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.