Yesterday’s local by-election

We had a local council by-election here in Wales yesterday. (Quite why it was held on a Wednesday is not something I have yet been able to discover).

I don’t normally cover individual local by-elections in any detail on the blog, although my end-of-the-year round up will, as per usual, try to put together the overall picture of them. I would always caution people against over-interpreting any single result, although taken collectively council by-elections they can give us a fair indication of which way the political wind is blowing.

Yesterday’s, in Cardiff’s Riverside ward, was potentially interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a place that has been asked to vote quite a lot over the last few years. In addition to all the regular elections, this was the third council by-election in the ward in the last four years! But second, the by-eleciton gave us one of the first chances to see any potential electoral impact of Jeremy Corbn. Our recent Welsh Political Barometer poll showed some evidence of at least a modest ‘Corbyn bounce’ – but will this translate into real votes in real elections?

As those who follow such things closely will already be aware, Labour held the seat it was defending in the by-election. Congratulations to Caro Wild, the new councillor. My friend Harry Hayfield has kindly put together this table of the recent results in the ward. (For 2012, he has aggregated the votes for all candidates in this multi-member ward.). Many thanks to Harry for this information:


PartyVotes Cast 2012By-election 2013Change on 2012By-election 2015Change on 2012Change on 2013
Con8%107 (5%)-3%155 (7%)-1%+2%
Lab48%1,120 (50%)+2%1,071 (46%)-2%-4%
Lib Dem4%58 (3%)-1%85 (4%)Unchanged+1%
Plaid31%773 (35%)+4%780 (34%)+3%-1%
Green8%-8%109 (5%)-3%+3%
UKIP97 (4%)+4%110 (5%)+5%+1%
TUSC1%70 (3%)+2%21 (1%)Unchanged-2%


And these are the main figures for the two-party swing between the leading parties in the ward, Labour and Plaid Cymru (again, worked out by Harry):

2012 – 2013: Lab to Plaid of 1%

2012 – 2015: Lab to Plaid of 2.5%

2013 – 2015: Lab to Plaid of 1.5%


In short, pretty modest change all round. I can’t see much evidence of a Corbyn bounce here. But I don’t see any real sign of a #Plaidsurge either.

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

In my comments this time last year about the Liberal Democrats, I observed that “[t]he next year for the Liberal Democrats will certainly be difficult. It could be very bloody indeed”. Well, I wasn’t wrong there.

In the build-up to the general election, I was a relative pessimist about the Lib-Dems’ chances compared to many other pundits and commentators. As their GB-wide poll rating stubbornly refused to improve, and as various polls of relevant marginal constituencies showed many of them looking difficult for the party to retain, I thought that the Lib-Dems would struggle to win the 25-30 seats that most other apparently-informed observers seemed to think was realistic. Still, I expected them to hang on to around twenty seats. And when Nick Clegg, late in the general election campaign, prophesied that the Liberal Democrats would be “the surprise story of this election”, I didn’t expect that his words would be proved correct in quite the manner in which they were…

It’s difficult to over-state just how awful was the Lib-Dems’ performance in the general election. Across Britain the party lost nearly two-thirds of the vote-share, and over 87% of the seats, that it had won in 2010. In Scotland, the Lib-Dems went from having eleven seats to just one: the Orkney and Shetland seat that they had held even through the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s. And even that seat was won by barely 800 votes, and with the successful candidate Alistair Carmichael having become embroiled post-election in controversy, and even lawsuits, that have done enormous damage to his political credibility. In England, a grand total of six seats were won, spread far and wide across the nation, while the party’s erstwhile south-west bastion was obliterated by the Tories.

