In my last blog post I looked back at the extraordinary electoral year of 2017. I’d now like to look forward and consider what 2018 may have in store.
First, however, a note of caution. In summer 2015 – with the Labour leadership contest under way and the U.S. presidential primary races taking shape – I made a silly joke to an audience about the first summit meeting of President Trump and Prime Minister Corbyn. People giggled – both possibilities were obviously ludicrous… At the 2017 general election various long-established truisms about British electoral politics were over-turned. (As discussed in more detail here). In these unstable political times we should all exercise humility with any predictions.
Some things we do know about the next few months. One is that there are no general, Assembly or local elections scheduled in Wales for 2018. The only currently anticipated contests are by-elections – various ones for local councils, and the Assembly by-election for Alyn and Deeside.
But this time last year the local elections were the main electoral event on the calendar. Might there be an unscheduled general election? This is possible but unlikely. Contra the situation twelve months ago, the governing party at Westminster has no (apparent) political incentive to trigger an early contest. Could one be forced on them? The Conservatives lack a Commons majority, and there is the potential for Brexit to generate much greater problems for the government. But it is easy for a government’s problems to make us think that “things can’t go on like this” and therefore that it must collapse. It is much harder to keep in mind the base-rate probability: that UK governments very rarely collapse, even when they lack a parliamentary majority. The Labour government of the 1970s struggled on for years, in difficult circumstances, without a majority; so also did John Major’s Conservative government in the 1990s. If the governing party does not want a general election, it usually does not happen.
So my first prediction is that the parties in Wales are (likely) to be spared a major electoral contest. That may be a relief to all of them, for none of the parties currently look in good shape.
Labour had a much better than expected 2017. The local elections saw their losses very much at the lower end of expectations; in the general election they actually make gains, which had not looked at all likely when the campaign began. Until November, it had also been a very good political year for Carwyn Jones. The First Minister was front and centre of the Welsh Labour general election campaign; the triumph was therefore in significant part a personal victory for him.
Then personal tragedy struck. By far the most important consequences have, of course, been on the grieving family and friends of Carl Sargeant. But there have also been political implications – the most obvious of which, thus far, has been a severe weakening of the First Minister’s position. The last Welsh Political Barometer poll of 2017 showed that his public popularity had taken a major hit; he has also been seriously damaged within his party. Labour’s candidate selection for the Alyn and Deeside by-election, along with ongoing internal enquiries, mean that the issue is not going away soon. And it is far from implausible to imagine a scenario in which Welsh Labour find themselves holding a contest for a new leader, and First Minister, during 2018.
But the opposition parties in the Assembly are hardly in a position to take advantage of Labour’s internal difficulties. Plaid Cymru’s National Assembly group has had its own internal difficulties, while their problems were increased before Christmas by the horrible news of Steffan Lewis’ cancer diagnosis. And beyond these immediate issues, Plaid face serious questions about their direction: the credibility of its long-term ambitions for Wales, and how they can carve out a public appeal that seriously challenges the dominance of Labour. There are few signs yet of the party finding remotely convincing answers to these questions.
The Welsh Conservatives are not obviously in great shape either. In stark contrast to Scotland, the party here lacks clear and commanding Welsh leadership (either at Westminster or in the Assembly). Its National Assembly group is mostly stale and uninspiring; but then what is there to inspire its members, with the Tories remaining as far away from government in Wales as at any time since 1999. Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future the party will remain linked to an unpopular UK government, inevitably having a negative impact on its poll ratings.
Are there any other functioning and significant parties in Wales any more? UKIP retain their presence in the Assembly, but have often been an embarrassment there; more generally, the party lacks purpose and effective leadership. The Liberal Democrats will also struggle to gain any attention in 2018, as will the Greens. There is no obvious prospect of any of these parties changing things in the next twelve months.
In short, 2018 begins with the parties all having significant problems. In the absence of any major electoral contest, I would therefore expect a lot of attention in all parties to be directed inwards – at trying to address their various problems of leadership and convincing policies. Much of party politics in Wales in 2018 may be The Great Looking Inwards Show – which I would expect to be about as inspiring to the public as it sounds.
Of one more thing we can be confident. Brexit will continue to be the defining political issue. That is as it should be: Brexit is the biggest and most complicated challenge that the UK state has faced at least since de-colonisation, and quite probably since it fought World War II. It is, to put it mildly, unfortunate that we went into this largely unprepared and with no apparent clear strategy. There is every sign that the Brexit negotiations are going badly for the UK, and things may well get worse. Wales is a substantial net beneficiary from the EU budget (even though the UK as a whole is a net contributor); the agriculture and manufacturing sectors of the economy are heavily dependent on exports to the EU; while trade with Ireland is vital to the existence of several Welsh ports. If Brexit does goes badly (or even if it goes relatively well), Wales is one of the most heavily exposed parts of the UK to the consequences. By the end of this year, we should know whether a deal will be reached between the UK and the EU, the shape of any such deal, and have some idea of the consequences that Brexit will have for Wales.