (no change)
  • Plaid Cymru 19% (-1)
  • Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
  • UKIP 12% (-1)
  • Others 6% (+2)

Here too, we see Labour’s support continuing to edge downwards. Although the change since last time is well within the sampling ‘margin of error’, 36% is their lowest support level with YouGov for the Assembly constituency vote since May 2010. The change since July is tiny, but it continues a series of polls that have seen Labour’s support slip considerably over the last 18 months or so. The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru are holding steady; so also are the Lib-Dems though at a much lower level of support. The surprise, perhaps is that UKIP’s rise in support for Westminster is not mirrored here by any advance in their support base for the National Assembly; if anything, they have slipped back.

Applying the changes since the 2011 Assembly election implied by these figures uniformly across Wales, only one constituency seat projected to change hands from 2011 on the figures from this poll: that is Llanelli, being won by Plaid Cymru from Labour.

For the regional list vote, we saw the following results (with changes from the May Barometer poll again indicated):

  • Labour 31% (-3)
  • Conservative 21% (no change)
  • UKIP 17% (+1)
  • Plaid Cymru 16% (-2)
  • Greens 7% (+3)
  • Liberal Democrats 5% (no change)
  • Others 3% (no change)

Once again we see Labour’s support level continuing to erode, as it has consistently over recent polls. Most of the other parties hold more or less steady, within the margin of error – although these figures will again surely be rather disappointing to Plaid Cymru. Perhaps the most interesting feature of these findings is the rise in support for the Greens, who have now moved ahead of the Liberal Democrats on the list vote, relegating the latter to a somewhat ignominious sixth place.

Taking into account both the constituency and list results, this produces the following projected seat outcome for a National Assembly election (with aggregate changes from 2011 indicated in brackets):

  • Labour: 29 (-1); 27 constituency AMs, 2 list AMs
  • Conservative: 11 (-3); 6 constituency AMs, 5 list AMs
  • Plaid Cymru: 10 (-1); 6 constituency AMs, 4 list AMs
  • UKIP 9 (+9); all 9 would be list AMs
  • Liberal Democrats: 1 (-4); 1 constituency AM

These projections indicate the possibility, on the results implied by the current poll, of UKIP becoming a significant force within the National Assembly, and largely doing so at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. As with the last Barometer poll in July, our new poll projects Kirsty Williams in Brecon & Radnor to be the only remaining Lib Dem AM.

Overall, this poll confirms the continuation of the trend, observable over the last year or more, of Labour support declining. Labour’s support for the Assembly, on both the constituency and list votes, is now not only well below the levels they won in 2011; it is also below the levels won in 1999 and 2003. The saving grace for Labour, however, is that there is no single strong challenger to them emerging. Labour continue to be on the slide, but none of the other parties is yet taking full advantage of this.

I’ll be back later on this week – or, more likely given events in Scotland, next week – with further analysis of some of the details in this poll.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 4: the Liberal Democrats

 

Last year’s review of the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Liberal Democrats started with the words ‘Oh dear’, before going on to detail the many electoral misfortunes of the party. Twelve months on, it is difficult to see that things have in any way improved; indeed, one might plausibly suggest that things have actually worsened.

The party’s current travails can be traced very precisely back to May 2010. The party going into coalition at the UK level with the Conservatives was always likely to impose some electoral costs on their Welsh arm: beyond the electoral price that is typically paid for being a junior coalition partner was the damage from being so closely associated with a Conservative party that has long been anathema to many Welsh voters. What must seem very unfair to many Welsh Liberal Democrats, however, is that while support levels for their coalition partners have remained notably resilient, the junior partners have taken, and continue to take, such a serious hit in terms of lost votes and lost popularity. Acting as a human shield for the Tories was not what most Lib-Dems thought they were signing up for in 2010.

