What Goes Around… British Politics and the Welsh Assembly Election

Roger Scully considers the implications of political events at a UK level on next year’s Assembly elections.

Roger Scully is a Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. This piece has been published on Roger's blog 'Elections in Wales' (http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/)

As I have had occasion to discuss previously on the blog, the 2011 devolved elections produced a rather extraordinary set of results. In Scotland, the SNP scored their best ever result – an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, something which almost no-one had been expecting – while Labour had their worst ever performance in elections to that chamber. Yet on the same day, in Wales Labour achieved their best ever result in a National Assembly election, while the SNP’s sister party Plaid Cymru had their worst ever performance.

One of my published academic articles, which I’ve mentioned previously, conducted a detailed analysis of these two elections. The factors shaping voting choices in Scotland and Wales were analysed in detail and directly compared. The results of this comparison suggested that much of the difference in the 2011 electoral outcomes could be explained by what academic electoral analysts generally term ‘valence politics’. In Scotland, the SNP had substantially out-performed Labour in public perceptions as the most competent party to govern Scotland and defend Scotland’s interests within the UK; by contrast, in Wales Labour was well ahead of Plaid Cymru (and the other parties) on similar characteristics.

However, there was also another very interesting broad finding that emerged from the analysis of the 2011 devolved elections. Put simply, British-level politics seemed to be significantly more important in shaping the decisions of voters in Wales than they were in Scotland. My analysis did not attempt to probe the precise reasons for that (that would be the subject matter of another article), but there are several obvious candidate factors: the weaker indigenous news media in Wales than in Scotland; the weaker devolution settlement in Wales than Scotland, which may incline more voters in Wales to use devolved elections to deliver a verdict on UK politics rather than a decision about choosing a devolved government; maybe even the significantly greater proportion of the Welsh electorate that was born in England. Whether for one of these reasons, a combination thereof, or some others, Welsh voters in 2011 appeared to be far more influenced than Scottish ones in their voting choices by things like their attitudes to the current UK government or their views on the current UK-level party leaders. In Scotland, the SNP successfully turned the election into a choice about the best government for Scotland. In Wales, as I have observed previously, Labour largely won by running as an opposition party – opposing the new, Conservative-led government in London.

While the contrast between the devolved electoral outcomes in 2011 was particularly striking, I don’t think that this distinction between Wales and Scotland in terms of the factors that shape their electoral politics was solely confined to that one year or even to devolved elections alone. Again, as I observed recently on the blog when discussing general elections, Scotland has become a much more distinctive and unique electoral space, increasingly set apart from British-wide political dynamics. Wales’ position remains more ambiguous: it has long had significant electoral distinctiveness from England, but British factors are clearly also of great importance.

Within devolved elections, the influence of British-level politics can work either to the assistance or to the detriment of parties. Focussing for now on the largest party in Wales, I think there is little doubt that in the 2007 National Assembly election Labour was harmed by the broader context of British politics. The election took place in the last weeks of Tony Blair’s Prime Ministership, and with Mr Blair’s popularity but a shadow of what it had once been Welsh Labour saw their vote share fall (when compared to the previous devolved elections in 2003) considerably further than did that of Scottish Labour. By 2011, however, everything was different. Now no longer tarnished by association with an unpopular Westminster government, Welsh Labour could benefit from the British political context and their Assembly election campaign exploited it very adroitly.

But, as the old phrase has it, what goes around comes around. While there is much that could and will happen between now and the first Thursday in May next year, with each week that goes by (indeed, last week it seemed with each hour that went by) it appears more probable that the British political context will be one that creates problems for the Welsh Labour party in the National Assembly election.

Probably the most notable and surprising event in British politics in 2015, ahead even of the Conservatives’ general election victory, was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. His campaign and then shock victory in the Labour leadership contest saw a substantial rise in Labour’s membership; there were also some signs, in at least some places, of it prompting an upswing in the party’s opinion poll ratings. This was particularly the case in Wales, whereSeptember’s Welsh Political Barometer poll did appear to point to a distinct, if relatively modest, ‘Corbyn bounce’.

So is Labour home and dry for next year already? I would sound several notes of caution. First, we should remember that there is nearly always a ‘honeymoon’ period for the new leaders of major British political parties. At least some voters are normally willing to give a new leader the benefit of the doubt. However, the uplift in Labour support in Britain-wide opinion polls after the election of Mr Corbyn was particularly small – much smaller than is the average for new Opposition leaders. And on all past patterns, to be on course for a general election victory in 2020, the Labour party should already be moving into a clear polling lead.

In fact, Labour remains well behind the Conservatives – by a margin of between six and fifteen percentage points, according to last week’s five opinion polls. Across Britain as a whole, any Corbyn bounce in the polls already seems to being going into reverse, while other polling questions have suggested that attitudes to Mr Corbyn himself are becoming increasingly negative. Nor are the polls the only troubling evidence for Labour. Since Mr Corbyn’s election, the party’s performance in local council by-elections has been, at best, patchy, with particularly weak results happening in many of the sorts of areas where the party very much needs to be making ground in order to achieve victory in 2020. And again, the trends here in recent weeks have, if anything, been further downwards. Last Thursday, five of the six Labour local by-election candidates saw their party’s vote share fall. (Moreover, these vote shares were not falling from some heights that were impossible to sustain. Relatively poor performances in local election by Labour during the 2010-15 parliament were one of the factors that, with hindsight, were consistently pointing to the party’s general election defeat).

Of course, one might well observe that Mr Corbyn’s leadership has faced a veritable torrent of criticism in the media, as well as by political opponents – who have come not only from other parties but also, in significant numbers, from the ranks of Labour itself. This is all true, and it is probably also true that no leadership could have survived such savage attacks without suffering some political damage. But why should such attacks not continue, and continue to have an effect? This is not as bad as things can get for Mr Corbyn, or for his party.

Sure, the Conservative government will face some difficulties, and maybe very considerable ones. And it is not inevitable that once a party’s poll ratings starts going down that it continues to do so.

Nonetheless, the context of British politics over recent weeks has, as Emporer Hirohito might have put it, developed in ways that are not necessarily to the advantage of the Labour party. And there is considerable scope for this to impact on the Welsh devolved election next year. Welsh Labour faces the prospect of a much more difficult British political environment than in 2011. If it is going to win decisively again, Labour will likely have to do so much more on basis of their own record, policies and leadership than on anything going on elsewhere. What goes around comes around – and exactly the sort of factors that helped Labour in 2011 may well hamper them next May.

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