Yet it was even worse in Wales. The Liberal Democrats’ 6.5% of the vote here was not only a drop of more than two-thirds from their performance in 2010, but was below even the miserable performances of the party in England and Scotland. Having saved every deposit in Wales in 2010 (and gained over 10% of the vote in every single seat except for Ynys Môn), the party now lost deposits in three-quarters of the Welsh seats. Two of the party’s three seats in Wales, Cardiff Central and Brecon & Radnor, were lost – and not just lost narrowly, but by pretty substantial margins. Only in Ceredigion did the party cling on, and there primarily because of the formidable local presence of Mark Williams, who nonetheless still saw his majority more than halved.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the election result for the Lib-Dems is that they actually had quite a good general election campaign. The disaster might be easier to deal with if it could be readily blamed on a poor campaign. But such was not the case. Although the party’s televised Election Broadcasts were pretty dire, Nick Clegg performed well in the seven-way leaders’ debate, and on the campaign trail generally, while in the BBC Question Time special a week before polling day I thought he was clearly the most impressive performer. Five years on from Clegg-mania, what had changed was not the calibre of the messenger, but the willingness of the audience to listen to him, and to the party’s message. Here in Wales, Kirsty Williams showed us – as if we needed any reminding – that she is a class act. And yet all their efforts were for nothing. Dedicated Liberal Democrat MPs were swept away by the dozen; talented and hardworking candidates suffered abjectly humiliating results by the hundred.

So, where to from here? The inevitable resignation of Nick Clegg on May 8th pitched the party straight into a leadership contest. Somewhat remarkably, out of the seven Lib-Dem MPs who are not Nick Clegg, two credible leadership candidates emerged. Tim Farron’s clear victory in the contest was all the more creditable because he faced, in Norman Lamb, a plausible and articulate opponent. A new leader, who did not hold office in the coalition, should help the party turn the page on their electorally disastrous period in government. The Lib-Dems are also being helped by the actions of their erstwhile Conservative partners: many of those who doubted Nick Clegg’s protestations that the Lib-Dems were a significant moderating influence on the Tories in government might now be willing to concede that he did, in fact, have a point. The Conservatives’ agenda for government means that a pro-European, liberal party should have significant things to contribute to the political debate over the next few years.

Nonetheless, it looks like a long and difficult road back for the party across the UK. The huge losses suffered at the election means that they have few voices left in the Commons, while some of the few who do – including Mark Williams – will need to assume a greater national role in articulating the party’s message. The scale of the electoral losses will also have financial consequences, both direct (through limiting the ‘Short money’ the party is allocated) and indirect (through making the party less attractive to potential donors). Moreover, the party’s old role of being the home for voters disenchanted with the two largest parties is now much more crowded territory; protest voters can turn to UKIP or the Greens (or the SNP and Plaid) just as much as they can towards the Lib-Dems.

Meanwhile, the devolved elections loom ever larger. It is difficult to find causes for immediate optimism for Lib-Dem prospects. Although one or two of the small number of GB-wide polls reported since the election have suggested the party once again challenging UKIP for third place, our late-June Welsh Political Barometer poll actually showed a further fall since the general election – to a scarcely believable 4% for Westminster, and 5% on both ballots for the Assembly. Unless things improve (and September’s Barometer poll showed only the smallest possible rise in LibDem support), it is far from inconceivable that the party could be wiped out in Wales next May. Never mind fighting across Wales to revive her party, Kirsty Williams could have a major battle on her hands simply to retain her own seat.

One of the more impressive features of the Liberal Democrats during and after the 2015 election was the good humour with which many in the party dealt with the prospect, and then the reality, of crushing defeat. Such good humour may be tested further in the months ahead. The bad times may not be over for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

The New Welsh Political Barometer Poll: Referendum Voting Intentions

The latest Welsh Political Barometer produced, as we saw earlier in the week, some very interesting findings on voting intention and on the ratings of the party leaders. However, these were not the only findings of the poll. In addition, we have continued to ask questions about the two potential referendums facing Wales in the next few years – on British membership of the EU and on income tax devolution.

A technical note first on the EU referendum question. Hitherto, all Welsh Political Barometer polls since the very first once in December 2013 have asked the following question about the EU referendum:

“If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, how would you vote?”