What has followed has been a series of electoral setbacks and humiliations, with no signs at all yet that things are improving or that a corner has been turned. This year’s European election saw the party hit a new nadir. Sure, the party was never very likely to win an MEP in Wales – having failed to do so in 1999, 2004 and 2009, none in the party can have harboured any illusions that success was likely in 2014. But to gain merely 4% of the vote in the land of Lloyd George was utterly abject. Nor could Liberal Democrats take much comfort from a substantially better performance in a few bastions: their ‘relatively good’ performances in Ceredigion and Powys meant that they actually scraped into double-figures in percentage share of the vote there. Nonetheless, the party still came fourth in both counties. Cardiff was the only other local authority area in which they gained more than 5% of the vote, but this still meant a sixth place finish.

Of course, European elections are rather strange events (and arguably have become steadily stranger over time). But the opinion polls do not paint much better a picture for the Liberal Democrats in Wales – indeed, if anything they have worsened this year from an already poor position in 2013.

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

6.0

7.0

2013

8.3

9.0

2014

6.6

6.7

So is there any room for optimism? Well, just a little, perhaps. One positive is that, amidst their manifold difficulties over the last few years, the party has largely remained united. Within Wales, the only remotely significant figure making sustained public criticism of the party’s leadership and strategy has been the former MP for Montgomery – a figure sufficiently discredited by his own behaviour that he would probably do more harm to the leadership by offering ostentatious praise… A colleague attending the party’s Welsh conference this spring observed how striking was the loyalty that delegates showed, even in private conversations, both for the coalition and for the party leadership. But, of course, those showing such loyalty are the people that have stayed in the party. Many others have quietly drifted away, and the other main impression my colleague drew from the conference was simply how small it was in scale. Outside the main strongholds of Ceredigion, Powys and Cardiff, party membership in Wales must now be in the low hundreds; much of Wales simply does not have serious Liberal Democrat constituency parties.

A second possible cause for optimism concerns key personnel. Even in such a difficult political environment, Kirsty Williams has steadily grown in stature as an effective leader for the party in Wales. Several of her Assembly colleagues have also impressed; despite their small numbers, the Lib-Dems have arguably been the most effective party ‘pound-for-pound’ during the current Assembly term. Both individually and collectively, they have carved out profiles on a number of specific issues, and been able to deliver identifiable results on several occasions – although it is far from clear that such work will have any significant electoral pay-offs. Perhaps of greater, and certainly more immediate, electoral relevance have been the efforts of their MPs to develop their personal profile as constituency representatives. That Mark Williams, for instance, will start the election as favourite to hold off Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion is almost entirely down to his own reputation within the seat.

So what of Liberal Democrat prospects for next May’s general election? They won’t need me to tell them that things look difficult. I suppose the one benefit of this is that is clarifies the party’s objectives greatly. The strategy will, one assumes, be pretty much the complete opposite of 2010, where ‘Clegg-mania’ led to the party over-optimistically spreading its resources too thinly. In 2015 we will witness what my friend Phil Cowley of Nottingham University has – in somewhat questionable taste – termed the ‘Zulu’ strategy: like the redcoats at Rourke’s Drift, the Liberal Democrats, pushed back to the ‘last round of mealie bags’, will simply aim to cling on to their core strongholds. Unless the political context changes in some unforeseeable and dramatic way – Clegg-mania II, anyone? – the party will surely be reduced to running ‘paper’ candidates and virtually non-existent campaigns, outside around 40-45 seats across Britain that are realistically defensible. The campaigns in those last redoubts, moreover, will surely focus heavily on local candidates and constituency representation rather than the UK-wide picture. If this is done in a disciplined and effective manner, if neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any great momentum behind them, and with UKIP siphoning some support from both, then it is possible to imagine the Liberal Democrats escaping from the general election with a greatly reduced vote share but still with 35 or so MPs, 2 or 3 of whom could come from Wales.

