2017 Election: Will Brexit spark a Welsh Tory surge?

Posted: April 26, 2017 in Politics

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The first Welsh poll ahead of next month’s general election caused quite a stir. For the first time in 99 years, the Labour Party are set to not have the most seats in Wales. Instead, it is the Conservative Party who are seemingly on course to take the most seats for the first time in what can loosely be called modern politics. They are on 40%, up 13% on 2015. Labour are down 7%, meaning a Labour-Tory swing of 10% – not as extreme as in Scotland in the last election, but still an enormous shift, and nothing short of a potential revolution in Welsh politics.

The context of this can be seen over 20 years, as the Welsh Tories have gradually recovered from their nadir in 1997, when the national Labour landslide left the Tories without any seats in Wales. Labour held 34 of the 40 Welsh seats, with Plaid Cymru on 4 and the Liberal Democrats holding the two Mid Wales seats. In 2001, the figures stayed the same, with Labour and Plaid each taking a seat from each other. After making small steps in Welsh Assembly elections, it took until 2005 for the Welsh Tories to make a breakthrough in the general election, gaining 3 seats. This became 8 in 2010, as Labour slipped to 26. Finally, in 2015, the Tories gained a further 3 seats, taking a seat from the Lib Dems and 2 from Labour, who also gained from the beleaguered centrists to keep their total at 25.

The Tory revival in Wales has been representative of their overall national recovery, even if their seats are still largely confined to rural areas. However, in terms of the overall vote, the Tory vote had only gone up from 21% in 2001 to 27% in 2015 – 6% of the vote enough to gain 11 seats. What the polls are showing now is that in the space of two years, an increase more than twice as big as that has occurred. What’s happened?

The obvious answer is the EU referendum. Wales as a whole voted Leave – is it a coincidence that suddenly this has led to a Tory surge, at a time when the party leadership in Westminster is going for a hard Brexit line? The narratives around this election look like they will be defined by this, and this is within the overall picture of a huge swing from Labour to the Tories.

Clearly Labour, with an awkward position of trying not to lose pro-Remain votes to the Lib Dems and pro-Leave votes to the right wing parties, is causing the lose of voters even before we discuss the question of party divisions and the question of Jeremy Corbyn – the autopsy of what appears to be an almost-inevitable heavy Labour defeat is essentially already underway.

The other factor is the decline of UKIP. The poll this week shows that the Tories have taken two-thirds of UKIP’s 2015 Wales vote. In 2015 UKIP picked up a shocking 14% of the vote without gaining a seat – this is now looking like more than halving, with the vast majority of those votes going to the Tories.

But there are deeper questions about this. The combined Tory-UKIP vote in 2015 was 40.8% – remarkably similar to what the Tories are polling now, though that current projected total is 46%. But there is the issue of where that UKIP vote came from in the first place, with plenty of speculation about whether or not they drew Labour voters away. But the fact is, back in 2001, the combined Tory-UKIP vote was 21.9%. In 2005, it was 22.9%. In 2010, it was 28.5%.

There was clearly a massive combined surge in 2015. It may not have looked spectacular for the Tories – going up from 26% to 27% – but factoring in the UKIP vote too, it’s a jump of 12%. There are a couple of theories for this. One would be that the Tories took a huge chunk of Labour vote, but it was offset by UKIP taking a chunk out of their “traditional” vote, and now that “traditional” vote is returning, finally revealing huge gains they made in 2015. Another would be that UKIP did take some significant numbers of voters from Labour, and those are now stepping over from UKIP to the Tories – perhaps we’re talking people who wouldn’t have been brave enough to support the Tories in the past, but having made the break with Labour in 2015 have now decided UKIP-Tory is an acceptable jump.

The conclusion of the latter in particular would be cataclysmic for the Labour Party, which has relied on a high number of die-hard voters in Wales to give it a significant number of seats. In the past, even if Welsh voters had taken a dislike to the direction Labour was taking – e.g. the discontent Welsh people have towards New Labour for failing to turn around the cycle of decline in the Valleys – they would still mostly never vote Tory because it was always unpalatable, even before Thatcher. In South Wales in particular, the main resistance to Labour has been through Plaid Cymru, as demonstrated in the 1999 Welsh Assembly elections when they surprisingly gained seats in the so-called “Labour heartland” and won nearly 30% of the vote.

