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The History of One-Party Dominance in Wales, Part 3. 1999-2011: Hegemony Under Challenge?

‘A predominant party can cease, at any moment, to be predominant’ (Giovanni Sartori).

The political party system in Wales in 1997 already differed substantially from that in England. In Wales there were four significant, established parties, compared to only three in England. And there were much more long-standing differences in the patterns of party politics – Conservative weakness and Labour dominance – which had been reflected in the result of that year’s UK general election. However, an additional source of difference was created following the 1997 referendum. There were now to be in Wales (as in Scotland) elections to a distinct, national-level political institution. Moreover, these elections were to be conducted using an electoral system quite different from that used for Westminster elections: a two-ballot Mixed-Member system with a significant element of proportionality built into the system. Devolved elections created an evident potential for change in the Welsh party system.

Some, but certainly not all, of this potential has been realised. Elections to Westminster have witnessed only quite modest change. In 2001 and 2005, the Labour party’s vote share fell markedly (more so than it did in either England or Scotland over the same elections) and Labour in 2005 reached its second-lowest share of the Welsh vote since 1924. Only 1983 had been worse. But Labour held onto the vast majority of its seats: as is shown in Table 1, in 2005, Labour still had almost three-quarters of Wales’ MPs. The general election of 2010 saw the party under further pressure. Its vote share fell even further – at 36.2 percent of the Welsh vote, the lowest point since 1918. (Indeed, as Labour had only stood 25 candidates in the 35 Welsh seats in 1918, and even fewer in the pre-Great War elections, 2010 was arguably Labour’s worst general election result in Wales ever). However, while Labour’s popular support levels were historically bad, the outcome in terms of seats was unexpectedly good, and the party retained hold of roughly two-thirds of Welsh parliamentary representation. Similarly, while recovering somewhat since 1997, the Conservatives in Wales have continued to under-perform compared to their results in England, although by slightly diminishing amounts. (The difference in the Conservative vote share in Wales and England in 2010, at 13.5 percent, was actually the smallest such differential since the general election of 1906). Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have continued to gain only modest parliamentary representations.

Table 1: General Elections Results in Wales, England and Scotland 2001-2010

 

Wales

England

Scotland

2001

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

% Vote

MPs

Conservative

21.0

0

35.2

165

15.6

1

Labour

48.6

34

41.4

323

43.3

55

Lib.Dem.

13.8

2

19.4

40

16.3

10

PC/SNP

14.3

4

20.1

5

Others

2.3

0

3.9

1

4.7

1

2005

Conservative

21.4

3

35.7

193

15.8

1

Labour

42.7

29

35.5

286

38.9

40

Lib.Dem.

18.4

4

22.9

47

22.6

11

PC/SNP

12.6

3

17.7

6

Others

2.7

1

5.9

2

5.0

1

2010

Conservative

26.1

8

39.6

298

16.7

1

Labour

36.2

26

28.1

191

42.0

41

Lib.Dem.

20.1

3

24.2

43

18.9

11

PC/SNP

11.3

3

19.9

6

Others

6.2

0

8.1

1

2.5

0

 

However, rather greater changes have been seen in elections for the National Assembly. In 1999, even after Ron Davies’ resignation and the deeply divisive Alun Michael-Rhodri Morgan leadership contest, Labour were almost universally expected to win a majority in the inaugural NAW election. It was thus a major shock when Labour fell short of this objective and saw its vote share slide very considerably from that won only two years previously in the general election.

In 2003, as is shown in Table 2, there was something of a return to ‘business as usual’: Labour’s vote share increased modestly, and it won half of the sixty AMs for a bare (effective) majority in the Assembly.[1] But the 2007 election saw another substantial fall in the Labour vote, and the party fell several seats short of a majority. Labour remained the largest single party by some distance in seats, and even in votes. But it was no longer dominant in the way that Wales had become used to over previous decades. However, 2011 saw a substantial Labour resurgence. The reasons for this have been discussed in previous Blog Posts, but they certainly include the fact that Labour in Wales was no longer hampered by association with an unpopular UK government, as well as a very weak campaign from Plaid Cymru. And yet while Labour in 2011 produced its best-ever performance in a devolved election it was still – in a year in which it had almost everything running its way – unable to win a clear Assembly majority.

Table 2: National Assembly for Wales Election Results, 1999-2011

 

Constituency Vote

Regional Vote

Total

1999

% Vote

AMs

% Vote

AMs

% Vote

AMs

Conservative

15.8

1

16.5

8

16.2

9

Labour

37.6

27

35.4

1

36.5

28

Lib.Dem.

