How the 2015 election will play out in Wales, part 1

Posted: October 13, 2014 in Politics

Much of the focus in British politics in recent weeks has been on Scotland, a country with a quite radically different political context to England which has seen enormous change in the last 25 years and will continue to see more next year. Scottish Labour are on course to lose a considerable number of votes to the SNP and a Liberal Democrat collapse may possibly allow the Conservatives to make a comeback after 18 years in the wilderness.

But overlooked in all of this is what is happening in Wales. While Welsh politics isn’t quite as dramatically different from the English scene, it nonetheless deserves separate consideration. The Welsh government has been dominated by Labour since its inception – they have never been on the opposition benches – while the addition of a fourth (or perhaps fifth) major party in the shape of the left-wing nationalists Plaid Cymru adds a further wildcard into the mix.

The story of Welsh politics since 1997 has been defined by Labour’s level of success. In 1997, Wales followed the national trend, with Labour taking 34 of the 40 constituencies and the Conservatives were wiped out for the first time since 1906, losing all six of their seats. Plaid held four seats in North and West Wales, while the Lib Dems held the two large seats in Mid Wales.


Wales seen within the landslide of 1997

Shortly after Labour’s election in Westminster, Wales narrowly voted in favour of the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. In the first election in 1999, it therefore might have been expected that they would once again romp home, and indeed they were comfortably the largest party. However, with only 28 of the 60 seats, they fell three seats short of a majority, in part as a result of surprisingly losing two notionally safe Labour seats in the South Wales Valleys, Rhondda and Islwyn, to Plaid. They were thus forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems to form a government, with only a small majority between the two parties.


The results of the constituency votes in 1999

Four years later, Labour defied the British trend by gaining four constituency seats, albeit costing them a regional top-up seat and losing Monmouth to the Conservatives. 30 seats out of 60 was enough to form a government alone. However, after this, the decline of Labour’s British fortunes overall played into the hands of Plaid and in particular the Conservatives. In 2005, the Tories gained three Westminster seats; two years later, they gained four Assembly constituencies, albeit at the expense of three regional seats.

Despite losing Ceredigion in 2005 to the Lib Dems, in 2007 Plaid regained Llanelli and also took the new seat of Aberconwy. Further damage to Labour came in Blaenau Gwent, where a rebellion from AM Peter Law over the imposing of an all-women shortlist had cost them the Westminster seat in 2005. The Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice, established by Law shortly before his death, retained his Assembly seat, along with holding the Westminster seat in a by-election. The result was that Labour, down four seats on 2003, were again forced into a coalition, this time with Plaid.

The 2010 general election seemed to be a final reversal of all the damage done in 1997. Unlike in Scotland, the Tories were back as a major force, taking another five seats to bring up a total of eight. Labour lost four of those seats, although they regained Blaenau Gwent; the other Tory gain was Montgomeryshire, where they unseated well-known Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik. Plaid, like the Lib Dems, were left on three seats, notionally gaining the new seat of Arfon from Labour which gave them representation of Bangor for the first time.

The Assembly election a year later once again edged back in favour of Labour, who gained four constituency AMs: Blaenau Gwent from People’s Voice, Cardiff Central from the Lib Dems, Cardiff North from the Tories, and Llanelli from Plaid. The nationalists were the main losers of the election, relinquishing Aberconwy to the Tories and also losing two regional AMs. The Conservatives actually increased their number of seats, with Montgomeryshire again turning blue, although ironically this cost Welsh Tory leader Nick Bourne his regional seat and ultimately leadership of the party. The Lib Dems were left with just five AMs.


The current state of Welsh constituencies – on the left, the 2010 Westminster election; on the right, the 2011 Assembly election

Three years on, we would ordinarily be preparing for another Assembly election next year, but fixed-term five-year parliaments at Westminster means this is delayed for a year. Instead, the focus is on the latter, and like in England, the sheer number of variables and scenarios make it very difficult to predict.

On the one hand, Labour would be expected to do well. This election is almost certainly going to see a swing to them from the Conservatives, and despite the inherent differences, there is still enough evidence to suggest that the traditional Welsh Labour/Tory seats will follow the pattern of those in England. And yet it is worth bearing in mind that Labour is the party of government in Wales, which brings its own issues. As usual, they have not been disastrous enough in government to cost them major ground, but never making huge positive strides either.

In 2010, the Tories not only took four seats from Labour – Aberconwy, Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South, Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff North – but they also ate into Labour majorities at what were previously safe seats. Seven Labour seats currently sit within a 5% swing to the Tories, including a mix of seats they once held at the high watermark of Tory rule in 1983 and some they have never held before, such as Gower, Cardiff South & Penarth and Alyn & Deeside. This time, with an expected swing to Labour, it is unlikely the Tories will threaten those, but it’s worth keeping an eye on in case local issues lead to a shock result.

But most of the attention will given to Tory seats that Labour should be aiming to recover, beginning with Cardiff North with its wafer-thin majority of 194. The problem is that after this seat, it takes nearly a 5% swing to get up to the next batch of seats, and the polls aren’t encouraging – the latest ICM poll at the end of September suggests a swing of just 2.5%, less than the projected British average. Labour may actually find it tough to make serious in-roads.