That same question wording had also been used by YouGov, who conduct the fieldwork for the Barometer polls, in several previous Welsh polls. Survey respondents asked this question were then offered the following response options:

-          I would vote to remain a member of the European Union

-          I would vote to leave the European Union

-          I would not vote

-          Don’t Know


However, since our last Barometer poll, the Electoral Commission has published its views on the question to be used in the EU referendum, including a proposed wording. In anticipation of their wording being the one actually used in the referendum, we decided to modify the wording of our EU question in line with the Electoral Commission’s proposal. The question therefore now reads:

“If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and this was the question, how would you vote:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”


The following answer options were then presented to respondents:


-          Remain a member of the European Union

-          Leave the European Union

-          Would not vote

-          Don’t Know


In practice, I doubt that this wording change will make a great deal of difference; however, we should at least take note of it and thus be cautious about any apparent ‘changes’ from the previous poll to this one. The altered wording means that we are not quite comparing like with like. And as we have seen before on this site, even apparently innocuous wording changes can make a substantial difference to the responses that we get.

Anyway, what did people actually say? Here are the responses (with ‘changes’ from our last Barometer poll in brackets):


Remain: 42% (-2)

Leave: 38% (+1)

Would Note Vote: 4% (+1)

Don’t Know: 17% (+1)


In short, all ‘changes’ since our last poll are small, and well within the ‘margin of error’. However, the trend in GB-wide polls in recent weeks has been for a modest drift in favour of ‘Leave’, and our poll is not inconsistent with those trends. Here is a table of all EU referendum polls in Wales by YouGov since the beginning of 2013:


Poll% Remain% Leave% DK/ NV% ‘remain’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 20134235227
WGC/YouGov, July 2013394021-1
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 2013384022-2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201444332311
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20144138223
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 20144136245
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 2014337206
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20144239193
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, January 20154436208
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, early-March 20154336227
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, late-March 20154438186
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 201547332114
BES/YouGov, May 201550331817
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June 20154437197
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20154238214


Our poll also asked about the potential referendum on income tax devolution. Here we have no problems with changing question wordings. To remind you, the question asked is:

“If there was a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales powers to raise or to lower the levels of income tax in Wales, how would you vote?”

Our poll here showed almost no change since the June Barometer poll, as the following table of all such polls by YouGov since the start of 2013 reveals. Opposition to the devolution of income tax has led, though usually only narrowly, in all but one poll since the start of 2014. Were it ever to be held, such a referendum looks like it would be a difficult one for devolutionists to win.


Poll% Yes% No% DK/ NR% ‘No’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 2013393427-5
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20133538263
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201431422811
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 20143339286
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20143441257
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 201432422610
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20143839241
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20143738251
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, January 20153739242
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, early-March 2015373627-1
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, late-March 20153740223
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 201531432612
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June 20153442258
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20153441267


It is also interesting to look at the party breakdowns on this question. Supporters of Labour and (to an even greater extent, as one would expect) Plaid Cymru tend to support income tax devolution. Liberal Democrat and UKIP supporters tend to oppose the idea. But those most strongly opposed are Conservative voters. If – as I have heard suggested – the Conservative UK government were to decide to give the National Assembly income tax powers without a referendum, it would appear that they will be doing so against the wishes of their own party’s supporters.

The Party Leaders – New Evidence from Wales

The new Welsh Political Barometer poll appears to suggest something of a ‘Corbyn bounce’ for the Labour party in Wales. But how much of that, if anything, is actually down to the impact of Jeremy Corbyn himself? That is difficult to judge definitively. But we can get some clues from questions that our new poll asked about the party leaders.

First, as in a number of previous Barometer polls, we asked people to rate party leaders on a 0-10 scale, where 0 means ‘strongly dislike’ and 10 means ‘strongly like’; respondents were also able to choose a ‘Don’t Know’ option. We asked people about the four main party leaders at the UK level (David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Nigel Farage); we also asked about the Welsh leaders of their parties plus Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.

