Tuesday 12 May 2015

Radical Wales?

Looking at the share of the vote obtained by the different parties in Wales last Thursday, one thing which obviously stands out is how well UKIP did, despite winning no seats.  Taking the chart of percentages from Roger Scully’s blog, in a fully proportional election the numbers of seats won by each party would have been as follows (with the actual numbers shown in brackets):

Labour                       15        (25)
Conservative               11        (11)
UKIP                           5          (0)
Plaid                           5          (3)
Lib Dems                     3          (1)
Green                          1          (0)
It’s not an entirely valid projection of course.  There would only be a fully proportional result if there was a single national list for Wales, and as far as I’m aware, no-one is suggesting that there should be.  Any system which includes a number of multi-member constituencies across Wales will end up delivering a less proportional result than that.  But the key point to draw from this is that Labour remains significantly over-represented by share of vote, and the losers are UKIP, Plaid, the Lib Dems, and the Greens.  Interestingly, the Tories’ share of seats actually matches their share of the votes.
The second thing that I draw out of that table is that the combined number of seats for the Tories and UKIP would be higher than that for Labour – broadly speaking, the parties generally held to be ‘of the right’ (a term with which I’m far from happy, and which needs further discussion in itself, but which I’m using here as shorthand) outpolled the Labour Party, a repeat of the result in the European election (which, because of the lower turnout, was far too easy to ignore).
Even under first past the post, looking at the results in individual constituencies, if Tory and UKIP voters had, in each case, voted for the higher placed candidate of the two, Labour would have lost an additional 8 seats to the Tories – a result which would have left Labour on 17 and the Tories on 19.  Again, that’s an unrealistic analysis, because votes are not that easily transferable between parties, and there are a whole series of reasons behind the UKIP vote which aren’t all down to supporting a party of the right.
But it reinforces the point arising from the table above – there were more people in Wales prepared, for whatever reason, to vote for a party ‘of the right’ than for the Labour party.  And that is a truly remarkable outcome in Wales, underlining the fact that the result was far, far worse for Labour than the overall drop of 1 seat suggests.
I draw three things from this.
Firstly, for decades now the Labour Party in Wales has depended heavily on the fact that they are ‘not the Conservatives’.  There has been a demonization of that party and all those associated with it, based largely on folk memories which are becoming weaker with each passing generation.  But it’s a demonization based on ‘being Conservatives’, not on ideology or policy or actions, which means that if another party comes along which is also ‘not the Conservatives’, even if its ideology is very similar to that of the Tories, the demonization doesn’t readily transfer.  The very superficiality of Labour’s core message in Wales now works against them.  And it’s more than possible that many former Labour supporters, who have been convinced never to vote for the Tories, have been quite happy to vote UKIP as a result.
Secondly, much that Labour said during the election (and Plaid, too, come to that) was based on an assumption that there is a set of communal (broadly ‘social democratic’) values in Wales which is widely shared.  In that context, the electoral appeal needs only to speak to those values to motivate people to vote, and the debate is about which party (Labour or Plaid) can best speak to those values.  But the assumption is profoundly wrong; the romantic image of a radical electorate in Wales is more myth than fact.  Even if it was right a few decades ago, it isn’t now (and I say that with regret, rather than any feeling of pleasure).  But by only speaking to those who hold those values, any party which assumes them to be general has ended up speaking to a diminishing proportion of the electorate in wide swathes of Wales. 
And thirdly, there is a reservoir of Tory support in Wales which is bigger than many of us have chosen to believe.  It’s been there a long time, albeit not always visible – ‘why vote when the votes for Labour are going to be weighed rather than counted?’ has been the view of some of them in the past.  And it’s growing, for reasons which this post is too short to cover.
Whilst politics in Scotland and England are diverging, the opposite is true here – at Westminster level, Welsh politics is becoming increasingly similar to English politics (outside a handful of constituencies where the Welsh language remains strong).  The supposed difference has been taken as read for too long already.  
The values which were prevalent in the past need to be fought for and sold to people, not simply taken for granted; but elections have become too superficial for that to happen.  They’ve become more to do with reinforcing existing views and motivating supporters to vote than with winning people over to a different view.  That doesn’t mean that people’s political standpoints don’t change; it just means that the changes happen outside the formal political process and that political parties are not the main influencers.  And allowing that to happen will always help the ‘right’ rather than the ‘left’.
The danger in the analyses which parties will be making in the aftermath of this election will be that they arrive at the right answer to the wrong question.  Instead of asking how they change people’s values and viewpoints, they will ask how they appeal to people with a different set of values.  That’s precisely what New Labour was all about.  But what we need is a different future, not just the same future under alternative leaders.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post John

G Horton-Jones said...