13.5

3

12.5

3

13.0

6

Plaid Cymru

28.4

9

30.5

8

29.5

17

Others

4.7

0

5.1

0

4.9

0

2003

Conservative

19.9

1

19.2

10

19.5

11

Labour

40.0

30

36.6

0

38.3

30

Lib.Dem.

14.1

3

12.7

3

13.4

6

Plaid Cymru

21.2

5

19.7

7

20.5

12

Others

4.8

0

11.8

0

8.3

1

2007

Conservative

22.4

5

21.4

7

21.9

12

Labour

32.2

24

29.6

2

30.9

26

Lib.Dem.

14.8

3

11.7

3

13.3

6

Plaid Cymru

22.4

7

21.0

8

21.7

15

Others

8.3

1

16.2

0

12.2

1

2011

Conservative

25.0

6

22.5

8

23.8

14

Labour

42.3

28

36.9

2

39.6

30

Lib.Dem.

10.6

1

8.0

4

9.3

5

Plaid Cymru

19.3

5

17.9

6

18.6

11

Others

2.8

0

14.7

0

8.8

0

The substantial decline in support for the Labour party in the years from 1997-2010, and its failure to dominate elections to the NAW in the manner that it had long done in UK general elections, raises the question of whether the character of party politics in Wales is changing fundamentally. Is Wales moving from a long history of one-party domination into a more multi-party politics? Thus far, only to some extent. For Westminster elections change has been limited, and is likely to continue to be so in the medium-term. Notwithstanding its significant loss of votes from 1997-2010, Labour remained the dominant party with nearly two-thirds of Welsh MPs even at its lowest point. Moreover, Labour recovered its position in the Welsh opinion polls with remarkable speed after May 2010. Given the long-term trend since the 1950s for the vote share of the two largest parties to decline throughout the UK, Labour will find it difficult ever again to win sixty percent of the Welsh vote in a general election. But Westminster elections within Wales may well continue to operate on the basis of a ‘1 plus 3’ party system, with Labour persisting as the majority party and with all others struggling to win more than limited representation.

It is in elections to the National Assembly, where Labour has struggled to attain dominance, that the nature of party politics in Wales has been changed to a rather greater extent. The most detailed study of those ‘uncommon democracies’ where a single party or political force remains dominant for a sustained period of time has suggested that there are four dimensions to such dominance: dominance in number (of seats in the legislature); a dominant bargaining position; chronological dominance (i.e. the party must remain strong for a sustained period of time, not just have a one-off crushing electoral victory); and dominance governmentally in relation to the policy agenda.[2] If we examine these criteria in turn, we can suggest the following:

  • Dominance in Number: This has clearly been sustained by the Labour party in UK general elections, but has not been attained by Labour in devolved elections in Wales, where it has always been the largest party but never yet won an absolute majority in the Assembly.
  • Dominant Bargaining Position: Labour has been in a very strong position for much of the life of the NAW. However, after the 2007 NAW election it was Plaid Cymru that was effectively been able to choose which of the two possible coalitions took office. Labour was not able to dominate those negotiations.
  • Chronological Dominance: As we have discussed at length, Labour’s strength in Wales is of long standing. That it remains much the strongest single party even after historically poor results in 2007 and 2010 attests to its broader strength.
  • Governmental Dominance: While cast back into opposition at the UK level after the 2010 election, Labour has remained at the centre of government in Cardiff since the establishment of devolution. There has never yet been a non-Labour devolved government.

In short, Labour has certainly not been marginalised by devolution in Wales, and remains central to party politics. In many respects, all the other parties in Wales continue to define themselves in relation to the Labour party. Nonetheless, given the more proportional voting system used for NAW elections, the electoral hegemony achieved by the party for Westminster will always be more difficult to establish. At the devolved level, a more genuinely multi-party politics has emerged and is likely to persists. However, it is a form of multi-party politics still skewed towards Labour.


[1] Thirty seats were sufficient for Labour to hold an effective majority after 2003 because both the Presiding Office of the National Assembly and his deputy, who did not participate in most votes, were drawn from the opposition parties. After the 2011 election, when Labour’s Rosemary Butler became Presiding Officer, the situation was materially different.

[2] T.J. Pempel (editor) Uncommon Democracies: the One-Party Dominant Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) pp.3-4.

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