For Wales, see England

Daran Hill says Welsh politics is moving to the right, alongside England, and further away from Scottish politics.

This phrase is arguably one of the most inflammatory sentences ever committed to print. In Welsh politics generally, comparisons with Scotland are acceptable, with England they are not. Historically there have been many reasons that has been the case. But after the General Election result, there seems more truth in the phrase than ever before – and much less credibility to the notion that Welsh and Scottish politics are somehow aligned.

Such an assertion isn’t pure fancy. It’s supported by a series of clear psephological facts. First, look at where the seats changed hands in Wales last week. In all, just four seats out of forty moved. One of these was a Labour gain from the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central; but the other three were all taken by the Conservatives, namely Brecon and Radnorshire from the Lib Dems and both Vale of Clwyd and Gower from Labour. The latter result is particularly stunning and it was won while UKIP was similarly surging in Gower too.

In essence therefore, with the Conservatives not conceding any territory at all and also making multiple gains, taking them to 11 seats out of 40 in total, they picked up ground at the same speed in Wales that they did in many English regions. Because of that, like in the South West and the Midlands, they are a seriously credible force in Welsh politics. From the 1997 and 2001 General Election wipeouts they now have over a quarter of the Welsh seats, as well as being the official opposition in the National Assembly.

Let me be even blunter. On paper last Thursday was the best Conservative result in Wales since 1983 but that isn’t the full story. In 1983 the Alliance split the vote in many seats to allow the Conservatives through the middle. Last week neither the Liberal Democrats nor Plaid Cymru performed well. The Conservatives were gaining ground in straight fights not involving parties of the centre left. That isn’t what Welsh politics has been about in the past.

Indeed, to give the analysis some real context, it is worth reflecting on quite how badly Plaid Cymru did. Despite having the biggest media boost in the party’s recent history through involvement in leader debates on an UK level and multiple column inches devoted in UK newspapers, and running arguably the most professional and focused campaign they have ever done in a General Election, they made no real progress whatsoever. They did not move forward a single step and did not take a single seat. Even PR wouldn’t have seen them increase from three constituencies. That’s how bad it was.

And Plaid achieved that result despite occupying policy ground clearly to the left of Labour and despite the triumph of their SNP colleagues in one of the greatest landslides in British history. Indeed, nothing shows more clearly how divergent the politics of Wales and Scotland has become than comparing the current electoral positions of Plaid and the SNP. This fact was only made ever clearer on the night by every Plaid supporting tweet pointing to success in Scotland, which magnified their own dismal – and unexpected – failure.

But look in another direction and you will see further evidence of a right ward shift in Welsh politics. UKIP lost every deposit in Scotland, and held every deposit in Wales. Indeed, they actually came third, ahead of Plaid Cymru, in the popular vote. The Conservatives, as illustrated above, made ground at the same time as them.

How Labour has reacted to all of this in Wales is interesting. Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones have both indicated that part of Labour’s response should be to make the party more Welsh. Although there is appeal and logic in such an approach, it does rather fly in the face of the trend of voting, which certainly wasn’t distinctively Welsh. This is what Stephen Doughty MP was getting at when he talked about a need for an honest assessment of the results for Labour. Indeed, it was a certainly a more honest assessment than that produced by his predecessor Alun Michael, who praised Labour’s “brilliant” campaign for the triumph of going backwards.

Such empty and nonsensical public utterances to please the party faithful are common across the political spectrum after an election defeat. But there remains a danger of taking such nonsense seriously or allowing it to shape and contextualise the debate moving forward.

The rightward shift in Welsh politics may not be what Labour, Plaid or parts of the Welsh Liberal Democrats wanted to hear. But that is exactly what happened, and it happened at the same time that Scotland took a great leap leftward. The politics of Wales and England is closer in 2015, and further apart from Scotland, than anyone would have predicted or believed possible a decade ago. That is the new reality of Welsh politics, regardless of whether or not the majority of Welsh politicos might want to wish that fact away.

Daran Hill is Managing Director of Positif

21 thoughts on “For Wales, see England

  1. Interesting analysis that might however be irrelevant – Scotland likely did not lurch to the left nor Wales to the right. The UKIP vote in Wales did not arise because of a sudden rightward shift of 10% of voters, but because of disenchantment with the parties those voters would have supported in the past. Style, not substance, won this election in Wales.

  2. Daran Hill is factually wrong to say Plaid did not ‘move forward a single step’. This was the third best general election result in the party’s history. It’s percentage of the vote went up. It got 20,000 more votes. 6 months ago people were predicting the party would lose seats. Instead, It increased its majorities in two seats that were key Labour targets. The ‘disappointment’ is all about higher expectations from the pundits, and the media, annoyed that their much-hyped leaders debates are not as important as they want them to be.

  3. There’s how people vote in Y Fro Gymraeg and how people vote in the rest of Wales. That basic dichotomy – which is a unique characteristic of Welsh politics in comparison to other parts of the UK – hasn’t changed. Plaid has yet to break out of Y Fro Gymraeg at Westminster; the SNP never had to break out of anything approaching an ethno-linguistic heartland.

