Election special 1: Labour advances west of the Loughor and the Clwyd

Mark Drakeford says the challenge for all parties is to drag democracy into the world which today’s voters occupy

Last week’s county council elections were outstandingly successful for Welsh Labour, meeting and beating the Party’s own expectations. Not only did the party resume its dominant position in its traditional heartlands, it also exceeded the substantial success it had obtained in 2011, in the urban concentrations of Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham, as well as making emphatic gains in the Vales of Clwyd and Glamorgan. Moreover, for the first time since 2001, Labour advanced rather than retreated west of the Loughor and the Clwyd. Looking ahead to the General Election intended for 2015, and the Assembly elections of 2016, Labour’s revival in Carmarthenshire and Conwy may be the most significant result of all.

Welsh local elections 2012

In this series representatives from all four parties give their verdict on last week’s poll. Tomorrow Peter Black finds that a deliberate abstention by voters to make a point cost his party the election across many parts of Wales.

The timing of Labour’s revival prevents the long-term hollowing-out of the party, in a way which has inflicted such deep and long-term damage on the Conservatives in Wales, from the 1980s onwards. Amongst the best news for Labour is the diversity of its new councillors. For example, in Cardiff every constituency now has Labour representatives from minority ethnic communities, people in their twenties to their sixties, as well as an unprecedented number of women.

Labour’s decision to leave manifesto production to local parties resulted in the involvement of hundreds of members in working groups, plenary meetings and detailed drafting. The process has carried further the rejuvenation of the party’s grass roots, which began as soon as the election of May 2010 was over. One example of the results can be seen in the Swansea Manifesto and its comprehensive set of policy proposals which will form the basis of Labour’s administration in that city.

In politics, weather really does matter and this year’s campaign was conducted in the worst April for a century. Temperatures on 3 May across Wales were lower than they had been on Christmas Day. Bad weather hits Labour disproportionately. On any dry day there are more Labour activists in the field than any other party. On a wet day, all parties are equally absent. If April had been a less cruel month, Labour’s victory would have been even greater.

If weather matters, then leadership  matters too. Carwyn Jones is both the best recognised and the most highly regarded of all political leaders in Wales, bringing a breadth and depth of popular appeal which no other leader is able to rival. But if leadership is important, it is also perilous. This year every party lost at least one politician who had led a Council during the previous four years, including the independent leader of Ceredigion. Welsh voters appear to have embarked on a spontaneous decapitation strategy, making 2012 remarkable as a year when personal political prominence and personal political peril became inescapably intertwined.

Within a single Parliament, it is now clear that the Lib Dems will have lost all the ground gained, in thirty years of pavement politics. Only where the party is defending its own core territory can it stem its more general collapse. Beyond that core, it is in full free fall. All this will surely play directly into the prospects of the next Westminster election that will be fought on new boundaries. For Lib Dem MPs to endorse boundary reforms that spell their own oblivion is not simply a matter of turkeys voting for Christmas, but of such turkeys self-stuffing and placing themselves in the oven. Last Thursday’s results suggest that, on current boundaries, Lib Dem MPs in Wales would all have some chance of retaining their seats, even if only remotely in Cardiff Central. On new boundaries not one will survive.

Last Thursday’s results were sobering for Plaid Cymru. I have a real respect for Leanne Wood as an individual, but last week demonstrated that she has the bad luck to be the wrong leader, at the wrong time. Plaid’s heartlands remain Welsh-speaking and Poujadist. The gamble was that they would remain loyal, while the new leader could appeal, instead, to the very different demography, and politics, of the south east. The results in Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, suggest that the jury is still out on the first part of this proposition. The widespread losses across the old Glamorgan and Gwent demonstrate the death of the second. When the Conservatives are in power in Westminster, the political leverage to prise away Labour voters disappears. This is precisely the time when the new Plaid leader’s particular appeal is least likely to make itself felt. Last year’s Assembly elections began a period of decline for Plaid Cymru which accelerated last week. It is a trend which is set to continue.

As for the Welsh Conservatives, 2012 leaves them reliant on the life support machine which is the Assembly’s electoral system. In first-past-the-post elections, which it so strongly favours, it lost seats in 11 of the 14 Councils where it has representation. During the 1990s, the Tories more or less disappeared as a party in Welsh local government. Now, it has lost much of the rather thin ground which it regained in the years when Labour was in office in London. It is heading back to oblivion.

If last Thursday’s elections do nothing else, surely they provide a challenge to every political party to drag democracy into the world which today’s voters occupy.  Ballot papers need to be redesigned, to be clearer and simpler to read – for example, by grouping candidates by party, rather than alphabetically. New technologies mean that voting can be made much easier, without the greatly over-stated fears of fraud. Voting could take place at weekends. Mobile voting booths could take polling stations to people, rather than the other way around. Polling could take place at supermarkets, over the phone and in many other ways. We have to shake off the shackles of voting on a Thursday, using a pencil tied to a piece of string in a draughty church hall a long walk away from where people live.

Lastly, to more fundamentally radical proposals to revive Welsh democracy. I am in favour of compulsory participation, proportional representation and of councils being elected in thirds, each year. Taking part in elections is a duty, not simply a right – even if participation amounts to ‘none of the above’. PR would give all parties an incentive to campaign, and put up candidates, in every part of Wales. In Scotland, in 2012, not a single seat went uncontested. In Wales, nearly 140,000 voters found that there was to be no election, because a single candidate has been returned, unopposed. PR would also revive the Labour Party where we have to rebuild for the future, such as in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. Annual elections keeps power in the hands of voters, and gives parties a real incentive to keep in touch with their electorates. Such reforms are much better mounted from a position of strength. That’s why, after 2012, Labour remains the best hope for anyone with a genuinely radical reform agenda in Wales.

Mark Drakeford is Labour AM for Cardiff West.

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