Laura McAllister and Diana Stirbu explore the threats and opportunities facing the political parties in Wales, ahead of the general election
So, 42 days to go until we trudge off to vote (for the fifth time in twenty five months) to what someone on Twitter wittily called places which occasionally open their doors as primary schools too. Up to now, all the talk in Wales has been about who’s standing or not standing where, visits by the Labour and Conservative leaders, and a dramatic opinion poll. Here, we’re going to throw in a few early thoughts on the state of each of the parties and their prospects.
It seems strange to be starting with the Conservatives in Wales but what the heck, they might well emerge as the party with the largest share of the vote and most of the seats for the first time since the 1930s. So, these are what we consider to be the obvious opportunities and risks for the Conservatives.
It is all about May in June. Even Diane Abbot would have to acknowledge that May is way more popular than Corbyn (as well as Carwyn Jones) in Wales. Whatever the campaign brings, that is unlikely to change before 8th June as she is facing one of the weakest and most divided oppositions ever. The truth is that Theresa May doesn’t need to do that much to augment her status and profile. Less is likely to be more, so get ready for the simplest message possible: this is all about leadership and who is more competent to “get the best deal” from the EU on Brexit. Repeat ad infinitum
And, if it is not all about May, then it is about Brexit or, more specifically, how May handles the Article 50 negotiations. Although most of his colleagues supported Remain, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies nailed his colours to the winning Leave mast. Admittedly, Davies is not well-known even in Wales, or especially popular, but all the Welsh Conservatives really need to do is harness the tailwind behind Teresa May.
If there were deep divisions within the Conservative Party with regards to type of Brexit, nothing papers over the cracks more than the prospect of securing power – likely for a considerable amount of time- and the chance at least of a landslide victory. In terms of party harmony, we should mention the tensions over Mark Reckless and his joining the Conservative group in the Bay, but that’s small beer given what else is at stake at this time.
Now complacency is unlikely to be an issue for the Tories, but the narrative about Labour not being able to win this election has some potential to backfire – not enough to cause serious problems to victory but possibly to dent the eventual Conservative majority – in that the election might be regarded as a formality or a done deal so voters stay at home.
Neither can the Welsh Conservatives go about their business in the way they did in 2015, with quietly focused and highly strategic local campaigns which rewarded it with Gower and Vale of Clwyd. They will be the party to beat this time, even in Wales, so will be under the microscope everywhere.
Where to start with this one… the threats are huge and mounting as the truth is the party is facing a real existential threat. Despite still self-identifying as a Labour heartland, the steady decline of the party’s vote share in Wales (both in General and Assembly elections) over the past 20 years has been the story that never quite made the headlines. Coupled with the party’s wipe out in Scotland, and on the back of two consecutive, dreadful general elections in Wales, Labour is gearing up for another dismal performance, this time in its other so-called strongholds in the English North and Midlands.
A party with no internal unity and which frankly, has stopped any pretence of appearing to be a cohesive team, coupled with a leader who scarcely anyone seems to be able to imagine in Downing Street is not a great starting position. It’s a bit like a plucky non league football team managed by someone’s elderly uncle, who was meant to be the kit man, preparing to face Chelsea in a cup final the day after a boozy night out that ended in fisticuffs between the players.
Everyone expects this to end in tears but how much of a drenching Labour gets remains to be seen. It goes without saying that it is too early to write off Labour in Wales. Last year’s Assembly election was a smart tactical success for the party, if not quite the “victory” some are now describing it as. Still, make no mistake, losing nearly 8% of its constituency vote and emerging just one seat down is no mean feat, even taking into account a very helpful electoral system. So yes, Labour could quite possibly end up with the bitter reality of no longer holding the majority of seats in Wales but then again, and depending on how the next six weeks go, it could scrape over the crucial twenty seats line too.
Labour will need to concentrate its campaign on a “have and hold” strategy in those seats where the party has a strong sitting MP like Newport West and Cardiff West, or where it faces twin challengers like in Ynys Mon.
There will no doubt be attempts to capitalise on Carwyn Jones’s relative popularity to avoid the toxicity of Corbyn’s leadership. Normally this would be a strategy worth pursuing, but the disconnect between Welsh Labour and voters here has never been more palpable and was displayed in all its glory in last year’s referendum.
Against the odds, it will need to try to claw back some of the UKIP votes that Labour haemorrhaged in the last General and Assembly elections. But as we write that, it does feel a bit like clutching at straws.
