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What Goes Around… British Politics and the Welsh Assembly Election

As I have had occasion to discuss previously on the blog, the 2011 devolved elections produced a rather extraordinary set of results. In Scotland, the SNP scored their best ever result – an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, something which almost no-one had been expecting – while Labour had their worst ever performance in elections to that chamber. Yet on the same day, in Wales Labour achieved their best ever result in a National Assembly election, while the SNP’s sister party Plaid Cymru had their worst ever performance.

One of my published academic articles, which I’ve mentioned previously, conducted a detailed analysis of these two elections. The factors shaping voting choices in Scotland and Wales were analysed in detail and directly compared. The results of this comparison suggested that much of the difference in the 2011 electoral outcomes could be explained by what academic electoral analysts generally term ‘valence politics’. In Scotland, the SNP had substantially out-performed Labour in public perceptions as the most competent party to govern Scotland and defend Scotland’s interests within the UK; by contrast, in Wales Labour was well ahead of Plaid Cymru (and the other parties) on similar characteristics.

However, there was also another very interesting broad finding that emerged from the analysis of the 2011 devolved elections. Put simply, British-level politics seemed to be significantly more important in shaping the decisions of voters in Wales than they were in Scotland. My analysis did not attempt to probe the precise reasons for that (that would be the subject matter of another article), but there are several obvious candidate factors: the weaker indigenous news media in Wales than in Scotland; the weaker devolution settlement in Wales than Scotland, which may incline more voters in Wales to use devolved elections to deliver a verdict on UK politics rather than a decision about choosing a devolved government; maybe even the significantly greater proportion of the Welsh electorate that was born in England. Whether for one of these reasons, a combination thereof, or some others, Welsh voters in 2011 appeared to be far more influenced than Scottish ones in their voting choices by things like their attitudes to the current UK government or their views on the current UK-level party leaders. In Scotland, the SNP successfully turned the election into a choice about the best government for Scotland. In Wales, as I have observed previously, Labour largely won by running as an opposition party – opposing the new, Conservative-led government in London.

While the contrast between the devolved electoral outcomes in 2011 was particularly striking, I don’t think that this distinction between Wales and Scotland in terms of the factors that shape their electoral politics was solely confined to that one year or even to devolved elections alone. Again, as I observed recently on the blog when discussing general elections, Scotland has become a much more distinctive and unique electoral space, increasingly set apart from British-wide political dynamics. Wales’ position remains more ambiguous: it has long had significant electoral distinctiveness from England, but British factors are clearly also of great importance.

Within devolved elections, the influence of British-level politics can work either to the assistance or to the detriment of parties. Focussing for now on the largest party in Wales, I think there is little doubt that in the 2007 National Assembly election Labour was harmed by the broader context of British politics. The election took place in the last weeks of Tony Blair’s Prime Ministership, and with Mr Blair’s popularity but a shadow of what it had once been Welsh Labour saw their vote share fall (when compared to the previous devolved elections in 2003) considerably further than did that of Scottish Labour. By 2011, however, everything was different. Now no longer tarnished by association with an unpopular Westminster government, Welsh Labour could benefit from the British political context and their Assembly election campaign exploited it very adroitly.

But, as the old phrase has it, what goes around comes around. While there is much that could and will happen between now and the first Thursday in May next year, with each week that goes by (indeed, last week it seemed with each hour that went by) it appears more probable that the British political context will be one that creates problems for the Welsh Labour party in the National Assembly election.

Probably the most notable and surprising event in British politics in 2015, ahead even of the Conservatives’ general election victory, was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. His campaign and then shock victory in the Labour leadership contest saw a substantial rise in Labour’s membership; there were also some signs, in at least some places, of it prompting an upswing in the party’s opinion poll ratings. This was particularly the case in Wales, where September’s Welsh Political Barometer poll did appear to point to a distinct, if relatively modest, ‘Corbyn bounce’.

So is Labour home and dry for next year already? I would sound several notes of caution. First, we should remember that there is nearly always a ‘honeymoon’ period for the new leaders of major British political parties. At least some voters are normally willing to give a new leader the benefit of the doubt. However, the uplift in Labour support in Britain-wide opinion polls after the election of Mr Corbyn was particularly small – much smaller than is the average for new Opposition leaders. And on all past patterns, to be on course for a general election victory in 2020, the Labour party should already be moving into a clear polling lead.

In fact, Labour remains well behind the Conservatives – by a margin of between six and fifteen percentage points, according to last week’s five opinion polls. Across Britain as a whole, any Corbyn bounce in the polls already seems to being going into reverse, while other polling questions have suggested that attitudes to Mr Corbyn himself are becoming increasingly negative. Nor are the polls the only troubling evidence for Labour. Since Mr Corbyn’s election, the party’s performance in local council by-elections has been, at best, patchy, with particularly weak results happening in many of the sorts of areas where the party very much needs to be making ground in order to achieve victory in 2020. And again, the trends here in recent weeks have, if anything, been further downwards. Last Thursday, five of the six Labour local by-election candidates saw their party’s vote share fall. (Moreover, these vote shares were not falling from some heights that were impossible to sustain. Relatively poor performances in local election by Labour during the 2010-15 parliament were one of the factors that, with hindsight, were consistently pointing to the party’s general election defeat).

