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.

10 thoughts on “We should not be surprised about Conservative success in Wales

  1. “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.” Surely this is old hat. Balsom et al did this 30 years ago.

  2. Very interesting article, however it is important to emphasise that Conservative gains have been concentrated in demographically and culturally atypical areas. Those with a greater concentration of second homeowners, a higher proportion of English residents and high numbers of ABC1s. Preseli Pembrokeshire or even Cardiff North are not representative constituencies.

    The myth of Wales as a statist dystopia where it rains a lot is brought in to sharp relief by the result, but the Conservatives face the same challenge: relying on transplanted English Conservatives rather than crafting an indigenous centre-right party and policies.

  3. Very interesting commentary, particularly about a conservative and nationalistic outlook, coming from former industrial Labour areas. The influence of English retirees and ‘incomers’ to the coastal, and scenic, or properous areas of Wales is also interesting, although I wonder that these people are generally Tory in outlook? I would hope to see the emergence of a left-leaning, inclusive, ‘green’, Labour party in the next few years, which could attract the votes of forward-thinking people.

  4. This is an excellent analysis, long overdue. One only hopes it does not count against Sam in his efforts to get a PhD from a Welsh university.

    Some footnotes, however, are required. Above all, there is the ambiguous meaning of the word ‘conservative.’ It could be argued that the most small-c conservative force in Wales is the Labour Party, and that the potential for radical and progressive change here lies on the political ‘right.’

    It could also be argued that the key to big-C Conservative success this year was the Party’s victory in the battle for the votes of old-style Welsh Liberals, whose outlook is essentially Gladstonian. This battle continues.

    From this it follows that the political ‘right’ should not be seen as associated exclusively with the Anglicised elements in Wales. Perhaps the greatest potential for growth is among cultural nationalists, who are often such old-style Liberals or social conservatives.

    One should also be careful about implying there was ever any strategy to take political advantage of deindustrialisation. There was none, but left-wing conspiracy theorists will jump on anything.

  5. At the meeting of labour party members in Swansea last week a paper was circulated showing the voting shares in Gower over the last half dozen elections. In every election the conservatives increased their share. 2015 was merely a continuation of a well established trend – the conservative gain could easily have been predicted

  6. In fairness to Sam, it’s not his PhD so no notes needed.

    THis is the sentence I found most interesting: “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.”

    Where is the evidence for this? I happen to agree that the Tories deliberately broke down old working-class communities that were reliant for employment on coal, steel and other heavy industries. Ironically, UKIP is currently the main benefactor of this policy.

  7. Many thanks for all your comments

    Mr Jenkins: Balsom certainly identified ‘three Wales’, but I’d argue that only a skin-deep analysis of ‘British Wales’ has been conducted so far.

    Gaz: following on from the above point, I’d say that these areas are not atypical as such. I think you’d find a lot of people in Preseli Pembs, Cardiff North, and indeed Monmouth, Brecon etc who saw themselves very much as part of the ‘welsh story’, but thus far underrepresented.

    Alice: thanks for keeping me in check and warning against generalisations – hard to avoid in such a small article unfortunately. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of incomers trying to identify particularly with distinctive Welsh culture, voting Plaid Cymru, learning the Welsh language etc.. But from my research I have found that the old maxims hold true: older and more middle class people *tend* to be Tories.

    Mr Richards: many thanks. whilst I won’t deny that universities are still left leaning on the whole, I have a great team behind me in the department who see the difference between writing about the Conservatives and having sympathies with them.
    On your point about definitions, I agree wholeheartedly. I gave a paper last month called ‘was the post-war Conservative Party conservative?’, which in many ways I doubt it was. I’ll hope to write more about this soon and I hope you’ll read it. See below about deindustrialisation.

    Marc: thank you for raising this. I’m glad to have the opportunity to address the point. In the 60s and 70s the Conservative Party commissioned secret reports into how to nurture a vote in Wales. They are fascinating documents (I saw them at the Bodleian Library) which did indeed suggest that ‘diversified economies’ in South Wales would yield good political and electoral results. Like Mr Richards, I didn’t believe this. There isn’t an outright call for the break up of industrial communities, but the implications are there. These reports are some of the key sources for my final thesis, so I will reveal more soon.

  8. I think your point about the skin-deep analysis of British Wales is particularly apt. Images of the Fro, which includes agriculture and slate, and Welsh Wales (the Valleys) are well-established on our media. British Wales, which includes the south east coast, the Marches and the north east coast, have been all but neglected. As one of the left-leaning types so often berated by JWR for everything that is wrong with Wales, I very much welcome your research. There is a great deal that we don’t understand about our own society so yours is an important step in rectifying that deficiency.

  9. ‘Berated’? More like mild reproof, surely. Either way, be assured, Rhobat, that you are not solely and personally responsible for ‘everything that is wrong with Wales.’ However the widespread persistence of a reactionary socialist mindset here is the greatest single obstacle to solving those problems which could be banished from Wales relatively quickly and easily.

    Although there is room to debate cause and effect, it is no coincidence that those parts of Wales – and the rest of the world – more likely to elect ‘right of centre’ political representatives are also those more likely to experience relative progress and prosperity. Conversely, those parts of Wales most likely to be described as ‘without hope’ are those most likely to be without functioning two-party systems. There are definite reasons why Monmouth is better off than Merthyr.

    Sam, it would be very interesting to read your future research. From personal experience of the Welsh Conservative Party in the 1990s, it would be astonishing to discover it had any strategy at all.

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