The percentage of respondents who respond ‘Don’t Know’ for a leader is a useful guide to how well known a leader is. Though some people choose this option because they are genuinely undecided, in the aggregate the number of people selecting Don’t Know is a fair measure of that leader’s anonymity with the public. So how did the leaders, including the new UK leaders for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, do on this measure? Here are the percentages of our sample who, when asked for their view of each leader, simply responded ‘Don’t Know’:


Cameron: 8%

Corbyn: 13%

Farron: 47%

Farage: 9%

Jones: 24%

Davies: 47%

Williams: 39%

Wood: 23%

Gill: 62%


As we have seen previously, most of the UK-level leaders have a higher public profile than those at the devolved level. David Cameron, wholly unsurprisingly, leads the way, while most people are also willing and able to give a view about Nigel Farage. The figures also suggest that Jeremy Corbyn has at least become known to most people in Wales; by contrast, Tim Farron was finding it more difficult to cut through to much of the public. (It perhaps worked against Mr Farron that much of the fieldwork fo our poll was completed before his party conference speech). Among the Welsh leaders, we see the same pattern that has been consistent since polls conducted during the general election campaign: Carwyn Jones and Leanne Wood are much more well-known to the Welsh public than the other Welsh party leaders.

But what of those who did have a definite view of each leader? Among those who did state an opinion for each leader, here are their average ratings out of ten.


Cameron: 3.3

Corbyn: 4.7

Farron: 3.8

Farage: 3.6

Jones: 4.8

Davies: 3.6

Williams: 4.3

Wood: 4.7

Gill: 3.2


Reinforcing the positive news for Labour from this poll is that they have the most popular leaders at both the UK and Welsh levels. While the difference in average popularity ratings between Carwyn Jones and Leanne Wood is miniscule, Jeremy Corbyn stands out as much the highest rated of the UK-level leaders – with David Cameron actually the lowest rated. At least among Welsh voters, Mr Corbyn seems to have made quite a positive start.

To investigate initial public reactions to Jeremy Corbyn further, we asked two specific questions about him. We asked people whether him becoming leader made them more or less likely to vote Labour, at both the next general election and the Welsh Assembly election next year. Here is what they said:

 General ElectionAssembly
More Likely20%13%
Less Likely19%15%
No difference – probably going to vote Labour anyway19%21%
No difference – probably wasn’t going to vote Labour anyway32%38%
Don’t Know11%13%


These figures suggest that Jeremy Corbyn, if he has any impact on Labour support, is more likely to do so for Westminster than for the National Assembly, which makes sense. They also indicate that the public are pretty evenly balanced on the electoral impact of the new Labour leader. They don’t point to him being, at least at the moment, either a large net vote-winner or vote-loser for Labour in Wales.

When we look at the details of the poll, those who voted Conservative or UKIP in May suggest that they are now even less likely to vote Labour. However, those who supported Plaid indicate that they are more likely to vote Labour with Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour. Meanwhile, those who did vote Labour in May also suggest that they are now more likely to vote Labour again in the future; if this indicates that Mr Corbyn has generated some enthusiasm amongst existing Labour supporters, that may be of important in the Assembly election in May, where low turnout makes mobilising your supporters of particular importance.

Given the media barrage that Jeremy Corbyn has undergone since winning the Labour leadership election, many Labour supporters might view these results with some relief. At the same time, we should remember that most opposition leaders experience something of a ‘honeymoon’ period with the electorate, many of whom given them the benefit of the doubt at the start before becoming more critical. So while Mr Corbyn seems to have made a decent start with the Welsh public, more difficult days may lie ahead.

The Corbyn Bounce?

In the brief period since he became party leader, people have been wondering whether Jeremy Corbyn might produce a boost to Labour’s support. The few Britain-wide polls conducted have so far shown little signs of this. But our new Welsh Political Barometer poll provides the first evidence, in Wales at least, suggesting a ‘Corbyn-bounce’ for Labour.