The reason this time it’s looking particularly bad is because it suggests something more fundamental is happening. The Tories have done well in Wales before, but swing voters have ebbed and flowed between them and Labour in much the same way as they have done in England and parts of Scotland. This time, it seems as if some of the people deserting Labour may actually be long-time Labour voters, as happened in Scotland in 2015 (but on a much smaller scale), and it makes it hard to predict where exactly the biggest move is going to be. Factor in the Shy Tories, and it might even be worse than what it seems on the surface.

On uniform national swing, this week’s poll would give the Tories 10 Labour seats:

– Alyn and Deeside (maj: 3,343)
– Bridgend (maj: 1,927)
– Cardiff South and Penarth (maj: 7,453)
– Cardiff West (maj: 6,789)
– Clwyd South (maj: 2,402)
– Delyn (maj: 2,930)
– Newport East (maj: 4,705)
– Newport West (maj: 3,510)
– Wrexham (maj: 1,831)
– Ynys Mon (maj: 229 over Plaid, 3,748 over Tory)

Several of these seats or areas have been held by the Tories in the past, but not all of them. Wrexham has never been held by the Tories. They’ve also never won Alyn and Deeside or its predecessor East Flintshire (formed in 1950). Cardiff South and Penarth was James Callaghan’s seat from 1945 – the Tories last held it 10 years before. Newport has also been dominated by Labour since 1945, with the Tories only getting one win in Newport West in 1983. That election proves to be a pattern – for Cardiff West, 1983 was also the only election where the Tories won the seat, and the same for Bridgend.  Ynys Mon (Anglesey) has only ever been won by the Tories in 1979 and 1983.

And of course, we shouldn’t forget that in 2015, the Tories won Gower for the first time by the slim majority of 27 – Labour had held that seat since 1910. Expect them to now strengthen their majority here.

All in all, it would be pretty shocking if it plays out like this. However, will it play out like this? I don’t think it will. I think it could be worse.

Uniform national swing is a good general measure but it is flawed. On uniform swing, Labour would end up with -1.4% of the vote in Montgomeryshire. The Tories would have 63% of the vote in Monmouth, a seat Labour held as recently as the 2001 election, and similarly high percentages in other seats they have only gained since 2005. Given that these were traditional Tory seats prior to 1997, it’s possible, but it seems extreme.

Meanwhile, UKIP picked up higher than average votes in some valleys seats – 19.6% in Islwyn, 19.3% in Caerphilly, 19% in Torfaen, 18% in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Their lower percentages came in Cardiff and rural seats. If this Tory surge is being driven by a significant UKIP-Tory move, it stands to reason that the move to the Tories may be bigger in the valleys.

In many seats, Labour’s lead is so large that it may not make a difference. But there are also a number of seats in South Wales where it is uncomfortably close. The point of showing the Tory+UKIP vote here is to show the potential for a more significant UKIP-Tory swing, based on a higher-than-average percentage of UKIP vote to begin with.

Caerphilly
– 2015: Labour 44.3%, Tory 16.6%, Tory+UKIP 35.9%
– UNS: Labour 37.3%, Tory 29.6%, Tory+UKIP 40.9%
Labour have always held this seat but it saw a significant vote increase for UKIP in 2015, ahead of a 55% Leave vote last year. All it would take is a bigger-than-average swing from UKIP to Tory (which doesn’t seem implausible considering how high the UKIP vote was to begin with) to put Wayne David under serious threat.

Llanelli
– 2015: Labour 41.3%, Tory 14.3%, Tory+UKIP 30.6%
– UNS: Labour 34.3%, Tory 27.3%, Tory+UKIP 35.6%
This has long been a Plaid Cymru target, with the seat regularly changing hands in the Assembly. A Tory win therefore sounds unlikely. But the Plaid vote in Westminster elections has remained obstinately behind Labour, while the right wing vote moved upwards. 55% voted Leave here last year. The Tories look like taking 2nd place at the very least.

Neath
– 2015: Labour 43.8%, Tory 15.3%, Tory+UKIP 31.4%
– UNS: Labour 36.8%, Tory 28.3%, Tory+UKIP 36.7%
Peter Hain’s former seat saw a new MP in 2015, Christina Rees. Any ideas of a Plaid challenge in recent elections, both for Westminster and Cardiff Bay, have come to nought. Instead, it’s the Tories who again provide a potentially surprising threat, coming off the back of a 54% Leave vote last year. A combined Tory-UKIP projected vote is still short but at 0.1% it’s a negligible difference, equivalent to the majority of a handful of people in Gower.

