As has, by now, become traditional on the blog, I’m going to use this period – roughly the start of the new political year, as the summer holidays end, the Assembly is due to reconvene, and the main party conferences approach – to take stock of the electoral performance and current prospects of the major political parties in Wales. With general and National Assembly elections behind them in the last 18 months, where does each of them stand? And what are the major challenges and opportunities that face them in the months ahead?
I begin, as in previous years, with Labour. That is only right, because they remain the dominant political party in Wales. At the devolved election in May they won comfortably more than double the number of seats won by any other party. That election was the 37th time in the last 38 Wales-wide electoral contests, in a run that began in 1922, where Labour have topped the poll. Electoral politics in Wales over the last century have been defined by the dominance of the Labour party – and to a large extent that remains true. Yet the mood around the Labour party at present is not one of triumphalism.
But let’s focus on the positives first. The Assembly election result was a very significant achievement for Welsh Labour. They had been pretty much certain to lose some ground on their 2011 performance, which had been an all-time high in a National Assembly election. The electoral context appeared also likely to be difficult for Labour, for several reasons:
- The unpopularity of the UK party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the public splits in the party at a UK level
- The rather poor public evaluations of Labour’s record in Wales on key policies like health and education
- The general sense, after seventeen years with Labour in government in Cardiff, that it was ‘time for a change’
So it is hardly surprising that Labour lost some ground in terms of votes. What was most striking about the election result, though, was how little ground Labour lost in terms of seats. But for Leanne Wood’s victory in the Rhondda, Labour would have retained all of its 30 seats in the Assembly. Although there were a few close-shaves, Labour was mostly very effective in holding its ground elsewhere – in particular in fighting off strong Conservative challenges in seats such as Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan, both seats that had been comfortably won by the Tories in the general election. Welsh Labour mostly managed to be very effective at getting out its vote precisely where it needed it. Indeed, in this respect the Labour performance in 2016 was strikingly similar to that of the Conservatives across Britain in 2015. Those who ran that Tory campaign have been widely lauded for their achievement; the managers of Welsh Labour’s 2016 campaign surely deserve no lesser accolades.
But while effective campaign management helped Labour hold its ground this year, it did not eliminate the party’s fundamental problems. One of these is the long-term erosion of the party’s support base. Labour, in the living memory of at least some, won over 60% of the Welsh vote at a general election, and won nearly 55% as recently as 1997. Labour’s vote share in Wales has been in the 36-37% range for the last two general elections, below 35% on both ballots in two of the last three Assembly elections, and below 30% in the last two European elections. This sort of support level appears to be becoming the ‘new normal’ for Welsh Labour – with their higher poll ratings and vote share in 2011-12 now looking like a short-term blip, in reaction to the coalition government in London. Underpinning such trends are broader social changes: Labour’s traditional strength in the industrial trade unions is now largely irrelevant, while its more recent base in the unionised public sector is being steadily eroded by austerity.
That Labour has become alienated from much of its traditional support base was evident in the EU referendum. The Labour party in Wales, from leaders down to members, was strongly supportive of the UK remaining in the EU. But Wales voted to leave – and the strongest Leave votes were in some of Labour’s most traditional bastions. Plaid Cymru could at least take from the EU referendum that some of their traditional heartlands had voted for Remain. No such comfort was available to Labour.
Yet even these problems seem to pale into near-irrelevance compared to those generated by the state of the UK Labour party. To describe the party as being in a civil war seems wrong – it’s more chaotic than that. The party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems highly likely to win re-election against the challenge of Owen Smith, and probably to do so with a substantial margin of victory. Yet an equally substantial majority of Labour MPs patently have no respect for Corbyn as a leader. The party has almost ceased to function as an organised parliamentary opposition in the House of Commons. And throughout the last few months, these divisions at the top of the party have been played out in full public view – with inevitable consequences for the party’s popularity. For Labour to be on course even to have a reasonable chance of winning the next UK general election, it should by now be achieving regular double-digit opinion poll leads over the Conservatives. Instead, the average of the latest polls puts the Tories more than ten points ahead of Labour.
And if things look bad now, imagine what they might be like in the event of a general election. It’s hardly impossible to imagine Prime Minister May calling such an election, perhaps in the first half of 2017: the need to get a negotiating mandate for Brexit would provide the perfect pretext. How (on earth) would Labour be able to fight such an election effectively, with perhaps the majority of the party’s candidates, and certainly the majority of sitting MPs, openly rejecting their own party leader? Labour would surely be torn to pieces by the media in such circumstances. One can easily envisage a campaign that made the Michael Foot-led effort in 1983 seem like an electioneering triumph.
In the short-term it is difficult to see a way out of its problems for the UK party. There are no good options. Perhaps the least bad one would be for Jeremy Corbyn to resign, and be replaced by a more mainstream figure. But even that would hardly be costless: it would alienate much of the party’s current membership. Anyway, there are no signs that Mr Corbyn is willing to go.
And these problems will have implications for the Labour party in Wales. A more formal federal structure for Labour might help the party in Wales develop some greater autonomy, but it’s difficult to believe that it could wholly insulate the party in Wales wholly from its broader UK-wide problems, particularly in the context of a UK general election. Formal independence for the party in Wales would be difficult for many, including Owen Smith, to swallow. (There would also be the practical problem that much ‘Labour’ property in Wales is owned by the party in London, which also employs many of the staff based here).
Labour have been dominant for so long in Wales that it is very difficult to imagine electoral politics here without them as the leading force. Yet the party faces an existential crisis across the UK. Bizarrely, in a year in which the party won a clear election victory in Wales, some are even questioning the party’s continued existence. That may be going too far, but it is probably not going too far to think that Labour faces further difficult times. As a rather lugubrious boss of mine once said, “things are not so bad that they cannot get worse”.