Of course, one might well observe that Mr Corbyn’s leadership has faced a veritable torrent of criticism in the media, as well as by political opponents – who have come not only from other parties but also, in significant numbers, from the ranks of Labour itself. This is all true, and it is probably also true that no leadership could have survived such savage attacks without suffering some political damage. But why should such attacks not continue, and continue to have an effect? This is not as bad as things can get for Mr Corbyn, or for his party.

Sure, the Conservative government will face some difficulties, and maybe very considerable ones. And it is not inevitable that once a party’s poll ratings starts going down that it continues to do so.

Nonetheless, the context of British politics over recent weeks has, as Emporer Hirohito might have put it, developed in ways that are not necessarily to the advantage of the Labour party. And there is considerable scope for this to impact on the Welsh devolved election next year. Welsh Labour faces the prospect of a much more difficult British political environment than in 2011. If it is going to win decisively again, Labour will likely have to do so much more on basis of their own record, policies and leadership than on anything going on elsewhere. What goes around comes around – and exactly the sort of factors that helped Labour in 2011 may well hamper them next May.

Comments

  • J. Jones

    It’s an interesting question to ask; why isn’t Plaid the SNP? Recently Leanne Wood has taken to echoing exactly the words of Nicola Sturgeon, presumably in the hope that whatever Ms Sturgeon is doing right will rub off on Ms Wood. I would argue though that Plaid is actually at odds with the electorate of Wales and, more surprisingly at odds with her own electorate.

    If you were to categorise the general thrust of Plaid thinking you would say that it appeals to the liberal left of the political spectrum but a quick look at the last 7 Barometer polls shows that Plaid is supported more by ABC1 social classes than C2DE (13% of ABC1 Average against 10% C2DE). Labour gets most of its support from C2DE and UKIP is also a Blue collar party. As you would expect, the Tories are predominantly ABC1. Any analysis of the fluent Welsh speaking population of Wales finds that they are more likely to be ABC1 than the population in general and much more likely to vote Plaid. Plaid voters are often a conservative bunch.

    The most obviously unique Plaid objective is Independence but that position is not only not popular it falls into the realm of “you can’t be serious” for most people in Wales, in other words, although some outside the Fro Cymraeg might throw in their lot with Plaid, hardly anyone would like them to have enough influence to achieve their primary political aim.

    If I were to guess how Plaid might improve their position in the Assembly elections it would be by default as some Labour voters split to UKIP. The Tories on the other hand will once again target winnable seats. As Scotland becomes a one party state Wales will be increasingly split….the end result however remains the same; Labour rules.

    • oldnat

      J Jones

      I read your post with interest – right up until you described Scotland as becoming “a one-party state”.

      The usual definition of that phenomenon is “a country that uses a one-party political system, meaning only one political party exists and the forming of other political parties is forbidden.”

      Since you are too knowledgeable to think that that is an accurate description of the political system in Scotland, such lazy use of a pejorative term did detract from an interesting and informative post.

      What may of relevance to a discussion of the differences between Scotland and Wales is the degree of identification with one political party that developed after the referendum.

      In the ComRes polls they ask “Do you think of yourself as [Party name]. For the past year, the latest answers have been pretty typical for the wee Scots sample – SNP 46% : Lab 18% : Con 12% : LD 6% : UKIP 5% : Grn 3% : Other 1% : DK 10% [1]

      Given the polarising effect of the referendum, and that around half of those in Scotland support independence, it’s not surprising that indy supporters are happy to lend their support to the main independence party, while many “Devo-Max” supporters are happy to vote SNP, as long as they continue to demonstrate competence in government.

      The 2011 differences that Roger identified remain accurate, but I would suggest that they have become more deep-seated. Constitutional change remains a fundamental aspect of Scottish politics, in a way that I (as an outsider) don’t think has ever been the case in Wales.

      Finally, your description of the Plaid support reminds me somewhat of the Poujadist nature of the SNP in the mid 20th century. I will observe with interest to see if Leanne can “do an Alec” in changing the appeal of her party.

      [1] 10% seems a ridiculously low figure to include all those with no interest in politics (GB was 12%) so I suspect this suggests that online panels somewhat over represent the politically interested (or opinionated!) population.

  • Jason Morgan

    Asking why isn’t Plaid Cymru the SNP isn’t that interesting a question. Whilst PC can certainly learn lessons off the SNP (I think most parties could) there’s no point following in their exact footsteps because Wales and Scotland are very, very different countries to one another. Although, I think it’s more than fair to say Plaid Cymru are out of step with Welsh public opinion on many issues, although like most people and parties on the left of politics they somehow manage to convince themselves they’re a mass movement.

