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The History of One-Party Dominance in Wales, Part 2: Labour Hegemony

This is the second of three Blog Posts looking at the long history of one-party dominance in Welsh elections.

In one respect, party politics in Wales in the years after 1945 proved wholly consistent with the previous sixty years. Conservative weakness persisted. Although, across Britain as a whole, the Conservative party enjoyed periods of considerable electoral strength, most particularly in the 1950s and 1980s, won parliamentary majorities in nine of the fifteen general elections held between 1945-97, and held power in London for 35 of these 52 years, their performance in Wales continued to lag a long way behind that in England and, for the first thirty years of this period, in Scotland. The Conservative party’s average general election vote share in Wales during this period was some 16.4% below that attained in England – a difference far greater than could be accounted for by the distinct, but fairly modest, socio-economic class differences between the two nations (i.e. Wales being somewhat poorer and more working class).

If continued Conservative weakness indicated continuity with previous patterns of party politics in Wales, what changed was the position of the Labour party. Labour had been emerging as the leading party in Wales prior to World War II. But the 1945 election witnessed the party elevated to a wholly new status as Wales’ dominant political force, securing an absolute majority of Welsh votes for the first time, and more than two-thirds of all Welsh MPs. Moreover, while across the UK as a whole the 1945 election constituted an exceptional electoral triumph for Labour, the scale of which was not to be repeated until 1997, as the Table shows Labour’s new dominance of Welsh politics was to prove highly enduring. At every single one of the seventeen subsequent UK general elections, Labour has been the leading party in terms of vote share and has won a majority of Welsh seats.

Table 1: General Elections Results in Wales, England and Scotland 1945-1997

 

Wales

England

Scotland

1945

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

Conservative

23.8

4

40.3

167

40.3

27

Labour

58.6

25

48.6

331

47.9

37

Liberal

14.9

6

9.3

5

5.6

0

PC/SNP

1.1

0

1.3

0

Others

1.6

0

1.9

7

4.9

7

1950

Conservative

27.4

4

43.7

252

44.8

31

Labour

58.1

27

46.1

251

46.2

37

Liberal

12.6

5

9.4

2

6.6

2

PC/SNP

1.2

0

0.4

0

Others

0.7

0

0.8

1

2.0

1

1951

Conservative

30.8

6

48.8

271

48.6

35

Labour

60.5

27

48.8

233

47.9

35

Liberal

7.6

3

2.3

2

2.7

1

PC/SNP

0.7

0

0.3

0

Others

0.3

0

0.1

0

0.5

0

1955

Conservative

29.9

6

50.3

292

50.1

36

Labour

57.6

27

46.8

216

46.7

34

Liberal

7.3

3

2.6

2

1.9

1

PC/SNP

3.1

0

0.5

0

Others

2.1

0

0.3

1

0.9

0

1959

Conservative

32.6

7

50.0

315

47.2

31

Labour

56.4

27

43.6

193

46.7

38

Liberal

5.3

2

6.3

3

4.1

1

PC/SNP

5.2

0

0.8

0

Others

0.5

0

0.1

0

1.2

1

1964

Conservative

29.4

6

44.0

261

40.6

24

Labour

57.8

28

43.5

246

48.7

43

Liberal

7.3

2

12.1

3

7.6

4

PC/SNP

4.8

0

2.4

0

Others

0.6

0

0.4

1

0.6

0

1966

Conservative

27.9

3

42.7

219

37.6

20

Labour

60.7

32

47.8

285

49.9

46

Liberal

6.3

1

9.0

6

6.8

5

PC/SNP

4.3

0

5.0

0

Others

0.9

0

0.5

1

0.7

0

1970

Conservative

27.7

7

48.3

292

38.0

23

Labour

51.6

27

43.2

216

44.5

44

Liberal

6.8

1

7.9

2

5.5

3

PC/SNP

11.5

0

11.4

1

Others

2.4

1

0.5

1

0.6

0

1974Feb

Conservative

25.9

8

40.1

268

32.9

21

Labour

46.8

24

37.7

237

36.6

40

Liberal

16.0

2

21.3

9

7.9

3

PC/SNP

10.8

2

21.9

7

Others

0.6

0

1.0

2

0.6

0

1974Oct

Conservative

23.9

8

38.8

252

24.7

16

Labour

49.5

23

40.1

255

36.3

41

Liberal

15.5

2

20.2

8

8.3

3

PC/SNP

10.8

3

30.4

11

Others

0.2

0

1.0

1

0.3

0

1979

Conservative

32.2

11

47.2

306

31.4

22

Labour

47.0

21

36.7

203

41.5

44

Liberal

10.6

1

14.9

7

9.0

3

PC/SNP

8.1

2

17.3

2

Others

2.2

1

1.2

0

0.8

0

1983

Conservative

31.0

14

46.0

362

28.4

21

Labour

37.5

20

26.9

148

35.1

41

Lib/SDP

23.2

2

26.4

13

24.5

8

PC/SNP

7.8

2

11.8

2

Others

0.4

0

0.7

0

0.3

0

1987

Conservative

29.5

8

46.1

357

24.0

10

Labour

45.1

24

29.5

155

42.4

50

Lib/SDP

17.9

3

23.8

10

19.2

9

PC/SNP

7.3

3

14.0

3

Others

0.2

0

0.5

1

0.3

0

1992

Conservative

28.6

6

45.5

319

25.6

11

Labour

49.5

27

33.9

195

39.0

49

Lib.Dem.