We see this both for Westminster and for the National Assembly. When we asked about general election voting intention, we saw the following levels of support for the parties (with changes on our last poll, in June, in brackets):


Labour: 42% (+5)

Conservative: 26% (-2)

UKIP: 16% (+1)

Plaid Cymru: 10% (-2)

Liberal Democrats: 5% (+1)

Others: 2% (-2)


This is a significant rise in support for Labour, putting them well above the 36.9% of the vote they secured in May’s election. If we take the changes since the general election implied by this poll, and apply them uniformly across Wales, then Labour would be projected to make three gains from their result in May – capturing Cardiff North, Gower and the Vale of Clwyd, all from the Conservatives. That would reduce the Conservatives in Wales once more to eight seats (the same number they had before the election), and increase Labour’s total to 28.

What about the National Assembly? We might expect that any ‘Corbyn effect’ would be less strong at the devolved level – after all, Jeremy Corbyn leads his party from Westminster and will not be standing in Wales next year. However, here too we see Labour’s support boosted significantly since our previous poll. Here are the figures for the constituency vote (with changes on our last poll, in June, again in brackets):


Labour: 39% (+4)

Conservatives: 23% (no change)

Plaid Cymru: 18% (-2)

UKIP: 13% (-1)

Liberal Democrats: 6% (+1)

Others: 2% (-1)


On the assumption of uniform national swing since the last Assembly election, this poll projects only one constituency seat to change hands: Plaid Cymru gaining Llanelli from Labour.

The figures for the regional list vote were as follows (with changes from the previous Barometer poll again indicated):


Labour: 34% (+2)

Conservatives: 24% (+2)

Plaid Cymru: 18% (-2)

UKIP: 14% (no change)

Liberal Democrats: 5% (no change)

Greens: 4% (no change)

Others: 2% (-1)


Again assuming uniform swings from 2011 across Wales, and after taking into account the distribution of constituency seats when allocating the list seats, this gives us the following projected overall outcome for the National Assembly:


Labour: 29 seats (27 constituency seats + 2 list seats)

Conservatives: 12 seats (6 constituency seats + 6 list seats)

Plaid Cymru: 10 seats (6 constituency seats + 4 list seats)

UKIP: 8 seats (8 list seats)

Liberal Democrats: 1 seats (1 constituency seat)


With little more than seven months to go until the National Assembly election in May, Labour thus remain well ahead of the field. And after having had a disappointing general election, the boost we see in their support in this new Barometer poll must be heartening for them. The details of the poll point to Labour doing particularly well amongst some of those who voted for Plaid Cymru and the Lib-Dems in May’s general election: nearly a quarter of those in our sample who voted for Plaid Cymru, and almost a third of Lib-Dem voters, now say they would vote Labour in a general election. At the same time, we must remember that it is only one poll; and also that if there has been a ‘Corbyn bounce’ for Labour, the party will need to sustain that all the way to the Assembly election next year for it to produce tangible results.

For the Conservatives, this poll will also surely be encouraging. Although their support for Westminster has slipped slightly since our poll in May, for the Assembly their numbers remain impressively robust. This poll has them in a very clear second place on both ballots for the devolved election, a position on which they can look to build during the campaign. In contrast, for Plaid Cymru this poll must be a disappointment, with their vote slipping by two points across the board. That may simply be random sampling variation from one poll to the next, but this poll suggests that far from challenging the Tories for second place in the Assembly election, UKIP may even put them in danger of coming fourth in the popular vote. For UKIP, this poll is yet further evidence that their strong election performance in May was no one-off, and that next year’s devolved election is replete with potential for the party. For the Liberal Democrats, about the best thing you can say is that this poll suggests that things may have stopped getting worse.

I’ll be back with more later.



And for the real hard-core Elections in Wales followers out there, here are the Ratio Swing projections from the poll.

For Westminster, Ratio Swing produces exactly the same projected result as UNS – Labour gaining Cardiff North, Gower and Vale of Clwyd. No other seats are projected to change hands.

