It is hardly controversial to suggest that the Labour party faces a tough time in the forthcoming general election – even if the polls and the analysts remain unsure as to the extent of the party’s difficulties. And Labour’s Welsh bastion is unlikely to be immune. To suggest the possibility of Labour winning its lowest proportion of Welsh parliamentary representation since 1931, or of the Conservatives coming close to matching their 14 Welsh MPs in 1983, is no longer wholly outrageous.
It would not be surprising if, licking their wounds in the immediate aftermath of the election, some Labour stalwarts were to experience a distinct degree of hiraeth: perhaps for the popularity of the recently-retired Rhodri Morgan; more generally for the ‘good old days’ when Labour’s dominance of electoral politics in Wales could almost be assumed. But, if so, they are probably mistaken about the former, and should at least think hard about the latter.
Rhodri Morgan was a remarkably popular leader of the Labour party in Wales. One of the most remarkable aspects of his popularity was the extent to which it was sustained until the very end of his term as First Minister. Compare and contrast with the evolution of public attitudes to Tony Blair. Such sustained popularity is highly unusual for democratic political leaders. The closest contemporary comparison I am aware of is President Lula of Brazil.
Moreover, Morgan’s continued popularity occurred during an era when, detailed electoral analysis suggests, leaders have generally become an increasingly influential factor in shaping the electoral fate of their parties. In that context, it is all the more striking that Rhodri’s personal popularity had pretty much no discernable electoral pay-off for his own party. From its most recent high-water mark in 1997, Labour’s support at the subsequent two general elections has fallen substantially further in Wales than in either England or Scotland.
And for devolved elections, it is highly instructive to compare Labour’s fate in Scotland and Wales in 2007. In Scotland, led by the uninspiring Jack McConnell and facing resurgent Nationalists, Labour’s vote share declined by 1.4%. In Wales, under a much more popular leader and facing no opponent remotely as formidable as the Salmond-led SNP, Labour’s vote share fell by 7.4%.
Why? It may well be that, as suggested by Richard Wyn Jones, Rhodri had become – possibly because of the peculiar circumstances that led to his acquiring the leadership, or maybe just through of his avuncular personality – a figure above party politics for most people. Whatever the truth of this, and whatever his other strengths and qualities, it is clear that Rhodri was not much of a vote winner. And so replacing him with an (inevitably) less well-known and well-liked leader may not be much of a vote loser. In that sense, Labour’s task in the May 2011 National Assembly elections is probably rather less formidable that it will seem on the morning after the general election. An unpopular Conservative government in London might make that task less formidable still.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should expect a return to the days of Labour hegemony in Wales. Sustained periods of single-party dominance do happen in democratic political systems, but only rarely. Once they subside it is rare too for them to be re-built.
And we should be very glad of that. Because, however immediately satisfying a crushing election victory may be to loyalists of the winning party, sustained single-party dominance is emphatically not a desirable state of affairs. It is not something anyone should wish for their country. Most instances of long-standing single-party dominance produce phenomena such as widespread corruption and intellectual stagnation. (Wholly foreign to Wales?). Of the democratic polities that have experienced it, probably only Sweden under the Social Democrats could remotely be classified as politically healthy.
In the National Assembly at least, Wales’ party system has moved over recent years in the direction of what the great Italian political scholar Giovanni Sartori classified as a ‘moderate pluralism’, a multi-party system with relatively modest ideological differences between the parties, where none are wholly beyond-the-pale as potential coalition partners or are irrevocably ‘anti-system’ in orientation.
We should not claim that this is in any sense a recipe for political perfection. Many of the imperfections are all-too-visible, all-too-frequently. But compared with the shape of party politics in Wales’s not-so-distant past – a dominant party system, where relations between that party and two of its major opponents were generally characterised by hatred and vitriolic abuse – it is incomparably healthier.
However bad the 2010 general election turns out to be for the Labour party, it will remain a major political force in Wales. But a return to the hegemony enjoyed for much of the last several decades is unlikely. Reluctant though their own members and supporters may be to accept this, a future for Welsh Labour as a major but not dominant force in a pluralistic multi-party politics, would be in many ways much better for it, and in most ways almost certainly far better for Wales, than the ‘good old days’ of dominance.