  4. A quarter of the Welsh population were not born here. I understand Ceredigion has the highest proportion of incomers of any county in England or Wales. It is not surprising that Wales is voting more English. It is becoming more English.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with you, Carwyn. I think Daran is pretty much on the money with this one. You’re right to say that it was disenchantment with the mainstream parties that led to the rise in the UKIP vote but why UKIP, clearly a right wing party? Why not, for example, Plaid Cymru and shift leftwards?

    Three new Conservative seats plus a rise in the UKIP vote, especially in the Valleys is an indication of a country moving to the right, however challenging that may be to our assumptions about the Welsh electorate.

  6. perhaps thursday’s results in wales werent quite the aberration a lot of people seem to think – werent they consistent with the results of last years european elections? when ukip did well and took a lot of votes in places like the south wales valleys plaid would have expected to pick up. Yes the conservatives had their best night in wales since mrs t’s heyday in 1983 but dont forget that in general elections – even in the wipeout of 1997 – the tories got nearly a fifth of the popular vote in wales, it was the vaguaries of first past the post that denied them any seats.

    yes us welsh lefties have always liked to talk up wales radical and socialist traditions – and those admirable traditions are certainly there in wales rich political history – but perhaps the truth is that contemporary wales isnt quite the bastion of progressive politics a lot of us would like to think. And certainly only a fool would try to deny that wales shifted to the right on may 7th. On the plus side it’s clear wales is now a multi party democracy, a positive development only likely to be cemented further in next year’s elections in wales – when even the greens might force their way into the senedd.

    But as a comitted devoutionist im keen to know what the outcome of the general election will mean for the ‘process’ of devolution in wales? cleally talk by some of the very existence of welsh devolution now being under threat is nonsense – the tories passed down a fair degree of devolution between 2010 and 2015 (with a bit more to come) and even ukip now accepts the reailty of welsh devolution. But what about the next major steps?

    I suspect this result means the stand off over ‘fair funding’ will continue, the tory govt will only look at revising barnet if the welsh govt holds and wins a referendum on income tax varying powers – yet theres no sign of welsh labour, plaid or the welsh lib dems changing the opposition to such a referenum (though after the shift to the right in wales on may 7th the likelhood of such a referendum now being won has perhaps receded anway)

    Daran is right the contrast with scotland couldnt be greater, and while i fully expect scotland to hold another referendum in the next few years and to leave the union by the end of this decade, its clear nothing similar is going to happen for wales anytime soon.

  7. Being Welsh does seem to be reducing to token flagwaving, rugby playing male choirs, and the like – a creeping Yorkshirisation – but we’re not subsumed yet.

    Maybe its because of the weak political milieu. Political life here is perceived as feeble. The pledges of loyalty to the Union during the Scottish referendum, illustrates it – instead of wresting the greatest advantage from the situation, we were justly rewarded with being utterly, utterly ignored. No ‘red lines’. Accusations unanswered. Eyes blinking in headlights.

    Gradually, as Scotland draws away, Wales will be left, like it or not, in the new politically entity, (like the laughably named England and Wales Cricket Board). In the recent election there was an incentive for the two larger parties to talk up the England and Wales paradigm in order to maximise their vote and present a united front to the SNP, for their diametrically differing reasons, reducing the contrasts between political coveage in England and in Wales. Other parties did do respectively better and worse than expected, as a result of, but also despite the media coverage – they set the agenda, after all.

    The next five years is going to need a strong united Welsh political voice. The Welsh Government now needs to do more than complain about how unfair things are. Tables need to be banged. Those who are ready to put life on hold until the next Westminster Election, in the hope of a different outcome, need to be shown the door. The electorate need to be motivated to put people in positions of power that will do something about it.

    Political parties aren’t football teams. They are in the business of looking for ways of raising the consciousness and effectiveness of the ‘demos’. They are not about seizing power at any cost. Wales always had an Anarchist streak in the structures of its few national organisations, wielding the unstoppable soft power of an incoming tide when moved to act. It’s not just a matter of an occasional vote. It’s democracy.

  8. “…Scotland took a great leap leftward.”
    The leap was towards a party that would unequivocally put Scotland first. You could say the electorate didn’t take a leap to the left at all but just took over the left of centre ground that Labour party had pretended it was located in.

    In Wales it would be interesting to get a break down of voting based on self identity to compare those who identify themselves as being Welsh or partly Welsh and those who identify themselves as not being Welsh eg British only, English only.

    Is this something IWA could get involved with as at the moment there seems to be little data available. If we in Wales don’t investigate this and other Welsh issues on this basis then I imagine no one that leans towards the British nation state ideal will ever be motivated to do so.

  9. Maybe the reason why so many seats gained by the Conservatives in Wales was as a result of some sort of protest vote against the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay ?Not that I am Tory…!!

