Following Wales – a normalisation of UK politics

Laura McAllister says this wasn’t an election to be a political pundit

Some media commentators are suggesting that we might know the nature and composition of the new government by Monday. I’ll stick my neck out and say that’s unlikely. The UK is now in the brave new world of pluralist politics where bargaining and compromise will be the principal dynamics. Negotiations around forming governments take time and rightly so. A successful deal – a coalition or more informal alternatives – requires detail, precision and mechanisms to safeguard the interest of both or all parties.

Exactly three years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 National Assembly election, I wrote in the Western Mail that “what we have witnessed since 4 May is not some elaborate farce but the normalisation of Welsh politics. So much so that the coalition negotiating process might eventually be seen to be as significant as the outcome itself”. I have laboured this point so much since then that even I was starting to get bored of it. I wonder if the Economic and Social Research Council is regretting not funding our clearly prophetic research funding application to investigate lessons from Wales for the rest of the UK.

In Wales the general election was on the one hand full of surprises and, on the other, contained few. The Conservatives made progress, winning those extra five seats but nothing like enough to push them to double figures and a fairly unambitious (given the electoral system) quarter of the forty Welsh seats. Labour looked mightily relieved to be still standing after the projected right hook failed to hit them square on the jaw.

The boasts of the (UK) Liberal Democrats that this was their election look strangely hollow now, floored in part by the electoral system and partly by some of their own policies, although they are still likely to be king makers. The less said about Plaid the better, although it will be glad Arfon was deemed a notional Labour seat so that it can register a ‘gain’. And, at least, it can claim success in predicting a potential influence for its tiny group in a hung parliament.

The pattern of the election, in and beyond Wales, was that there was no pattern. This was a British election campaign with a distinctive Welsh twist. It produced a veritable patchwork of forty quite different elections, albeit with some clustering of trends and dynamics. But the obvious verdict is that within Wales as a whole, there was variety. Within regions, there was variety.  An outstanding example was the 7 per cent swings from Labour to Plaid in the Cynon Valley but 13 per cent and 17 per cent swings to the Liberal Democrats in nearby Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil.

There were even irregular patterns within seats For example, I’d put my bottom dollar on the fact that the Tory swing in Bridgend came from Porthcawl and the Vale of Glamorgan fringe, and that the swing in Cardiff West came from the north of the seat with little shifts elsewhere.

The national 5.6 per cent swing to the Conservatives in Wales was lower than in England and this at a time when Brown’s campaign was conducted in keeping with the past (last?) year of his premiership. All of this is rather different to the pattern in England where it seems the Conservatives took most of their extra votes from Labour rather than the Lib Dems in its old strongholds of the Midlands and the north. Still, the Scots managed to properly reinforce the uneven character of UK politics with a perfectly symmetrical standstill election (ignoring by-elections), alongside a fractional swing from SNP to Labour. The territorial and electoral make up of the UK will be under scrutiny whatever happens next.

It wasn’t an election to be a political pundit really. None of us predicted the closeness of Cardiff North, or Glyn Davies’s fine win in Montgomery (even Glyn himself). Nor did we really see the hugely expanded Lib Dem majority and a 10% swing in Ceredigion, or Plaid’s collapse in Ynys Mon when everything seemed to be on the party’s side. This was also an election which promised to re-engage the voting public, yet only an extra 2.3 per cent bothered to vote here and this despite the heady cocktail of enthusiasm in the wake of the live TV leaders’ debates and anger over MPs’ expenses.

So, for lessons on the new pluralist politics in the UK, see Wales and Scotland. On alternative voting systems, the devolved nations promise to offer some guidance to the ‘mother of parliaments’. A switch to a much more proportional electoral system such as STV would change the political DNA of the UK and, quite frankly, is not going to happen, whatever Nick Clegg says. What the 2010 general election results and outcome have stimulated is a wider spread public awareness that our electoral system is bankrupt. However, I wouldn’t look to the flawed AMS (particularly as applied in Wales) for answers. 


Laura McAllister is Professor of Governance at the University of Liverpool and Chair of Sport Wales.

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