Everyone has a disappointing night somewhere

Denis Balsom offers some immediate thoughts on the General Election results in Wales

Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, took us to the brink. The election was called a mere six weeks before the statutory time limit for a Parliament expired. Prime Ministers generally exercise, and jealously guard, this right to maximise Party advantage. Strange then, that several parties, including Labour, are now committed to introducing legislation to create fixed-term Parliaments.

Did Brown maximise Labour’s advantage? Compared with the predictions of the polls over the last few months, the answer must be ‘Yes’; though he cannot have anticipated the impact of the Leaders’ debate, the subsequent Cleggmania, and Bigotgate. Labour’s losses were extensive, but overall still denied the Conservatives an overall Parliamentary majority that had seemed a certainty for much of the last two years or so. In Wales, and in Scotland, the commentators on the night suggested that the Labour vote appeared to have been somewhat more resilient. However, in the cold light of dawn the decline of the Labour vote is much the same in Wales as elsewhere. Where Wales was different was that decline in Labour support produced proportionately fewer losses of Labour MPs.

The Labour defeats in Cardiff North, Carmarthen West, the Vale of Glamorgan and notionally the new seat of Aberconwy, were extreme marginals and thus no surprise. Other Labour seats survived substantial swings to the Conservatives, but still retained Labour MPs. This was due to the proportionately larger majorities previously found in many Welsh Labour seats. This phenomenon is not solely a remnant of the historical Labour dominance of the former coalfield. In North East Wales many Labour seats on the Tory shopping list suffered swings of 6-8 per cent but remained Labour held. The key transition seat of the Vale of Clwyd needed a swing of 7.2 per cent to the Tories and was recognized as a key ‘bell-weather’ result if Cameron was to secure a majority. Chris Ruane took the hit, as did Delyn, Alyn & Deeside, Clwyd South and Wrexham. At the same time the Tory challenge was somewhat mitigated by a strong Liberal Democrat campaign.

The Liberal Democrats suffered a sensational defeat in Montgomery where Glyn Davies displaced the celebrity MP Lembit Öpik. Yet in adjoining Ceredigion Mark Williams managed to raise his majority from an extremely vulnerable 219 to enjoy a safety buffer of almost 9,000. The Liberal Democrats’ other ambitions in Swansea West and Newport East failed to enjoy any Clegg bounce, which had largely deflated across the country as a whole, leaving the Liberal Democrats, UK-wide, 5 seats short of their 2005 performance, despite remarkably having headed the opinion polls only three weeks previously.

Wales 2010 Election Scoreboard

Seats Gain Loss Net Votes % +/-%
Labour 26 1 5 -4 531,601 36.2 -6.5
Conservative 8 5 0 +5 382,730 26.1 +4.7
Liberal Democrat 3 0 1 -1 295,164 20.1 +1.7
Plaid Cymru 3 1 0 +1 165,394 11.3 -1.3
UK Independence Party 0 0 0 0 35,690 2.4 +1.0
British National Party 0 0 0 0 23,088 1.6 +1.5
Green 0 0 0 0 6,293 0.4 -0.1
Christian Party 0 0 0 0 1,947 0.1
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition 0 0 0 0 341 0.0
Others 0 0 1 -1 24,442 1.7 -1.1

Plaid Cymru also had a disappointing night. The notional seat of Arfon, curiously deemed ‘Labour’ following the Boundary revisions, was taken or retained depending on your view. The challenge to Labour in the target seats of Llanelli and Ynys Mon not only failed, but did so in an uncompromising manner. Similarly, in Ceredigion, a Plaid Cymru seat between 1992 and 2005, Penri James’s campaign to overturn Mark William’s wafer-thin majority failed miserably, allowing the Liberal Democrats to achieve a substantially increased share of the vote.

The overall UK election proved inconclusive. Negotiations will now prevail until a satisfactory package is agreed between, at least, two of the parties. Wales has experience of enduring such a political vacuum. Following the 2007 election, it took nearly six weeks for Labour first, to find a partner, draft and finally create the One Wales Agreement. Following this interregnum, however, sound government has largely prevailed.

There is little prima facie evidence that coalition government is weak government, it is just a British establishment assumption. But notwithstanding their Cardiff Bay alliance, Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party gave no quarter in the election campaign just passed. Whatever the outcome from the negotiations between the major British parties, no longer legally emanating from smoke-filled rooms, government must be sustained in the face of both international and domestic financial crises.

The next significant electoral events in Wales will be the 2011 Assembly elections, with possibly a referendum on further powers for the Assembly prior to the election. These will be exclusively Welsh events and past experience suggests that the electorate may behave rather differently than seen this week. The general election however, has shown little evidence that Plaid Cymru could reprise the ‘quiet earthquake’ performance of 1999. The Conservatives secured increased representation in the Assembly in 2007 and the results from the general election suggests that their present configuration of constituency and list seats will continue. Labour will almost certainly fail to secure a majority in 2011 and another coalition will beckon. The Lib Dems? Maybe Lembit will make a come back!

Dr Denis Balsom is Editor of the Wales Yearbook.

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