All elections have their own distinctive timbre. The 2011 contest already promises to resonate beyond its own campaign-time and influence Welsh politics for a generation. This is not so merely because of the acquisition of grown-up, law-making powers or the fact that it is a Conservative-led Westminster government that must now deal with the devolved administrations. These factors will colour the campaign a bit, but not much. Rather each of the four parties currently represented in the Assembly face seminal choices.
A little first about the strange dynamics that are shaping the election. Every poll this year has predicted that Labour will do better than the miserable 32 per cent it polled in 2007. This is not strange in itself, of course. Political parties can bounce back after a series of poor election results. What is strange is that this apparent renaissance has not come at the expense of the Conservatives. The Tory vote, in those same polls, appears solid. That is certainly my impression on the doorstep.
The Welsh General Election
This is the fifth in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election on 5 May. Tomorrow we take a look at the election in Scotland when John Osmond, Director of the IWA, examines the personality of Alex Salmond, the dominant figure in his country’s politics.
Labour seems to be benefiting from a conglomeration of political factors that might even deliver their first majority in the Assembly. Despite the decisive ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, Plaid’s support is relatively weak and Labour seem to have a clear run in their traditional heartlands. The Liberal Democrats have clearly lost ground to Labour. And perhaps most significantly of all, the Labour vote looks likely to turn out with a strength more typical of Plaid or the Conservatives. So what would a traditional Labour-Conservative clash do to Welsh politics and its actors?
The old adversaries should never forget that the most lethal dangers lurk in complacency. ‘Come home to Labour’ is a pitch set to play well in many parts of Wales given these tough and uncertain economic times. They will be disappointed with fewer than 30 seats and no doubt hope for more. My own view is that Labour will struggle to win a majority because much of their support is in their traditional heartlands. Piling up majorities there will not win extra seats in the more competitive parts of Wales.
Paradoxically this would be a great blessing for Labour. Not winning outright would mean that alliances have to be made, alliances that are vital for the long-term health of the party. One good election is not going to restore Labour’s position as the dominant party in Wales. Alternatively, a Labour majority would strengthen the position of the diehards intent on pressing true, pure, or classical-Labour. And anyway, Carwyn Jones is likely to resemble James Callaghan on a sleepy afternoon if he leads a majority administration.
For the Welsh Conservative Party a good result would be second place and the prospect of a rainbow coalition. Yes, the rainbow coalition looks less plausible than it did in 2007, but it needs to be in play. Being viewed as a protest party detached from the heart of devolved politics and not capable of being in government would be fatal to the long-term prospects of Welsh Conservatives. Crucial also to Tory fortunes is a robust defence of our five constituency seats from a reinvigorated Labour challenge, and beyond that perhaps picking one or two up from Labour. Labour may be complacent in seats like the Vale of Glamorgan or the Vale of Clwyd. Nonetheless, these are key seats to watch on election night.
Plaid must feel they have benefited from taking the plunge into government in 2007. Eighty-two years of political opposition came to a sudden end. True, they have also had to put up with the vicissitudes of a Labour-led government, but there is no doubt that the status of Ieuan Wyn Jones and the likes of Elin Jones (his most likely successor?) has been enhanced by the chrism of office.
Nevertheless, Plaid’s long-term direction is not at all clear. Now that quasi-federalism has been achieved, should Plaid push for independence? And if they don’t, what are they for? One obvious thought is that they should aim to be not only Labour’s principal opposition, but a Party capable of beating Labour. This is what the SNP has done in Scotland. But note, the SNP has never based its strategy on out-Labouring Labour. Instead, they have sucked in the centre and particularly the centre-right vote on the grounds that only the SNP can take Labour on. Plaid seems to believe that it can replace Labour from the left – a strategy that allows Welsh Conservatives to sleep more soundly.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats are hoping to hold what they have got and should they do so they would deserve high praise indeed. The naughty thought in Welsh politics at the moment is whether a Labour-Liberal coalition is possible. Westminster Labour would welcome it as a precursor to Roy Jenkins’ great vision of a united centre-left dominating British politics. It seems unlikely, but Labour will want to talk this up as much as Plaid will the rainbow coalition.
Unemployment, the economy, and the quality of public services – these are the issues that will dominate the campaign and then form the basis for judgement on the fourth Assembly and the next Welsh Government. Every candidate contesting this election should remember that these are the real concerns of the electorate.
No doubt the future of devolution will be at the back of some people’s minds but rarely will it be a dominant thought. Of course the campaign needs to explore the implications of the Holtham Reports on the funding of the Assembly, and other questions like the emergence of a Welsh legal jurisdiction (inevitable with the development of a Welsh statute book). These questions are important because they will have a bearing on wider socio-economic challenges. Yet they are complementary factors to the immediate challenges that the electorate expects parties to face and tackle.
The Party that has the best election in 2011 might not be the one that wins the most seats or achieves most of its short-term objectives. Political parties are truly healthy when they reach well beyond their base or at least put in place strategies that will allow such outreach to occur in the near future. It is when political parties think they belong to their members, or at best supporters, that they are most complacent.
As a passionate Welsh Tory, I want the Welsh Conservative Party to be truly national and belong to everyone in Wales. Because of the courageous leadership of Nick Bourne, David Cameron and Cheryl Gillan, 2011 promises to be the election when the Welsh Conservative Party becomes a ‘New Voice for Wales’.