For the Assembly, Ratio Swing projects two constituencies to change hands (rather than the one projected under UNS): Llanelli (being won by Plaid Cymru from Labour) and Brecon & Radnor (being won by the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats). Once the regional list seats are computed, we get the following projected outcome:

Labour: 29 seats (27 constituency seats + 2 list seats)

Conservatives: 13 seats (7 constituency seats + 6 list seats)

Plaid Cymru: 10 seats (6 constituency seats + 4 list seats)

UKIP: 7 seats (7 list seats)

Liberal Democrats: 1 seats (1 list seat)

Next Week on Elections in Wales

I’m going to interrupt publication of the series of ‘Electoral State of the Parties’ pieces next week. This is because I’ll be publishing details of the latest Welsh Political Barometer poll. There will be more than enough to keep you busy with all of that – and, as the old Welsh-language saying apparently puts it, “too much pudding chokes the dog”.

Those waiting eagerly for the next Electoral State of the parties piece, which is on the Liberal Democrats, won’t have to wait too long. I’ll simply publish it a week on Monday. I’m sure you can wait until then.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 3: Plaid Cymru

In my assessment of Plaid Cymru’s prospects this time last year, I observed that “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.” Once again, my expectations for a party in 2015 were somewhat confounded.

In the case of Plaid Cymru, I had not anticipated – though to be fair to myself, I’m not sure I reasonably could have done – that the general election campaign would marginalise Plaid Cymru rather less than had occurred in previous UK general elections. Apparently interminable negotiations between the parties and the broadcasters over televised leaders’ debates in the general election produced, in the end, a rather bizarre compromise. As a result of this, there were two major GB-wide debates: one a seven-way event that included both the Prime Minister and his then Deputy; the second a five-way ‘Opposition leaders debate’ that excluded the leaders of the Westminster coalition parties. But crucially, the stage for both events was opened up to include both the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru. This gave Plaid a higher-profile platform than they had ever enjoyed before in a UK general election.

Leanne Wood undoubtedly had a good general election. After a slightly hesitant start in the first GB-wide debate, she got into her stride when berating Nigel Farage over immigration. Visibly growing in confidence, she performed better still in the Opposition debate, and was probably the strongest performer over the two televised Welsh debates that came later on in the campaign. Even her valleys accent won admiring comments – as well as, reputedly, offers of work as a commercial voice-over artist and audio-book narrator! Leanne seemed to relish the campaign trail, and the Welsh Political Barometer polls recorded both a significant rise in her public profile and an improvement in her popularity ratings. By the end of the general election, she had become just about the most widely-known active Welsh politician, marginally ahead even of the First Minister.

Yet rather as with Clegg-mania in 2010, the mini-cult of Leanne that developed during the campaign won her party precious few additional votes. True, Plaid Cymru’s vote share did show a rise over that in 2010, of almost one percentage point, having fallen in both previous general elections. But after enjoying much greater media exposure for their leader than in any previous general election, Plaid were undoubtedly disappointed to make so little ground. The party’s active social media supporters made much use, in the last weeks of the campaign, of the hashtag #plaidsurge. But any such surge, if it had ever existed outside of the minds of Plaid supporters, had largely fizzled out by polling day.

The picture was similarly mixed when we look at specific seats. Yes, the party held onto all its existing seats. While Dwyfor Meirionydd always looked pretty safe for Plaid, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and, especially, Arfon, had looked under potential threat from Labour. In the event, Plaid significantly increased their majorities in both. But they fell agonisingly short of unseating Albert Owen in Ynys Môn, despite having dominated all other elections on Anglesey in recent years. Plaid’s other main target was Ceredigion; here, a vigorous local Plaid campaign failed by more than three thousand votes in the face of Mark Williams’ formidable local presence. Thus, Plaid came out of the election with the same three seats as they had gone into it. The contrast with the fortunes of their sister party in Scotland, who made fifty gains (out of only 59 seats in the whole of Scotland) has rarely been more stark for Plaid Cymru.

Some of the most interesting and important results for Plaid Cymru in 2015, however, were perhaps less immediately noticeable. The party made some significant advances in vote share in seats where they would be looking to build for the future, and possibly even challenge seriously in 2016 – particularly in the Rhondda and in Cardiff West. But the party’s two greatest vote share falls in 2015 were in Llanelli and Aberconwy: both seats that Plaid Cymru won in the 2007 National Assembly election, and which would be at the top of their list of targets for 2016. In another potential target seat, Caerphilly, the party’s vote share also slipped and they fell to fourth place in the face of a major advance from UKIP. If Plaid had been hoping that the general election would allow them to put in place the building blocks for seat gains in 2016, then 2015 was at best only a very partial success.