Admittedly, it is strange concept of opportunity, but it is fair to ask whether the hard left in the party even want to win this election. The handing of manifesto control to Corbyn is clearly a pre-emptive tactic to make the result Corbyn’s and therefore, to provide the best opportunity for leadership change soon after.
The biggest threat that Plaid faces is yet another election where the party flat lines or falls back. Leanne Wood’s decision not to contest Rhondda has to be a mistake after a week of teasing, especially as the seat surely has to be regarded as winnable in the current crazily fluid political context.
Last time we said that network exposure had meant people got to know Leanne Wood but then chose not to vote for her party. Despite the difficulties Plaid faces in UK General Electons, this time, an enhanced profile for Wood has to amount to more than personal recognition and pleasant ratings. It has to be translated into hard votes in some of the party’s key seats and ideally, beyond Ynys Mon. That didn’t happen in 2015 when Plaid saw only a minuscule national increase in vote share – less than 1% point. Let’s not forget that the party came fourth behind UKIP nationally and, more painfully, in several valleys seats like Merthyr, Aberafan and Blaenau Gwent.
And it kind of says it all that, whilst Wales is in the spotlight, Plaid Cymru is not.
But that can all change of course. Plaid could slip under the radar with a few powerful, tightly focused, very localised campaigns in say Ynys Mon and Ceredigion, especially with a well-known local candidate in the former. Despite a three-way contest in Ynys Mon, that might just get people out to vote and dilute the bigger focus of the presidential contest between Corbyn and May. Also, if the election result is seen as a foregone conclusion, that might be translated into a positive for Plaid as it might just encourage people not to see a vote for Plaid as a wasted vote, a perennial problem in Westminster elections.
And of course, the appeal to near 48% who voted Remain in last year’s EU Referendum is not only the Liberal Democrats’ preserve and might have some traction for Plaid.
One thing is for certain-Plaid is facing Labour in its most dismal state for many a decade. Only time will tell whether the strategy of positioning itself as the alternative to Labour is a sensible one in the current context, but, if Plaid can’t make some serious progress in Labour heartlands this time, then it’s time to change strategy, direction, or leadership- or indeed all three.
It is hard to see UKIP as anything bar a party without a purpose post referendum. Its divided membership has been very publicly exemplified in UKIP’s Assembly group shenanigans. Moreover, UKIP has had no time to reinvent itself or even to decide what that might be as. The early interventions from new leader Paul Nuttall suggest that its campaign messages will be simplistic and direct appeals to its hardcore voters.
With less funding and capacity, UKIP will concentrate its resources and use the excuse of not standing against pro Brexit MPs to allow this. It will make the most of being included dutifully on almost every media platform, with Nigel Farage a feature on Question Time even though he is no longer party leader or an election candidate.
On one level, UKIP has no MPs in Wales, so in theory, the only way is up but a disastrous collapse of support looks more likely which will throw the future of its Assembly group operation into further doubt.
Something similar can be said about the Liberal Democrats. The only way is up for a party bruised by two shockingly devastating elections in which they were left with just one MP and one AM.
This will be a single issue campaign for the party, a straightforward appeal to the 48% who voted Remain in last year’s Referendum. Buoyed by by-election success in Richmond Park, as well as some gains in local authority by elections, the Lib Dems will be targeting metropolitan seats in Bath, Bristol, and outer London and swathes of the English south west. In Wales, they could double their MPs with a focus on holding Ceredigion and winning back Cardiff Central, although the latter is a tougher ask with a strong incumbent MP and an electorate less likely to be less fazed by Corbyn’s politics.
A shortened campaign could work either way for the Lib Dems. It is not conducive to building up support through campaign momentum and some of the seats the party is targeting in Devon and Cornwall voted Leave in the referendum. Yet, the simple appeal to the Remainers might gain traction. Still, one is left wondering how useful a long-term strategy this can be to revive and rebuild a party decimated at almost every electoral level.
That’s it for now but no promises that we won’t offer a different take on the parties in a week or two’s time. That’s what’s so great about elections-things can change almost daily. Whatever the polls are saying, there will be a few more twists and turns in an election contested in the most unpredictable times, when the public has discovered the power of its voice here and elsewhere in the world. This is a unique election where what we are accustomed to calling “safe” seats are now “marginals”, and some “marginals” are likely to prove “safer” than usual.
One thing is already clear and that is, for once, the rest of the UK will be watching Wales because, this time, our new electoral geography is crucial to the overall election outcome.