The majestic Castell Coch (translated as ‘the red castle’) overlooks the M4 within Wales’ most marginal constituency, Cardiff North

If there is going to be action, we may well have to look at the fortunes of the Lib Dems. Their three seats had comfortable majorities in 2010 – Brecon & Radnorshire was the tightest with a majority of just under 4,000, or 9.6%. They could easily have ended up with more seats, losing by 500 in Swansea West, 1,600 in Newport East and, in perhaps the most remarkable result of all, just under 3,000 in the Valleys seat of Pontypridd.

However, the ICM poll currently projects a loss of 16% of their vote from 2010, dropping from 20% to just 7%, and it’s difficult to predict how that will quite work out for the individual seats. Each of them sees different opposition.

– Brecon & Radnorshire has been a Lib Dem seat since 1997, when they took it from the Conservatives. Lib Dem/Tory seats are key to deciding this election and it’s not quite clear which way this will go. It’s quite an important seat for the Lib Dems, as in the Assembly it is held by their Welsh leader Kirsty Williams.

– Cardiff Central has been orange since 2005, having been held in the Assembly from 1999 to 2011. They had a 4,500 majority over Labour in 2010, but lost the seat in the Assembly election a year later, indicating a possible shift – it covers an area where many students reside, as it includes three university campuses.

– Similarly, Ceredigion includes university campuses in Aberystwyth and Lampeter. It was a Plaid seat until 2005, when the Lib Dems edged it by 800 vottes, before massively increasing their majority in 2010. Plaid now need an 11% swing to take the seat back, and yet with the volatile situation the Lib Dems find themselves in, it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to see it change hands once again.


The university town of Aberystwyth is the focal point of Ceredigion, a Lib Dem/Plaid battleground

Plaid would love to take back Ceredigion, and it is probably their main target for this election, but they also have to be careful not to lose Arfon. This relatively new seat, made up of parts of the former seats of Caernarfon (a Plaid stronghold) and Conwy (usually a Labour/Tory seat), was notionally Labour before the 2010 election, when Plaid won it. But Labour need just a 3% swing to snatch it back, with every chance Plaid could be squeezed out – before the 2010 election the seat was expected to be a three-way marginal.

Plaid will also be chasing the symbolic seat of Ynys Mon (Anglesey), a seat they held until a surprise defeat in 2001, and Llanelli, which has always been fiercely contested in Assembly elections but always a Labour seat in Westminster elections. Plaid will be looking to pick up on the large amount of anti-Westminster sentiment around at the moment in other seats, particularly the Valleys where they are often the main challengers to Labour, but they aren’t doing well enough to make the sort of progress the SNP has made – as has been the case more generally, the left don’t seem to have won control of the discourse.

Instead, as in England, that lies with UKIP. The party are making considerable progress in Wales, finishing second in the European election last year just 4,000 votes behind Labour, picking up large numbers of votes in North-East and Mid Wales. Even in the Valleys they were able to rival Labour, and are planning on establishing a branch in the Rhondda. They will no doubt gain considerable support as they have in England – they received just 2.4% of the vote here last time, with their best showing coming in Pontypridd where they picked up 3.4% – but it almost certainly won’t be enough to win them any seats. Instead, their role may be in taking votes away from the Tories or Labour, as they wait for the opportunity to pick up a regional AM or two in 2016.


The Rhondda Valleys have voted Labour in every Westminster election in the last century, but like many Valleys seats, Plaid’s presence has steadily grown, and it’s now a target for UKIP, who will move into the area soon

So which way do I think it’s going to go? Despite the apparently dramatic change in the polls, I’d say things are more likely to remain pretty much the same. The Valleys will keep voting Labour for now, as they’re doing just about enough in presenting themselves as the only way working class people can fight the Tories despite their continued move to the right to follow them. Similarly, on the basis of the latest polls, the Tories are likely to hold on to at least half of their seats, as they are mostly established middle-class Tory-voting areas with only the aberration of 1997-2001 interrupting that. However, if UKIP gain as many votes here as they are expected to gain in England, that could soon change – Labour could stumble their way into surprise gains.

Outside of the main two parties, it seems likely that the Lib Dems will lose at least two of their seats, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they just held onto one of them by a small margin – on paper Ceredigion is the most likely due to their majority, but I’d say the Lib Dem/Tory clash in Brecon & Radnorshire might be a surprise hold. Plaid may gain Ceredigion, but they have never held more than four Westminster seats at one time. To pick up a fifth, they would need to hold onto Arfon and gain Ynys Mon or Llanelli, which seems a tall order at a time where Labour are edging closer to Downing Street.

With their vote in Scotland expected to decline dramatically, Labour desperately need Wales to not desert them as well. Without success in both countries, it’s hard to see them being able to gain a majority in Westminster. At the moment, it seems as if their vote will increase from 2010, but not convincingly so – it will only partially undo the damage done in 2010. However, UKIP may prove to be an unlikely saviour by siphoning off Tory votes in their most favourable constituencies.

What may seem likely to be a stagnant general election in Wales with few seat changes could yet become one of the most gripping and crucial yet. But don’t bet on too many shocks – better still, don’t bet on anything, because it’s impossible to call.


Which party’s MPs will be the happiest when they cross over the Severn Bridge on their way back to London next May?

Images used in the spirit of fair use

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