    Anyway, this post was about Labour. If you look at the general situation – constantly bad (British, not just Welsh) press about the way Labour have mismanaged health and education which people are actually taking notice of; a UK leader not backed by most of his MPs and undermined by them pretty much every week, and that seemingly isn’t striking any sort of chord with the public at large; and the Tories in ascendency – well, it’s very bleak for Labour. But the question is, just how bad to Labour have to do in Wales to lose power?

    The simple answer is, a lot worse than they’re even doing now even though there’s a perfect-ish storm surrounding them.

    Instinctively, I really do think that Labour will be OK next year. Mathematically speaking, they will probably be able to form a minority administration with little trouble, especially as the opposition parties aren’t in the slightest united. Put it this way, to even not be the largest party in the Welsh Assembly in 2016 by a large margin, Labour would need to go into meltdown mode on a scale that’s almost unimaginable: moreso than in the early eighties.

    In that sense, I’d disagree with Roger here somewhat – I can’t see any way in which Labour aren’t already pretty much ‘home and dry’ for 2016, at least with regards to leading the next Welsh government. Although I doubt anyone would really disagree with that.

  • J.Jones

    Sorry Oldnat…lazy of me. “As Scotland becomes a state whose politics is dominated by one party” was more what I meant.

    • oldnat

      J Jones.

      You are forgiven – as long as you continue to post comments which help me to understand Welsh politics. 🙂

  • Geraint

    The born in England factor is often raised as a factor. I wonder how significant it is and what does it actually mean? It does not only mean English people who have no connection with Wales moving here. If that was the case Lloyd George (Manchester), Dafydd Wigley(Derby), Kirsty WilliamsAM (Taunton), Nia Griffiths MP(Dublin – I know it is not England), Owen Smith MP(Morcombe), Mark WiliamsMP(Hertfordshire), Liz Saville Roberts MP(Eltham), David Davies MP(Newham, London) would not be considered Welsh. It does reflect the fact that there is a lot of mobility in Wales and many families have children who in many cases go away to university/work start families and then bring their families back to Wales as I guess described what happened to most of those above.

    • Roger Scully

      It’s certainly not meant in any derogatory way Geraint – not by me, at any rate. Given my own background, that would be bizarre… I was only raising the point as one factor that *might* help explain why some voters in Wales are more influenced by GB-level politics.

      • oldnat

        Roger

        Forgive the earnest queries from an outsider!

        While I presume the Moreno question has been asked in Wales, I’m not sure how useful it is in your context.

        While there is a clear correlation in Scotland between attitudes to indy, and UK country of birth, it is clearly a surrogate for identification with Scotland or (usually) England. All those posting here can probably agree that the concatenation of “English” and “British” by some on this island is a little unfortunate.

        Has any attempt been made to correlate political opinion in Wales with identification with the English part of GB? I have no idea what question would test that!

  • Geraint

    Did not think for a moment you were using it a derogatory way. I’m pretty sure it is a census title and means exactly what it says. The individual was born in England. How they view themselves is their choice. I don’t know if that experience of living in England generally results in a more enhanced feeling of Welshness or a greater feeling of Britishness. Could it be that those children of Welsh parents living in England/ abroad feel the need to identify with their heritage more strongly, or do they feel that the experience of living in England generally makes them associate with a UK perspective.I don’t know if any work has been done on this.

  • J.Jones

    You can see National Identity by country of birth Here:-

    https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2011/DC2209EWR/view/2092957700?rows=c_cob&cols=natid_all

    It’s not just country of birth that has an effect on perceptions of nationality, it’s also the generational history of the person. Where I live 3 generations call themselves English when only one generation (grandparents) was born in England.

    Only 9.5% of people born in England include “Welsh” in their self selected identity whereas 13% of people born in Wales don’t include “Welsh” in their national identity. I would suggest that integration isn’t really taking place and this is because there is quite a lot of evident anti-English rhetoric which polarises the population.

    The feeling of “Welshness” is strong in Welsh speaking communities and Plaid is equally strong in those communities. The identification as “Welsh” is also very strong in the poorer Valleys communities but there National identity does not translate into political Nationalism to the same extent. On the Welsh/English borders Identification as Welsh is weak both because of the high proportion of English born but also because there is little sense of difference to the populations of Hereford, Shropshire, Chester or Lancashire. There is no good economic case for Nationalism and the emotional drive is not wide spread.

    • oldnat

      J Jones

      “There is no good economic case for Nationalism”.

      I suspect that those who wish to see an independent UK state may disagree with you. 🙂

      Thanks for the link to the Moreno question data.

      I agree with your “It’s not just country of birth that has an effect on perceptions of nationality, it’s also the generational history of the person.” Identities are often multi-layered, and polling questions are seldom sophisticated enough to disentangle them.

      As to “Where I live 3 generations call themselves English when only one generation (grandparents) was born in England”, I thought that might be the case in some areas of Wales.

      I’d guess that, for some, they would counter your explanation for the lack of integration with “there is quite a lot of evident anti-Welsh rhetoric which polarises the population.” Such attitudes (on all sides) are often the product of pre-existing biases, rather than explanations.

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