12.4

1

19.2

10

13.1

9

PC/SNP

8.9

4

21.5

3

Others

0.6

0

1.4

0

0.8

0

1997

Conservative

19.6

0

33.7

165

17.5

0

Labour

54.7

34

43.5

328

45.6

56

Lib.Dem.

12.3

2

18.0

34

13.0

10

PC/SNP

9.9

4

22.1

6

Others

3.4

0

4.8

2

1.9

0

Only twice did Labour’s hegemony over Welsh politics appear under threat. The first (rather brief) period came during the mid-late 1960s. Less than four months after the most crushing of all Labour’s general election victories in Wales, in March 1966, the party suffered a shock defeat to Plaid Cymru in a parliamentary by-election for Carmarthen. Over the next two years, the Welsh Nationalists also came close to upsetting hitherto very secure Labour majorities in other by-elections, in Rhondda West and in Caerphilly. Alongside strong performances from the Scottish National Party in by-elections in Scotland, these results appeared to indicate a nationalist surge that would seriously threaten Labour’s position in both nations. (Among the consequences of these events was the decision by the Labour government to establish the Crowther/Kilbrandon Royal Commission on the Constitution) However, the Plaid surge had begun to fade by the time of the 1970 general election. And although Plaid have won at least two parliamentary seats at every general election since February 1974, they have never seriously threatened Labour’s dominance of general elections in Wales.

A more serious threat to Labour hegemony appeared in the early 1980s. This was a period of considerable Conservative strength across the UK. At the same time, the Labour party was enduring substantial internal divisions, unpopular leadership, and in 1981 the split from the party of the SDP, which formed the Alliance with the Liberals. In the face of all these troubles, the 1983 general election saw Labour’s vote share in Wales fall below forty percent for the first time since 1922. Much of Labour’s previous support went to the Alliance, which secured by far the highest vote for a centre party since the 1929 election. However, with the Alliance largely failing (in Wales, just as across the rest of Britain) to secure seat wins remotely commensurate with its share of popular support, it was the Conservatives who made significant gains on top of what had already been a relatively strong performance in 1979. With fourteen MPs from Wales, the Conservatives now had their highest Welsh representation since before the era of 19th century franchise extension. Chris Butler, a Welsh Office special adviser at the time, contended that “There is no doubt that the Conservative Party is increasingly speaking for Wales and being seen to do so”.[1] With Labour only just holding its majority of Welsh MPs, it appeared as if the era of Labour hegemony in Wales might be coming to an end.

In practice, the exact opposite transpired. The Alliance threat to Labour in Wales faded rapidly after 1983. Along with a small decline in the Conservative vote, this enabled Labour to make significant advances in both the 1987 and 1992 elections, while the Conservatives retreated back to a modest Welsh parliamentary representation. And the New Labour tide of 1997 carried Labour even higher – indeed, almost back to the high-water mark of 1966, winning well over fifty percent of the vote and eight-five percent of all Welsh MPs (34 out of 40). The Conservatives were wiped off the parliamentary map in Wales (as in Scotland in that year), while the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru maintained only relatively modest parliamentary presences. The Labour party’s hegemony in Wales had been emphatically re-asserted.

To summarise, across the period from 1945 to 1997, the Labour party maintained an essentially uninterrupted dominance over Welsh politics. While politics could look reasonably competitive during periods of particular Conservative strength and Labour weakness across the UK, the anti-Conservative slant of the previous era persisted, and very much worked to the benefit of the major non-Conservative party, which was now very definitely Labour. And despite the modest growth in support for Plaid Cymru and the Liberals/Alliance/Liberal Democrats from the 1960s onwards, the experience of Wales throughout this era very clearly fits under Giovanni Sartori’s category of a Predominant Party system.

The next, and final, post in this series will examine the challenges to Labour’s dominance that have come in the era of devolution.

[1] Chris Butler, ‘The Conservative Party in Wales: Remoulding a Radical Tradition’, in J. Osmond (ed.) The National Question Again, p. 159.

Comments

  • David

    Quite depressing in-fact. Is there any light at the end of this dark ‘never ending’ tunnel?

  • Jason Morgan

    Diolch yn fawr for this – really interesting series, and an interesting blog, enjoying it very much! Looking forward to see what you have to say on the next part of this particular series i.e. has Labour’s previous dominance faded or (as some of us might argue) has nothing essentially changed in that respect?

  • J Jones

    This touches on possibly THE major problem of Welsh politics; no change of governing party means no re evaluation and no renewal. It’s hard to say for a life long Labour voter but unbroken periods of control lead to stagnation and, worse, low level corruption in politics. As far as any change in direction in Welsh politics is concerned, the driving force has been Nationalism.

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