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.
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.