John Osmond surveys the battleground constituencies in Wales in the forthcoming general election
In the new 21st Century era of political pluralism in Wales many more parliamentary seats are being seriously contested than in previous Westminster general elections. Surveying the present Welsh electoral landscape the interesting Welsh constituencies fall into three categories. Three are seats where a change seems more than probable, eleven are battleground seats where there are varying possibilities of change, and a further seven seats could fall if there are greater switches of allegiance than currently being suggested by past history and the polls:
• Probable Change: Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
• Battleground Seats: Vale of Clwyd, Delyn, Ceredigion, Ynys Mon, Aberconwy, Arfon, Montgomery, Brecon and Radnor, Llanelli, Blaenau Gwent, and Swansea West.
• Outlying Seats: Gower, Bridgend, Cardiff West, Cardiff South and Penarth, Newport East, Newport West, and Clwyd South.
In all, therefore, there is at least some prospect of political change in 21 of Wales’s 40 Westminster constituencies. This is a striking departure from recent elections in which a Labour majority in most of Welsh Westminster constituencies has been a foregone conclusion.
The Conservatives look destined to win all of the seats in the first category and all from Labour – Cardiff North, the Vale of Glamorgan and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
The fight between Labour and the Conservatives also dominates two of the eleven battleground seats, Delyn and the Vale of Clwyd in north-east Wales where we can expect results to follow UK swing patterns. Delyn in particular, which was lost to Labour from the Conservatives in 1992, is something of a weathervane seat. If Labour’s David Hanson holds on, even in a tight contest, it would mean that a majority Labour government is likely to be returned at Westminster. The Conservative candidate, barrister Antoinette Sandbach, needs a 9.8 per cent swing to win. At last year’s European elections the Conservatives had a comfortable majority in the constituency and in the 2007 assembly elections they slashed Labour’s majority to only 511 votes. However, these were relatively low turn-out elections (41.1 per cent in 2007) and Labour should expect to do much better on 6 May.
The Vale of Clwyd is in a similar position to Delyn, only more so. The swing required for the Conservative’s Matthew Wright, a Flintshire councillor, to unseat Labour’s Chris Ruane is 7.2 per cent. When he stood in the 2007 Assembly election Wright came within just 92 votes of beating Labour’s Ann Jones. He may also benefit from being one of the first Conservative candidates in the UK to be selected in an open primary contest, allowing people other than Conservative members to vote.
Perhaps the most unpredictable contest in Wales is Ynys Mon. Formerly held by Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones (until the 2001 election) this is the party’s third target seat with only a 1.8 per cent swing needed to wrest it back from Labour’s Albert Owen. However, the contest is complicated by the presence of the Conservatives who, though they trailed in fourth place in 2005, led the field by a wide margin in last year’s European election. The continued candidacy of rogue Independent candidate Peter Rogers, a former Conservative AM for the constituency, will muddy the waters still further. Only Labour or Plaid can win, with Albert Owens’ incumbency straining against this being a bad year for his party in the electoral cycle.
There is more straightforward contest between the parties at the other end of Wales, in Llanelli where Plaid’s Myfanwy Davies is the challenger. On the face of it this should be a safe Labour seat, which Labour’s Nia Griffith held with a 20.5 per cent margin over Plaid at the last Westminster election in 2005. However, since then Plaid won the seat at the 2007 Assembly election with a 14.1 per cent majority and was also well ahead in last year’s European election in the constituency. Griffith’s has acknowledged the threat in a recent letter to her constituents. As she put it, “No disrespect to Plaid Cymru but three or even four MPs at Westminster can do absolutely nothing amongst 650 MPs”. However, it looks like being a close run thing in Llanelli.
