As a few of you may have noticed, there’s a general election going on. With Wales shaping up to be potentially one of the interesting stories of this election, I’ve contributed a few pieces to various sites.
Here are three things that I wrote for the New Statesman (most recent first):
And here are a couple of pieces that I wrote for the Spectator:
I also published something in the Sunday Times yesterday. As for many of you the piece is behind a paywall, here is a pre-publication version of the text:
An opinion poll earlier this week confirmed that Wales is on the verge of an historic political transformation at the forthcoming general election. Yet the Welsh themselves can’t quite believe it.
A shock poll at the start of the campaign gave the Conservatives an unheard of ten-point lead with Welsh voters. The latest iteration of the Welsh Political Barometer – a polling collaboration between Cardiff University and ITV-Wales – showed that Labour are not about to just curl up and die in their ultimate heartland; after they did much better in Wales than elsewhere in the local elections, the new poll put Labour support up five points to 35 percent. But the Tories are stronger than they have ever been in Wales: their 41 percent support in the latest poll is unprecedented.
Such polling figures run directly counter to how politics in Wales has been for a very long time. Labour have won the most votes and seats at every general election from 1922 onwards. Hostility to the Tories goes back even further – the Conservatives last won a general election in Wales in the 1850s. The idea of Wales as an anti-Tory nation has become deeply embedded into the political culture and self-image of the Welsh – and, in turn, has allowed them at times to indulge a self-image as somehow being innately more progressive than the English. Few things more readily unite those on the left in Wales than the chance to wax lyrical about the Welsh ‘radical tradition’.
Welsh anti-Conservatism first developed around nineteenth century religious differences: the close links between the Tories and Anglicanism helped propel the Liberals to dominance as the voice of the non-conformist Welsh masses. In the twentieth century Labour, representing those who worked in the heavy industries that came to dominate Welsh life, replaced the Liberals as the hegemonic political force. Even after the mines and steel mills closed, Labour sustained its position, increasingly drawing much of its support from Wales’ over-sized and heavily unionised public sector workforce.
What has changed to allow Labour’s long Welsh dominance to be challenged? Three factors are obvious. Public sector austerity is steadily eroding the social basis of Labour’s vote. More immediately, the UK party leadership is alienating much of Labour’s traditional, often social-conservative, working class support, who are impressed neither by the Corbynite policy agenda nor the personal credentials of Labour’s prospective Prime Minister.
But what may finally have pushed Wales into the blue camp is Brexit. Against the recommendation of almost the entire Welsh political establishment, Wales voted for Brexit. Theresa May’s focussing of the election around getting a mandate to deliver the verdict of last June’s referendum has proven to be a tactical masterstroke. The Prime Minister’s party is by far the most trusted to deliver Brexit, and this is helping the Conservative hoover up vast proportions of the former UKIP vote. UKIP have done very well in Wales in recent times – for instance, electing seven members of the Welsh Assembly last year. But now fully two-thirds of those who voted UKIP in Wales in 2015 are intending to support the Tories.
And yet people in Wales still can’t quite believe what they appear about to do. Perhaps the most striking finding of the latest Welsh poll was that 49 percent of all respondents thought that Labour would get the most votes in Wales, while only 22 percent believed that the Tories would do so. Even among those intending to vote Conservative, more thought that Labour won come first in Wales than believed it would be the Tories.
Wales is on the verge of an historic re-shaping of its political landscape. Just as Scotland was the dominant story from to emerge from the 2015 general election, so Wales could be for 2017. But Labour dominance is so embedded that people can’t quite imagine it ending. No one alive today can remember a general election that Labour didn’t win in Wales. Maybe only when it finally happens will it be possible for many to conceive of the end of red Wales.