We should not be surprised about Conservative success in Wales

Sam Blaxland says conservatism in Wales shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Conservative Party in Wales had a spectacular 2015 General Election. The Party increased it share of the vote, managing to hold on to all of its seats (including Cardiff North, which it was widely tipped to lose), as well as winning an additional three. To make gains in Wales is one thing, but to capture seats as politically significant as Gower is quite another.

The day after the drama, an English, left-leaning friend of a friend asked me what on earth Wales was playing at? How could this once Tory-free zone have abandoned the left in such a fashion? To some bemusement, I explained that this result should not come altogether as a shock. Although the extent of the Conservative’s success in Wales came as a surprise even to me, history tells us that the party has long had a significant foothold in this part of the world, and it would be wrong to underestimate or dismiss the power of Conservatism here.

Nevertheless, the stereotypical image of Wales, in political terms, is one where its constituencies are carpeted in red. 1997 famously saw the Conservative Party wiped out in terms of seats. Going back further in time, too, Labour won 32 out of the 36 constituencies in 1966, with the Tories hanging on only to Barry, Denbigh and Flint West. But these results are not trend-setters for the period since the Second World War – they are anomalies. 1983, the high watermark for the Conservative Party in Wales, saw the party win 14 seats.

For most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Conservative Party has been the second most popular political party both in terms of number of seats won at election times, and in terms of the share of the vote. The support the party has received has remained remarkably consistent, with its share of the vote almost always hovering around the 30% mark. What is particularly intriguing is that First Past The Post, which works in the Conservative Party’s favour in England, has often been detrimental to its fortunes in Wales.

Regardless of this, the Conservative Party has for some time tried to use particular means and methods to appeal specifically to Wales. This was not always successful; Toryism tended to garner a reputation from some quarters as being alien and incompatible with Wales. But on the other hand this was the party that first gave ministerial representation to Wales and a distinct policy for the nation (although both were done against the backdrop of external pressures). The Conservative Party also produced personnel like Wyn Roberts, an unashamed Welshmen, who fought hard and effectively from within government for his country, particularly in policy areas like the Welsh language and infrastructure.

In secret, Conservatives also believed as part of their political strategy that the breakdown of old industrial communities would – in the long run – benefit them electorally, as economic diversification would mean less ties to old political loyalties. Perhaps the victory in Gower, half of which is a ‘Valleys’ seat, is a small testament to the success of this idea. And yet this whole story is an untold one, hence the continued surprise when Conservatives ‘outperform’ expectations in Wales, soundly beating Plaid Cymru, the self-proclaimed ‘Party of Wales’.

The fact of the matter is this: political history and commentary on the matter of Welsh politics emanates and emanated largely from the left wing, or the nationalist perspective, or, in some cases, from a potent fusion of both. These musings tend to focus, therefore, on the geographical areas once dominated by heavy industry and the working classes, represented by the Labour Party. Or they concentrate on the domains of the uniquely Welsh Plaid Cymru.

The historian Dai Smith once wrote that Wales was a singular noun but a plural experience. But one section of that experience in particular has been side-lined in the discourse: the world of the middle-class, of English immigration, of the Anglicised ‘coastal fringes’, and of the concept of a British, not a Welsh, identity. A comprehensive understanding of these things in Wales is missing, as is the support for the Conservative politics that is often coupled with such occupations, outlooks or identities. No one has stopped to fully consider why the Vale of Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire, Cardiff North, Monmouth, and the North Wales coast
are all areas of Conservative activity. The answer lies in the factors just listed.

But it is not just political conservatism that has been underestimated in Wales. Those once rock-solid Labour seats in the ‘Valleys’, bastions of a different kind of conservatism, threw up a story last week almost as interesting as the Conservative victory in Gower. UKIP came second place in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Blaenau Gwent, and Caerphilly, and a strong third elsewhere. This demonstrated that a party which is essentially of the right – but, crucially, not weighed down by any visible Thatcherite baggage – spoke in plain and clear language to the old working-class in South Wales, talking about, and reflecting, their justified anxieties and concerns.

One of the interesting political stories in years to come will be how the modern Labour Party – which clings to the old coalfields in order to survive – manages to maintain its support base here. It can no longer confidently speak as the party of industry, because these communities are now post-industrial. So many of its senior team are also bourgeois, edamame bean-munching, chai tea latte-drinking liberals. This clashes with what South Wales is. The prevalence of social conservatism in these areas may well act as a catalyst for the surprise awaiting the next generation of political observers.

The history of the past should mean we are less surprised by the Conservative Party’s success in the present. The present in turn is sending similarly themed signals about the future.

Sam Blaxland is a PhD student and tutor at Swansea University researching the history of the Conservative Party in post-War Wales.

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