The Electoral State of the Parties, 1: Labour
Following a tradition entirely invented on this blog, I’m going to be publishing a series of pieces in the next couple of weeks assessing the current electoral position of the main parties in Wales. I start, as always, with our dominant party, Labour.
In my equivalent piece last year, I concluded that “Labour are in a much stronger place electorally than seemed plausible a year ago, or even six months ago. If another general election were to happen soon, they would have a realistic chance of winning. But though the last year should surely have taught us to never under-estimate the resilience of the Welsh Labour party, it should also caution us against any over-confident predictions. At least some of the foundations for Labour’s current resurgence may well prove to be shallow.”
At that point, most electoral analysts were still in some shock about a snap general election which Labour had not won, but in which they had done much better than almost everyone – including me, but also including many Labour MPs – had expected. The weeks between Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a general election on 18thApril, and election day on 8thJune, had seen a turnaround in political fortunes so dramatic that it has rarely been witnessed in any democratic political system.
If the last year has been extraordinary, it has been so in completely the opposite way to the 2017 election campaign period. In the last twelve months almost nothing has changed in terms of the standing of the parties. The main parties’ Britain-wide poll ratings have barely altered, and the Conservatives and Labour remain pretty much even on most polling averages. There has also been very little movement in attitudes on the dominant political issue of the day: Brexit. These two non-developments are probably connected. Since June 2016, there has been a process of ‘partisan sorting’: the Conservatives have become more the party of Leavers, and Labour of Remainers. And while opinions on that big issue continue to be fairly static, so too most probably will party support levels.
In Wales, as across Britain, there has been little change in the standing of the parties. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, published in early July, gave Labour substantial leads on all three voting intention questions (for Westminster, and both ballots for the National Assembly). In December this year it will be a century since anyone other than Labour won a general election in Wales. Next May it will be twenty years since the National Assembly was first created: an Assembly in which Labour have always led the government. There are no signs at present of a serious challenge to Labour dominance in Wales.
But there are at least two reasons for us not to assume that Labour dominance might remain unchallenged. The first relates to the biggest single event in Welsh politics in the last twelve months: the announcement by the First Minister that he will be standing down as Welsh Labour leader before the end of the year. The 2017 general election had seen Carwyn Jones front-and-centre of the Welsh Labour campaign, leading the party in Wales in a way that had not been seen two years previously. He emerged from the election with his political standing higher than ever. All that was changed utterly by the tragedy of Carl Sargeant’s death.
I am not going to comment here on those tragic events, nor on Carwyn Jones’ decision to stand down. But the First Minister’s departure from front-line politics may well have important long-term implications for Welsh Labour. Whatever else you might think of him, Carwyn Jones has been throughout the years of his leadership consistently one of the most popular politicians in Wales, and a clear electoral asset to his party. He followed on from Rhodri Morgan, about whom similar things could be said. Not since turn of the millennium, and the brief Alun Michael era, have Labour in Wales had the burden of an unpopular leader.
The overwhelming favourite at the moment is Mark Drakeford. He is an experienced political figure and a senior government minister, who is clearly well regarded by many of his Assembly colleagues. But will those qualities shine through to the public, if he wins the expected clear victory in the leadership race? Will he have the popular touch, and be able to connect to ordinary Welsh people? Can he be an electoral asset to his party? Carwyn will be a very hard act to follow in that regard; Welsh Labour may only fully appreciate him when he is gone.
There is one more reason for thinking that the political stagnation of the last year will not persist. Brexit. The next year should see the UK formally leave the EU. Quite how, and on what terms, remains very unclear. Perhaps the UK will move into a ‘transitional’ arrangement that postpones major decisions and possible substantial economic disruption. But it has also become increasingly plausible that the Brexit process could be much more dramatic. A no deal Brexit; another general election; even a second referendum – none of these is yet likely, but they cannot be ruled out. The entire landscape of UK politics could change greatly in the next few months. It may do so in ways which are favourable to the Labour party – particularly if the Conservatives are seen as responsible for a chaotic Brexit. But in such febrile political times, everything could be up for grabs.
Labour remain our dominant party in Wales. Yet some of the roots of that dominance are weakening: the social basis of Labour support, where the unionised white collar public-sector has long-since replaced the old industrial trade unions, has been steadily eroded by austerity in the last decade. And notwithstanding the surge in Labour support experienced last year, the proportion of voters with a deep-rooted sense of Labour identity is much lower than it once was. In the more immediate term, Labour may find itself facing opposition parties in the Assembly that have been revived by new leadership, while Labour themselves may find it hard to replace their current leader with one of equal electoral appeal. Most unpredictably of all, the parameters of ‘normal politics’ could soon be challenged in ways we have rarely seen before. And if they are – well, in Wales Labour are the party who have by far the most to lose.