At present, then, Plaid Cymru’s prospects for the 2016 Assembly election look little improved from a year ago. True, all the polling shows that devolved elections remain much better territory for Plaid Cymru than do those for Westminster. Moreover, for the first time since 1999, Plaid will be fighting a devolved election with a party leader likely to match Labour’s leader in terms of profile and popularity. But Plaid’s poll ratings are no better now than they were at this stage of the 2007-11 Assembly. In addition, Plaid face a significant new competitor for votes in UKIP. That statement might seem bizarre – it would be difficult to find two democratic political parties that have less in common in their outlook than Plaid and UKIP. Yet UKIP’s appeal to some of the more alienated working class voters who have traditionally been much of Labour’s support base may well inhibit Plaid from winning over some of those voters to their cause.

There also remains a significant question of how Plaid Cymru might handle the post-election environment. It currently looks very unlikely that Plaid will be in any sort of position to lead a government themselves. But neither their experience between 2007-11, nor that of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, makes the role of junior coalition partner look like a very appealing one.

Leanne Wood has had a good last twelve months. But her party – well, not so much. And the next few months, both the period before the Assembly election and that immediately after it, are likely to pose considerable challenges for both the leader and her party. They will need to raise their game further to prove remotely equal to those challenges.

The 2016 Welsh Election Study

I was recently very pleased to receive confirmation from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council that they had agreed to fund the 2016 Welsh Election Study. This is a project to explore and understand the political dynamics surrounding next year’s Assembly election. Its main components will be:

  • A study of Voters, which will include a three-wave survey of a representative sample of the Welsh electorate;
  • A study of Local Campaigning – which may, potentially, take some rather different forms under the AMS system we use for Assembly elections than it does under First Past the Post; and
  • A study of Social Media Activity surrounding the election.

I’ll post more details about the study, and its aims, at some point in the not-too-distant future. For now, however, can I just mention that we will be seeking outside views on the content of the study. We aim to hold a consultation event in Cardiff in December; I will also seek to provide opportunities via this blog for people to feed in views. So I hope that some of the community of readers that the blog has developed will be able to contribute to enhancing the quality of what the 2016 Welsh Election Study can deliver.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 2: the Conservatives

In my assessment of the Welsh Tories last year, I suggested that “[t]he 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.” Well, it’s obvious that, for the second successive year, the Conservatives have out-performed my expectations of them. They did much more than simply holding their ground in the 2015 general election, and after that success they must now enter the 2016 National Assembly campaign in very good spirits.

All this would have been difficult to imagine some twenty years ago, when the Tories were witnessing John Redwood building on Margaret Thatcher’s work in making the Conservative brand utterly toxic to much of Wales; then losing nearly all their councillors; and finally being wiped off the parliamentary map in 1997. The National Assembly that they had long fought against offered them a foothold back; and the Welsh Conservative story since then has been one of steady and almost continuous progress.

In my own defence, I still think that it was reasonable of me to expect that the Conservatives’ electoral battle in 2015 would be primarily a fight to hold onto the gains of 2010. After all, every single opinion poll on Westminster voting intention in Wales during the 2010-15 parliament showed a net swing from the Tories to Labour; such was also the pattern when actual votes were cast in real elections in 2011, 2012 and 2014. My own private forecast for the Conservatives in 2015 was for them to remain steady on eight seats: I thought they were favourites to hold onto all their other seats, but considered that they had roughly the same chances of losing Cardiff North as they did of gaining Brecon & Radnor.

