This is the first in a series of blog posts by Roger Scully considering the current standing of the parties in Wales.
It makes sense to begin the examination of the Electoral State of the Parties with Wales’ dominant party, Labour. Indeed, any sensible analysis of contemporary party politics in Wales must surely start from its central, defining reality: Labour dominance. Labour has won at least a plurality, and often a majority, of the Welsh vote at every parliamentary and National Assembly election since 1922. Labour has also won a majority of Welsh seats at every UK general election since 1935. And they have always been the largest party, and always in government, in the National Assembly since its creation. As the presenter of a certain TV cookery show might put it, “one-party dominance doesn’t get much more dominant than this”.
State of the Welsh Parties
This is the first in a series of posts we’re publishing this week considering the current electoral standing of the political parties in the National Assembly.
Such sustained dominance by a single party within a functioning democracy is not wholly unprecedented, although it is distinctly unusual by international standards. Labour’s dominance in Wales has also been both longer-lasting and of much greater depth than anything obtaining in Scotland.
For a while, during the first years of this century, this hegemony appeared to be crumbling. Over the eight years from the Blairite high-water mark of 1997 to the 2005 general election, Labour’s vote share fell further in Wales than in either Scotland or England. And while Labour had recovered from the (largely self-induced) setback of the first National Assembly election by 2003, in 2007 we saw Labour’s vote share falling notably further in that year’s devolved elections in Wales than in Scotland. This was despite the persisting popularity of Rhodri Morgan and Welsh Labour not facing any challenger of the strength of the SNP.
The following year Welsh Labour lost significant further ground in the local elections. Then, in 2009, Labour finished behind the Conservatives in Wales in the European Parliament elections. In the 2010 UK general election, Labour in Wales saw its vote share fall to 36.2 per cent – almost 20 per cent below the mark achieved in 1997, and a lower percentage than it had managed even in the desperate defeat of 1983.
Indeed, for anoraks 2010 was also notable as being the first occasion since World War I when Labour in Wales had won a lower vote share in a devolved or parliamentary election than in Scotland. In both 2007 and 2010, Labour managed to avoid substantial seat losses. But this partly reflected sheer luck (Labour just holding on in several constituencies in 2007) and partly the absence of a single strong challenger to Labour. While Labour’s Welsh citadel could not be said to have fallen, the ramparts were visibly trembling.
What has been striking since May 2010 – and stands in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland – has been the extent of Labour’s Welsh resurgence. Almost from the moment that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed in London, and Labour in Wales was no longer tarnished by association with an unpopular UK government, the party’s opinion poll rating began to recover. In May 2011 the devolved elections saw Labour achieve its best-ever result – whereas in the simultaneous contest for the Scottish Parliament, Labour did worse than ever before.
The 2012 local elections saw Labour making more than 230 net gains, and sweep back into power across much of Wales. The polls continue to show Carwyn Jones to be way ahead of all other – UK and Welsh – party leaders in popularity, while Labour has strong and stable polling leads both for Westminster and the National Assembly.
Moreover, detailed analysis of polling about attitudes to the parties also reveals Labour to be better regarded than any other party. Compared to both the other major UK-wide parties, Labour in Wales attracts much stronger positive sentiments and much less hostility. Although the recent Ynys Môn by-election has suggested that some of its support may be rather soft, Welsh Labour is still in a very strong position.
So will the good times simply continue rolling for Labour? In the short term, the answer is probably Yes. The party is likely to finish a good first in the 2014 European Parliament elections in Wales, and is currently also on course to make several seat gains at the next UK general election.
It is at this point that things might begin to get somewhat more difficult for Labour in Wales. Research has suggested that voting in devolved elections in Wales is more strongly influenced by UK-wide factors than in Scotland. And with the most likely outcome of the next UK general election currently being Labour either winning with a narrow majority or being the largest single party but short of a majority (and thus looking either to form a coalition government or to govern as a minority) Labour in Wales faces the possibility of being linked to a potentially weak UK government. Were such a political context to emerge alongside Labour facing a stronger and more politically effective competitor on the centre-left that was better able to challenge Labour’s record in government in Wales, then its hegemony might truly come under threat.
But a number of stars have to come into the correct alignments for that scenario to be realised. And, frankly, if you were a leader of the other parties in Wales, you probably wouldn’t mind facing those problems…
Roger Scully’s regular commentary on Welsh politics can be accessed at Elections in Wales