Then, in a new political landscape and probably under new leadership (and with Kirsty Williams perhaps being called upon to play an increasing role UK-wide?), the party may be able to begin to renew itself while still having a significant parliamentary basis on which to build. But this, we should note, is the optimistic scenario! The next year for the Liberal Democrats will certainly be difficult. It could be very bloody indeed.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 3: Plaid Cymru

 

In this, my third look at the electoral state of the parties, I turn to Plaid Cymru. Twelve months ago, when I reviewed the party’s recent electoral fortunes, I reflected on ‘more than a decade of pretty abject electoral failure’, with no more than fragmentary indications of recovery. Have things improved at all in the last year?

On one obvious measure, at least, the answer would appear to be no. In May’s European election Plaid Cymru’s vote share was down more than 3% from what they won in a far from outstanding electoral performance in 2009. Self-evidently, this was not an advance for Plaid. However, the 15.3% that they gained was enough for them to hold onto their seat in the European Parliament. Retaining that seat had looked distinctly unlikely for most of the period prior to the election, with all the polls bar the very final one putting Plaid clearly on course to lose out. Fighting against both a Labour party in significantly better shape than in 2009 and an advancing UKIP tide, Plaid arguably did well to hold their ground.

The opinion polls over the last year have not shown any great leap forwards for Plaid. But nor have they been wholly static. Both in polls for the general election and for the National Assembly, Plaid have made at least a modest amount of ground over the last year; the most recent BBC/ICM poll put the party in a clear second place for the Assembly constituency vote, and gave Plaid their highest score since 2009. This may be limited progress, but it is progress nonetheless. And that is unquestionably better than the alternative.

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

10.5

17.25

2013

10.33

18.0

2014

12.1

20.2

 

The effective rallying of Plaid’s vote in the European election, and the strong performance in both local elections and the Assembly by-election on Ynys Môn in 2013, have suggested that Plaid may be re-discovering how to fight elections effectively after some years of lassitude and decline. There are other causes for at least qualified Plaid optimism: the steady decline in Labour support over the last year or more; the slowly growing profile, confidence and public popularity of Leanne Wood; and the possibility of a more favourable electoral context in 2016 than was the case in 2011. None of this makes a repeat of 1999’s ‘quiet earthquake’ inevitable, or even likely, but it does suggest that somewhat brighter electoral prospects for the party may well lie ahead.

In the short term, next May’s UK general election looms. Plaid’s priorities for this election would seem to be clear. First and foremost they must hang onto the three seats that they currently hold, and avoid another body blow to morale as suffered in both 2001 and 2005 from losing parliamentary seats that should not have been lost. Dwyfor Meirionydd ought to remain secure for Plaid despite Elfyn Llwyd’s retirement from Westminster. However, neither Arfon nor Carmarthen East & Dinefwr are certain holds against a Labour party looking to make gains in Wales. (Arfon requires only a 3% swing to Labour to fall; Carmarthen East & Dinefwr a 4.6% swing).

Second, it would be an enormous morale booster for the party if they were able to gain a seat (or maybe even, if things were going really well for them, two). After their strong performances on the island in 2013, Ynys Môn looks the obvious Plaid target. Yet this requires a swing from Labour to Plaid in an election where Labour will generally be looking to advance rather than lose ground. Beyond that, Ceredigion may just be a possible: it requires a big (11%) swing, but a stronger Plaid candidate than in 2010 and a softening of Liberal Democrat support among the large student vote might just put it into play. After that, Plaid’s remaining priority would seem to be to put in place some advance ground work for seats that will be targets in 2016: such as Llanelli, Aberconwy and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire.

A significant problem for Plaid, however, is that these short-term priorities and goals will require channelling resources into parts of Wales that do little to help Plaid address its longer-term stategic objectives. As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere, if Plaid Cymru are ever to crack Labour’s hegemony over Welsh politics then they must break out of their traditional north and west Wales heartland, and be consistently challenging for seats across south Wales. Without beginning to make a serious impact on Labour’s stranglehold over the constituency seats in the three south Wales regions, Plaid can never challenge Labour effectively for the status of largest party in the Assembly. Senior figures in the party are fully aware of this. But they are also, surely, aware that investments of resources in south Wales will have uncertain short-term payoffs, and risk denuding Plaid’s efforts in more immediately promising territory. There is no obvious answer to this dilemma.

