[Note: The original version of this piece, posted on 01/01/16, contained two errors in the list of council by-elections results, and the summary table. These have now been corrected].
After an extraordinary 2015, there’s certainly lots to look forward to, electorally, in 2016. But before we look ahead, a brief glance backwards. I will begin 2016’s electoral blogging in the same manner in which I began 2015 – with some reflections on the electoral year that has just passed.
Electorally, 2015 was, of course, dominated by the UK general election in May. As all Elections in Wales readers will recall, the polls had for many months, if not years, been indicating a very close election overall. That was, indeed, what happened in the end – but not in quite the manner that the polls had generally been suggesting.
For the first time ever, a general election produced four different parties coming first, in votes and seats, in the four nations of the UK. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists remained the largest party. In Scotland – and, to their credit, very much as the polls had been suggesting for months – the SNP achieved an extraordinary electoral surge to go from having 6 of Scotland’s 59 MPs in the previous parliament to 56 of the 59 in the new one. In England, the Conservatives retained their significant lead in both seats and votes.
In Wales, the Labour party got the most votes and a majority of the seats – for the twentieth general election in a row (a run going back as far as 1935!). However, the outcome was a disappointment to the party, and not only because of the electoral failure of their colleagues in England and Scotland. Despite every single one of the 27 Welsh opinion polls on general election voting intention published during the 2010-15 parliament having indicated a net swing from the Conservatives to Labour in Wales, the final outcome was a small (0.2%) net swing in the other direction. The table below summarises the general election result in Wales:
|Party||Votes||Vote Share (Change on 2010)||MPs (change on 2010)|
|Labour||552,473||36.9 (+0.7)||25 (-1)|
|Conservative||407,813||27.2 (+1.1)||11 (+3)|
|Plaid Cymru||181,704||12.1 (+0.9)||3|
|Liberal Democrats||97,783||6.5 (-13.6)||1 (-2)|
Turnout 65.6% (+0.7)
Even with the small net swing to the Tories, however, uniform swings would not have suggested that Labour would lose any seats in Wales. In the end they lost two, with the Conservatives pulling off shock, narrow gains in the Vale of Clwyd and in Gower. Despite Labour gaining Cardiff Central from the hapless Liberal Democrats, and fending off Plaid Cymru’s strong challenge in Ynys Môn, this left Labour on its lowest proportion of Welsh MPs since the 1983 general election.
By contrast, the election was a considerable success for the Welsh Conservatives, who contributed to David Cameron’s surprise parliamentary majority by winning the highest number of Tory seats here since the fourteen won in 1983. As in England, the Conservatives in Wales proved more successful than their opponents at getting out their votes in the seats where they most needed them. Plaid Cymru, despite their leader Leanne Wood having a good election campaign, only increased their vote share by a modest amount and made no seat gains although they did hold their existing seats comfortably. UKIP made substantial ground in terms of votes, relegating Plaid Cymru to fourth in vote-share, but came nowhere close to actually winning a seat. Still, the party may feel that they have put down some foundations for a strong performance in the National Assembly election. And for the Liberal Democrats, the general election in Wales was, as pretty much everywhere else, an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, the party’s vote share in Wales was even lower than in either England or Scotland.
The general election was not, however, the only electoral contest in Wales during 2015. There was a steady stream of local government by-elections for seats across the 22 Welsh local authorities: some 27 by-elections in total. My friend Harry Hayfield has very kindly prepared for us a detailed list of the results. The overall patterns are summarised in the following table:
|Party||Total Votes||N of candidates||Seats Won||Net Gain/Loss||Average Swing#|
(#Mean average swing from the previous election, for all by-elections where a party stood candidates in both the by-election and the previous election. This measure therefore does not include cases where a party failed to stand a candidate either in a by-election or the previous election. It has only been possible to calculate this measure for the four main traditional parties.)
Observing detailed patterns in these local results is hampered by the fact that parties are somewhat selective in where they stand. No party stood candidates for every by-election, and only Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru even stood in the majority of them. However, at least some observations can be made.
- Labour saw their vote share decline in more than two-thirds of the 22 local by-elections where they stood candidates in 2015, and only increase in four. However, Labour were declining from a high base – their very strong performance in the 2012 Welsh local elections. And they clearly remained the leading party in Welsh local elections in 2015.
- The Welsh Conservatives, in line with their robust showing in the general election and the Welsh polls, performed noticeably more strongly in 2015 in Welsh local elections than they have done in previous years. They stood candidates in most places, and were generally moving forward. Certainly these results do nothing to counter the general impression that the Welsh Tories are on the march.
- The Liberal Democrats have made two highly encouraging by-elections gains since May’s general election debacle. But their performance overall has been very patchy. So also has been their presence: they stood candidates in well under half of Welsh council by-elections in 2015.
- Plaid Cymru maintained a strong presence of candidates, and put in plenty of good performances. These results show them continuing to be the second strongest party in Welsh local government, and generally moving forward. In more than three-quarters of the seats where they had stood in the previous election Plaid increased their vote share, and they more than matched the Conservatives for the average increase overall. But their performance was still a little inconsistent, and does not yet indicate a major surge in their support.
- UKIP’s presence in local elections continues to be very patchy. They stood in fewer than one third of the elections, and came nowhere winning a seat anywhere. They did have the odd encouraging performance, notably in a Caerphilly ward in August when, standing for the first time, they won 24% of the vote and nearly beat Plaid for second place. Yet UKIP stood candidates in none of the last seven Welsh council by-elections of 2015.
In the second part of my review of the year, I’ll turn from actual elections to the opinion polls in Wales, and consider both how they performed in Wales during 2015, and what they suggest about the parties’ prospects for the National Assembly election in May.