The same will be true in Aberconwy, where re-drawn constituency boundaries have converted a Labour seat, formerly held by retiring Betty Williams, into a Tory/Plaid marginal. The statistics favour the Conservative candidate, Guto Bebb, grandson of Plaid founder Ambrose Bebb and a former Plaid activist himself. However, the boundary changes, which have brought Nant Conwy into the re-drawn constituency, will help Plaid’s Phil Edwards, who is also the beneficiary of support from the former president of the Constituency’s Conservative association, Deganwy councillor Dennis Tew.
Llanelli is Plaid’s fourth target seat and Aberconwy is its fifth. However, its first and most promising target is Ceredigion, where it needs only a 0.3 per cent swing from Liberal Democrat Mark Williams to win. Plaid’s second target seat is Arfon, which like Aberconwy has completely redrawn boundaries. About 60 per cent of its electorate comes from the former Caernarfon constituency and 40 per cent from the old Conwy. In both cases it is the more rural wards that have been shed from the former seats, making the new contest essentially one between Labour and Plaid in Bangor and Caernarfon. Most observers expect Plaid’s current Caernarfon MP Hywel Williams, who is being challenged by Labour’s former culture Minister in the Assembly Alun Pugh, to keep the seat.
In Montgomery there is a personality-led clash between Lembit Opik, the publicity-prone Liberal Democrat incumbent, and former Conservative AM for Mid and West Wales Glyn Davies, well-known as a local farmer and former chair of the Development Board for Rural Wales. With a 11.9 per cent swing needed for the Tories to win this ought to be a safe Liberal Democrat seat. However the result may come down to who has made most enemies or friends, Lembit Opik for his exploits in the UK tabloids or Glyn Davies for his longevity in a close-knit farming community.
The Liberal Democrats are also facing a Conservative challenge in neighbouring Brecon and Radnor, where a smaller 5.1 per cent swing is required for them to be unseated. As the incumbent, farmer Roger Williams has an advantage. Whether the Conservative Suzy Davies is successful may well come down to how far the constituency’s voters believe a Conservative administration at Westminster is likely and whether they judge their interests are best served by being aligned with it.
In Swansea West it is the Liberal Democrats who are challenging Labour. Here they need a 6.5 per cent swing and may be helped by the retirement of Labour’s Alan Williams who has represented the constituency since 1964. His successor as candidate, Geraint Davies, former Labour MP for Croyden between 1997 and 2005, is also being challenged by an independent on an anti-expenses platform.
Labour’s best hope of a win, in a situation where generally it is faced with loosing seats in the Welsh battleground constituencies, is Blaenau Gwent. Here it must hope to regain what was once was a rock solid seat from People’s Voice MP Dai Davies. However, a 9.3 per cent swing is required and much will depend on the turn-out. If it rises substantially above the 52.1 per cent recorded in 2005 then Labour should benefit.
Outside the battleground constituencies Labour could lose a swathe of constituencies, mainly within the south Wales coastal belt, if there a stronger than expected swing to the Conservatives in Wales. These include Gower, Bridgend, Cardiff West, Cardiff South and Penarth, Newport West, and potentially also Newport East to the Liberal Democrats. In addition there is Clwyd South in the north. However, on the evidence of this stage in the campaign, although admittedly there is not a great deal, none of these seats look likely to produce an upset.
So what might the pattern of Welsh representation be at Westminster when we wake up on 7 May? The analysis presented here demonstrates that a large number of permutations are possible. Depending on where they gain seats the parties will impact on the overall totals of their competitors. However, I calculate that Labour will struggle to win more than 26 seats, the Conservatives more than 10, Plaid more than seven, Liberal Democrats more than four, and Independents more than one. If any of them exceed these thresholds they will have done exceptionally well. Equally, if any fall below them they will have performed worse than their own expectations (or hopes). Currently Labour has 29 seats, Liberal Democrats 4, Conservatives 3, Plaid 3, and Independents 1. For what it’s worth – and without hazarding a guess at which constituencies – I predict that Labour will win 23 seats, Tories 8, Plaid 5, Liberal Democrats 3, and Independents 1.