As I mentioned this time last year, one of Leanne Wood’s favourite Welsh words seems to be ‘Ymlaen’. Over the last twelve months, her party has indeed moved forwards. But a UK general election, in which a Wales-only party will inevitably be marginalised by the UK news-media, presents risks as well as opportunities. And achieving the desired result in 2016 will, for Plaid, require moving forward much further than it has managed thus far.

Postcript: A few days after drafting this piece, I came across the following discussion of Plaid Cymru’s strategy for the 1992 general election, in the second volume of Dafydd Wigley’s memoirs. (See Dal ati, pp.350-351):

“Y nod cyntaf oedd cadw’r tair sedd a oedd gennym… Yn ail, byddem yn ceisio ennill Caerfyddin a Cheredigion/Gogledd Penfro. Yn drydydd, roeddem yn awyddus i godi’r bleidlais yn y Cymoedd, gan glustnodi Llanelli a Chaerffili” (“The first goal was to keep the three seats we had Secondly, we would try to win Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion/North Pembroke. Third, we wanted to increase our vote in the Valleys, focusing on Llanelli and Caerphilly”)

It is, perhaps, a sobering thought for Plaid Cymru that, while the names of the seats may have changed, in other respects they will face the 2015 general election seemingly no further forward than they were 23 years previously.

Profiles of the Forty Welsh constituencies

One thing I had been thinking would be very useful to have prior to the next general election was a comprehensive set of constituency profiles: write-ups on all forty seats, with background information on each seat and a discussion of its recent political history.

In truth, I had been slightly dreading the prospect of doing such a thing myself, although I could see the need for it. However, Gareth Hughes has now come to our collective rescue, by completing a full set of profiles. They are available at his blog here. I have also inserted a permanent link to them in the Useful Links section of the Blog.

I haven’t yet been able to read all forty of them, but those I have sampled look very good. They should be an invaluable resource to anyone needing a quick refresher on the lay-of-the-land in a particular Welsh seat prior to next May. Mwynhewch!

A Few Words on Scotland

The more observant amongst you may have noticed that Scotland is holding a referendum in two weeks’ time. Nothing major – just the simple matter of Scotland potentially becoming an independent country and ending the 307 year old British union.

The BBC asked me to do a couple of short pieces for their website on the potential consequences for Wales of the referendum. As the two pieces were only 500 words each, I could hardly go into details, but simply tried to outline a few areas in which the referendum might have an impact on Wales. One piece considered the potential implications of a Yes vote; the second looked at what might follow from a victory for No. (I might add that while I am responsible for the text of these pieces, I did not choose either the headlines or the accompanying pictures…)

I was also asked to write a piece linking Scottish and Welsh nationalisms by the BritPolitics website. I chose to consider the potential implications for Plaid Cymru, and its relationship with the SNP, of the referendum. The final version is now available here. As you’ll see, I’m not that sure that Plaid will get anything very much in return for its current support for the SNP and Yes Scotland.

I daresay I may have a few more things to say on Scotland over the next few weeks. But normal service on this Blog will be resumed next Monday, with the next installment of my State of the Parties series. (It’s Plaid Cymru’s turn).

The Electoral State of the Parties, 2: the Conservatives

 

In the second of these reviews of the electoral state of the parties in Wales, I turn to look at the official opposition in the National Assembly, the Conservatives. In my discussion of the party this time last year, I suggested that “[t]he first fifteen years of devolution saw steady Conservative electoral advance from the nadir of 1997. The next few years may well see the party much more on the electoral defensive.”

