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Be Lucky in Your Enemies

24 January 2016

It was 2007 when things started to go seriously wrong for the Scottish Labour party. In that year they finished narrowly behind the SNP in the Scottish Parliament election (winning 46 seats to the SNP’s 47). Actually, that Labour performance, making a net loss of only four seats in an election held during the last, dog-days of the Blair premiership, was far from discreditable. And although the election result enabled the SNP to enter government, they did so as a minority administration holding only 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP was in office, but barely in power.

But the platform of holding office helped the SNP establish a new credibility with much of the Scottish electorate. This provided the basis for the party’s much more resounding victory in 2011. As the most detailed analysis of that election has shown convincingly, the SNP’s 2011 majority had little to do with support for independence; it was far more about the reputation the party had won by then for effectiveness in government. In the language of political science, the SNP’s victory was about ‘valence politics’. However, the 2011 majority gave the SNP its mandate for an independence referendum. And though that referendum was lost, it nonetheless gave rise to further changes in the Scottish political landscape – changes which produced the SNP landslide victory in the 2015 general election, and at present appear to put them on course for an increased majority at Holyrood this year.

As we all know, and has been discussed at various times on this blog, the political landscape of Wales is very different from that of Scotland, in all sorts of ways. One of those ways is the much greater continuing strength of Labour in Wales than in Scotland. Yet here’s a strange thing. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. In the 2007 Welsh Assembly election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. (For completeness, I should point out that on the regional list ballot Scottish Labour won 29.2%, while Welsh Labour achieved 29.6%).

These near-identical performances by the Labour party in the two nations, moreover, reflected a much more serious fall in the party’s support in Wales than in Scotland. Between 2003 and 2007, Labour’s support on the constituency ballot fell by 2.5 percentage points in Scotland, but by 7.8 points in Wales. If 2007 began a crisis anywhere, you might have thought, it should have been within the Labour party in Wales. And yet it is Scottish Labour that has spent much of the ensuing nine years in a steadily spiralling decline, while Labour continues to be much the strongest party in Wales.

Why? There are many elements to the story of the contrasting fates of Labour in the two nations. But a central factor to any explanation must be the very different nature of the opposing forces that Labour has had to face. In Scotland, of course, that predominantly means the SNP. In those 2007 devolved elections, the SNP increased their vote share on the constituency ballot by 9.1 percentage points, and by an even more impressive 10.2 points on the regional ballot, to narrowly edge ahead of Labour as Scotland’s leading party. By contrast, even as Labour’s support declined substantially in Wales there was no single party that emerged as a clear challenger.  Thus, Labour’s 2007 losses in support were distributed between several other parties: Plaid rose 1.2% on the constituency vote from their 2003 performance, the Conservatives were up by 2.5%, and the Liberal Democrats’ vote share rose by 0.7%, while minor parties (including People’s Voice, who won the Blaenau Gwent constituency seat) also saw a boost of 3.5% on the constituency vote. With the opposition so fragmented, even as their support declined much more substantially than in Scotland, Welsh Labour remained well ahead of all the other parties. This absence of a single strong challenger also protected Labour from substantial seat losses: six constituencies were picked off, and the party also saw its majorities slashed in other seats. But Labour still emerged from the Assembly election with more than three times as many constituency seats as the next-strongest party, Plaid Cymru, and in a position from which it could bounce back in more helpful circumstances in 2011. In retrospect, 2007 looks like the beginning of the sad decline for Labour in Scotland; in Wales it was little more than a bump in the road.

Does this lesson in electoral history have any contemporary relevance? Well, we know that Labour face yet another very difficult Scottish election in 2016. The more interesting situation, in many respects, may be that facing the party in Wales. As in 2007, Labour will be campaigning against the background of a difficult UK-wide political context. Having achieved great success in 2011 (and in the 2012 Welsh local elections) largely by positioning themselves in opposition to the Conservative-led government in London, Welsh Labour may find the going much stickier in 2016. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll put Labour on 35% for the constituency vote, some ten percentage points below where they were at this point in the electoral cycle before the 2011 election. Given also recent trends in local council by-elections, and Labour’s tendency to significantly underperform its opinion poll rating in Wales, it currently appears very likely that Labour will be losing ground in Wales in 2016.

