John Osmond examines the implications of the election and London coalition government for the future of Welsh politics
What do the general election and the formation of the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government in London tell us about the future of Welsh politics and the outcome of next year’s Assembly election? On a superficial reading you could say that in Wales everybody lost but nobody won in 2010. This is unlikely to be replicated in 2011.
At the outset of the campaign I calculated that Labour would 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 exceeded these thresholds I judged they would have done exceptionally well. Equally, if any fell below them they would have performed worse than their own expectations.
Welsh Labour continued its long secular decline, down to 36 per cent of the vote compared with 54.7 per cent in 1997, 48.6 per cent in 2001, and 42 per cent in 20o5. It also lost five seats. On the other hand it avoided anything near a meltdown and held on to 26 seats, at the upper end of what it could have reasonably expected at the outset of the campaign. It won back Blaenau Gwent and only lost Cardiff North, its most marginal seat, by 194 votes to Conservative Jonathan Evans, doubtless a tribute to the local effort put in by Julie and Rhodri Morgan.
The Conservatives could claim to have won the election in Wales. Their percentage share of the vote, up 4.7 per cent to 27 per cent, was higher than the overall UK increase of 3.8 per cent, and they gained five seats. However, this was some way short of the ten extra seats they were hoping for – including the Vale of Clwyd, Delyn, Clwyd South, Bridgend and Gower all of which remained stubbornly in Labour hands.
The Liberal Democrats made some striking advances, notably in Ceredigion where they easily saw off Plaid Cymru’s challenge, and in Merthyr and Pontypridd where they achieved 17 per cent and 13 per cent swings from Labour. At the same time they lost their previously safe Montgomery seat to the Conservatives and failed to make anticipated gains in either Swansea West or Newport East.
Partly because they talked up their chances so much, and partly because of their strategy of targeting a handful of seats at the expense of running anything resembling a national campaign, Plaid Cymru came out worst. It failed to gain Ceredigion or Ynys Mon, and despite an advance in Llanelli fell short there and actually came third in Aberconwy, behind both Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. At the same time it retained its three seats and maintained its overall share of the vote.
In different ways, therefore, as well as licking their wounds, all of the parties can take some comfort from the results. However, this would be to seriously misjudge the reality that the 2010 general election has marked a turning point comparable to the one in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher seized power. The argument is made by Anthony Barnett in our Essays section in a feature republished from his excellent global news website OpenDemocracy.net
If his analysis is anywhere near a true reflection of the substantial underlying shifts taking place in UK politics, and I believe it is, then the consequences for Welsh politics and the future shape of the National Assembly will be equally profound, with distinctive messages for each of the parties.
The temptation for Labour will be to say that it’s business as usual, seeing itself as representative of progressive, left of centre interests hunkering down to defend Welsh interests against an assault from the Tory right in England. Many in the party have been counting on this scenario as providing the easiest instrument for mobilising its vote to gain ground in next year’s Assembly election.
It may well not work that way this time. I suspect the London coalition government will sustain considerable popularity well into next year, despite the spending cuts that by then will be hitting frontline public services. Notwithstanding the impetus that can be expected from a new leadership, Labour will struggle to find an effective theme at the UK level. It will be held responsible for the recession and its consequences, while the coalition will be seen as leading the country in a collaborative fight to surmount the difficulties.
In these circumstances Welsh Labour’s interests will surely lie in pursuing greater autonomy for the party in Wales and charting a more distinctive and empathetic policy profile as a result. As was the case in Cardiff North, and as Mark Drakeford shows in his account of the election campaign in Cardiff West, strength on the ground produces electoral dividends.
The Welsh Conservatives will be judged on how far they continue emphasising their distinctive Welshness, in their case by representing Welsh interests in protecting the Welsh block grant. The acid test will be fulfilling promises made in the run-up to the election that the calculation of the grant should be changed to reflect need rather than simply population. If this were achieved the worst of the spending cuts might be blunted in the next few years. The Conservatives could justly point to ending an injustice, which Labour presided over for 13 years if they were instrumental in making this change.
The Welsh Liberal democrats have great opportunities in next year’s Assembly election. As a result of their advances over recent years they are now in striking distance of making gains in a number of seats across south Wales, in particular Swansea West, Newport East, Merthyr and Pontypridd. Of course, the danger is they will be tarred by their cohabitation with the Conservatives London. What the media lifts up it can also drag down.
Plaid Cymru can hope for an easier time fighting next year’s Assembly election where it operates on a more or less level playing field with the other parties. Nonetheless, it needs to absorb some uncomfortable lessons, some of which are drawn by the party’s chair John Dixon is his account of the campaign in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. Message and leadership are critical. In the 2010 election Plaid’s message was thin gruel. At a time of a looming UK £165 billion budget deficit it was scarcely credible to make a pitch for a large increase in pensions and recouping £300 million for the Welsh block grant. Targeting key seats with lacklustre candidates was no help either. Plaid needs to acknowledge the reality that a Westminster campaign is a second order election for the party. Rather than fight it on the basis of a marginal seats strategy it would be better served by using it to build for the first order Assembly election where it needs to win votes in every corner of the country. Among the few seats where it managed to achieve this was the Cynon Valley, which may be one to watch in 2011.
The joker in next May’s electoral pack is outcome the referendum on more Assembly powers, now likely to be held in October. This will be difficult terrain for all the parties to traverse. The extraordinary thing, from the point of view of where the devolution story started back in 1997, all the parties now have a strong interest in being identified with a successful outcome.