Suzy Davies says both sides of the coalition government in Westminster should do better at getting across their good news
Unable to find a man on a Clapham omnibus at short notice, I’ve been taking soundings from some Swansea taxi drivers. They’ve been a nourishing source of food for thought. Employing the words “bendy buses” in my conversation to provoke a Pavlovian urge to talk local politics, I waited to see what they volunteered.
I was expecting – and got – variations on a theme of the press headlines of the day: Grannytax, Pastygate, Murdoch and the Minister, and those Tories and Lib Dems up in London not creating jobs. Interestingly, it was always “Tories and Lib Dems” and not just “Tories”. And it was “not creating jobs” rather than “cutting jobs”. There were occasional references to the council wasting money, but no mention of the Assembly.
That was ironic, since responsibility for local government lies in Cardiff Bay, not Westminster.
Just as interesting was the conclusion that Labour would make no difference. This opinion expressed in terms varying from the rueful to the expletive. But they’d voted for them anyway, because they always have done.
There’s never one reason for an election result. The bigger picture never identifies local assassinations, where councillors of any party or none can be punished for indolence. They may be victims in a fiercely fought local derby. Meanwhile, the independent candidate provides a guilt-free home for the tactical voter.
Then there are the predictable reasons. It was inconceivable that Labour wouldn’t do well, emerging from its subterranean position of 2008. Then it would be Hammered Time (‘Don’t touch Them’) for the mid termers Con-Dems. With these three parties, it was just a matter of scale. Least predictable was the Plaid vote.
The Labour vote did more than recover respectably. People rushed back to their comfort zones then out to the ballot box. People who’d once agreed with Nick don’t any more. The angry turn out to vote; the merely disgruntled don’t. Labour’s ‘send a message to Westminster’, hardly ignored by the Welsh media, made swing voters just about angry enough. Labour’s claims for their local manifestos are meaningless – nearly all ward literature is local. Whether it gets widely read is another thing.
Those who’ve previously voted Lib Dem because they’re ‘not the other two’, couldn’t logically use that reason this time. Those who’d really gone against the grain to vote for Cameron in 2010 weren’t prepared to do it now. Individuals who have felt personally affected by UK government decisions would have their say – even if the root of the problem might, on closer inspection, have been a Welsh Government decision. The vaguely disillusioned Welsh Conservative repeat voter stayed at home because ‘it’s only local elections’.
When it comes to how the UK coalition parties were punished, there was a marked difference. Already bruised by the Assembly election results, the Lib Dems were struggling with losing activists, and a smaller cohort of candidates. Bruises became wounds, but whether they prove fatal remains to be seen.
The Welsh Conservatives, who improved their position in the Assembly elections, fielded more candidates in every local authority area. More resilient, and defiant of noises off at Westminster, we lost councillors and even councils, but still emerged with our second best result, and gained ground in Powys. Across Wales and England we still have more councils and councillors than Labour and the Lib Dems put together. We’re bruised for sure, but with plenty more rounds left in us.
Why couldn’t Plaid take advantage of the Con-Dem mid term blues in the way Labour did? A common enemy in Westminster provided a problem not a boost, yet the Assembly election strategy of Labour bashing didn’t work either. They couldn’t quite make the most of the general Lib Dem malaise, in either town or country. The Lib Dems lost half their seats on Swansea Counci, but Plaid lost all theirs. Meanwhile, the Welsh Conservatives lost just one seat – to an independent.
All parties have some thinking to do. Plaid will be asking what the hell happened. Like the English rugby team before the World Cup should have done, Labour should be asking whether it might be a mistake to believe their own publicity. It’s not just the leaflets that need delivering now, it’s the promises.
The Lib Dems will be asking how to rebuild confidence and regain trust. Welsh Conservatives will be asking how to get people to distinguish between what they stand for and what people prefer to believe they stand for.
Some recognition must be given to the Welsh Conservatives’ success in securing respect and sustained support in recent years. Good strategies still need refreshing. Nevertheless, it would certainly help if the both elements of the coalition government could do better at getting across their good news. They also need to prove that the posh-boy tag is irrelevant. Cameron must remember, generally speaking, that people in Wales have selective memories. They are still inclined to forgive Labour their sins and credit them with the successes of others, while blaming the ‘Tories’ and refusing to accept our achievements.