As I’ve done for the last two years, I’m once again going to use this period – the start of a new political year, as the summer holidays end, the Assembly is due to reconvene soon and the main party conferences also approach – to take stock of the electoral performance and prospects of the main political parties in Wales. With a general election behind them, and an Assembly election looming ever larger on the horizon, in what state are they to face the challenges that lie ahead?
I begin with Labour, as we always do in Wales. That’s hardly unreasonable – they have, after all, been the dominant party here for a very long time. Last May Labour secured a greater proportion of the Welsh vote at the general election than any other party, and a majority of the parliamentary seats in Wales. It was the twentieth time in a row – in a run stretching back to the general election of 1935 – that Labour has achieved both feats. By any standards such continuous electoral dominance within a functioning democracy is very impressive.
But Labour has not spent the past few months celebrating that achievement, and for reasons that are easy to understand. Having lost May’s general election, the UK party has spent the months since that election drifting and effectively leaderless. Even in Wales, the one part of the UK where Labour won the election, the mood has seemed distinctly gloomy. Not the least of the reasons for this is that the party significantly underperformed expectations in May. For much of the 2010-15 parliament, Labour in Wales was enjoying poll ratings approaching, or even exceeding, 50%. Even though those ratings began to fall from 2013 onwards, the polls continued to suggest Labour gaining seats. Over the entire 2010-15 parliament there were twenty-seven published opinion polls in Wales that asked about Westminster voting intention: all twenty-seven showed a net swing in support, when compared to the 2010 result, from Conservative to Labour. Yet in the end, the result here in Wales actually produced a small (0.2%) net swing to the Tories.
However, that tiny net swing to the Conservatives should not have been enough for them to take any Labour seats. In the event the Tories captured two – one of which, Gower, had been held by Labour for more than a century. In Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, an important part of the story of Election 2015 was the failure of Labour’s ground game in many key seats: the much-vaunted ‘Labour Doorstep’ campaign largely failed to deliver the goods. Though they comfortably won Cardiff Central from the hapless Liberal Democrats, that still left Welsh Labour with a net loss of seats, rather than the long-expected gains. The 25 Welsh seats won was Labour’s lowest total since 1987 (and, given that Wales only elected 38 seats in 1987, 2015 actually saw Labour win their lowest proportion of Welsh seats since 1983); while their 36.9% vote share here was their second lowest since 1918. Moreover, while Labour still enjoyed a higher general election vote share in Wales than in England, the gap between the two – some 5.3% of the vote – was the smallest at any general election ever. Labour’s Welsh bastion looks more fragile than for a long time.
Of considerable concern to Welsh Labour must be that much of the 2015 result was so unexpected. For a while now their intelligence on the ground has seemed deficient. This was evident in the 2014 European election: on the Sunday morning of the count, Carwyn Jones appeared quite unaware that UKIP’s surge was of a scale sufficient to threaten Labour for first place in Wales. Similarly in 2015, senior party figures seem to have had unwarranted confidence in victory in Cardiff North, and to have substantially over-rated their chances in seats like Arfon, the Vale of Glamorgan, and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, while simultaneously having insufficient understanding of the seriousness of the Conservative threat in both the Vale of Clwyd and Gower.
So what of their prospects for 2016? Amidst all this doom-and-gloom, it’s worth bearing in mind that Labour have some significant advantages in the Assembly election. The AMS electoral system strongly favours Labour, and will inevitably continue to do so until the non-Labour parties can make serious inroads into Labour’s dominance of the constituency seats in the three south Wales regions. Labour are also strongly helped by the divided nature of the opposition to them: the non-Labour vote is split between several parties of greatly differing ideological stances. Generating a coherent non-Labour majority to govern in the Assembly currently looks almost impossible.
But Labour also have several potential sources of vulnerability for the Assembly election:
- Public evaluations of Labour’s record in government in Wales do not appear very positive, with management of the NHS in Wales a particular weakness. Expect all Labour’s opponents to attack them hard on this front over the next few months;
- The general election gave a considerable boost to the profile of Leanne Wood. For the first time since 1999, in 2016 Labour are likely to be fighting an Assembly election in which they do not have easily the most well-known and well-liked party leader in Wales;
- UKIP made significant inroads in some traditional Labour heartlands, particularly in south-east Wales in 2015, and they see the Assembly election as their next opportunity for major gains;
- Plans for local government reorganisation seem to be generating substantial internal ructions: a fair proportion of Labour’s membership in Wales are councillors, or the friends and family of those councillors, and alienating many of them within months of a National Assembly election does not look like a tactical masterstroke;
- ‘Time for a change’: by next May, Labour will have governed continuously in Wales for seventeen years, either alone or as the leading coalition party. Some voters might reasonably take the view that that is long enough.
And there’s a final factor, perhaps the most important one of all – the outcome of the UK leadership race. I began drafting this piece a few weeks ago, in the early days of the leadership campaign. None of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall were exactly setting the world alight with excitement then, but it still seemed obvious that one of them would win. The extraordinary surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn now makes him, at time of writing, the strong favourite. Corbyn has shown that he can excite much of Labour’s grass-roots, and draw some people into the party’s ranks. But will a Corbyn-led party have a wider appeal? That may be the most important single question facing the Labour party in the next few years.
Several weeks ago someone told me that he had been a Labour member for forty years and could not remember feeling so dispirited. The cheeriest response I could immediately think of was “well, at least you’re not a member of the Scottish Labour party”. Actually, what I should probably have said was “well, think what it’s like to be a member of one of the other parties in Wales”. These have not been a great few months for Welsh Labour. But let us not forget: they remain, as they have been for many decades, the largest and most popular party in Wales.