  10. In my view, the most interesting aspect of the election results in Wales is a clear message to nationalist politicians including Carwyn Jones that the Welsh public has no interest in nationalism – In other words Wales will never emulate Scotland.

    Time for Carwyn Jones to bring back democracy to Wales and stop Social Engineering policies including minority language imposition for privileges of the few that are dragging Wales back into the dark ages!

  11. another poor article about the election fallout IWA

    The analysis here in Wales is pretty shoddy, its all partisan stuff masquerading as an impartial understanding of the situation

  12. Jacques: whilst I normally agree with you, I think you must admit that Welsh people always vote nationalist. It is just that they reject the narrow, myopic, extreme Welsh nationalism of Plaid Cymru in favour of the broader, outward looking British nationalism of UKIP, the Tories and Labour. Unionism is thriving in Wales, and people cherish their allegiance to London and their English brothers and sisters. For that reason, the future looks rosy for the Welsh region.

  13. If we ignore parliamentary boundaries and voting systems and look at how Wales voted overall several things stand out:

    1. One third of the eligible population still aren’t voting whether apathy or from protest. Support for the system as a whole is weak.

    2. There was no great swing to the Conservatives or a disaster for Labour and Labour remains the largest party by some way here. There was however a massive swing to UKIP [+ 11.2%] and a devastating swing away from the LibDems [ -13.6%] a traditional pre industrial voting norm in Wales.

    The LibDems were the only party in Wales to lose vote share. Everyone else gained and the Greens did well second only in swing performance to UKIP.

    Explaining the swing to UKIP is quite difficult but must be understood – is it a protest vote, anti-Europe or what?

    3. Plaid didn’t do as well as expected with the halo effect of Leanne Wood’s TV appearances and that must be quite disappointing for them but the swing to them was as large as the Conservatives and they have a lot more resources.

    So for me the largest question to be answered is why the large swing to UKIP.

  14. Dafydd, never for a moment did i or most commentators expect plaid to be in serious trouble in 2 seats. If you count a 0.8% rise in the vote across wales compared to last time then you are happily deluded and nothing anyone can say or write will change that.

  15. Twrch, i missed the partisan stuff in Daran`s analysis; please explain where and why you think it is.

  16. Daran has painted the ‘elephant in the room’ Tory blue and rightly so. Plaid have raised their ‘game’ as a political organisation tremendously well for this election but are still mired in elephantine droppings because their message, appeal, aspirations, and personnel have not resonated outside of Y Fro Gymraeg as Simon Dyda put it succinctly above.
    It’s not back to the drawing board, it’s more a question of a different drawing board and that is an exercise that they may have neither the will nor resources to implement after such an exhausting time. I hope and expect I’m wrong.

  17. Watching post election debates it appears that none of the losing political parties in Wales are prepared to listen to the electorate.

    Labour LibDems’ & PC held a common stance ‘More Devolution’ whilst Tories were ambivalent and not especially keen to further separation from England. UKIP seemed to be similar.

    If the non devolution parties concentrate on clearer message for the electorate on this very issue, we may see a very different Assembly post 2016 elections!?

  18. I think the main rise in UKIP’s vote is that many traditional Labour voters in Wales are actually rather right wing, however due to the tribal nature of voting in Wales its still seen as unacceptable to vote Conservative. UKIP offer similar policies but none of the Stigma of being the only Tory in the valley

  19. Hard hitting analysis by Nick Cohen here,supporting the general rightward move in Wales and England. Even if the solutions aren’t clear, the figures are impossibly stark to avoid
    “The comforting notion that it has a “progressive majority,” which one way or another will keep the Conservatives in their box, died on May 7. In 2015, the combined vote share of all right-wing political parties (Conservatives, UKIP and the Ulster Unionists) rose to 50.5 per cent of all votes cast. The left-leaning political parties (Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and SDLP) gained just 39.8 per cent.”

  20. Electorally, the real division is not between Right or Left but between Incumbent and Non-incumbent parties. Voters treat political parties much in the same way as consumers treat products, services etc. Their decisions are heavily influenced by their real life experiences of their current incumbent governments – town council, county council, Senedd/Holyrood etc and Westminster. As such, which parties qualify as Incumbent or Non-incumbent varies from county to county.

    UKIP is the only party in Wales that is Non-incumbent on all levels of government in all parts of Wales. As such it is purely a collector of protest votes from those who are dissatisfied with the Incumbents -on ALL levels of government . There may well be sufficient dissatisfaction across Wales to earn UKIP some seats in the Assembly (there certainly was enough to earn them an MEP) but until such a time as they can form (at least part of) an administration (on any level) they will remain just a protest party on the fringes.

    Labour’s losses to the Conservatives in Wales (and the Lib Dems’ losses to both Labour and the Conservatives) are examples of voters switching to an “Alternative Incumbent”. This demonstrates not a protest vote but a more serious level of dissatisfaction within the constituencies in question.

    The key to success (or survival) is not in leaning to the Left or the Right, but in both demonstrating efficacy where one is in government and in ensuring that voters feel that they matter. The Customer is King.

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