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.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 1: Labour

As I did last year, I’m going to use this period – roughly the end of the summer holidays, with the Assembly due to reconvene soon and the main party conferences also approaching shortly – to take stock of the electoral performance and prospects of the main political parties in Wales. How have they fared over the preceding twelve months, and in what state are they to face the challenges that lie ahead – most obviously next May’s general election?

 

I begin with Labour. In Wales, electoral and party politics always begins with Labour. I’ve discussed at various points on the blog (most obviously here and here) the long history of Labour hegemony in Wales – now extending to almost eight full decades. In my review of the party’s electoral state this time last year, I also observed how, after a few rocky years up to 2010, Labour’s dominance in Wales appeared wholly resurgent. In that context, Labour’s electoral prospects looked very bright. Looking forwards, I asked:

 

So will the good times simply continue rolling for Labour? In the short term, the answer is probably Yes. The party is likely to finish a good first in the 2014 European Parliament elections in Wales, and is currently also on course to make several seat gains at the next UK general election.

 

Well, it hasn’t quite worked out like that, has it? There have been two rather significant blows to Labour’s dominance in Wales over the last twelve months.

 

The first came in the only major electoral test facing the parties during 2014, the European Parliament election in late May. Until very close to polling day, there seemed little doubt that Labour would top the poll in Wales by a substantial margin; nor did there seem much doubt that Labour would secure two of Wales’ four MEPs. Indeed, some of the opinion polls suggested that Labour was even in with a chance of winning three of the four seats. In the event, though Labour did secure the most votes of any party, its 28.15% vote share was a mere 0.6% ahead of UKIP, and was the second worst vote share for Labour in Wales at any major election since 1918. (Only in the European election of 2009 have they done worse). Labour won only one of the four Welsh seats in the European Parliament.

 

Of course, we must remind ourselves that European elections are very much not the same thing as general elections, or even devolved ones. Indeed, across Europe, elections to the European Parliament seem increasingly to attract votes for parties that are not serious contenders for domestic power. But those Labour supporters tempted to dismiss their disappointing electoral performance in the European election for such reasons should also bear in mind a second feature of politics in Wales over the last twelve months – the significant decline in Labour’s position in the opinion polls. Thankfully, we now have more regular polling in Wales, which makes it easier to chart trends in party support. The most obvious such trend over the last 12-18 months – more obvious even than the advance made by UKIP – has been the slippage in Labour support levels. Here are the yearly average ratings from 2012 for Labour, for both the general election and Assembly constituency vote:

 

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

51.0%

48.5%

2013

48.3%

45.0%

2014

42.4%

38.5%

 

Labour’s performance in the polls in 2014 has hardly been terrible. What would any of the other parties in Wales give to have levels of support even close to those experienced by Labour through 2014?! But Labour’s aura of invulnerability has been shaken. Some Labour advance on the 2010 result in Wales at the general election must still be likely (and are perhaps made more likely by the findings of polling in marginal seats, which suggests that Labour is doing better there than across Britain as a whole), but the sweeping gains that looked plausible only a few months ago are now in far more doubt. In the context of a UK general election that could be very close and where every seat could matter, Wales does not now appear to be on course to provide Ed Miliband with as many gains as would have been expected this time last year.

 

Labour’s poll rating for the Assembly must also be giving them some concern. The three most recent polls have each put Labour support several points below the level secured in 2011. Labour’s policy record, particularly in health and education, has come under increasingly strong criticism – some of it directed from the Conservative party and their media supporters in London – and the evidence from the polls suggests that at least some of this criticism has hit home. Public evaluations of Labour’s performance in office in Wales are not glowing.

 

Labour still retains some substantial advantages for the next Assembly election. They have Carwyn Jones, still by some way the most popular party leader in Wales. The semi-proportional electoral system for Assembly elections works distinctly in Labour’s favour. Most importantly of all, Labour currently have no very obvious challenger of the strength that Labour in Scotland has faced with the SNP. Nonetheless, the political context of the next Assembly election may be far more difficult for Labour than in 2011. They still look marginally the more likely of the two major UK parties to emerge as the largest in parliament after the next general election. Labour in Wales thus face the possibility of fighting the Assembly election while being linked to a potentially rather weak UK government. This would be much less promising terrain for Labour than in 2011, where they could position themselves in contradistinction to a UK government that had limited support in Wales.

 

So the electoral state of the Labour party, and its immediate prospects, look rather less rosy than they did twelve months ago. The long-dominant party of Wales has performed rather poorly in recent months, and seems likely to face more difficult times ahead. Still, Labour’s opponents might want to reflect that you don’t get to be the dominant party in a nation for almost eight decades just by chance. And though fewer people in Wales now seem convinced by what Labour has to offer, most of them are even currently less impressed by the other parties.

 

Coming Soon…

Starting next week – though probably not on Bank Holiday Monday – I’ll be publishing a series of blog posts assessing the Electoral State of the Parties. As with the equivalent series last year, I’ve timed this set of pieces for what I consider the start of the new political year: the end of the summer holidays, with the Assembly recess due to end soon and the main party conferences also looming on the horizon. Blwyddyn newydd dda i chi i gyd.

One difference with last year is that this time around there will be five pieces posted in the series, rather than four. That tells something of a story in itself. In August 2013 it still seemed credible not to write about UKIP when discussing the main parties in Wales; it no longer seems to me credible to ignore them.

I’ll start the series with Labour. In Wales, we always start with Labour. The rest of the posts will appear over the following 2-3 weeks.