I enjoyed this blog but whatever your the fact is Plaid remains resilient it has no marginal seats but can win seats that are see links to Scully blog
Plaid must stand or fall on its own merit. We see now that the coalition with Labour in Wales was not in our interest nor more worrying in that of the people of Wales

This time the attitude that Wales will benefit from the rise of the SNP is also illusory
The rumblings from the new Conservatives is that they will retain and reinforce a colonial stance to Wales as an anti nationalist anti labour campaign going forward.

Plaid needs to get its act together now for the 2016 Welsh Government elections We should all prepare for a difficult time ahead

Anonymous said...

Wales is drifting further towards England.

But there is still a bit of a difference.

The Tories (not so hated anymore, by any stretch of the imagination) got 27% in Wales, but 40% in England.

The Labour result was 37% in Wales, and 31% in England.

The UKIP and Liberal Democrat votes were most similar.

The differences between Wales and England are still there, but both are now fundamentally not Scotland.

John Dixon said...

"But there is still a bit of a difference."

By looking at the Welsh average and comparing it with the English average, maybe. But England isn't homogeneous either. This piece is worth a read in that context.

Anonymous said...

The Tories in Wales have been polling at 20 to 25% since devolution so it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who follows Welsh politics they have a fair amount of support, they’re also the official opposition in the Assembly which passes most Labour and Plaid Cymru supporters by.

It’s also the case in UK elections another factor that tops up the Tory vote are English incomers, many are well to do retiree’s or natural Tories with no interest in welsh politics or the Welsh Assembly so most likely wont vote next year.

If nothing else this election has burst a few myths about Wales and made the Labour Party slowly wake up to the realities of 16 years of complacency and failed governance of Wales since devolution.

Whichever political party accepts the new realities and captures the public mood will shape Wales’s future, that could be a Tory/UKIP future, a Labour future, or an outside chance for Plaid Cymru.

Anonymous said...

"By looking at the Welsh average and comparing it with the English average, maybe. But England isn't homogeneous either."

By comparing two different nations.

The Tories topped the poll in England with 40% of the vote. The Tories came second in Wales with 27% of the vote; 1% higher than in 2010. That gap is pretty substantial. The gap between Labour performances in Wales and England is much smaller at only 6%. UKIP is the clear replicator of an English phenomenon in Wales, not the Tories. The Tory performance was 1% better than in 2010, but they have been expanding ever since 1999.

England isn't homogenous. Wales now resembles a northern post-industrial English region politically, but for the existence of Plaid Cymru. Of course, if an English region had a nationalist or regionalist party that could take even a modest 12% of the vote and 3 MPs, we would describe it as having quite distinct politics, maybe even radical politics.

It is totally possible to recognise the closeness of Welsh politics to England without suggesting the differences are tiny or insignificant.

John Dixon said...


"It is totally possible to recognise the closeness of Welsh politics to England without suggesting the differences are tiny or insignificant."

I don't think that I used the words 'tiny' or 'insignificant'; what I said was that "Welsh politics is becoming increasingly similar to English politics (outside a handful of constituencies where the Welsh language remains strong)" which is something rather different. And the caveat which I included is highly relevant. Overall averages are useful at times, but there is a danger in looking at overall averages that conclusions are drawn about the whole which are valid only in part.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough John I thought you implied the differences weren't significant.

One thing is certain is that Wales is become less Labour. From 48% in 2001 to 37% now. Although England has become less Labour over the same period (another similarity).

In Wales the non-Labour vote is not harmonious and is fractured.