Nick Bourne assesses why the Welsh Conservatives outperformed expectations at last week’s General Election.
The Welsh Conservative battle bus trundles on. It seems an age ago that the party had no seats at Westminster. In fact that was the case from 1997 until 2005 when we won three seats, after eight arid years. They were years of rethinking and rebuilding in Wales. The major breakthrough was in 2010 with eight seats. That has now gone up to 11. The organisation in Central Office, Cardiff improved during this period as did the funding. Welsh opinion polls were commissioned and the Welsh language was given its rightful prominence. Rethinking on devolution and a positive approach to devolution and distinctive Welsh policies occurred. All of these were necessary ingredients for a march forward that continues.
What was happening in Wales in this campaign clearly cannot be divorced from what was happening in the rest of the U.K, although the ebb and flow in Wales bore little relation to the flood tide in Scotland . It more closely resembled patterns and election results in England. Northern Ireland politics are of course a case apart.
In relation to the wider vista it seemed to me that the Labour Party was not presenting a clear vision on that most central of issues – the economy. It had many specific interventionist policies but was doing little or nothing to present itself as a business friendly social democratic party. What was Labour’s economic policy? The inevitable conclusion was that it did not want to be seen as supportive of business. I think that was a mistake. The electorate is well aware that only through an expanding economy can we afford truly first class public services. I also thought that the failure of Ed Miliband on Question Time to fess up to overspending in the last Labour government cost Labour votes. This came across often when speaking to voters.
The central message of the Welsh Conservatives, as elsewhere was the vital nexus between a strong economy and first class public services. Further commitment to making devolution work helped us, I am sure.
Another very clear feature of the election in Wales as elsewhere was that when voters, even Labour voters were asked who would make the better PM the overwhelming response was in favour of David Cameron and the margin demonstrated that this was not just because he was the sitting PM. This remained true throughout the campaign even with the Labour leader personally performing better in that campaign than expected.
The successful new MPs in Wales, Craig Williams retaining Cardiff North with an increased majority and new MPs in Gower ( Byron Davies) , Brecon and Radnorshire ( Chris Davies ) and the Vale of Clwyd ( Dr. James Davies) all had impeccable local connections. City councillor, Assembly Member, part of a veterinary team , and doctor respectively. This represented a break with the past. I used to joke about the former practice of parachutes made in England and sold in the King’s Road , Chelsea. Local credentials (and the name Davies!) are now clearly invaluable in digging in and winning seats from other parties.
The interaction between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster is an unique Welsh factor. Health and education were regularly raised by voters even though these are devolved matters and even where the questioner was well aware of this. Sometimes this was by way of comparing policies on either side of the border and sometimes to talk of cooperation across the border.
Voters liked the working together approach of Stephen Crabb. this as true whether the voter was party politically sympathetic or not.
I was surprised, to say the least that Carwyn Jones as Labour First Minister was not used at all in the TV debates.
I had expected the presence of Leanne Wood on national (UK) media to give a bounce to Plaid Cymru, given her undoubted skills, but if it provided a bounce then the party was facing a poor result indeed without the coverage. It did not happen.
Of course, the expected and indeed massive sweep of seats north of the border had an impact. How could this changing political landscape not affect voters? It was not in my opinion, for most voters, a decisive factor.
The truth was that this campaign in Wales represented a further move forward for us in three seats that were very much on the radar. In truth, by polling day we had expected to win one or two additional seats and had believed that Cardiff North would be retained but the results exceeded our expectations.
A strong consistent message, strong local connections and a well organised local campaign helped deliver these results. Fresh challenges lie ahead.
As a post script, on the results of the General Election, the Assembly elections will represent a major challenge to the parties of Wales to stop the advance of UKIP into the Assembly, and because of the nature of the election system their advance is potentially more damaging to the Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, than to Labour.
An enduring constitutional settlement is a central question of British Politics, even if a clear answer is elusive. It is now pressing, indeed.