The Electoral Review of the Year, 2017
Well, that was some year. Whatever else we might say about 2017 as an electoral twelve months, it certainly wasn’t dull.
We began the year expecting the main electoral event of the year in Wales to be the local authority elections in May. These did indeed occur – but when they did, they had already become totally overshadowed by the general election that had, by now, been called for 8th June. In many ways this was a pity – control of Wales’ twenty-two local authorities was at stake: these local elections could have a significant potential impact on the lives of many people.
The baseline for comparison in the 2017 locals was the previous such set of elections in May 2012 (except in Ynys Mon, where the previous local election had been held over until May 2013). Given that 2012 had produced exceptionally good results for Labour, the strong likelihood was they would lose ground in 2017 – something that seemed particularly likely after the first opinion poll for the general election, published in late April, suggested that Labour was seriously struggling.
In the event, Labour in Wales showed impressive resilience in the local elections – keeping their losses very much at the lower end of expectations, and remaining by a considerable margin the largest party in Welsh local government. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives made some ground, but only to a limited extent, while the Liberal Democrats managed what had appeared the impossible, of doing even worse in the 2017 local elections than they had in 2012. This blog post which I produced at the time provides far more detail on the results of the local elections in Wales.
These results turned out to be rather a good pointer to the general election. The first two Welsh polls of the campaign (see here and here) had suggested a potentially historic outcome, with the Conservatives holding significant leads over Labour. But, just as the Tory polling advantage across Britain began to slip from mid-May onwards, so also were they unable to retain their strong initial position in Wales. A strong Welsh Labour campaign, led by First Minister Carwyn Jones, saw Labour fight back strongly. The final Welsh poll of the campaign correctly suggested that Labour would actually regain seats from the Conservatives, rather than losing them en masse as had appeared likely a few weeks previously.
I summarised and discussed the final outcome of the general election in Wales in the presentation which is available here. Some months on, the following observations still seem pertinent about the parties:
For Labour, the 2017 general election was yet another time they came first in both votes and seats in Wales. To be precise, it was the 38th of the last 39-Wales wide electoral contests that Labour had won, and the 26th general election in a row in a run that started in 1922. Moreover, Labour recaptured not only the ultra-marginal seats of Gower and Vale of Clwyd which they had narrowly lost in 2015; Anna McMorrin also comfortably gained Remain-friendly Cardiff North. Labour’s vote share in Wales, in an election which had started off looking like a potential disaster, turned out to be their best since the first Tony Blair landslide of 1997.
For the Conservatives, the result was undoubtedly a serious disappointment. Despite getting a share of the vote which the Welsh Tories have not bettered since December 1910, they lost three seats. The bulk of the blame for this was placed on the lacklustre UK-wide campaign. But the Welsh party had hardly covered itself in glory: there was no clear Welsh leader of the campaign, and neither Andrew RT Davies nor Alun Cairns emerged from the campaign with their reputations enhanced. As in 2016, the fortunes of the Welsh Conservatives stood in stark and unflattering contrast with that of the party in Scotland.
For Plaid Cymru, the general election had been both unexpected and unwelcome. The negative tone of the party’s campaign (to ‘Defend Wales’) was horribly ill-matched to the strengths of part leader Leanne Wood; in any case, Plaid struggled to distinguish themselves from a Welsh Labour campaign that at times seemed aimed at ‘out-natting the nats’. Plaid matched their best-ever seat total, but saw their vote share fall to its lowest for twenty years. In 2017 Plaid just about got away with it – a couple of hundred votes different, and they would have been down to two MPs for the first time since the 1983 election.
For the Liberal Democrats, 2017 was an historic election – but not in ways that they would have wished. They were wiped off the map for the first time in modern electoral history, as Mark Williams’ narrow defeat in Ceredigion cost them their last MP. Their vote share also fell two percentage points on their already dreadful 2015 result. With no MPs or MEPs, only one AM who is now busy as a minister in a Labour government, and precious few local councillors, the Welsh Lib-Dems scarcely qualify as a major party in Welsh politics today.
Indeed, the only good thing that can be said about the Welsh Lib-Dems’ 2017 general election result is that at least it was not as bad as that of UKIP. Having come third in the popular vote in Wales in 2015, they now slipped to a distant fifth; having saved their deposit in every seat in Wales two years ago now every single UKIP candidate lost their deposit. Although their presence will continue in the Assembly for some years, UKIP’s brief Welsh flowering already looks like it may be a thing of the past.
Since the election, the few polls in Wales, and the much larger number done across Britain, have shown very little change in levels of party support. At present, party politics appears to be in a state of suspended animation. But that will not be the case indefinitely – things that cannot go on for ever don’t. And in my next blog post, I’ll look at the challenges and electoral prospects for the parties in 2018.