Boy, was I wrong! The Conservatives held all their gains from 2010 comfortably, increasing their margin of victory in every single seat. They also ended up winning Brecon & Radnor pretty easily from a popular Liberal Democrat incumbent. And they pulled off two of the biggest shocks of the night across the whole UK by capturing – very narrowly – both the Vale of Clwyd and Gower from Labour. That left the Tories with their largest number of Welsh MPs, eleven, since the high water mark of Thatcherism in the 1980s.

This Conservative performance was in some ways all the more impressive because it was not based on a great tide of popular support. The Welsh Conservatives’ increase in vote share since 2010 was small, only slightly larger than that achieved by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. And while the 27.2% of the vote won by the Tories in Wales in 2015 looks pretty healthy when compared to the 19.6% they won in 1997, it was still a full 13.7 percentage points behind the Conservative vote share in England; it was also some way behind the vote shares achieved by the Welsh Tories, while winning fewer seats, in 1987 and 1992. The Welsh Conservatives punched above their weight in contributing to David Cameron’s surprise parliamentary majority. But they did so not so much through winning a substantial new support base as through a highly effective, well targeted campaign that got them the votes where they most needed them.

What, then, of the Tories’ prospects for 2016? Can they continue their electoral advance? There are some potential difficulties. Their 2016 campaign is likely to be rather less well-resourced than their 2015 effort – although that will probably be true for all the parties except Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives might also find some of their more anglicised support-base less motivated to vote in a Welsh Assembly election – and they will not have a UK-wide referendum to help energise those supporters as they did in 2011. Perhaps the biggest potential problem for the party, though, is that they will now face the full backlash against any public discontent with actions taken by the London government: they no longer have the Liberal Democrats to act, as they did throughout the 2010-15 parliament, as their political human shield.

Nonetheless, all the evidence thus far from the Welsh Political Barometer polling is that the Conservatives continue to retain the stubborn support of something more than 20% of Welsh voters for the Assembly election. As long as that remains the case, the party will continue to be on course to have a significant presence in the next National Assembly. And if the Conservatives can once again out-perform their poll rating, it is quite possible that they might even make further seat gains. Constituencies that the Tories won comfortably in 2015, such as Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, and Brecon & Radnor, cannot be assumed to be safe for their current incumbents in the Assembly.

The Welsh Tories’ biggest problem, though, does not appear to be gaining a reasonable number of seats in the Welsh Assembly. Their problem, rather, is what they are able to do with that presence in the chamber. Thus far the Tories have increased their number of seats in every Assembly, but this has not – bar the brief period of ‘Rainbow Coalition’ negotiations in 2007 – brought them any closer to being in government at the devolved level. Unless the party is able to make an electoral advance in 2016 that is much greater than anything currently suggested by the polling evidence, the Tories are not going to be anywhere close to forming even a minority government on their own. And none of the other parties currently represented in the Assembly are likely to want to form a coalition, or any other type of formal partnership, that would put the Conservatives into government. It is very understandable, in these circumstances, that some of the Conservative group in the National Assembly should have decided to look to Westminster instead. That group retains some very talented people, but their chances of holding ministerial office at the devolved level currently seem very slim. There is at present no obvious way out of near-permanent opposition party status for the Conservatives in the National Assembly.

A Lesson for Everyone

I will be spending much of today studying Lord Ashcroft’s latest report, in which he examines the reasons for the Labour Party’s electoral failure at the 2015 general election. The report draws on substantial evidence from both detailed polls and a number of focus groups.

There’s a lot in the report to consider. There are also some missed opportunities – in particular, I am both very surprised and rather disappointed that while Lord Ashcroft looked at detailed evidence on those voters who shifted from Labour to the Conservatives, and to UKIP, there is little comparable evidence presented on those in Scotland who moved to the SNP.

But one thing in the report struck me as very pertinent – and not only to Labour supporters but to those in all parties. That was the following quote, summarising some focus group findings:

“Several participants noted that Labour supporters on social media, including their own friends, had been unpleasantly aggressive in their comments about the Conservative Party and people who voted for it. While this sometimes made them less likely to admit how they planned to vote, it never made them more likely to vote Labour – and in one case strengthened their resolve to back David Cameron.” (P.17, emphasis added).