 

In that context, Welsh Tories could well be forgiven for viewing the past twelve months with some degree of satisfaction. Despite having been in government in London since 2010, and taking the lead in implementing public sector austerity, the Conservatives have continued to display a rather impressive electoral resilience. Although it was never remotely likely that May’s European election would see the Tories repeat their 2009 feat of coming first in the popular vote in Wales, the Conservatives held their seat in the European Parliament, and lost only a modest amount of the vote share they had won five years previously. Moreover, they managed this in the face of a surge in support for UKIP that might have been expected to hit the Conservatives hardest. The opinion polls, too, have seen the Conservatives’ support holding steady at a level that, while a little below the vote share they won in 2010 and 2011, is still by historic standards a very respectable performance for the Welsh Tories. There is certainly no sign that the growth in UKIP support is yet causing substantial harm to Conservative support levels in Wales.

 

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

23.5

19.25

2013

22.0

19.67

2014

23.6

20.7

 

However, the Tories’ prospects for further electoral advance currently seem limited. While they seem to have a strong grip over the electoral allegiance of roughly one-fifth of the Welsh electorate, among much of the rest of the population they are simply not a viable option. Writing in 1984 about Plaid Cymru, Denis Balsom and colleagues contended that “Plaid Cymru must exist, but cannot grow; it is a sturdy, dwarf plant” (‘The Red and the Green: Patterns of Party Choice in Wales’, p.323). What was true about Plaid Cymru in the 1970s and 1980s now seems a more appropriate description of the Welsh Conservatives as an electoral force: a party that has a strong and highly resilient base of support, but great problems reaching out much beyond that base to the rest of the electorate, much of which views the party with hostility.

Furthermore it is not only in terms of electoral advance that the Welsh Conservatives’ prospects appear limited. The party also appears to have rather limited prospects of actually doing anything much in Wales with the electoral support they do possess. In a multi-party system, such as we have for the National Assembly, it is not only success in electoral competition that matters; also of great importance is where you position yourselves in relation to the other parties. In the latter respect the Conservatives undoubtedly have problems.

 

Under the current regime, the Tories in the Assembly seem to wish not only to perform the classical opposition role of scrutiny and criticism of government, but more broadly to challenge much of the centre-left consensus they perceive across the other parties currently represented in the Assembly. In many respects this is probably healthy for Welsh politics: consensus assumptions should be subject to challenge. But is it healthy for the party’s own prospects of ever wielding power in Wales?

 

There currently seems no chance of the Tories being in power in Cardiff Bay under any remotely conceivable circumstances. It would be no surprise if, in the 2016 Assembly election campaign, Labour seek to shore up their support on the left by reviving the bogeyman of a Plaid Cymru-Conservatives coalition government. But as I commented last year, under the current leaderships of the respective parties, there seems no basis for thinking such a coalition a remotely realistic proposition.

 

The prospect of permanent opposition is a source of evident frustration to some Assembly Conservatives, at least some of whom could rightfully regard themselves as at least a match for their Labour counterparts in talent. Perhaps that frustration helps to account for the internal difficulties that the Assembly group experienced in recent months? For the moment, though, the Conservatives’ little local difficulties within the Assembly seem to have had minimal public resonance.

 

The party’s main task over the next few months will be the general election, where they are defending several seats gained in 2010. There seem few obvious possibilities for further seat gains (although in the event of a real Liberal Democrat meltdown Brecon and Radnor could well come into play); but in a close election overall, retaining as many as possible of the eight seats won last time could have a UK-wide importance. Cardiff North, won by fewer than 200 votes last time, and where the retirement of Jonathan Evans deprives the Tories of any incumbency advantage, will be very difficult to hold. In all their other seats, however, the Conservatives would appear to have at least a decent chance of holding their ground against a Labour tide now looking rather less overwhelming than had seemed likely a year ago. The potential joker in the pack is UKIP: their support could reach levels that, while not being likely to win UKIP any seats in Wales, might very well affect who does win some seats.

 

A good UK election performance will not, of course, resolve the Tories’ longer-term strategic problems within the National Assembly. But it could just make an important difference at UK level. The Conservatives may well be on the defensive in the coming general election, but their prospects of it being a largely successful defence look distinctly stronger than they did twelve months ago.