Reading the Polling Runes

English phoney war could occlude shifting undercurrents in the Welsh electoral landscape

Trying to discover information about the launch of the election campaign over the past week has been a surreal experience. From my vantage point in Kalkan, an isolated coastal resort on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, hemmed in by vertical mountainous cliffs on one side and an azure sunlit sea on the other, information was hard to find. In our apartment there was no TV or radio. On the news stands there were mainly indecipherable Turkish newspapers, among them an occasional British tabloid, invariably a few days old. Towards the end of the week I did pick up a Guardian, for which I paid the princely sum of 5 lira (£2 50p).

This was the beginning of my election campaign. Scanning the pages the impression I got was of a phoney war. There was little of substance to tell you what the campaign was going to be about. Two other things were striking. The coverage was of an air war, directed from bunkers in Westminster. There was virtually nothing about the campaign on the ground, except for Brown heading off on a train to some key swing marginal in Kent. I believe it was retiring Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews’ seat, Rochester and Strood (majority 213), which provides an odd Welsh connection. For Bob owns the famous TeleTubby house on the cliff at Druidston in Pembrokeshire – so maybe we’ll be seeing more of him. Apart from that, however, my overwhelming impression was that this was an English election.

Of course, it’s going to be a Welsh one as well. But there was no evidence of the highly specific and varied ground war that’s gearing up in Wales and which I analyse here. Of course, if there’s a hung Parliament the Welsh result could make a major contribution to the Westminster outcome. Other than that, however, the Welsh campaign will be intensely interesting for what it tells us about next year’s Assembly election and the nature of the coalition government that more than likely will emerge from it.

The most interesting piece of Welsh political news I picked up on returning from Turkey at the weekend was the poll commissioned by Plaid from Beaufort Research that was published a week ago. This was not dedicated to the election since it was part of the regular Omnibus survey that the Cardiff-based Beaufort company regularly undertakes. Even so it was a reasonable sample of 972 people interviewed face-to-face across Wales between 6 and 15 March.

Asked how they would vote in the general election (which at that stage had not been called) the responses were: Labour 41 per cent (43 per cent in the 2005 election); Conservatives 22 per cent (21 per cent); Plaid Cymru 17 per cent (13 per cent); Liberal Democrats 13 per cent (18 per cent); Green 2 per cent (-) UKIP 1 per cent (5 per cent) and Others 4 per cent (-).

If these findings are anywhere near accurate they tell you that there is a very different campaign underway in Wales compared with across the border. Of course, these all-Wales statistics will not determine the outcome in the key Welsh battleground constituencies where specific combinations of history, geography, culture and personalities will determine the results. But if they prove to be more or less accurate they convey quite a bit about next year’s campaign. For if the figures are a sound forecast they add credence to the other question that the pollsters asked, voting intentions for the Assembly campaign itself.

In an Assembly election the poll found that Labour would get 35 per cent (32 per cent in 2007); Plaid 27 per cent (22 per cent); Conservatives 16 per cent ( 22 per cent); Liberal Democrats 12 per cent (15 per cent) Green 4 per cent (-); UKIP 1 per cent (8 per cent) and Others 5 per cent (-).

It seems to me that these statistics under-estimate Liberal Democrat support which usually picks up during a campaign. But, as I say, if they prove broadly accurate we’ll be in for some pretty tense negotiations over the make-up of the next coalition government in Cardiff Bay, with a potential resurrection of the Rainbow Alliance. Something to chew over before the parties start flinging mud at each other in the coming weeks.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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