Although one would hardly know it from the media obsession with the June EU referendum, several major elections are occurring in May 2016. One of those will be the fifth such contest for the Welsh Assembly. With new powers given to the assembly under the 2014 Wales Act and further powers – including over income tax – likely to follow before long, this will be the most important devolved Welsh election yet.
But 2016 may also be the most important assembly election yet for Wales’ long-dominant political party, Labour. To understand why, it is helpful to understand some things about the Welsh electoral landscape, its history, and how it is changing. Many of those details can be summarised under two simple truisms: that Wales is not Scotland, and Wales is not England either.
Wales is not Scotland
One extraordinary statistic which emerged from the 2015 general election concerned UKIP. In Scotland, UKIP stood candidates in 41 of the 59 seats and all 41 failed to get the 5 per cent vote share needed to retain their £500 electoral deposit; in Wales, UKIP stood candidates in all 40 seats and all 40 retained their deposit. Wales and Scotland were very different electoral places in 2015. But these differences pertained to much more than just UKIP. While Labour were crushed in Scotland, in Wales they retained their leading position. Though a disappointment for Labour, who made a small net loss in seats when they had been expecting to advance, 2015 was still the 20th successive general election (in a run stretching from 1935) where Labour won the most votes and a majority of seats in Wales. Indeed, subsequent to the Lloyd George ‘Coupon’ election of 1918, Labour have come first in vote share in 36 of the 37 Wales-wide electoral contests.
Alongside continuing Labour success, another persisting theme in Wales has been the electoral weakness of Plaid Cymru. Unlike their sister party in Scotland, the SNP, Plaid made little progress in 2015. This reflects not only differences between the two parties but also broader contrasts in the two nations’ political landscape. Wales has had no independence referendum, nor the broader surge in political engagement and consciousness that came with it in Scotland. For whatever reason – strong social links with England, an awareness of Wales’ relative economic weakness and dependence on UK subsidies, or simply the fact that no significant political force expends much energy advocating the idea – support for independence in Wales remains low, at or below 10 per cent in most polls. However, the Welsh people have come to support significant autonomy within the UK. After rejecting the idea overwhelmingly in a 1979 referendum, and then only endorsing it very narrowly in a second vote in 1997, people in Wales rapidly came to accept devolution in the years after 1997. For more than a decade devolution has been the clear ‘settled will’ of a substantial majority of people in Wales, with some public desire to extend it into currently un-devolved policy areas, such as policing. But there is little desire for an independent Welsh state.
Wales is not England, either
But nor is Wales electorally the same place as England. The advances of the Conservatives and UKIP in 2015 did make Wales look superficially rather similar to England. Writing in the London Review of Books, Ross McKibbon suggested that “The Tories did well in Wales … part of a process by which Wales is becoming assimilated into English politics”. However, this interpretation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The figure below shows the extent to which voting patterns in Scotland and Wales have differed from England in all post-war general elections. Welsh electoral distinctiveness edged only very marginally downwards in 2015, and towards the long term average. Scotland has diverged sharply from England in the two most recent general elections, and become a very different electoral space. Wales in 2015 remained about as electorally distinct from England as it has been since 1945.
Labour hegemony under challenge?
If there has been so much continuity in Welsh electoral politics, why should anything change in 2016? Labour have come first in all four previous Welsh Assembly elections – what reason is there to expect anything different this time around? There are two main sources of Labour vulnerability in Wales. One is longer-term and socio-economic in nature: the decline in public sector employment. This heavily unionised section of the workforce increasingly became Labour’s core vote in Wales after the decline of the heavy industries that had provided Labour’s socio-economic base for most of the twentieth century. But continuing public sector austerity is steadily eroding this core, and will likely continue to do so for some years to come.
The second factor is more immediate and political. In 2011, Labour had their best ever result in a Welsh devolved election. But they did this largely by running as an opposition party. Instead of foregrounding their own achievements during their (then) 12 years of governing Wales, Labour positioned itself in opposition to the Conservativeled government in London. Of course in 2016 we still have a Conservative government in London. But in other respects the UK-wide political context looks less helpful for Labour than five years ago. A brief ‘Corbyn bounce’ in the Welsh polls after the Labour leader’s election had already evaporated by the end of 2015. While Jeremy Corbyn’s election boosted Labour membership in Wales, as elsewhere, he appears a much more mixed blessing for the party in trying to appeal to the electorate as a whole.
If Welsh Labour are to be successful in 2016, they will likely have to do so by campaigning much more on their merits and record in Wales. They have some advantages here: first minister Carwyn Jones remains quite popular with the Welsh people. But public evaluations of Labour’s record in office in Wales are far from glowing, with particular negative sentiment surrounding the performance of the Welsh NHS. Labour’s saving grace in Wales might be the divided opposition to them. Rather than facing a single mighty adversary like the SNP in Scotland, opposition to Labour in Wales is divided between Plaid Cymru on the left and the Conservatives and UKIP on the right.
It is quite possible that both Plaid and the Tories may gain constituency seats from Labour in May. Yet both may also find themselves losing regional list seats to UKIP. Indeed, it is very plausible that Labour could lose significant ground in Wales yet still have twice as many seats of any other party. And with the opposition parties sharply divided ideologically, no alternative non-Labour government currently looks viable.
For Labour as a whole, Wales in 2016 will provide an important benchmark of their performance and progress under Jeremy Corbyn. In Scotland a poor result already appears to be priced in. Losing ground in the English local elections, and failing to win the London mayoralty, would be very disappointing but not unprecedented. Wales is a different matter. Losing Wales really would be something of historic significance for the Labour party. At present this still looks unlikely: while Labour is running well below its support levels in 2011, all polls still give the party a comfortable lead. But in such interesting political times, we should probably rule nothing out.