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Ernie Wise and Welsh Politics

24 February 2014


The memoirs of Barry Cryer at one point recall his experiences co-writing a Morecambe and Wise TV special, at the height of the legendary duo’s popularity (when their Christmas show was typically watched by more than half the UK’s population.) This particular show was a rare flop – so Cryer and fellow writer John Junkin resigned. As the stars were told, no-one would blame them for the flop; after all, they were Morecambe and Wise. Ernie Wise’s reaction, apparently, was to ponder this briefly, then smile and ask “You mean we can be as bad as we like?”

This story came to mind when examining the findings of last week’s Welsh Political Barometer poll. To remind you, the figures for voting intention (% support) were as follows:



NAW Constit.

NAW List
































The implications for seats of these results were explored here.

These results, and particularly Labour’s commanding leads across all votes, suggest that the Labour party is very popular in Wales. Yet these results sit very oddly with those from a question about the policy record of the Welsh Government under Labour. The question asked was the following:

“Since the last Assembly election in 2011, do you think the Welsh Assembly government has done a good or a bad job with each of the following?” Respondents were then asked about ‘The NHS in Wales’, ‘Schools in Wales’ and ‘The Welsh economy’. The question, therefore, only asked about the period since 2011 when Labour has been in single-party control of government in Wales. (As an aside: yes, the question should have referred to the ‘Welsh Government’; we’ll amend that next time). The results obtained (in percentages) were as follows: 




Welsh Economy

Very good




Fairly good




Neither good nor bad




Fairly bad




Very bad




Don’t Know




Now things look a lot less good for Labour. There is only limited and partial support for their record in government in Wales. Indeed, even Labour supporters do not appear very impressed: only 36% of those intending to vote Labour in a general election rated their record on the NHS positively (and only 6% rated it ‘very good’), while 33% evaluated it negatively (with 12% opting for ‘very bad’).

What seems rather extraordinary is that negative perceptions of Labour’s performance in government in Wales do not seem to have cost Labour much, if any, electoral support. Has Labour in Wales reached an ‘Ernie Wise moment’ – the point at which it can be as bad as it likes, while suffering no electoral consequences?

A couple of cautionary notes should probably be entered about these findings. First, we are currently in the mid-term of the Assembly and the attention of the Labour government will primarily be on governing (or, at least, one would certainly hope it is); as we approach the elections, one would expect Labour to devote greater attention to presenting a positive image of its policy record. Second, while this poll (for reasons of limited space) contained no equivalent questions on the policy record of the UK government, I am very confident that such questions would have elicited even more negative responses. The last time that a detailed survey in Wales asked about the governing records of the different parties (in 2011), the UK coalition parties scored much more poorly in evaluations than did Labour (and, indeed, Plaid Cymru).

The cautions entered, what conclusions might we draw from the Barometer findings? One clear conclusion concerns a theme I have touched on before on the Blog, and will doubtless return to again: the failure of the non-Labour parties in Wales. Lots of Welsh voters are not that impressed by Labour – but to where can they turn? For most on the centre-left, the Conservatives are beyond the pale; the Liberal Democrats, tarnished by their Conservative associations in London, increasingly also come into the same category. Plaid Cymru have not yet been able to persuade sufficient numbers of people that they are a persuasive or credible alternative. So where could these voters go? UKIP?!

But Labour in Wales should not be complacent. Their position at present looks strong – on voting intentions it is strong. But this position is based in significant part on the negative reactions of many in Wales to the London coalition government. Labour in Wales has cleverly positioned itself in opposition to that government. But a Labour, or Labour-led government in London after May 2015 would make it much harder for Labour in Wales to continue to pull off this trick; and the 2016 NAW election campaign will naturally bring greater focus onto Labour’s own record in Wales.

The headline figures from current polls can make Labour in Wales appear invincible. Its current electoral prospects do indeed look very good. But perceptions of its policy performance may be Labour’s ‘soft underbelly’. It is unlikely that low public ratings of performance in government can forever sustain high voting support for Labour. And things that can’t go on for ever, generally don’t.


  1. J. Jones

    “So where could these voters go? UKIP?!”

    It seems incredible doesn’t it? How would a right wing party ever make headway in a country that is left of centre?

    It’s interesting to read Peter Kellners anatomy of a UKIP voter:

    I notice that Europe is less important as a motivator than immigration to Kippers. Wales has little immigration so perhaps that isn’t a major factor here. What I would point to though is the age of Kippers…..over 60. In Wales those people are disproportionately retirees, many from England or with close ties to England. I suspect that these people are conservative unionists and like the Tories in the Yougov poll decidedly against more devolution. We all know that these people VOTE!

    I have said several times now that the Political parties in Wales have formed a happy concensus around Devolution and Welsh Language politics; there is no opposing voice. Now the looming Scottish independence referendum is focussing minds in Wales. For Plaid, they see the vigorous debate as leading to more enthusiastic support for Independence in Wales but the reverse is true. The majority are changing their minds about the devolutionary “Journey” and beginninning to wonder if it is leading away from democracy towards a state where, whilst there are several parties, they all have the same policies in important areas.

    UKIP is going to win seats in Wales because of our voting system. Will support be wide? I believe it will cross political boundaries simply because voters feel that the inevitability of either a Labour government or a Labour/Plaid government is unpalatable in the long term.

    • Roger Scully

      A couple of points on this:

      i. It’s difficult something to get every desired nuance into the text. While on the surface the idea of Labour supporters defecting to UKIP might seem bizarre to many, in practice that is where UKIP is getting some of its support. But it is unlikely to be an alternative home for very large proportions of current Labour supporters if they seek an alternative party to support in an Assembly context.

      ii. I’m none too sure about your statement, Jon, that ‘the majority are changing their minds about the devolutionary journey’ – evidence for this? However, I am somewhat concerned that there is no obvious voice for such people. However many people there are who oppose devolution, or are maybe coming to oppose it, their views matter as much as those of everyone else. And there probably ought to be a party articulating their position. But with even UKIP apparently drifting away from this position, it is not obvious who can speak for them.

  2. Jon Jones

    UKIP is never going to be a majority party but in Wales the voting system allows them into the Senedd where they may at least articulate some view points outside the mainstream concensus. They will get Labour votes in the regions from even tribal Labour voters like myself. Am I going to vote anything but Labour in the GE, European elections, Assembly constituency? Nope. But at regional level I have voted Libdem in the past and then Green. Libdems are out this time, Greens said that they would support Plaid and that leaves UKIP as my protest vote although I’m well disposed towards Europe and have no problem with immigration. Like many Labour supporters I’m a Unionist and so Welsh Labour is leaving me behind when it pushes for ever more devolution.

    What evidence that the majority are moving away from devolution? I should say “further devolution”, well this poll and the ones prior to it all showed a reluctance to take the step towards Income tax devolution and I believe that the ubiquitous siren call “Why can’t we have what Scotland has got?” is less attractive now than ever before because people begin to suspect where it will lead.

    As for UKIP, it’s true that their policies are in a state of flux with regard to Welsh devolution but look at this:-

    Now look at page 3 of the Yougov poll. All the main parties support the devolution of Income tax (with various caveats) but the supporters of only one party, Plaid, actually agree with their party position.

    Most startling is the dislocation between the Tory party line and the opinion of Tory voters. Only 16% in line with the official vewpoint of their politicians. My take is that UKIP is going to harvest a lot of Tory votes in the regional Assembly elections but also some from all parties who feel that the AMs have fallen out of step with their opinions.

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