For the majority of the lifetime of this blog, I have used this point in the political calendar – the return after the summer recess – to assess the current electoral standing of the main parties in Wales. Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to revive this custom, and address a single, simple question: with just a few months until the Senedd election, where do each of the main parties stand? I begin this series of pieces with an assessment of the position of Wales’ long-dominant party, Labour.
A good place to start assessing the immediate prospects for a party is to review its immediate past. For Labour that recent past has been problematic. The December 2019 general election saw the party once again come first in Wales in both votes and seats – for the 27th general election in a row. But such an outcome has rarely felt less victorious. Across the UK Labour suffered their worst post-war general election defeat. Even in its ultimate bastion of Wales, Labour lost six parliamentary seats, thus achieving their lowest number of Welsh MPs since the debacle of 1983; the party also saw its vote share drop by a full eight percentage points on 2017 – a decline that was actually slightly worse than their Britain-wide average.
The closer you looked at the general election result for Welsh Labour, the worse it got. Labour’s vote share fell in 39 of the forty Welsh seats (with exception being Montgomeryshire, where they were never remotely in the running). In north Wales, only Mark Tami hanging on by a whisker in Alyn and Deeside prevented a complete Labour wipeout, and even seats like Wrexham that had been Labour for decades were lost. Yet while north Wales was where the map changed colour most obviously, in other places Labour’s decline was even starker. There were seven seats, all in south Wales, where the fall in Labour vote share was greater than in any of the six seats that were lost. Even in many places where the electoral map remained red, Labour was in significant retreat.
And the December disaster was not a one-off. In the unplanned for European election earlier in 2019, Welsh Labour accrued their lowest vote share at any Wales-wide election since before World War I, and finished behind Plaid Cymru in such a contest for the first time ever. The months that followed saw Welsh Labour’s opinion poll ratings, for both Westminster and the Senedd, reach the lowest levels ever recorded; they also saw the Labour candidate barely saving his deposit in the Brecon and Radnor by-election.
Since the general election, of course, an enormous amount has changed. One thing that will surely be of long-term importance is that the UK party is now led by Sir Keir Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn. While the circumstances of recent months have limited Starmer’s ability to reach out to the British public, the polling evidence already indicates him doing better with them than his predecessor ever managed. But those circumstances – the Covid-19 pandemic and its manifold implications – have become the defining political reality of the present. In Wales, as across Britain as a whole, Labour’s poll ratings have largely been driven by public evaluations of the Conservative UK government’s handling of Covid. In the first few weeks of the crisis (as was seen in the April Welsh Political Barometer poll), the public largely ‘rallied to the flag’; these tendencies were reinforced for a while by personal sympathy extended to a severely unwell Prime Minister Johnson. As public evaluations of the UK government’s handling of Covid-19 have subsequently worsened, the electoral position of Labour has improved.
It has long been the case that Welsh devolved elections are influenced by the Britain-wide political context. But to an even greater extent than usual, Welsh Labour’s electoral prospects for May 2021 are likely to be shaped by factors wholly out of its control. The most obvious of these factors is Covid – the development of the disease and treatments for it, the manifold social and economic implications of the crisis, and public evaluations of how the UK government addresses these problems. But another important issue will likely be Brexit, a project that is, of course, very closely identified with Prime Minister Johnson. Having formally left the EU at the end of January 2020, the UK is due to depart the union’s economic space by the end of this calendar year; how smoothly that occurs will do much to shape public reactions to the Conservatives and, in consequence, the political fortunes of Labour. One Britain-wide factor that is surely positive for Welsh Labour is that they are no longer shackled to the electoral corpse of Corbynism. Yet even that positive may be limited in value: in Wales, as across Britain, it is likely to take some time for damage done to the Labour brand to be repaired. When you have been publicly punching yourself in the face for nearly five years, it takes a while for voters to forget.
Having said all that, Welsh Labour can still shape its own electoral fate. How the Welsh Government has handled Covid within Wales will surely be subject to extensive scrutiny over the next few months. The outcome to the Senedd election will also affected by the effectiveness of campaigning and leadership within Wales. In these respects, things are looking rather better for Labour than they were. Mark Drakeford’s first year as Welsh Labour leader could scarcely have gone much worse: not only were there the election and polling results for the party discussed above, but public evaluations of him personally were similarly dreadful. Large proportions of Welsh voters didn’t know who he was, and those who did were generally unimpressed. But the Covid crisis has substantially enhanced the First Minister’s public visibility, and the seriousness of the crisis has played to his strengths. Mark Drakeford will never be a natural at ‘retail politics’, but the most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll suggested, for the first time ever, that he could become an electoral asset for his party next May rather a significant liability.
The electoral battleground onto which Welsh Labour and their opponents will march is one defined by the 2016 result. That constituted an overwhelmingly successful rearguard action by Welsh Labour: against a difficult UK-wide context their vote share fell substantially on 2011, yet the party lost only one seat. Many seats that Labour had won very comfortably in 2011 became significantly more marginal in 2016, whereas seats they had come close to gaining five years previously now receded from view. Thus, the results from 2016 show that there are nine Labour-held constituencies that could fall on a lower swing than would needed for Labour to gain their most marginal target seat of Aberconwy (where Labour would need a 3.35 percent swing to gain the seat, coming from third place).
While some of the apparently marginal seats from 2016 (such as Cardiff West and Blaenau Gwent) may present a misleading picture due to specific local circumstances, the overall picture suggested by the above statistic is surely correct: Welsh Labour in 2021 have much more potential to lose seats than to gain them. Some geographical nuance is needed, however. In the North Wales electoral region, two Labour seats – Vale of Clwyd and Wrexham – are obviously marginal. However, on a difficult night for Labour where they lost both to the Conservatives, they might well gain a list seat in partial compensation, limiting their overall losses to one. In Mid and West Wales, Labour’s potential losses are probably also capped at one seat: if Lee Waters were to be defeated in perennially-marginal Llanelli that would solidify even further the party’s two regional list seats.
It is in south Wales were the potential action lies. Labour’s continued dominance of the Senedd is based on their grip over the constituency seats in the three southern electoral regions. The majority of these seats have been uninterruptedly Labour for the entire lifetime of the Senedd; indeed in South Wales West the total number of constituency contests Labour have ever lost is zero. The limited number of regional list seats here is wholly insufficient to compensate the other parties proportionally for Labour’s constituency dominance. The converse of this is that any Labour losses here would be pure losses: the party would need to sustain multiple constituency defeats in any one region before it became likely to gain any list seats in compensation. If the non-Labour forces in the Senedd are ever to crack Labour’s dominance of the chamber (at least under the current electoral system) then they have to make serious inroads into the south Wales constituencies: there is simply no alternative.
The next Welsh Political Barometer poll (coming soon!) will provide the latest evidence on how Labour and their opponents are currently doing. But no party has yet finished within ten seats of Labour at a Senedd election. It would take a brave or foolhardy person to bet against their dominance of devolved politics ending in May 2021.