“Clearly it was not the result we were hoping for last night, and I will be playing a full part in building up our party for the upcoming elections.”
This was the rather stock phrase response from Carwyn Jones as he reflected on the General Election result in Wales. He went on to emphasise that Labour remained Wales’ largest party. Both of these statements don’t really suggest that a deep analysis is happening of quite where Labour went wrong in Wales. Because, make no bones about it, something is going very deeply wrong.
Just look at the chasm between the hard numbers and the spin Labour is putting on them. The paltry 1% increase in Labour’s vote in Wales needs to be set in the context of the low base of 2010 and shows no real progress. Further, the win from the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central was replicated in fifty other seats across the UK. They are just comfort blankets.
The real results Labour needs to focus on are the abject failure to win a single seat from the Conservatives in Wales, which wasn’t the case in half the regions of England. Even more devastatingly, of the nine seats across the UK lost by Labour to the Conservatives, two of these were in Wales. Gifting the Tories their highest number of MPs in Wales for 32 years.
My real fear is that Labour – or rather Welsh Labour – will learn all the wrong lessons from this defeat. When looking for answers, Carwyn needs to bear a few truths in mind. Firstly, Wales is rooted in the political centre ground part of the UK. The campaign fought here was even more traditionalist in tone than in England, abandoning Middle Wales’ – which is aspirational and not tribally loyal to Labour – presumably in the mistaken belief that was needed to counter the threat from Plaid. Well, that threat was false. Plaid have proven yet again that they can’t win a round of rummy in Wales even when they get dealt all the right cards.
Further, because of the weakness of Plaid, it is a fatal mistake to look at Wales through the prism of Scotland. What happened there is totally different. Wales is not becoming more Welsh or more left wing politically, it is becoming more centrist. Or rather, it is reaffirming itself as a centre ground nation, because that is where it has always been. The Conservatives understood that, and that’s where they positioned their campaign and their resources.
There is also the issue of leadership. This disaster was not just Ed Miliband’s fault. The campaign was badly led in Wales. The Welsh Labour leadership too blinkered in how it talks about business, talks about where people choose to get their news, and talks about an austerity agenda as if everything – absolutely everything – is the fault of funding cuts.
The First Minister can stand up in Assembly every week and blame the UK Government for all of Wales’s woes. It’s an easy line but it doesn’t work anymore. Over five years it has become dull and threadbare, and in this election the voters saw through it.
It is Labour that runs the Welsh Government. It is Labour that runs the majority of Welsh local authorities. And the Conservatives on a UK level successfully exploited many people’s unhappiness with those Labour run services at this election.
Quite simply, Labour did worse in Wales than parts of England because they are in government in Wales and that government sometimes seems detached from reality, struggling to modernise, lacking in steam or ideas, and unable to accept when it gets things wrong. Better leadership and better political responsibility are needed before that lesson is even considered let alone learnt.
This is the first time the Conservatives have won the Gower since Labour became a real political force over a century ago. They did that – and so much else – because they set out a clear identity in the centre ground and showed they were both better listeners and better leaders in 2015. That’s what Welsh Labour really needs to reflect on.