The Tory poll lead will matter less in Wales as Labour’s strong ground game and voting tradition closes the gap by polling day, writes Cathy Owens and Harry Thompson
Labour starts this election campaign, according to the latest Welsh Political Barometer Poll, in a similar position to the start of the 2017 election – predicted to lose about 9 or 10 seats. These include the North-East Wales cluster of Alyn and Deeside, Clwyd South, Delyn, Vale of Clwyd and Wrexham, as well as seats such as Gower, Cardiff North and Bridgend. These projected losses are all to the Conservatives – with one additional loss projected to Plaid Cymru in Ynys Môn.
Last time, however, Theresa May’s campaign fell off the rails and voters decided Jeremy Corbyn was not as bad as they initially thought. The party rallied in Wales, and over the course of the campaign, the polls moved and Labour in Wales claimed a 15-point win, even picking up three seats.
The polls started shifting earlier in Wales ahead of the last election before the rest of the UK. In 2017, there was a noticeably better response on the doorsteps after the Welsh campaign launch, and this is partly because Welsh Labour had an electorally successful, campaigning leader, with a distinct Welsh message, differentiated from Jeremy Corbyn, who had previously outperformed predictions in the Assembly elections the year before.
But can we expect the same movement in the polls this time? If so, as Roger Scully has made clear, Labour only need to do half as well as last time to deprive Boris Johnson of the majority he craves.
But since the ‘Nothing Has Changed’ election, a Lot of Things Have Changed.
Let’s not beat around the bush – current polls state that Jeremy Corbyn has serious issues with his public image. His net approve/disapprove rating hovers at around -40%, with around 20% of voters saying they approve of his record and 60-70% saying they disapprove. Evidence tends to suggest that his popularity is based amongst younger people in cities, often Remain-supporting – and many of the key marginals in Wales are Brexit-supporting ex-industrial towns with an older-than-average population. Amongst these crucial voters, all signs are that Jeremy Corbyn is a major liability, rather than the asset political leaders hope to be.
I don’t doubt a sensible manifesto, some impressive rallies, and legally-sanctioned TV coverage will help the polls tighten, but floating voters have not decided what they think of Jeremy Corbyn. They don’t believe he’s a pound-shop Fidel Castro, as the Conservatives would like it. But they do think he’s an old-fashioned bloke in dodgy glasses and if he can’t sell the sizzle, they might stay at home.
Brexit is potentially the biggest weakness Labour have in Wales. The key battle in Wales – as in much of the UK – is whether Boris Johnson can use Brexit to convince enough traditional Labour voters to switch directly to the Conservatives. He needs to flip enough Labour seats to cover expected Tory losses to the Liberal Democrats and SNP, and then some, in order to win a majority. Brexit is the blunt instrument Boris Johnson has to flip these voters and he wields it in every speech and visit he makes. Get Brexit Done. Respect the Referendum. Deliver Brexit. Get Brexit Done – ad nauseam.
Even though a majority of Labour members voted to remain, many of its supporters in key seats have had enough, and the tortuous internal wrangling over party policy has not helped. Whilst Getting Brexit Done will not actually get Brexit done for years to come, the relentless newspaper cover of the GBD mantra is proving a real drag on Labour’s poll numbers.
Labour has been the party of Wales for around 100 years. They’ve won every General Election in Wales during this period – through the Great Depression, after the Second World War, the sixties and seventies, the Thatcher years and miners’ strikes, the highs of the early Blair years and the lows of Brown and the financial crisis. Miliband. Corbyn. Labour has won them all.
In areas the Conservatives hope to turn Labour voters into Tories, such as Bridgend and the Swansea valleys in the north of the Gower constituency, a dislike for the Conservatives is passed down in the same box as a love for rugby. Is Etonian Boris Johnson the leader who will overturn this history? It would be a remarkable achievement. Don’t underestimate what is almost an emotional attachment to the party amongst many voters in Wales.
Labour’s historical advantage also means that the Labour MPs the Conservatives are aiming to unseat are already fixtures in their communities. Where the incumbent MPs have made a difference locally, where they have broken through above and beyond the drag on Labour due to issues outside their control, they are more likely to keep their seats. It may be more difficult, however, in places like Wrexham and Ynys Môn.
The Campaigning Machine
Welsh Labour is a professional outfit. It has highly-trained organisers running the election and giving instructions to paid local organisers based in target seats – all supplemented by a communications operation that features an increasing digital capacity. This well-established election-winning machine is armed with by far the best voter database in Wales, built up over years of door knocking by volunteers – something it has more of than any other party in Wales.
It would be a very safe bet that Welsh Labour will talk to far more voters in battleground seats than its rivals in the build-up to polling day. And furthermore, the Get Out the Vote operation is not matched by the other parties in Wales. The Conservatives have a more popular leader, more money, and more friends in the media. But a new Conservative candidate with a parachuted campaign manager, backed by few volunteers and little data will struggle to match Labour’s well-organised boots on the ground in Wales.
Election predictions are dangerous at the best of times and these are far from the best of times for election predictions. Current UK polls are starting to indicate the Conservative vote lead ticking up, but as election rules guarantee Labour more time on television, high profile debates give Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to talk directly to voters without the prism of a Conservative-friendly press, and some wavering Labour voters return, expect the polls to tighten.
And whilst the Conservatives will be buoyed by the Brexit Party fadeaway, remember that when the UKIP vote collapsed in 2017, Labour were the beneficiaries in Wales.
If the polls do tighten it’s hard to see some of the more solid Labour seats changing hands. Instead of the current projections of Labour losing 10 seats, we therefore expect the total number of losses to be more like 5 or 6.
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