Yet Labour could well be saved from a challenge to its position as Wales’ leading party by the divided nature of the opposing forces. Even if Labour does lose a number of constituency seats, those parties likely to pick off such seats will themselves be liable to losing regional list seats, particularly to UKIP. Indeed it is not totally implausible (although certainly towards the lower end of current projections) that Labour might fall below 30% on both the constituency and list ballots in Wales, yet still emerge with about twice as many Assembly seats as any other party.

Whether any such outcome would be good for Welsh democracy is one question (possibly for debate in another blog post). It would, though, be a pretty good outcome in a difficult year for Welsh Labour, a party that has enjoyed, and may well continue to enjoy, considerable good fortune in its political enemies.


  1. kevin

    The no1 biggest challenge for plaid is changing some of the outrageous perceptions people have of them.
    Back in the old days people were poisoned against anything welsh, including the language and anything that give the welsh confidence in their welsh identity.
    The nasty lies spread about plaid cymru become fact to some people and it created some very bitter people.
    These people are now elderly or late middle aged but still hold these silly views of plaid cymru.
    These people are lost forever but the younger generation are much more open minded. They are very confident in their welsh identity, they have access to the internet and the history of their nation. It isn’t easy these days to manipulate the welsh people and poison them against anything that could benefit their country.
    Wales has never been run by a political party that puts wales first. Because of this wales has suffered and suffered greatly. The young will see this and put their faith in the only party in that is committed 100% to wales and its people.
    The old nation needs plaid cymru and soon the people will realize that.

  2. Western Welsh

    Not so lucky for Wales should Labour get another majority or lead another government. Our country is suffering from a terrible lack of leadership and direction. This has to be the tiredest, most stale party in government since the days of the Soviet bloc!

  3. Christian Schmidt

    Hmm, I would be more precise, the lucky enemy Labour had in 2007 was the LibDems who scuppered the rainbow coalition. If Labour would have been denied power by the Welsh LibDems then – just as the Scottish LibDems through their behaviour made a non-Labour government inevitable – then things may have worked out quite differently in 2011…

  4. Tony Buckney

    Its very pertinent to look at the way UKIP is perceived in Wales as opposed to its reception in Scotland. In Wales it would appear that this essentially “English” party is on the verge of a breakthrough regarding assembly seats. In Scotland they are viewed as an English “Tory plus” party and, to the best of my knowledge, are struggling to get even the slightest finger hold. So why are Welsh people, who are turning away from Labour, willing to go down the UKIP path ? The answer to this is the very essence of the contrast between Wales and Scotland. Scots see themselves as a truly separate nation (from England) and freely shift their stance and exhibit their views accordingly whilst I believe the Welsh behave more like our neighbours (admittedly their more northern regions).

  5. oldnat

    An additional factor to bear in mind, when comparing the Welsh and Scottish AM Systems, is that in Wales the proportion of List Members in the Parliament/Assembly is a fair bit bigger than in Scotland (33% compared with 23%).

    While the List can give a party prominence – which it may be able to turn into constituency victories – electoral success under AMS is primarily secured through FPTP seats.

    Another aspect of List voting in Scotland was the way in which voters (and parties) “experimented” with the List vote in the first few elections, resulting in some “Rainbow” Parliaments, before moving to a much more regular pattern of voting the preferred party in both votes from 2007 onwards.

    Like the use of STV in local elections in Scotland, any new voting system takes time to bed in, and for voters to use it to their advantage.

    • Roger Scully

      No, you’ve got that wrong Oldnat. List proportion in Scotland is 43% – that was why it was so extraordinary for the SNP to win an absolute majority in 2011.

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