Tracking the Clegg phenomenon

Denis Balsom assesses the impact of the Liberal Democrat spike in the polls on the Welsh battleground seats

The ITV poll published last Monday gave a remarkable snapshot of the present political landscape in Wales. The last General Election produced a cohort of Welsh MPs little different from those returned to Parliament in the last fifty years. Labour were the largest party, both in terms seats and votes. The Welsh Labour bloc of 29 MPs, over 70 per cent of Welsh MPs, constituted a pretty good return for having polled only 43 per cent of the vote.

However, the subsequent Assembly Election in 2007, the Local Government Elections in 2008 and the European Election in 2009, have all demonstrated the progressive decline in the Labour dominance of Wales. So this week’s poll results should not have been totally unexpected.

ITV Poll findings 19 April 2010

Age Group

ALL 18-34 35-54 55+
Labour 33% 36% 36% 29%
Lib Dem 29% 34% 28% 27%
Conservative 23% 21% 21% 26%
Plaid Cymru 9% 6% 13% 9%
Other 6% 3% 3% 10%
WNV 3% 6% 4% 1%
DK 10% 5% 14% 10%

Of course, most remarkable is the leap in support for the Liberal Democrats, echoing a similar phenomenon observed across Britain following the ‘so-called’ Prime Ministerial debates, deemed to have been won by Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader. His success has put the Liberal Democrats first in the General Election polls for Britain, as a whole, and show no signs of abating pending the second Leader’s debate due to be held today. Even if the ‘flash in the pan’ is tempered, it seems unlikely that the Lib Dems will return to the level of earlier projections of their likely share of the vote on 6 May.

The polling data for Wales appears to track this British-wide response. The Liberal Democrats leaping from 12% of the vote, in the previous ITV poll in March, to a presumably Clegg-induced 29%. The pattern of recent polls for all parties shows the variation since the 2005 election.

2005 General Election + Recent ITV Polls

2005 GE Jan ’10 March’10 Today 2005 – 10
Labour 43% (29) (29) 35% 37% 33% -10%
Lib Dem 18% (4)      (4) 13% 12% 29% +11%
Conservative 21% (3) 32% 29% 23% +2%
Plaid Cymru 13% (3) 13% 14% 9% -4%
Other 5% (1) 7% 7% 6% +1%
WNV 7% 5% 3%
DK 13% 12% 10%

The surge in support for the Lib Dems illustrates the degree to which politics in Wales is irrevocably tied to the trends and nuances of British politics, whilst also, in certain circumstances, demonstrating a unique Welsh politics. The two genres are never entirely divorced, but the balance of influence can vary. Most obviously this is seen in the distinction between an election for the National Assembly, the Welsh General Election, and the General Election for the Westminster Parliament. These differences are not uniform across Wales, but reflect the general geo-cultural divisions that are widely recognised to characterise modern Wales. Thus Gwynedd will be more insulated from a wider British politics, whilst the opposite is likely to be true for Monmouthshire and the Marches. In particular the impact of media, both print and broadcast, is likely to reinforce ‘British’ political cues and messages to the exclusion of specific dimensions of Welsh politics.

In both Wales and the rest of the country the current level of Liberal Democrat support will almost certainly prove to be a ‘spike’ in the run of polls published throughout the campaign. It seems unlikely however, that any re-adjustment will return Lib Dem support to its previous level. The Clegg phenomenon will result in an increase in the base Lib Dem vote, of several percentage points, but not a total re-orientation of the party balance.

So what does the poll show us in respect of the likely distribution of Welsh seats come 7 May? In the absence of proportional representation a significant increase in the Lib Dem vote gains little for the party. There are very few constituencies in Wales where the Liberal Democrats are the principal challengers for the seat.

The contest in Swansea West looks winnable for the Lib Dems, following the party’s high profile success in local government, the retirement of a long-standing MP (in fact the longest standing  MP in the current Parliament) and the adoption by the Labour Party of a re-tread MP who previously represented Croydon. Building on the Lib Dem renaissance in local government, additional prospects might include Wrexham and Newport East, but a strong campaign will still be needed as well as any benefit gained from the swing indicated in the poll.

The principal changes in Welsh representation will come from essentially two-party contests between Labour and Conservatives. A slate of currently marginal Labour seats are likely to go Conservative: Cardiff North, the Vale of Glamorgan, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, and the new Aberconwy constituency. Plaid Cymru might take Ynys Mon, one of their prime target seats, given the overall decline of the Labour vote across Wales. Plaid’s other target, Ceredigion, looks, perhaps, a little more secure for the Liberal Democrats judging by this poll. The only consolation that Labour might enjoy would be the recapture of Blaenau Gwent – a symbolic, but hollow, victory in what will undoubtedly prove to be a disastrous election.

Denis Balsom is a former lecturer in the department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is also a Psephologist and editor of The Wales Yearbook

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