John Winterson Richards looks back at the reasons for the demise of the Tories in 1990s Wales
The Conservatives were practically annihilated in Welsh local government in 1995 and totally wiped out in the 1997 General Election. Why was their meltdown in Wales so much more complete than even their poor performance in the rest of the United Kingdom during the same period, and their recovery so long delayed and so feeble?
On the Right of Welsh Politics
In this three-part series a former activist provides an insider’s account of the fortunes of Conservatism in Wales.
To explain their proportionately greater failure in Wales, it is misleading to project personal prejudices and blame ‘Thatcher’ or ‘The Strike’ or ‘The Poll Tax’. In fact, Mrs Thatcher was electorally very successful in Wales, increasing her Party’s Parliamentary representation here in 1979 and 1983. Similarly, there is no evidence to suggest the Miners’ Strike put Conservative voters off their Party. Most of those famously ‘radicalised’ by the Strike were already Labour-inclined voters in Labour strongholds, and must be set against those, less publicised, who were repelled by the conduct of the NUM leadership. The Poll Tax was not a bigger issue in Wales than in England – indeed, the opposite may be true.
Certainly by the mid-1990s they were less troubling factors for perceptive Conservative activists than the way that they found themselves members of what looked increasingly like a suicide cult.
The role of internal factors in the self-destruction of the Conservatives in Wales has never properly been discussed on the public record. Most commentators seem totally unaware of them.
Politics is less about grand sweeps of public opinion than about the mundane details of organisation – identifying potential supporters, looking after them so that they feel loved and appreciated, and getting them out to vote on election day. This is what Tip O’Neill meant when he said, “All politics is local.”
Welsh Conservatives forgot this. Three mistakes in particular go a long way to explaining why the Conservative meltdown in Wales was so complete.
The first was an obscure administrative change in the early 1980s, which at the very moment when the Conservatives were at their strongest in Wales sowed the seeds of their destruction. The Party abandoned door-to-door collection of membership subscriptions in favour of a modern computer mailing system. Eager to be rid of a wearisome task, activists were only too willing to be persuaded of the wonders of technology. The Party’s membership plummeted. Worse than that, it lost touch with its supporters. Although on paper the least democratic of major parties, the Conservatives had always compensated by having an excellent informal two-way communications system. The computer killed it, and the gap between the Conservative leadership and its target voters has been growing wider ever since.
The second big mistake was the appointment of English MPs as Secretary or Shadow Secretary of State for Wales between 1987 and 2012. Never mind that most were competent. A couple were very good indeed, and a case could be made that the under-rated David Hunt was the best we ever had. All that matters was that it was a public relations disaster. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the picture that will always be associated with Conservative Secretaries of State is that film of John Redwood – who was actually an intelligent man with a real and informed interest in public service delivery – pretending to sing the Welsh National Anthem.
It was a quarter-century slap in the face to the Welsh people, but above all to the Welsh Conservatives, implying that their own masters in London considered none of them worthy to rule themselves. It also had more subtle repercussions.
Welsh politics is essentially Celtic, less about ideology than building networks of patronage and mutual obligation. Welsh Labour are masters of the art. Yet none of the well-meaning English people passing through the Welsh Office understood it, or had any interest in building their own Welsh power base. So Labour’s political influence actually increased under English Conservative rule because everyone knew Labour would still be there when the latest English Conservative left.
Meanwhile, the absence of clear leadership within the Welsh Conservative Party caused it to drift without any sense of direction. Paid functionaries, ‘the hired helps’, took it upon themselves to deal with the media, rather than refer to the Party’s elected representatives at local and Parliamentary level. In Cardiff, due to a minor but disastrous structural decision, the formal administrative structure of the party became separated from its Parliamentary and local government campaigns. In effect they became separate organisations.
The loss of the Conservative’s local government base in the 1995 elections to the new Unitary Authorities made their total wipe-out in the 1997 General Election all but inevitable. In the 1980s the Liberals pioneered the obvious but brilliant strategy of targeting resources at a limited number of council seats, winning them through intensive ‘pavement politics’, and then expanding from there, until they could turn their local power bases into solid foundations to win Parliamentary seats. Plaid Cymru and Labour soon grasped the effectiveness of this model, but the Conservatives never did. That was their third and final mistake.
Indeed, they undermined their own local government position through legislation, which encouraged the increasing ‘professionalisation’ of the role of councillor. Many Conservative councillors were people of great accomplishments in business or the professions or public service, or natural leaders within their own communities. However, essentially they were amateurs. They simply could not compete with Liberals, and others, who saw political activity as their vocation and who were able to make the time to go around in person to meet anyone who complained about a pothole.
It is understandable why many cannot regret what happened to the Conservatives in 1995 and 1997. Yet thoughtful people might reflect that something important has been lost. Above all, democracy requires a proper opposition. Welsh public life is dangerously imbalanced – and the significance of that imbalance will increase as Wales moves to ever-greater autonomy, possibly even independence.
With all the talk about Wales’ leftist traditions, it is often forgotten that there is, and has always been, a substantial body of centre-right opinion in Wales. The 2009 European election in Wales, despite its relatively low turnout, shows the potential of that body of opinion.
If the Welsh Conservatives could learn from past mistakes, or, failing that, some alternative anti-socialist movement replace them in Wales, they might surprise themselves by how well they do.