This series of posts may also be inter-woven with a few bits and pieces on Scotland. You may have noticed that they have a referendum coming up next month? Whatever happens in that vote, it is likely to have some sort of impact on us here in Wales. So although the main focus of this blog is very much intended to remain on Wales, I hope you’ll forgive some minor Scottish encroachment over the next few weeks.

A brief note on constitutional insanity

 

We know that, barring something truly extraordinary, there will be a UK general election on 7th May 2015. That election will consume much of the attention of politics watchers over the next few months, and of course there will be discussion of various aspects of it here on Elections in Wales.

We don’t yet know what will be the result of the general election. But if the result is a clear Labour win – a result that has come to seem less likely over the past twelve months, but remains far from implausible – then there will be change of Prime Minister and installation of the new government the following day, Friday May 8th. If there is not a clear win for either of the two largest parties – a result that has come to look rather more likely over the last year – then there will be pressure from both the media and other politicians to move very quickly either to the formation of a minority government or for the successful conclusion of negotiations over a coalition government.

The rapid change-over between governments in the UK has been termed Removal Van democracy: symbolised for those of us of a certain age by Ken Clarke, the hitherto Chancellor of the Exchequer, driving a rental van the day after the 1997 general election, in which to load his and his wife’s possessions from No. 11 Downing Street.

Do many people in the UK realise just how unusual this way of doing things is? In most countries there is some sort of transition period between an election and the installation of a new government or administration. In the United States, the election is held at the beginning of November, but the President is not inaugurated until late-January (it used to be March!). This is an unusually long hiatus. But in most places there is some transition period. In 2012 in France, for instance, the second round of the Presidential election was held on 6th May, and Francois Hollande was sworn-in on 15th May. In Ireland – which like the UK has a parliamentary system of government, the 2011 general election was held on 25th February; the Dail approved Enda Kenny as Prime Minster on 9th March 2011, and he took office later that day.

The immediacy of the change-over in Downing Street is also unusual even within the UK. Within the devolved administrations, the newly-elected chambers meet some days after the election and appoint a First Minister (and a Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland). For instance, when the SNP replaced had Labour as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, Alex Salmond was elected by the Scottish Parliament to replace Jack McConnell as First Minister on 16th May, and sworn in on 17th May, which was some 14 days after the Scottish Parliament election.

I believe that this sort of situation used to be the case in London as well. I understand – although it is surprisingly difficult to find definitive information on the matter, and I’d be grateful if any blog readers can point me in the right direction – that in the 19th century it was the convention was for any new government not to take office until the new parliament met – even in a situation where the sitting government had very clearly been defeated at the general election.

This is one instance where other countries definitely do, and the UK in the past did, things better than the UK does today. Why do I say that? Well, let us consider the situation that political leaders are in immediately after a general election. They have been through a very draining and stressful general election campaign for the previous month (or more). They have then, very probably, been awake more or less all night after the close of the polls, following the national results coming in and attending their own constituency declarations.

Is that really the ideal situation in which to have party leaders and other senior politicians moving immediately into government, forming a cabinet and beginning to take other major decisions? Or, in the event on an inconclusive election outcome, are these the ideal circumstances in which to have leaders moving straight into coalition negotiations, and to be confronted with substantial media pressure for a near-immediate resolution of those negotiations? (On the latter point, recall the indignant tone from much of the press about Gordon Brown ‘squatting’ in No. 10, and their increasing impatience and even fury as the coalition negotiations dragged on for a whole five days).

Personally, I definitely do not think at my clearest, or tend to make my best decisions, when I am exhausted, sleep-deprived, or have just been through highly emotional and draining events (such as an election campaign and election night must surely be for leading politicians.) I very much doubt that many people do tend to think clearly, or are most likely to make good decisions, in these circumstances. (And I’m fairly sure that there is a welter of evidence from physiology and cognitive psychology that supports me here). The mental, physical and emotional state that party leaders and their close colleagues will likely be in immediately after an election is just about the worst possible condition in which to be making major political decisions. We should not be surprised if things go wrong in these circumstances; it’s more remarkable that just about anything ever goes right! It is utter insanity to expect our governments to be formed in such circumstances. Current UK practice is not merely unusual; it is also pathological.

I would propose a minor amendment in governing practice. As now, there should be a period of more than a week between a general election and the first meeting of the newly-elected parliament (in 2010 the election was held on 6th May; the new parliament met on 18th May. For most parliaments the gap has been slightly shorter than that). A new Prime Minister and government should take office on that day. The new Prime Minister could go and meet the Monarch after an affirmative vote in the new parliament. Or the new PM could ‘kiss hands’ in the morning before parliament meets for the first time in the afternoon. It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that there should be a 10-12 day transition period after the election. This would allow some time for an orderly transition when there is a clear change of government from one party to another (as in 1997). At the moment when the new government then took office, all new ministerial appointments could be ‘ready and waiting’; rather than us having the present situation where the filling of junior posts can drag on through the first week or two (or even longer) of a government’s life.

In the event of a non-conclusive election, as we had in 2010, one might be able to have slightly less frantic coalition negotiations – the mandatory 10-12 day transition period would impose a natural timetable on events, and allow just a little more time for discussions to be conducted and reach some sort of conclusion.

In either case, it would give everyone just a little more time to play with. Most importantly of all, it might allow leading politicians more scope to do what is probably the single most important thing for them to do in the weekend following an election: get some sleep.