The Electoral State of the Parties 2: the Conservatives

Roger Scully suggests the next few years may well see the party more on the electoral defensive

Any discussion of the Conservatives in Wales tends, at some point, to focus on the defining feature of almost their entire history – the relative weakness of Welsh Conservatism. The Conservative party in Wales has long been substantially less successful than in England, and until fairly recently was also much less successful than in Scotland.

State of the Welsh Parties

This is the second in a series of posts we’re publishing this week considering the current electoral standing of the political parties in Wales.

  • Tomorrow: We intrude on the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ private grief that is only lessened by luck and leadership.
  • Friday: Plaid Cymru’s main problem is a resurgent ‘Welshed up’ competitor.

To put this in perspective, the last general election in which the Conservative share of the Welsh vote exceeded that in England was in 1859. Ever since voting rights began to be extended to a reasonable proportion of the population in Wales, the Conservatives have struggled. At first, this was against Liberal hegemony. From 1885 until the very last pre-World War I election in December 1910, the Liberal party won an absolute majority of both votes and seats in Wales at every election. Only in very poor years for the Liberals did the Conservatives win a significant share of Welsh parliamentary seats. In 1906 the Conservatives were completely wiped off the Welsh electoral map.

The inter-war years witnessed a rather more competitive party politics in Wales, as Liberal hegemony crumbled. Even so, the Conservatives continued to perform less strongly in elections in Wales than in England or Scotland. And from 1945 onwards, Labour dominated electoral politics across most of Wales. Only in relatively bad years for Labour, and in the more affluent and anglicised parts of Wales, were the Conservatives successful. In 1983, Labour’s travails saw the Tories win 14 of 38 seats – the highest Conservative share of Welsh seats since 19th Century franchise extension. It did seem as if the Conservatives were becoming truly competitive in much of Wales. But this was a short-lived hope.

In 1987, Conservative MPs fell in number from 14 to 8; in 1992 to 6; and in 1997, Wales once again became a Conservative-free zone in parliamentary terms. And in the first election to a National Assembly that most Conservatives had opposed, their performance was little better. Although the semi-proportional voting system helped the Tories win representation, they finished a very distant third.

Analysis of attitudes towards the Tories in Wales conducted shortly after the first devolved elections concluded that, among other problems, the Conservatives suffered because of a widespread perception among many Welsh voters that they were essentially an ‘English’ party. Aware of these findings, and under Nick Bourne’s leadership from 2000 onwards, the Conservatives in the Assembly began to shift their position on devolution (notwithstanding continued hostility from much of the party’s grass-roots) and more generally tried to present a more positive and authentically Welsh image for the party.

Although not always helped by the UK party leadership – notably its continued practice until 2012 of appointing (Shadow) Secretaries-of-State from English constituencies – this strategy proved successful. The Conservatives are the only party to have increased their vote share (on both constituency and list ballots) and their seat numbers in every National Assembly election since 1999. The Welsh Conservatives have also been represented at Westminster since 2005, and in 2010 won their highest level of parliamentary representation since 1987. Moreover in 2010, at 13.4 per cent, the gap between the Tories’ vote share in England and in Wales in 2010 was the smallest seen in any post-war election.

So is the recent Conservative story in Wales unremittingly positive? Not quite. For one thing, although the Conservatives have improved their electoral position at every devolved election, they are now as far away as ever from government at the devolved level. For a rather brief period this was not so. By the middle of the last decade Bourne’s moderate approach had rendered the Conservatives at least a conceivable Assembly coalition partner for the Liberal Democrats and (some of) Plaid Cymru. This apparently unlikely alliance came very close to taking power in the 2007 ‘Rainbow’ coalition. But hostility to the current Conservative-led UK government, as well as the less consensual style of Bourne’s successor, Andrew R.T. Davies, now renders the Tories toxic in coalition terms. Leanne Wood entering a coalition with the Conservatives currently looks about as likely as one of the Rev Ian Paisley’s daughters becoming Pope. Even if their electoral position improves further in 2016, the Conservatives in the National Assembly face the likelihood of continued marginalisation from government office.

Moreover, continued Conservative electoral advance is far from certain. By both historic and more recent standards the party is currently at a reasonable standing in Welsh opinion polls. Yet it faces at least two major challenges. One comes from UKIP, which now offers an alternative right-wing option that may appeal to some of the Tories’ more traditionally-minded supporters and activists.

The other challenge comes not so much from other parties as from the developing public hostility to the policy agenda of the UK government. While a stubborn cohort of Tories strongly approve of this agenda, to many Welsh people it is rendering the Conservatives utterly beyond the pale. A recent YouGov poll used a question that asks voters to rate the parties on a 0-10 scale, where 0 means ‘very unlikely’, and 10 means ‘very likely’, that ‘they would ever vote for’ a party. Fully 46 per cent of all respondents gave the Conservatives 0 – essentially saying they would never vote Tory. Only the BNP had more people rating them 0 on this scale. And the pool of likely Conservative voters – those rating the Conservatives at 6 or above – comprised only 24 per cent of respondents: well below not only Labour (at 50 per cent), but also Plaid Cymru (35 per cent).

This suggests that while the Conservatives are certainly not going away, their electoral performances in 2010 and 2011 may have come close to the party’s current potential ceiling of support in Wales. The first 15 years of devolution saw steady Conservative electoral advance from the nadir of 1997. The next few years may well see the party much more on the electoral defensive.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. His regular commentary on Welsh politics can be accessed at Elections in Wales

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