Pontypridd
– 2015: Labour 41.1%, Tory 17.3%, Tory+UKIP 20.7%
– UNS: Labour 34.1%, Tory 30.3%, Tory+UKIP 35.7%
Owen Smith is under serious threat of losing his seat. Though it is called Pontypridd, the constituency actually extends well beyond the town towards the M4 corridor, a much more affluent areas. In 2010, in his first election, he only just managed to hold off a strong challenge from the Lib Dem candidate. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2015 gave him an increased majority, but under UNS, it seems likely he’ll get a strong challenge from the Tories. Add in local discontent which emerged at the time of his leadership challenge which might exacerbate any Labour decline, and suddenly it might be worth a flutter on what would be a high profile casualty of this election. In his favour, 54.2% of the people of this seat did vote Remain in the referendum.

Swansea West
2015: Labour 42.6%, Tory 22.6%, Tory+UKIP 36.1%
UNS: Labour 35.6%, Tory 35.6%, Tory+UKIP 41.1%
This seat hasn’t been won by the Tories since 1959. But on UNS, it comes up as what is essentially a dead heat. The reason you wouldn’t have seen it amongst the Tory gains according to the poll is because Labour is still marginally ahead, but only to the point where you’d be talking only 1 or 2 votes. Therefore, the chances of an extra little nudge to turn it blue seems likely, even if it is another Remain seat (57%).

Torfaen
2015: Labour 44.6%, Tory 23.1%, Tory+UKIP 42.1%
UNS: Labour 37.6%, Tory 36.1%, Tory+UKIP 47.1%
Including the towns of Pontypool, Cwmbran and Blaenavon, this valleys seat has been Labour as long as the party has led in Wales; before that, in a previous form, it was a Liberal seat. But in 2017, this could be one of the defining seats of any Tory revolution in Wales. In the EU referendum, 60.8% voted Leave, one of the highest percentages in Wales. On UNS, the Tories come very close to winning the seat, but the high UKIP vote here suggests it’s likely that victory is within reach.

The nightmare scenario for Labour could be that this additional six seats could conceivably be lost. The net result would be the Tories on 27 Welsh seats, compared to Labour’s 9. This is before you even get to the possibility of further losses in the Rhondda, a seat won by Plaid Cymru – keep an eye on the local election results next week – and Cardiff Central, a Labour gain from the Lib Dems in 2015 which could turn into a tight three-way marginal off the back of the highest Remain vote in Wales (70%).

Wales 17 poll
What the Welsh electoral map could look like on 9th June – Labour reduced to a rump of 8

While it may not be the virtual wipe-out of Scottish Labour in 2015, in some ways an enormous Labour defeat of this sort of scale would be more shocking than that. With Scotland, it was always apparent in the run-up to the independence referendum that an SNP surge was coming, eventually becoming a tsunami. Scottish Labour got many decisions badly wrong, and the untainted, nationalist force of the SNP, led by the popular Salmond and Sturgeon, overwhelmed them. In Wales, this Tory surge has come out of the blue (no pun intended). The seats they could take include many deprived working class areas, the sort characterised as hating Thatcher and the Tories forever for ripping the heart out of their communities. To see places like Pontypridd, Llanelli, Caerphilly and Pontypool vote in Tory MPs would perhaps be the most shocking political shift in recent British history.

But there’s another aspect to this. While some may have expected the progressive Welsh nationalists to benefit here as the SNP did, the path these new forces seem to be taking is to the right and to a British nationalism. Many Welsh people, including myself, have made arguments over the years that Welsh politics is distinct from English politics, because the right-wing influence is kept at bay by a strong Labour presence and a left-wing nationalist party. Welsh Labour was characterised as to the left of the Westminster leadership. Plaid are a further left option. The Tories had partially recovered from 1997 but were seemingly at the limit of how far they could go. Surely people would never forget their destruction of Welsh heavy industry.

It turns out it may have been untrue all along – at a time when we’re seeing a huge swing from Labour to the Tories in England, we’re seeing a similar swing in Wales too. Is this election about to fatally damage that idea of Welsh politics being distinctly progressive? And could this be a sign of a huge fundamental shift in not only Welsh but British politics?

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