As I did last year, I’m going to use this period – roughly the end of the summer holidays, with the Assembly due to reconvene soon and the main party conferences also approaching shortly – to take stock of the electoral performance and prospects of the main political parties in Wales. How have they fared over the preceding twelve months, and in what state are they to face the challenges that lie ahead – most obviously next May’s general election?
I begin with Labour. In Wales, electoral and party politics always begins with Labour. I’ve discussed at various points on the blog (most obviously here and here) the long history of Labour hegemony in Wales – now extending to almost eight full decades. In my review of the party’s electoral state this time last year, I also observed how, after a few rocky years up to 2010, Labour’s dominance in Wales appeared wholly resurgent. In that context, Labour’s electoral prospects looked very bright. Looking forwards, I asked:
So will the good times simply continue rolling for Labour? In the short term, the answer is probably Yes. The party is likely to finish a good first in the 2014 European Parliament elections in Wales, and is currently also on course to make several seat gains at the next UK general election.
Well, it hasn’t quite worked out like that, has it? There have been two rather significant blows to Labour’s dominance in Wales over the last twelve months.
The first came in the only major electoral test facing the parties during 2014, the European Parliament election in late May. Until very close to polling day, there seemed little doubt that Labour would top the poll in Wales by a substantial margin; nor did there seem much doubt that Labour would secure two of Wales’ four MEPs. Indeed, some of the opinion polls suggested that Labour was even in with a chance of winning three of the four seats. In the event, though Labour did secure the most votes of any party, its 28.15% vote share was a mere 0.6% ahead of UKIP, and was the second worst vote share for Labour in Wales at any major election since 1918. (Only in the European election of 2009 have they done worse). Labour won only one of the four Welsh seats in the European Parliament.
Of course, we must remind ourselves that European elections are very much not the same thing as general elections, or even devolved ones. Indeed, across Europe, elections to the European Parliament seem increasingly to attract votes for parties that are not serious contenders for domestic power. But those Labour supporters tempted to dismiss their disappointing electoral performance in the European election for such reasons should also bear in mind a second feature of politics in Wales over the last twelve months – the significant decline in Labour’s position in the opinion polls. Thankfully, we now have more regular polling in Wales, which makes it easier to chart trends in party support. The most obvious such trend over the last 12-18 months – more obvious even than the advance made by UKIP – has been the slippage in Labour support levels. Here are the yearly average ratings from 2012 for Labour, for both the general election and Assembly constituency vote:
Labour’s performance in the polls in 2014 has hardly been terrible. What would any of the other parties in Wales give to have levels of support even close to those experienced by Labour through 2014?! But Labour’s aura of invulnerability has been shaken. Some Labour advance on the 2010 result in Wales at the general election must still be likely (and are perhaps made more likely by the findings of polling in marginal seats, which suggests that Labour is doing better there than across Britain as a whole), but the sweeping gains that looked plausible only a few months ago are now in far more doubt. In the context of a UK general election that could be very close and where every seat could matter, Wales does not now appear to be on course to provide Ed Miliband with as many gains as would have been expected this time last year.
Labour’s poll rating for the Assembly must also be giving them some concern. The three most recent polls have each put Labour support several points below the level secured in 2011. Labour’s policy record, particularly in health and education, has come under increasingly strong criticism – some of it directed from the Conservative party and their media supporters in London – and the evidence from the polls suggests that at least some of this criticism has hit home. Public evaluations of Labour’s performance in office in Wales are not glowing.
Labour still retains some substantial advantages for the next Assembly election. They have Carwyn Jones, still by some way the most popular party leader in Wales. The semi-proportional electoral system for Assembly elections works distinctly in Labour’s favour. Most importantly of all, Labour currently have no very obvious challenger of the strength that Labour in Scotland has faced with the SNP. Nonetheless, the political context of the next Assembly election may be far more difficult for Labour than in 2011. They still look marginally the more likely of the two major UK parties to emerge as the largest in parliament after the next general election. Labour in Wales thus face the possibility of fighting the Assembly election while being linked to a potentially rather weak UK government. This would be much less promising terrain for Labour than in 2011, where they could position themselves in contradistinction to a UK government that had limited support in Wales.
So the electoral state of the Labour party, and its immediate prospects, look rather less rosy than they did twelve months ago. The long-dominant party of Wales has performed rather poorly in recent months, and seems likely to face more difficult times ahead. Still, Labour’s opponents might want to reflect that you don’t get to be the dominant party in a nation for almost eight decades just by chance. And though fewer people in Wales now seem convinced by what Labour has to offer, most of them are even currently less impressed by the other parties.